I Wish I Had More Hopeful Words

Trigger warning: brief mentions of suicide and death, descriptions of transmisogynistic behavior

Disclaimer: My experiences are not universal. While they do have value of their own, they do not account for different converging oppressions. They only speak to my own oppressions and privileges.

For a lot of MOGAI people, National Coming Out Day is a liberatory experience, a day to publicly claim one’s identity. For some it’s their first time, and they’ll quickly learn it won’t be their last. MOGAI people have to constantly re-assert their identities. Leaving the closet is not a one-and-done experience. I was invited to speak with a small group of high schoolers over at Loring Nicollet Alternative School today about coming out and my story and process. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the whole truth to them, because I think I would have left them feeling hopeless and they already had enough working against them. I told them that coming out was liberating in a sense, and I focused on engaging them in thoughtful laughter. Get them to giggle, but realize there’s a certain grimness to the humor.

And so I want to tell a fuller version of my truth here. The closet itself is already cramped, but for me, coming out as a trans woman hasn’t really changed anything. And if I’m being completely honest, I feel as though my space has only gotten smaller. It has been the opposite of liberatory.

My rationale in coming out went something like this: I can either continue to be ashamed of myself and have it eat away at me even further, or I can own who I am as unapologetically as I can. In other words, I could either continue a cycle of self-annihilation, or I could scratch at a bit of hope. In owning who I am, I thought it would be possible to more fully understand my context and how this world actually positions me. And in pursuing a more authentic life for myself, the eyes of ciscentrism and patriarchy glared right at me.

Being a trans woman means hyper visibility. People see you–and never the way you want them to see you. You’re not fully human to them. How often are trans women turned into a convenient punching bag? How come it’s so hard to reconcile that trans women just want to pee without risking violence? How often do you hear about trans women being assaulted, killed? How often do you see it justified by media? How many times have social movements specifically worked to exclude (and kill) trans women?

Hyper visibility is not a privilege. I can tell you that my every day experience of just going outside is unsafe. Cars have slowed down to have the driver peek out their window at me as their friends laughed at me in the back seats. People on campus shout slurs at me from their dorm windows. People ask me invasive questions concerning the future of my oh-so-precious genitals. They demand to know if I have had a traumatic past (as to explain away my “indecent” behavior and expression). I have come across people who will call me ‘it’ without blinking. I have met people who posture at me in a physically threatening way so that I leave.

This was before I even started the process of getting hormones. This was before the FDA cracked down on online pharmacies, which is how a number of trans women I know have gotten their hormones. This was before the $761 bill for required gender therapy sessions. This was before the $150 doctor’s appointment. This was before the first $108 prescription cost for estradiol and spironolactone. This was before the lab work bill. I’ve already been having more trouble getting jobs now, and I’ve only been on hormones for a little over a month. My legal name and gender marker haven’t changed. I haven’t gotten any hair lasered off my body in order to be read more consistently as a woman. I don’t know if I’ll be able to train my voice to sound “feminine” (even with this app), which means potentially expensive speech therapy (because why would my insurance cover that?)

It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to live your life authentically when the world doesn’t want you there. I flinch just hearing myself say it, but things have gotten worse since coming out. Though, if I hadn’t come out, I can’t imagine I’d have lived this extra year. At the very least, I think coming out has actually helped me stay alive, because the support and love I received from my community and chosen family has helped enormously. For that, I am hugely grateful. Thank you all so much.

I am damn proud to be a trans woman, but no amount of pride is going to stop these systems and ideologies from attempting to dismember me and people like me. I think that’s why I focused so much on community and accountability when I was telling my story to high school youth today; it was what I would have wanted to hear in high school. Being MOGAI isn’t easy. It comes with a lot of hurt. I want to be there for others who are struggling, and that means working across difference. It’ll never be perfect, but the alternative is for us to be divided and eventually conquered. I’ll take an imperfect, cramped space with others over being dead in a closet.

Trans Women in Video Games, Part One: Dark Sun Gwyndolin

I wanted to write a series about the depictions of trans women in video games, and to start this off, I wanted to start with my all-time favorite game: Dark Souls. I immersed myself in this game for months, and to be completely honest, a lot of the story and lore went right over my head the first few times playing it. The Souls series (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 1 & 2) have never been known to hand anything to you. The narratives present within the games are surprisingly deep, and you have to speculate and piece together evidence from different weapon, armor, and item descriptions, think about where you found the item/who gave it to you, boss/level designs, gameplay mechanics (something as simple as traversing through a fog wall, you reaching out to the unknown) understanding NPC motivations, and following the side-quests of NPC’s you meet along the way. I personally had some difficulty piecing the story and lore together, but thanks to the help of Quelaag‘s and Epic Name Bro‘s videos, I was able to get a lot further than I could have alone.

On the note of lore and story, I feel I should clear up some terminology I will likely use before proceeding.

  • Lore: The history of a fantastical, mythical, and/or sci-fi world.
  • Plot: What literally happens within the game to move the story further along its arc, i.e. Melissa went up the stairs and tripped.
  • Story: What the plot says about themes, how action interplays with thematic elements within the game. I will sometimes refer to this as narrative.
  • Game mechanic: Can refer to a number of things given context, and it includes, but is not limited to, combat, quick time events, puzzles, platforming, stealth, hitting a ball, etc. They are all things the player does and interacts with.
  • Gameplay: The overall experience, how game mechanics, story, level design, and more all interact with each other to create a cohesive whole. In other words, it is what the player does. This includes all player experiences during this interaction with game systems, all the frustrations, moments of joy and catharsis, and all the moments of tedium and boredom. Plot is to story as game mechanics are to gameplay.

If you are unfamiliar with Dark Souls 1, then I suggest you watch this plot overview before reading further. (I apologize for its title.) This piece is mainly targeted at people who have already invested time into the game, though I also want others who have not played it to understand why Gwyndolin is a transmisogynistic caricature. I will explain what I believe to be necessary points in the plot in order to demonstrate this.

Gwyndolin is in an area of Dark Souls called Anor Londo, which is basically a giant city that exists on top mountains for the Gods (referred to as Lords). It is bright, sunny, and full of difficult enemies with giant halberds, shields, spears, and bows. This is one of the more difficult areas in the game, especially the boss duo you have to beat: Ornstein and Smough. After defeating these two, you meet Gwynevere, Princess of Sunlight. She is the daughter of Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight. She gives you an item called the Lordvessel, which you use to both warp to previously visited locations (making traveling easier) and also to use the souls of Nito, Seath, Chaos Witch Izalith, and the Four Kings as kindling to open the path to the First Flame. Gwyn kindled the First Flame in order to continue the reign of the Gods (referred to as the Age of Fire), putting off the Age of Dark (the coming of humanity). This is where I was at in the game, just having gotten the Lordvessel from Gwynevere and moving along to retrieve these souls for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

I first encountered Gwyndolin after picking up an item called the Darkmoon Seance Ring on my way to get Nito’s soul. I needed the additional attunement slot (attunement slots are for spells and pyromancies–fire based magic), and after reading its item description, I remembered all the player messages left around a particular statue of Gwyn in Anor Londo that read something like “Try ring!” and “Illusory wall ahead.” I headed back to that statue, and assuming “Try ring!” meant simply putting it on, I did. The statue of Gwyn disappeared, revealing a staircase to a fog wall. This is where I learned about the Darkmoon Blade covenant, a group you can join in order to invade other player’s worlds and kill them. I opted not to and proceeded toward the fog wall, where (before I knew it was Gwyndolin) a voice told me not to trespass upon the tomb of the Lord of Sunlight (Gwyn). I went through the fog wall anyways.

A cutscene played in which my character looked around at a long hallway before her, and then the same voice said something along the lines of how my crimes will not go unpunished. The hallway then appears even longer than before, and you fight Gwyndolin. All of her abilities are ranged, and when you get close, she teleports further down the hall. You can repeat this endlessly. When killed, the endless hallway then recedes back to its former length, meaning it was an illusion.

That was my first experience with Gwyndolin, her character portrayed as secretive, deceptive, and hard to find.

The other way to find Gwyndolin, I found out, is that if you kill Gwynevere, you find out that she was actually just an illusion. Afterwards, all of Anor Londo goes dark, and you hear Gwyndolin say, “Thou that tarnisheth the Godmother’s image. I am Gwyndolin. And thy transgression shall not go unpunished. Thou shalt perish in the twilight of Anor Londo.” The giant sentinels in Anor Londo disappear, and so do all the silver knights. All the previous enemies are gone. Some are replaced with NPC’s who are assumed to be part of the Darkmoon Blade covenant (whose purpose is to execute “sinners.”) You get a feel for exactly how empty Anor Londo really is. Gwyndolin is the last remaining deity in Anor Londo. She kept up this grand illusion to continue the Age of Fire, like her father before her. She does so even though she’s not acknowledged at all by anyone else in the game, and her residence is buried in the lowest level of Anor Londo. The fact of her existence isn’t present anywhere. There are statues of her father, of Gwynevere (her sister), and of Ornstein, but none of her, yet Gwyndolin is Gwyn’s daughter. What is so shameful about Gwyndolin?

We get some info from her armor set description:

Garb of the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, protector of the forsaken city of Anor Londo. The crown of the gods demands faith immeasurable of its wearer, but it is imbued with Darkmoon power that enhances all magic. The image of the sun manifests Gwyndolin’s deep adoration of the sun. The power of the moon was strong in Gwyndolin, and thus he was raised as a daughter. His magic garb is silk-thin, and hardly provides any physical defense.”

Her armor description means she was assigned male at birth (AMAB henceforth) by her father, and then had the gender roles of women applied to her. That’s something you can easily read as trans, because for trans to be a thing, it requires a gender order in which normalizes and values cisness. So then, this armor description hits me as a bit odd. Why specify that she’s AMAB? What is its relevance to the plot or story, other than to say “Oh yeah, she’s really a boy! Isn’t that just WEIRD?” Why not just say she’s a daughter unless you wanted to point out transness, or make it significant in some way? I will answer these questions later. For now, let’s talk a bit about her character design. To start with, here’s her concept art:

I’m going to start with her clothing. Her clothing also covers up much of her body, which detours from the usual hypersexual images of trans women. Her garments appear light and made of silk. Everything on her body is covered up with the exception of her mouth. One might say that this, then, is a more “respectable” image of a trans woman, that she’s at least not being objectified. Aside from the slut-shaming implicit in the idea of more clothing as “respectable” and “modest,” anyone who says that is just flat-out incorrect. She is most definitely being objectified in this.

Those are snakes coming out the bottom of her dress. Some of these snakes are as tall, or taller, than her. There’s clearly something the developers want us, the player, to notice. In the West, there are some important associations to point out with regards to snakes. Snakes been associated with deception and trickery in Western mythos (the snake from the Bible’s creation story is a prime example, and there are many others), but ‘snake’ is also a euphemism for ‘penis.’ Hmm, deception… trickery… snakes… penis… trans women. That sounds like a familiar story to me. It reminds me of Sleepaway Camp, where the person murdering the people who are assaulting and harming her is explained away through the reveal of her penis in the end of the movie. Given that these snakes are quite literally taller than her, the fact of her transness, and snakes as a euphemism, then it is fair to say that she is being objectified given the amplification of her penis, even if that is through metaphorical means. The question becomes, then, what is this design, along with her armor description, boss battle, and her context trying to say about Gwyndolin’s overall character?

Gwyndolin does nothing but try to trick the player. Her boss battle, an endless hallway you must chase her through as she hurls magic and arrows at you. Her design draws attention to the phallic snakes. The player doesn’t even know she exists unless they destroy the image of her sister Gwynevere (which then removes the statue leading to Gwyndolin), or, like me, find her through discovering an obscure ring that dispels an illusory statue leading to Gwyndolin. All the guardian sentinels in Anor Londo and the sun that shone so brightly upon Anor Londo are revealed to be illusions, even though the guardian sentinels can still kill the player. Anor Londo goes completely dark once the illusion of Gwynevere is gone. The illusion of Anor Londo, the city of the Gods, all one big facade to make your character kindle the first flame, as Lord Gwyn had before, and put off the coming Age of Dark. The developers, through Gwyndolin’s design and the context by which she exists, clearly suggest that her transness is a major force in why she seems so invested in deceiving the player.

This is what transmisogyny looks like. Games don’t need this. Trans women don’t need this. We can do better than this.


Socialization Arguments Are Transmisogyny

Trigger warnings: anti-gay slurs, transmisogyny, self-harm.

I am exhausted. I am so tired of hearing the same old tired arguments from TERFs and from DFAB trans people who throw trans women under the bus in exchange for less violence on themselves (will henceforth be categorized in the acronym TERF). TERFs invoke the ‘socialization’ argument in order to call trans women “men” and to give DFAB trans people a nudge and a wink, that they’re really only female. DFAB trans people invoke it to gain access to women’s spaces, resources, shelters, and more at the direct expense of trans women. On both accounts, the goal is to other trans women.

TERFs willfully misuse the word ‘socialization’ to misgender trans women and treat us as malicious “men,” saying trans women are and have been perpetrators of male violence, because us trans women pre-coming out and pre-transition must experience malehood and therefore male privilege. They generally base this off how we are read when we are younger, meaning read as male and treated as such. While I understand why folks argue this, it relies on omitting a few things: a key aspect of socialization called response, what privilege actually is, and, naturally, the lived experiences of trans women. Not just this, but the socialization argument also relies on a caricature of trans women as men in dresses. but it also perpetuates the myth of shared girlhood, which has already been disassembled by women of color particularly along with fellow trans women. As Reed puts it, “There is no singular, universal woman’s narrative. There are as many stories and experiences as there are women.”

And she’s right. What experience of womanhood is experienced by all women? You probably don’t have to think very hard to see that this really is impossible, and for shared girlhood to be a thing, it needs to ignore that us women are multifaceted. As I pointed out earlier, TERFs believe trans women have male privilege. What they don’t understand is that one can receive benefits from privilege without actually having said privilege. In regards to transness, this is often referred to as cis-read privilege (which is conditional), sometimes called “passing” privilege. When it comes to privilege, I use Toni D’orsay’s five-step test to privilege:

  • Membership: I am a member of a social group that is dominant through no action of my own, nor through being mistaken for a member of that social group.
  • Stigma: I do not have stigma attached to me along that axis of oppression
  • Innocence: I am not looked to as the cause of problems in a social group.
  • Worthiness: I am presumed worthy of a social group’s trust and wealth.
  • Competence: I am expected to be skillful, successful, and autonomous.

To have privilege, one must be a member of a certain group, and trans women are not a part of the dominant gender groups in both cisness and maleness. We might be mistaken as members for these groups, but we are not in truth either. Benefiting from privilege is not the same thing as possessing that privilege, as D’orsay puts it. However, TERFs insist that trans women, because they were likely read and treated as males growing up, never internalized the messages of womanhood. They must have internalized the messages of boyhood. Trans women, therefore, cannot truly be women. While trans women might receive some practical benefits from being read as male, that does not mean we’ve all internalized boyhood. Once again, we see TERFs relying on the myth of shared girlhood, that women across all social positionings receive these messages in the same way. It assumes whiteness, it assumes a certain class status, it assumes one is able-bodied, it assumes one is neurotypical, it assumes a particular geographic location, it assumes every privileged category outside of ‘woman.’ It also assumes a major lack of agency in regards to all women, not just trans women.

And when trans women point this out, the moving goalposts fallacy comes up in attempts to show that us trans women don’t really understand womanhood and can, in fact, never understand it. Moving goalposts is a logical fallacy that is also known as “raising the bar.” It dismisses evidence made for a specific claim, and then demands some other (often greater) evidence. There was an initial goal, but then the goalposts are moved to exclude the attempt made. You know when Charlie Brown attempts to kick the football while Lucy holds it, and says she promises to hold it in place, but every time he tries, she moves the football away? And Charlie hurts himself, Lucy mocks him, and then he has to get another running start, maybe further back this time around? Moving goalposts is exactly that.

The bar is always raised for trans women, and it gets raised to an impossible standard just to say trans women are men. “You don’t have breasts so you can’t be a woman.” Some cis women don’t have breasts, and some trans women do have breasts. “But trans women’s breasts are fake.” What does that even mean, a “natural” boob? One that develops from hormones? Some cis women have to take hormones or have cosmetic surgery for their breasts. “You do a lot of boy things.” There aren’t women who do things marked as masculine? Tomboys don’t exist? “Your assertiveness shows your maleness.” Again, are there no assertive women? Is the category ‘woman’ marked by passiveness? Sounds pretty patriarchal to me. “You’re too muscular.” Some cis women have defined muscles. “You can’t give birth.” There are cis women who can’t give birth. “You have a penis, and so you can never experience womanhood.” Some trans women have vaginas. It appears that when you tell trans women who they are, you’re also telling other women who they are. Women must fit a certain standard in order to be “real,” and what’s that require? It requires policing, and nothing about that is radical or progressive. In fact, it is downright misogynistic.

I said earlier that TERFs omit a key aspect of socialization called response along with the lived experiences of trans women. By omitting these things, TERFS gain a monopoly on the “female narrative,” because they never have to have trans women in the conversation at all. I will counter this by discussing socialization.

Socialization: What It Actually Is

Socialization is the process which prepares human beings to function in social life. It is how new folks are prepared to become members of an existing group and to think, feel, and act in ways this group considers appropriate. What this looks like will vary from culture to culture, family to family, etc. (Think back to the myth of shared girlhood again) It is also important to know that all of us are still being socialized. As a society shifts and changes, so do the social environments we move through. And so to get a better look at socialization, we need to talk about it in three parts.

The three major aspects of socialization are as follows: context, content and processes, and response. Context simply refers to specific locations/time periods in which we are socialized, ie at work, childhood, school, with friends, informal environments, traveling, and more.

“The content and process of socialization is like the play, the lines, and the actors. It includes the structure of the socializing activity—how intense and prolonged it is, who does it, how it is done, whether it is a total experience or only a partial process, how aware the individual is of alternatives, and how attractive those alternatives are. Content refers specifically to what is passed from member to novice. Processes are those interactions that convey to new members how they are to speak, behave, think, and even feel.” (source)

Response is just that: how somebody responds to these messages they’re being bombarded with, which means what? That this person has a self-concept, is self-aware. They have an idea of themselves (regardless of how well others think they know it) and whether or not they agree with the messages being sent to them, and then how they deal with that connection/disconnection. This one is key.

The response one needs to be elaborated on a bit more. Nobody internalizes all messages sent to them the same way (which is, again, why there are so many different expressions of womanhood). In fact, some are outright rejected, and that’s because folks know a message is not about them. TERFs often act like folks have no agency within these structures, that people, particularly women in this case, are more stone tablets to have their identities engraved upon them. That sounds pretty darn misogynistic, doesn’t it? Seems to be a pattern in TERF rhetoric. Acting like women don’t have agency over their own experiences sounds exactly like what patriarchy says about women. Which brings me to the next bit, another sociological concept TERFs seem to omit on the regular: Structure and Agency.

Structure refers to the recurrent, patterned arrangements (think back to the content and processes + context aspects of socialization) which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. This means how systems of oppression and privilege operate in our lives and influence our experiences. Agency means the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Structure and Agency together is the interaction between individuals and the structures they’re working within. That means that all facets of identity are at play here, because we as individuals are multifaceted. Based on how you comprehend yourself, and your relationship to these messages broadcasted to you in an innumerable amount of ways by social environments, that is how you are socialized.

In other words, I wasn’t raised as a male. I was a trans girl who had cis norms imposed on her. I was responding to these “you are male” messages as a trans girl. And because of that disconnect, I committed varying forms of violence against myself. I self-harmed, I abused drugs and alcohol, I starved myself, and more. Others recognized that disconnect and bullied me for “being a faggot.” I will not lie about how that disconnect also resulted in violence against others in the form of lashing out verbally and getting into fist fights with men who bullied me. I know how TERFs will frame this. They will say my lashing out is a result of my maleness, not a reaction to abuse and violence I faced as a young trans girl. That, in itself, is a form of transmisogynistic violence, because you are calling a trans woman a man.

And I know they will still call me a man based on the fact that I have a penis, and they will do the same to trans women who have had bottom surgery by saying they once had a penis. Defining genders based on sex characteristics is exactly what patriarchy does, but suddenly it’s alright for these so-called feminists to do so because the very existence of trans women is just too scary to think about. So instead of acknowledging trans women as we are: women, these folks buy into a white supremacist notion of gender, ignoring sex for what it is.

Sex Is Social Construction

For this section, I believe it’d be best to define what a social construction is exactly:

“Social constructs are the by-products of people interacting with each other. They are the products of communal creation and understanding of reality around them, and they are based in the notion that things are not universal and based in an understanding of them as having an essential quality that transcends time and space. […] Social constructions are the ways in which people collectively participate in the construction of their perceived social reality; the manner by which social phenomena are created, institutionalized, known, and made into tradition by humans. […] The social construction of reality is an ongoing, dynamic process that is reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it. Social constructs must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist, and often the tools by which this happens, themselves are part of the way in which that happens. […] Social Constructs are how Structure is created, in other words.  They are the concepts, ideas, and thoughts that are shared, communicated, and accepted in a way that becomes part of what everyone accepts.” (source)

And part of what everyone has accepted (the dominant narrative in other words) is this: When it comes to one’s sex, there are five criteria that are looked at by biologists when analyzing sex characteristics: chromosomes, gonads, genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and hormones. (Note: This is how it operates generally in Western culture, and it may vary more or less outside of this context.) These criteria are often viewed as immutable and static, and this immutability has been used historically by white settlers to impose their conception of gender on Indigenous people. This isn’t to say that sex as an immutable part of gender has ceased being discussed as such. It still is, as I’ve pointed out in the first section. That’s not news to anybody. What might be news is how this is currently practiced on people whose bodies don’t match up with these conventional ideas of “sex.”

“But one of the most important moments in the sex assignment process happens in the first hours after birth. The case of those considered “intersex” can be illustrative here. Suppose a child is born in a western country who has ovaries on the inside, but a penis on the outside. Alternatively, suppose a child is born with labia and a vagina, but also with testes (once again, these cases are not so uncommon; intersex individuals account for around 2% of all births, and in some regions of the world this rate is considerably higher). The first thing that typically happens is that this situation is declared to be a medical emergency. Think about this for a second. Intersex “conditions” present few if any health risks. There is of course a social stigma associated with any appearance of not fitting rigidly into one of the two sex classes. Yet there is also a social stigma associated with being gay, and we don’t consider homosexuality a “condition” or a “disorder” that needs to be medically treated. Moreover, the treatments used to “correct” intersex characteristics sometimes carry substantial risks, and the long-term effects they have are still relatively ill-researched. The motivation behind “correcting” intersex characteristics is thus not one related to the health of the child, it is entirely one of enforcing the sex binary. Any variance from the rigidly defined “male” and “female” classes is an emergency that must be snuffed out as soon as possible.” (source)

So really, what actually constitutes a “male” or “female” body? Does somebody need to have a certain number of sex characteristics in order to fit into this binary? Is it chromosomes? Is it hormones? Is it something about gonads, maybe genitalia? Or, are the strict categorizations of “male” and “female” bodies not as useful as some might think? As this same piece argues, gender is not based on sex assignment. Rather, the reverse is true: sex assignment is based on gender. The construction of sex is but one other way to impose gender roles upon people while denying the variance in bodies. Sex has been constructed so that it serves the ends of a white patriarchy. TERFs are then reinforcing this same exact structure when they police the borders of womanhood by invoking gender essentialism (by way of biology and socialization) to exclude trans women. Their approach is nothing short of white supremacist, colonial feminism, and transmisogyny naturally follows from that approach. TERFs actually challenge nothing about patriarchy, but they reinforce the same oppressive tenets they claim to combat: misogyny, white supremacy, and more. The feminism of TERFs might as well be called patriarchal feminism.

My perceived sex characteristics say nothing about my gender, nor is it already set in stone by an omniscient structure as to how I will receive certain messages that are hurled in my direction by folks who read me incorrectly. These structures are not so deterministic, and if they were, social movements would be mostly non-existent, because social movements are an acknowledgement that these structures aren’t working. Trans women are not men seeking to invade women’s spaces. We have always been around. We did not suddenly appear into existence. And so for you to not repeat this long and brutal history, you need to keep your patriarchy covered hands off my body.

My designation at birth is not my destination.

Your Feminism Is Transmisogyny Repackaged (Repost)

Disclaimer: I am a white trans woman exploring the role of transmisogyny in the colonial history of the United States and how that affects all current forms of feminism. I may experience transmisogyny, but I do not experience the ways in which it intersects with racism, and so my perspective is incomplete. Please keep that in mind as you proceed through this paper.

Trigger and Content Warnings

Before disclosing potential triggers, I wish to point out immediately that two-spirit identity is not a trans identity. In contexts that embraced gender variancy (Indigenous communities in what we now call the United States), there is no such thing as trans or cis. Applying the term ‘transgender’ to two-spirit identity is a colonizing act. In this paper, I will say “perceived as transgender” or “read as trans” or some other variation when referring to two-spirit identities from a Western context. This is also part of the reason I do not use the asterisk when I say trans, as the asterisk includes identities which are not necessarily trans, such as two-spirit identities, intersex people, and cis cross-dressers. I am also aware that some romantic and sexual relationships in Indigenous communities could also be viewed as ‘queer’ from our Western context. This is not an element I am looking into within this essay. I may write about it at a later time, but for the intents and purposes of this essay, I will not delve into that dynamic. Moving forward…

Trigger warnings: Anti-black racism present in an image I use to demonstrate the effects of colonialism and Western thought as they relate to dominance and control of the Other; cissexism, and one transmisogynistic slur to demonstrate how widely accepted transmisogyny is (Janice Raymond’s book).

Content warnings: This essay examines the role of transmisogyny in the United States. I will describe briefly the rationale behind “Americanizing” the Indigenous person, and in writing this essay, I made certain stylistic and wording choices to reflect the toxicity of this rationale.

Both my trigger and content warnings are flexible. If folks reading this essay find something triggering, of which I did not mention in this section, you can send me a message, and I will add it as soon as I can.


In this essay, I will be examining closely the still-dominant role of transmisogyny as it relates to whiteness. I will also explain why the only acceptable genders under whiteness are cisgenders. These have enormous implications for contemporary feminism and its work. My perspective as a trans woman is by and large rejected within feminism. I am still viewed as a “man in a dress” who is invading women’s spaces to make it about “himself.” Thank you, Janice Raymond, for writing The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. Although transmisogyny is nothing new in feminist spaces, that book helped to perpetuate and reinforce that hate more than any other that came before.

Embracing transmisogyny in feminism, however, goes much, much further back than Janice Raymond’s book. It goes further back than Cathy Brennan, the Stonewall Riots, Gender Identity Watch, and Name The Problem. Transmisogyny is embedded into the history of feminism, but before I can talk about the history, I feel I must illuminate how contemporary feminism still invokes transmisogyny.

Problematizing Understandings And Discourses on Patriarchy Within Feminism

From bell hooks’ essay, “Understanding Patriarchy,” she defines it as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Basically, a society organized around the inherent dominance of males. Note, all definitions of patriarchy set up the dichotomy of men vs. women, as the gender binary is inherent to patriarchy. Also notice bell hooks’ use of ‘the weak’ to describe all things feminine.

For patriarchy to function, “the two genders” must perform roles that serve its ends, and for people to perform these roles, they must feel naturally compelled to fulfill them. So gender roles are assigned to “the two genders,” and these genders are assigned to people immediately upon birth, and even pre-birth with ultrasound technology, because under patriarchy, gender is biological and therefore static. Men and women perform specific duties under a patriarchal society as they are assigned to them, and men must always be at the forefront because that is their birthright. Men are taught to control their environment, and women are taught to control their bodies to appease men. Patriarchy packages gender as “this is your lot.” You cannot change it, you cannot disagree with it, and if you attempt to, you will be severely punished and put back into your cage.

But this understanding of patriarchy only encompasses cisgender people. The first giveaway for that is the language of “male” and “female,” because it applies gender to biological sex. This conflation of sex and gender has been used to erase, dismiss, and degender trans people, especially those on the trans feminine spectrum. One of the most common things I hear as a trans woman is, “Right, you identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male” or some other variation therein. My gender is reduced to my genitals, and my genitals then become the definitive feature of my gender. Sounds familiar, right? Gender is being equated with biological sex, and this is a major tenet of patriarchy. So then, if sex is equated with gender, where does this understanding of patriarchy place transgender people exactly? Trans people’s self-concept of their gender does not match up with the external pressures placed on them (assigned sex). Trans people are forever excluded from the binary under patriarchy, because, by definition and history, the binary rejects all non-cis identities. Now let’s get into the history.

Colonial History of the United States

In pre-colonization times, in what we now know as the United States, a number of tribes embraced gender variancy. The following is a list of terms found in Indigenous languages to describe people with penises/vaginas (PWP/PWV) two-spirits (translation in brackets): Crow: boté, bate, bade; Cree: ayekkwe, a:yahkwew (“split testicles,” i.e., sterile); Lakota: winkte (“would be woman”) Dreams of Double woman; Navajo: nutlys, natli, nadleehi (“he changes,” “being transformed”) , Zuni: lhamana (PWP), katsotse (PWV) (Changing ones: Third and fourth genders in Native North America. p. 214-222), however, and this is not an exhaustive list, and these terms have been largely compiled by people who are not of these communities and backgrounds. They are subject to error and misinterpretation. What is important to note here is the wide array of gender variancy in Indigenous communities, and that gender was not something fixed. The only role biology played was in the language used for certain individual two-spirits (refer back to Zuni terms), not necessarily in the validity of these identities.

But for white Europeans, gender was fixed and very, very important, but in a different sense. In fact, gender was so important that entire societies and institutions were constructed around it. Gender was essential in the survival of their culture, their economics, and more. White Europeans just weren’t satisfied with what power they had, and so felt the need to explore. They had to find new lands in order to expand their empires, as they were in power struggles with neighboring countries. Then came Columbus. The brutal, monstrous, exploitative “explorer” that so many of us learned about when we were younger, though back then he was portrayed as adventurous, brave, and driven. What Columbus started, other white Europeans continued. They colonized the land and people, and they established for themselves a new society.

Before I can dive in deeper, I must first briefly describe how colonization operates. Colonization operates as a mechanism of white supremacy, works on behalf of whiteness, and colonialism is built around white solidarity and consensus, “otherizing” non-white groups, paranoia, defensiveness, and violence. A major tenet of colonialism, and Western culture altogether, is to take and control nature, and so you will see Indigenous people, and people of color broadly, conflated with nature and (trigger warning: anti-Black racism) primality, whereas Western society is conflated with culture, civility, generosity (notice how in this painting, white people are generally in positions of power, standing up, better posture, etc) and divinity/grace. Femininity is also conflated with nature: onetwo, and three, and so in these cases we can see how Western thought could easily be used to create a power relationship over the Other, however that is established. In other words, white Westerners are synonymous with “the right to power,” and everyone else is synonymous with “the need to be ruled.” The Other must be governed by the white Westerners, as that is their birthright. To control and “liberate” the natural, to bring it to civility, and that the Other should be grateful for their generosity and time.

When Columbus came over, he also brought with him the white European conception of gender: the gender binary under patriarchy. And because gender was understood as biological and fixed, any form of gender variancy/non-conformity (especially by those who we would now label as DMAB–designated male at birth) was subject to “correction.” The reasons DMAB people were more subject to “correction” than their DFAB counterparts are as follows: Men are not supposed to embrace femininity from a white Westerner’s point of view; Masculinity (even for those who are DFAB) is embraced so long as it serves the ends of patriarchy; And conceptions of masculinity are built around the values of control and domination of the feminine.

When white settlers started to see unfamiliar presentations of gender, they must have been both disturbed and frightened. Gender variancy could have been seen as Indigenous people taking control of nature, as their genders were not static. They had done something the white settlers seemed incapable of, which challenged their notions of gender and how it operated within the world. “Why would these men wear women’s clothes? Why do they act like women? That is not how men act.” But because Indigenous folk were not white, their conception of gender could not be viewed as correct, as that disrupted white supremacy and male supremacy simultaneously. To preserve and protect their socio-political systems, to preserve their supremacy, it became necessary to instill patriarchy in Indigenous populations. It became necessary to eliminate all gender variancy, specifically those who were perceived as ‘men’ embracing femininity.

To colonize a people, you must not only colonize their bodies, you must also colonize their minds. To colonize their minds, white settlers sought to erase Indigenous traditions, and this was done extremely effectively through the boarding schools. The boarding school system became more formalized under the Grants’ Peace Policy of 1869-1870, which turned over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. Government funds were set aside in order to erect new schools to be ran by churches and missionary societies (“American Indian Education in the United States: Indoctrination for Subordination to Colonialism,” in Annette Jaimes’ State of Native America). These boarding schools were off-reservation, and the first one, Carlisle, was founded in 1879. The children of Indigenous people were kidnapped from their homes at an early age, not returning until they were young adults. This was justified by colonialist modes of thought and white saviorship, “Kill the Indian in order to save the Man” as well as “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit” (Americanizing the American Indian: Writings by “Friends of the Indian”).

And so whiteness continued to encroach upon Indigenous conceptions of gender, replacing it with the gender binary by omitting the possibility of gender variancy in the boarding schools. The gender variancy in the Indigenous communities declined, as their children were unable to learn their languages, their cultures, and the roles of two-spirit identities. White Europeans used their elimination of the Indigenous person to implement their own power structure, one that cemented their place at the top. Our nation set up institutions, structures, economic practices, culture, and more to guarantee its immortality, in a sense.

What this says about our context is this: Everything we know about gender today is a complete and utter lie meant to serve the white patriarchy.


What This Means for Feminism

Feminism, because it emerged under the white patriarchy, is built upon colonialism, and therefore transmisogyny. This is inescapable and must be addressed. The only acceptable genders under the white patriarchy are cisgenders, as we currently understand them. Gender variancy and non-conformity are not tolerated, unless this is practiced by those who are DFAB–because under the white patriarchy, the only place for DFAB people to go is closer towards masculinity, and masculinity is the ideal. Rosie the Riveter, anybody? She represented strength and productivity. This was embraced by a whole nation (albeit temporarily) because it served white, patriarchal, capitalist interests. It served the military industrial complex. Have we seen that again? Absolutely.

Women can now serve in combat roles. I use the term ‘women’ there very loosely, as I know it only pertains to cis women in this context (and basically every context). Trans women are viewed as men, so they could already serve in combat so long as they kept their trans status hidden. Women in combat are tolerated under our systems because it serves the interests of the hegemony. We’ve also seen it in movies like She’s The Man, Mulan, and others. A takeaway message from these movies is “You can do masculinity so long as it serves men, their structures, their desires, etc.”

Why is this the case? Referring back to the previous section on problematizing patriarchy, feminist frameworks of patriarchy more often than not come down to a dichotomy of men vs. women. Gender in these models is still fixed and biological. Sure, what ‘woman’ and ‘man’ mean in these models can change, but only in a social/cultural sense; biology is still the underlying component in feminist conceptions of womanhood and manhood. No identity that could be considered trans by our society can ever be included in the binary, even so-called binary trans identities. All trans people are Other’d by the current gender system. All trans people are harmed by it.

Feminism claims to be helping in this regard, but frankly, I can’t buy into that. When feminism is predicated on transmisogyny and transphobia broadly, when it is predicated on colonialism and therefore whiteness, then it cannot fully challenge the gender order. If feminism is cis-centric, then these harmful gender systems and ideologies are enabled and, in many ways, affirmed and validated.



Any feminism that embraces the dichotomy of men vs. women simultaneously embraces white supremacist colonialism, because that is what our conceptions of patriarchy are built upon. This will forever be the case until transmisogyny is eliminated from feminism to a considerable degree. If there must be some sort of dichotomy set up to understand patriarchy, then I contend it should be patriarchal masculinity vs. all other genders. This is far more inclusive and encompassing than current conceptions. To eliminate transmisogyny, and by extension seriously challenge colonial, Western thought, it is not enough to have trans women and trans feminine people at the table, because the foundations of feminism were built without us in mind. The very foundations of feminism must be shaken, must be challenged altogether. If feminism cannot be shaken, then maybe it’s high-time to start a new movement and academic body, one that centers trans femininity and, more importantly, trans women of color.


I’m Not Sorry

Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure what I want the goal of this piece to be, but I want to write it regardless. No, it’s not perfect, but I still believe I have the right to tell my own story on my own terms. For many students on campus who are marginalized, I’m sure they too have feelings of anxiety and dread. I am not here to discount their experiences, but I only wish to speak for my own.

To the best of my knowledge, I am one of two trans people on my campus of 10,000 students (both undergrad and grad). My school is a Catholic University, which has a conservative bend within its policies. Not only this, but I am hyper visible on my campus because I am a trans woman who is pre-everything and femme presenting. I really, really stand out. I can’t walk across any part of campus without folks nudging their friends, pointing at me, having students yell “tranny” and “faggot” from their dorm windows, hearing people whisper “What is that?” Using my school’s gym wearing something as insignificant and as small as nail polish has incited people to ask me “What’s on your nails? Is that for a sociology class?” Or when I’ve had to hear “Ash? But your ID says…” in a pretty public setting. I can’t even order a damn cup of coffee without the people at the counter addressing me as “sir” with the most asinine amount of sternness, trying to remind me of my stubble or my apple. In classrooms, students ask me invasive questions about my gender that they would never ask a person they read as cis. He, he, him, his, him, sir, man, dude, he, him, man, and these same misgenderers have the nerve to ask “What? Why are you mad? Be patient with me,” as if this is not the 1000th time that day.

Casual cissexism, and transmisogyny more specifically, are never addressed in spaces unless by me. The bystanderism exuded by my peers is omnipresent. Their absence is everywhere. In the activist communities on my campus, people treat me as though I need to represent all trans voices, and if I’m not working to their (cis) ends, then I need to be silent. As a co-facilitator of my school’s first ever trans 101 workshop, a cis white woman spoke over/for me and seemed to take the lead of the workshop, only really relaying to me to make sure she got some information right. I was essentially token diversity for cis people to pat themselves on the back for “being inclusive.”

These are just some of the experiences I’ve had as a trans woman on a college campus. I feel a constant sense of dread, so much so that I don’t even want to set foot on campus. I try taking the long ways to certain buildings to avoid large crowds of people, but then that means I’m isolated and potentially easier to spot. I’ll make sure to find the places with the least amount of traffic just to avoid being seen. Being visible isn’t always a good thing, because you have to ask who is seeing you.

So, on a campus filled with people I read as white, cis, affluent, and able-bodied, that puts me in a pretty unsafe position. This is not to mention that trans women, especially trans women of color, experience a disproportionate amount of violence compared to the rest of the trans community. Of course I don’t believe I’m going to be murdered on campus, but I am constantly thinking about the heightened degree of violence that I can potentially experience, even as a white trans woman (Quick aside: any white trans person who pretends that whiteness doesn’t act as a buffer is full of it). When I hear students shout something transmisogynistic at me or leer at me, I start thinking about the quickest way back to my car, where the nearest alarm is that I can ring, how to talk my way out of physical violence by way of derailment, where the closest dorm building is, checking around for pub safe (unsure if they would actually help), and I start to wonder if my two years of boxing will have to come into use as a last resort.

This happens every time I come onto my campus, and if I don’t come onto campus, then I can’t go to class. If I don’t go to class, I’ll fail. If I fail, then I can’t get my degree in Justice & Peace Studies. That could potentially mean more loans, which means debt. But if I don’t get my degree, what place is going to hire a degree-less, bisexual, battered trans woman who suffers from night terrors, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, some of which are heightened by my transness? This is also to mention that yes, my disabilities absolutely can and do get in the way of my work. If I don’t get my degree, will I be able to make enough money to support myself? Will I be able to pay for hormones even, or the gender therapy required in the state I live in to be able to access hormones to begin with? If I don’t express my gender in a way that feels authentic and real to me, then how quickly will I fall back into the suicidal ideation and self-harm that’s plagued me since 5th grade? Will I be able to afford therapy for my depression and anxiety? Will survival sex work become something I have to seriously consider? Will I have to do cam work?

I don’t have a choice. I have to go to school in order to attain some level of security, even though the school is an unsafe, hostile environment. I am forced to attend a school in which I am clearly unwelcome. My energy is constantly sapped by not only the potential danger and essential self-care during the day, but also by well-meaning student activist groups and ad hoc faculty groups.

I feel as though I am perceived as a battery. My energy must always be charging any and every project whether or not I am compensated. I’m rarely ever compensated financially for the work I’m able to do on a professional level for these folks, such as workshop development and facilitation, trainings, and my spoken word poetry (though, admittedly, I do not have a large platform for my poetry). Along with this, I am also rarely given credit when I lead these things. By these groups, I am consistently tokenized, used for their ends, and when I suggest initiatives, they are quietly dismissed in favor of… well, typical white, cis liberal shenanigans, as in “Building awareness” and “Intellectual discourse.” These are the cornerstones of status quo-reinforcing structures.

I am not here to waste time in intellectual spaces. Note: Intellectual spaces are not the same as safe spaces for marginalized people. I have come to regard these intellectual spaces as hardly useful at best and dangerous at worst. These spaces romanticize oppression, using other people’s struggles as intellectual cannon fodder for their own benefit. It is not activism, it is selfish. It is oppressive. It is academics touting themselves as liberators for “being aware” and “possessing knowledge.” I’m not here for that. I used to work in such spaces, but I know better now. I no longer facilitate, encourage, or energize spaces that are purely intellectual. They are a waste of resources, because conversations on oppression and one’s complicity in them should be happening regardless of whether or not a space is centered on it.

And yet, these well-meaning students and faculty members still seek me out. My perspective only seems sought after when it energizes the career and activist goals of cis, white people, particularly women. They are not asking me how to make things better for trans people on campus, they are asking me to give myself over to their causes. My energy is only valuable when it helps build their resumés, and my causes are apparently not important enough to work on. When this observation fully formed in my mind and I could identify it, it led me to disengage from student activist groups on my campus, and it has brought me to a number of arts/activist groups off-campus. From my perspective, student activist groups on my campus are less concerned about challenging the status quo and are more preoccupied with patting themselves on the back for any vaguely progressive thing they do.

Yet somehow, this always ends up with me being blamed for “not doing enough,” or “not being in attendance.” Too often do spaces place the responsibility on those who are marginalized. “We can’t fix our space without you!” Yes you can. Do your homework. There are thousands of websites and books and articles that cover these exact subjects written by marginalized people. If you’re reading this, that means you can start googling. In fact, I’ll give you a start here, here, and here. You have to critically self-reflect. You have to question your motivations, and you have to face the hard truth that you, all of us, are complicit in perpetuating oppression. If you bring trans people into your group and haven’t made a serious effort to address your own cissexism and the cissexism in your space, you put us in danger. Our safety is threatened, and it was all for the sake of “diversifying” your space. That’s pretty disgusting that you would prioritize your diversity quota above the safety of marginalized people, another common feature of intellectual spaces.

I understand what I’m saying about these groups is going to upset some people reading this, and I’m not the tiniest bit sorry. I’m not sorry for being a trans woman who demands to be paid for the work she does, especially when she’s consistently tokenized, used as a resumé builder, and put at risk just for being on her campus. I’m not sorry for disengaging from groups and people who only seem to value me as a battery for cisness. I am not obligated to change those groups for you. I am not obligated to challenge those behaviors for you. My existence is not centered around bettering your spaces for you on your terms. My existence is not for you, and I am tired of doing the heavy lifting for you when you could have done the most basic google search.

Stop treating marginalized identities, of which you don’t have, as space-inspectors, as batteries, and as token diversity. I will never forget when you turned your back to transmisogyny. I will never forget that time you didn’t correct others on my pronouns in a public space, but then came up to me afterwards and went “Golly, wasn’t that fucked up?” I will never forget how you spoke on transmisogyny with authority as I was in the room instead of addressing your cisness and your complicity. I will never forget how you told me “Well, wouldn’t it be a better idea to focus on the majority of students instead of a smaller subsection?” I’m never going to forget any of that, nor would it be wise for me to do so. I have to preserve myself in a place bent on my physical and symbolic annihilation, and I will never apologize for speaking my truth.

Getting Called Out: Get Used To It

Disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of emphasizing “call out culture,” because I think it can draw attention away from the systems of oppression by focusing on individual behaviors. It in itself sounds really, really neoliberal. The perversion of ‘the personal is political’ is by and far one of the more annoying things I encounter, and this piece will be my one intentional exception to that. I do believe that all of us have to learn to address our oppressive behaviors, because we need to foster solidarity in our communities.

Recently I’ve come into a number of situations where I’ve called people out for some bigoted, oppressive thing they’ve said, and the way these different folks responded varied greatly. Some acknowledged what they did and thanked me for calling them out, and the other extreme end that I’ve experienced is someone writing an essay in how wrong I am and how big of an asshole I am for calling them out. Yikes. The number of folks in the in-between area are much more common, and they range from mild defensiveness to stubborn denial. This piece is more geared towards people who feel personally victimized when they are called out, as if I am challenging every aspect of their being and coming down on them with a warhammer when I say something like “Hey, the word ‘crazy’ is ableist. Please don’t say it.” To them I say: Get used to it, and no, I’m not sorry.

Yes, I do understand that I can’t control where people are coming from and where they’re at in their social justice journey. Yes, I get that some folks come from very privileged backgrounds and have rarely, if ever, been exposed to any realities of oppression. Yes, I have heard so many times that people need to be met where they’re at, but too many times do I see people not getting pushed from where they’re at. A bird’s gotta learn to fly one of these days, and if they won’t, you might as well leave them where they’re at. Calling people out is essential.

Being better about getting called out requires three things: letting go of your pride. Let it go, let it go, get it gone, ba-bye, c’est la vie, throw it aside, hang up that phone, toodle-loo, discard, breathe it out, say goodbye, forget it, kick it out, let it go. I’m serious. Take your pride and chuck it, because what we all have to acknowledge, specifically when getting called out on our oppressive behaviors, is what our pride has stake in, what it’s rooted in. When it comes to the facets of our identity which have the capacity to leverage oppression, that means their stake is rooted in oppression. What is being challenged is where we have systemic power. Is it really so bad to have that shaken up? Nah.

Learning to be humble when called out on your oppressive behaviors necessitates an exploration of one’s pride and ego. If one’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets, then it is necessary to destabilize that connection. A quick way to identify if someone’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets is gauging their reaction to phrases like “Cis people are awful.” If their reaction is something along the lines of, “But not all cis people!” then you likely have someone whose pride and ego is rooted in their privileged facets. Another marker of this is when people project their shortcomings onto others, or externalize their failures. They won’t hold themselves responsible because it threatens their pride and what it’s rooted in.

The second required thing is ownership. You have to hold yourself accountable and know that you’re imperfect and are going to mess up. Every single one of us has said and done something violent, oppressive, and problematic. It’s because we live in a society that’s built upon white supremacy, ciscentrism, ableism, and more. All of us have been conditioned to participate in (passively and actively) the oppression of those unlike us as well as those within our own communities. We all have to own that, and when others tell us where and how we are being complicit in this, or simply say we’re being complicit/oppressive, we need to listen. It is never on the marginalized to educate their oppressors. They are never required to name what, how, why, in which part of the world, under what hypothetical circumstances, and the specific words/actions in context that make your behavior is oppressive. It is on all of us to unpack our behaviors once we are aware of them. If we’re not aware of them, then it’s up to us to begin that search.

The last part is learning to reflect on mistakes, not dwell on them. Of all the parts, I find this one to be the most difficult. Speaking as someone who is neurodivergent and someone who has gone through sexual violence, dwelling has been and still is a large chunk of my experience. Conceiving of myself as lesser, to amplify my mistakes, and how others are correct in their positioning me as unworthy and in need of correction, denying me my mental, emotional, and sexual agency. That’s what I was taught, and I was taught to focus on these things. I have made huge strides in getting away from this mode of thinking after a lot of therapy, but I still struggle. To describe briefly the difference between reflection and dwelling: Reflection is the honesty that accompanies looking back at shortcomings, asking oneself how they could have done better and considering other variables accompanying the situation. Dwelling is the amplification of failure (whether that failure is real or fabricated by others and imposed on you), and it is harmful to one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Marginalized people, in some way or another, are conditioned to accept that they are lesser and dwell on this as though it were fact. This last piece, to me, is one that I’m much more understanding of and willing to help the person process and unpack. It is also the part that, once I notice it’s a factor, I approach with an added amount of kindness and patience. This does not excuse someone’s unwillingness to unpack, but it explains their unwillingness.

Getting called out doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. How you respond to being called out, however, might seriously suggest otherwise. If you’re serious about social justice, be ready to have your peers call you out. We call each other out because we want to do better, we want others to do better, and we want to improve our culture. That starts with holding ourselves and each other accountable for when we cause harm. It means predicating our actions on justice, not comfort.

The Capacity to Leverage

Disclaimer: Some folks might think that what I’m writing about here is “intersectionality,” but it’s not. Intersectionality is by and for women of color to examine the relationship between race and gender. It is not a term for us white folks to apply to ourselves, our academia, or our activism. We can’t be intersectional because we’re not women of color, nor should we think/attempt to direct where intersectionality as a concept needs to go. The term intersectionality has been appropriated by us white social justice people to prove our so-not-racistness and swear some sort of faux-allegiance to women of color. What I’m talking about here is similar to intersectionality, but it isn’t intersectional.

As another note, I will be arguing as why I think ‘capacity to leverage’ might be a more apt way to describe what most folks define as ‘privilege.’ ‘Capacity to leverage’ and ‘privilege’ are not mutually exclusive. For me, ‘capacity to leverage’ is a more rhetorically useful way of talking about how one interacts with systems of power and oppression, and it is similar to what ‘privilege’ attempts to describe, though I don’t believe ‘privilege’ does a well enough job. For the first half or so of this piece, I will still be using the word ‘privilege’ in order to point out what I see as flaws with it before moving on to ‘capacity to leverage.’

Oppression Olympics

Way too many discourses regarding privilege end up being complicit in Oppression Olympics. For those who don’t know, Oppression Olympics is the idea that specific facets of identity (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.) are more oppressed than others. This is how you get people like Gloria Steinem making claims that “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” This is where phrases like “privilege over” come from, and such phrases set up a hierarchy of oppression, making them complicit in Oppression Olympics. There are differences in all oppression struggles, and even more differences as we dive further into the nuances within these facets of identity. We should name the differences in these struggles and being mindful of this as we do our work, absolutely. For example, a trans woman’s experience will be different from a non-binary person’s, because the hyper-visibility of trans femininity churns out different forms of violence than the lack of visibility for non-binary persons. (And really, non-binary people have been visible for years.)

The thing is, too, in that example I already committed the sin of oversimplifying the conversation, because a DMAB non-binary person will move through the world much differently than a DFAB non-binary person, and there’s an even longer conversation to have about the benefits that come from trans masculinity both presently and historically under a white patriarchy. And even in that, we can talk about whose gender expressions are legitimized by the white patriarchy based on race. The conversation can get really complicated really fast (as it needs to). What ends up happening a bit too often though, at least in my experience, is these conversations turning into a pissing contest of who has it the absolute, 100% worst.

I know I had a habit of doing this, and it’s something I’m working out of my perceptions and activism. This idea of Oppression Olympics centers around the idea of a “keyhole theory,” meaning that if you tackle one or two specific oppressions, suddenly all the other oppressions will be eliminated and we’ll all be liberated. I don’t buy into this idea. I understand the desperateness that comes with wanting to find “The Answer” when it comes to oppression, because people want to end exploitation, brutalization, and dehumanization of people. The results, however, of trying to figure out which oppression is really “the root of all oppression ever” is that this pursuit erases the fact that all oppressions have had more than enough time to tie together, converge, and collaborate with one another, so they can’t be dissolved so easily. If there ever was a time when we could have ended all oppression by attacking one or two specifically, I believe that time is long gone, and we can never get it back.

When these conversations become a pissing contest, then they also operate as a tool to silence others when they are speaking on different oppressions they experience, or speaking on how their oppressed facets inform their privilege. This happens when folks assert a certain conception of privilege that is purely dichotomous (think: those awful “how privileged are you?” checklists). I mostly attribute it to a misunderstanding of privilege, but at the same time, it reminds me of how people accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when talking about who primary targets are of certain forms of violence (or when people are talking about their specific oppressions), effectively derailing an otherwise productive, necessary, and thoughtful discussion to make it about themselves. Trans guys and DFAB non-binary people love doing this in women’s spaces, and they especially love correcting trans women’s usage of transmisogyny by saying “Don’t you mean transphobia?” I began to ask myself the question, “Is this conception of privilege really a misunderstanding, or a different way of reinforcing one’s stake in oppression?”

Problems with Privilege

Folks I’ve encountered, both in the flesh zone and the internet,  often conceive of privilege as an ‘either or.’ In terms of gender, it’s to say that men have all aspects of male privilege afforded to them. Nope, that idea is inherently racist, ableist, cissexist, and queerphobic. If you think all men are sexualized in a way that wholly benefits them, you need to stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself “Well, wait, which men exactly?” You will soon find out that this really only applies to white, able-bodied, cis, straight men. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say people benefit equally from where they do have privilege. BUT! All men have male privilege. All men benefit from all forms of misogyny, which includes transmisogyny, and sexism. Their experience of it, however, will be different depending on the other facets of their identity.

Privilege really can’t be described as an ‘either or.’ It really is not as dichotomous as “you are privileged or you are oppressed.” My being a trans woman is not separate from my being battered, disabled, bisexual, polyamorous, and someone who has experienced sexual violence. It is also not separate from my being white, educated, young, able-bodied, thin, and middle class. I experience all of this simultaneously. Some of these things may be more targeted/privileged depending on the context, but at no point do any of my other facets disappear. None of the facets of my identity exist in isolation from one another. They are constantly intermingling and influencing each other, even when some facets are made more apparent in certain situations.

My conjecture is that folks conceive and describe privilege as an ‘either or’ because they have stake in framing it this way. When it is framed as an ‘either or,’ it makes the checklist approach to privilege much easier to justify, and through the checklist approach, Oppression Olympics. When Oppression Olympics can be invoked, then others within your own community can be silenced if they don’t meet certain qualifications. But at the same time, I’m not about to talk about this stuff as if it’s all relative. It’s not. There are some very concrete manifestations of power, and they must be looked into.

Examining Intra-Community Power Differentials and Infighting

In writing this, I anticipated that folks might twist my arguments to say that because playing Oppression Olympics is an unproductive, harmful distraction, and because people experience oppression differently from others, then there are “no true power differentials” within oppressed communities, because we’re all experiencing the same thing from different angles. This is false. And just to be clear, right now I am not talking about how other oppressions influence these specific communities, I am talking about intra-community politics. This is not to say that racism, ableism, classism, etc. aren’t dynamics, I’m just not talking about them right now. For the trans community, that means transmisogyny and, potentially, binarism (though binarism, if it’s real, doesn’t apply to white trans people) are the power dynamics.

People who benefit from power differentials within communities are the quickest to accuse others of playing Oppression Olympics when they are examining these power differentials. DFAB non-binary folks pull this against trans women all the time when we mention that anyone who is not a trans woman has the capacity to leverage transmisogyny. This is unacceptable, and it’s a form of red herring. Nobody is playing Oppression Olympics nor being divisive when they are examining and pointing out power differentials. There are differences in power, because people within communities have the capacity to leverage varying forms of violence against others in their community.

DFAB trans people can leverage transmisogyny for their benefit. Whenever I bring this up in my community, I am met by a whole bunch of voices who, as I’ve said before, accuse me of playing Oppression Olympics. There is nothing I can systemically leverage over a DFAB trans person in regards to gender unless they’re a person of color, which then means I can leverage binarism against them, but that is conditional on whether or not binarism is an actual thing. When it comes to white DFAB trans people, there are zero things I can leverage against them in regards to gender.

Therein lies the power differential. Transmisogyny can be leveraged by anyone who is not a trans woman, and trans women can leverage… binarism if it is a power dynamic within the community. Examining power differentials on an intra-community level is hugely important, because we, as a community, need to be aware of who we are potentially harming by our words and actions in order to foster a community grounded in solidarity and love.

Not Privilege, Capacity

I’ve been slowly working the word “privilege” out of my vocabulary, mostly because I think it oversimplifies, is easily co-opted by Oppression Olympics athletes, and ignores the multifaceted identities of oppressed people. In place of it, I’ve started saying “the capacity to leverage <insert oppression here>.” I wanted to have something that acknowledges that a certain oppression can be something one passively benefits from, something one can actively participate in, and something that can be employed on an intra-community level. The dominant conception of privilege, as I see it, doesn’t necessarily get at the last two pieces.

  • The capacity to leverage means one has the ability to passively benefit from an oppression. I do not have the capacity to passively benefit from any form of cissexism and misogyny, because I am a trans woman.
  • The capacity to leverage means one may actively participate in a particular oppression and benefit from doing so. I do not have the capacity to actively participate in cissexism or misogyny and benefit from doing so, because I harm myself, my fellow trans siblings, and my fellow women by doing so.
  • The capacity to leverage means that I can partake in intra-community violence (infighting) and benefit from doing so. I do have the capacity to do this only under the condition that binarism is real. If it is, then yes, I have the capacity to leverage binarism as a white trans woman.

Yes, I understand the huge irony in those last three bulletpoints, because in a way, I set up the capacity to leverage as a checklist, which is something I actively condemn throughout this essay. I do believe that, like privilege, like oppression, there are certain requirements that need to be met for one to have the capacity to leverage an oppression. By no means should everyone completely stop using the word ‘privilege’ to describe how people benefit from oppression, but I really do believe it oversimplifies the conversation and attempts to condense people to a single facet of their identity. For me, replacing ‘privilege’ with ‘capacity to leverage’ has helped me be more precise in regards to oppression, has helped me map power better, has helped me not energize Oppression Olympics, has helped me not immediately dismiss others in my community who can harm me, and has helped me better foster solidarity with others both within and outside of my community.

The capacity to leverage more effectively identifies how people interact with systems of power both passively and actively. Privilege seems to stop at how people benefit passively from these systems, which also helps to explain why so many activists, in my experience, can’t name how they actively participate in systems of oppression. To better foster solidarity between communities and within our own communities, we need to be actively aware of the forms of violence we can leverage and benefit from. The capacity to leverage, as a rhetorical device, is one such way to get us there.