Brilliant piece. READ IT.
Disclaimer: I’ve been wanting to write this piece specifically for a little while for three reasons: 1) It will be a useful resource to redirect trolls with, 2) I’m honestly kind of tired of feeling compelled to explain my philosophy all the time, which sort of refers back to the previous point, 3) I need to organize my own thoughts for myself. Seriously, my brain can be and is in so many places all at once and I just need to breathe it out in my writing. This post will benefit my mental health, because I become very self-deprecating if I don’t feel I have a grasp on myself, and my emotional health, because writing helps me recenter myself. This is necessarily therapeutic for me, as things have felt especially difficult as of late.
Trigger warning: transmisogynistic slur is used when talking about RuPaul.
As I have said in my post about the differences between representation, visibility, and slandering, “I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.”
We are not moral people because our society does not benefit from our being moral. We are not rational because our society does not benefit from our being rational. Neoliberal economic policies (oversimplified: privatize and deregulate everything!) under capitalism encourage people to act in their own self-interest at all times, even if that means at the expense of others. Hell, especially if it’s at the expense of others. This is taught to us and trained into us by our parents, by the stories we read, by the movies we watch, by advertising, by our educational system, by our political system, and so, so much more.
That’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it? I appear to have a very bleak outlook, and my conception says some really pessimistic, cynical shit about other human beings. If you feel that way, I think you missed something. I present all people’s behaviors in relation to systems. For me, people are symptoms of much larger problems. This does not make oppressive behavior from individuals less harmful, but it is an attempt to refocus my attention to root causes. I can never expect to uproot a tree if I only trim the leaves.
On Equality, Peace, and Justice
In developing as an activist, I used to be all about the idea of equality. I was bombarded with it by all the history books, all the gay marriage stuff, and yadda-yadda. Equality meant that things were perfect for everyone! Equality meant that everyone got shoes, that everyone got to hold hands and sing “Kumbayah.” The whole world would be peaceful, because there would be no more violence! In fact, there would never be conflict either.
Jesus, I was so naive. Very optimistic and hopeful, but seriously misinformed and ignorant. Equality might mean that everyone gets shoes, but I wasn’t wondering whether or not those shoes would fit. You can’t put on shoes that are three sizes too small. Even if you can get your feet in bigger shoes, they might fly off your feet at very inopportune times. In other words, I was not asking the necessary question, “Equality on whose terms?”
In examining that question, I thought back to what my history textbooks emphasized. Most victories were about legal and political battles, not about whole system shifts. Victories were essentially more room within the same system, and these victories were always temporary because of the varied forms of repression unique to different struggles. This is because our oppressors do not benefit from system shifts, because system shifts do not leave adequate room for repression and re-seizing control. In fact, in the case of legal and political victories, oppressors likely lost no substantial control from those defeats. (This does not mean political and legal victories aren’t necessary–because they are very necessary–but that’s a piece for a different time.)
This comes back to the idea of “equality,” and whether or not it is a worthy pursuit in anti-oppression work. I believe that the pursuit of equality is very well-meaning, but ultimately futile and dangerous. Any movement smacking on the “equality” slogan is so easily co-opted and manipulated by oppressive forces. This slogan also seems to place an implied emphasis on allyship, and movements that become about building allies more than anything else do not challenge the status quo. These movements, as my friend Trung puts it, are asking for permission. What we see from these movements are easily digestible soundbytes, sexy campaigning, and a whole lot of bandwagoning. HRC anybody? The whole marriage equality movement?
To fight oppression, we all need to acknowledge that our oppressors are much smarter than we give them credit for. Not only this, but our oppressors will do anything to hold their claim to power and control, and I mean anything. It has been demonstrated time after time after time after time after time after time after time. Don’t think for a second that your oppressors won’t kill you if they feel they need to, by way of murder, disenfranchisement, gatekeeping, enacting laws that actively work against you, and more. All forms of oppression seek one thing: Your Annihilation. All forms of privilege on every axis of oppression require an exploited Other. Do you want to pursue “equality” in a system such as this?
I don’t. I have no interest in equality. My goals in activism are focused on justice. Justice, to me, means the same thing as love. Justice is the action which follows a sincere connection with others who are both like and unlike us. Justice is the acknowledgment of power differentials. Justice is holding others accountable for when they cause harm. Justice must always manifest as an action, or it cannot be justice. For different struggles to have solidarity between one another, they must act justly towards each other. Do you see how much rides on the practice of justice? I do not believe there will ever be a world free from violence. I do not believe there will ever be a world free from conflict. I do, however, believe in peace, because peace is not the absence of violence/conflict, it is the presence of just systems. Peace can only be attained through the pursuit of justice, and for justice to be pursued, we must be vigilant of all forms of injustice.
Why Forgive? and Alternatives
Forgiveness is not a necessary part of justice. You do not have to be nice or polite to anyone who has harmed you. You do not have to let anybody back into your life who has harmed you. You are never obligated to swallow the abuse and pain somebody has caused you. Never. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They are abusers, and you would do better to avoid such people. Don’t trust people who ask you to forgive oppressors. Their stake is in being seen as respectable, being viewed as morally upright in the eyes of their oppressors. They have a distorted view of love, as their love is predicated on the idea of equality, not justice, and what oppressor would ever want to see you as an equal?
And so I wish to introduce the idea of reconciliation. I define reconciliation as the process of coming to a mutual understanding of an injustice, and then moving forward together, apart, or otherwise, but hopefully together at some point. Reconciliation can take many forms: mediation, restorative justice practices, and more. It emphasizes that pain must be felt fully before any kind of repair (or even forgiveness) can commence, and that pain is valid and demands to be heard. The priority must always be with the victim of an injustice, never the offender. The offender is the oppressor, and the oppressor cannot be given leeway.
I can hear some of you now, “Ashley, that’s just really cold-hearted. Don’t you practice mercy?” Nope, I don’t, not in cases that demand justice. The comfort of privileged people (aka oppressors) cannot be given precedence over the safety of marginalized people. I see zero reason to give up any room on that. Why would I compromise that position? That puts power back in the hands of people who benefit from my exploitation. I will not risk that.
Implications for Allyship, Emphasizing Accountability Over Study
People who wish to work in solidarity with folks unlike themselves must understand their position. You are not a part of the community you’re working with. Understand there is difference, acknowledge the power differential you have in regards to this axis of oppression. For there to be justice, there must also be accountability.
Someone who is considered an ally can be super-knowledgeable when it comes to the history and current realities of another group, but that doesn’t mean they are unpacking their own oppressive behaviors. Awareness does not necessitate self-reflection. It is very easy to think “Trans women experience a high amount of violence” without questioning how you might be complicit in that violence, or how you are complicit in pushing trans women out of your queer/trans spaces, or how your actions contribute to systems built on transmisogyny. You’re not thinking about how you benefit from and practice oppression.
Doing social justice work is not about being a paragon of moral virtue, it’s about building better, and although building better is hard, it’s far easier than being perfect. I purposefully avoided writing “it’s about doing better,” because I feel that makes it more about the individual than the community. What is allyship without being accountable to the community you’re working with? An ally spreading misinformation about the group they’re trying to work in solidarity with is causing harm, and not holding them accountable hurts the marginalized group.
In other words, we all have to go into solidarity work with the knowledge that we’re going to fuck up. If we only study on our own time and never participate, then we can never seriously expect to contribute anything meaningful to solidarity work. It’s basically this mentality: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem,” which is so far from the truth. By not participating, even in the smallest ways like challenging your friends’ racism, you’re essentially saying that you’re OK with the way things are. You might not believe that yourself, but your friends now think so, and so does the community you’re working with. Your inaction tells others that you’re fine with the status quo, regardless of your beliefs.
How I View Oppression in The United States
In all my analyses, whether they’re of intra-personal relationships or cultural/systemic things, I frame my lens with two questions: Where am I? and Where does power flow?
By asking “Where am I?” I am asking where the dominant forces are currently positioning me. By “Where does power flow?” I am essentially asking who benefits. Both of my questions are about helping me “follow the money,” so to speak. I believe these are two very pertinent questions to have in mind in any discourse or analysis of oppression and how it works. Too often do individuals in privileged groups argue things like “reverse racism/sexism” because their feelings got hurt this one time by someone who was probably fed up with their bigoted bullshit. But… at the same time, I do see a lot of people in marginalized groups equating oppression with their hurt feelings. This is a very troubling pattern that I believe stems from neoliberalism, and the fact that the United States’ culture focuses on the individual.
Let me be loud and clear, oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. Our feelings might get hurt in oppressive processes or be manipulated, but our feelings being harmed are not required for oppression to be, well, oppression. Hurt feelings are a consequence of oppression, not the basis. This is not to devalue the trauma we experience as marginalized people, nor am I saying they shouldn’t be addressed. All I’m saying is that discourse on oppression should avoid ending at hurt feelings. For oppression to be oppression, it must exist on these three levels: 1) Personal 2) Cultural 3) Systemic. On all levels, the power must flow to the same group consistently at the expense of another group’s access to that same power. Allow me to give an example of each from my own experience.
Personal: A cis person takes up space in a conversation about transgender issues in a classroom setting… while I’m sitting there in the room. When I speak, the cis person talks over me and “corrects me” on my own experience. In this case, I am being positioned as lesser, and the flow of power goes toward the cis person(s) in the room. My agency over my own experience is questioned and seen as illegitimate, and so this opens up opportunities for cis people to continue speaking and hold their power dynamic. (Oppression on the personal level often manifests as microaggressions)
Cultural: The portrayals of trans women in media have gone from gruesome murderers to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (not that there’s anything wrong with sex work, but given how society positions sex workers, it is viewed as a negative and that is how I’m writing about it). Trans women are seen as deviant, as sexual objects, as kinks for gay/straight men, and as promiscuous. We are constantly sexualized while being seen as false, which is partly where the slur “shemale” comes from. Oh wait, RuPaul had a whole game on his show about that called “shemale or female.” Culturally, I, and all trans women, are positioned as lesser, and because we are culturally viewed and placed as lesser, then who deserves more access to resources? The flow of power, access to resources, and access to wealth then goes to the dominant group. At whose expense? Our expense.
Systemic: There are laws that allow trans people to be fired on the basis of their identity and expression in 32 states. There are laws restricting our access to healthcare, as a number of insurance providers do not cover transitioning processes for trans people who want/need them. Here are dozens of other examples of systemic/institutional oppression of trans people. Trans people broadly are seen as undeserving of these resources, and that reflects the idea that we are lesser. Who benefits from our lack of access to resources? Cis people, the dominant group, as there are now more opportunities, jobs, resources, healthcare services, and security available for cis people at the direct expense of trans people.
In all cases, the dominant group (cis people) benefits at the direct expense of the marginalized group, therefore transgender people are oppressed. In none of these cases did feelings ever come up, because oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. That doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t legitimate, it’s just that they’re never taken into consideration unless they can be manipulated by dominant forces.
Conclusion (aka tl;dr)
I do not promote equality, I promote justice. I do my best to act justly, and that means I have to be accountable to my own community and communities I work in solidarity with. I do not talk about oppression in terms of who got their feelings hurt. I focus on where people are positioned and where power flows. It is not about feelings, it is about exploitation, and given that the United States is a neoliberal, capitalist society, that exploitation manifests most often by economically disenfranchising marginalized groups. Capitalism is far more a tool of oppression than anything else in my mind.
In regards to oppression broadly, I believe that all forms of activism are important, so long as they’re challenging the status quo. Everything we do matters, and in one way or another, we’re all responsible. We can build things better by working together, by learning to work across differences, by learning to unpack the oppressive things we’ve internalized about ourselves and others. We can do so much, but we must be willing to wrestle with some of the hard truths about ourselves. And by doing these things, we inherently pursue justice, and by pursuing justice we are practicing love. Practice love every day.
Trigger warning: I use the language oppressors use to degender trans people as a way to reflect how gender is constructed in the United States.
For a little while, I was immersed in queer theory as a lens for understanding myself and the world around me. Given where I was at, it made perfect sense: gender is a performance of cultural fictions. But now, I realize just how incomplete this framework is. I mostly attribute that to how new it is, and as with any other framework, it is always important to problematize where said framework is currently at. For those who don’t know, queer theory emerged in the early 1990’s out of the fields of queer studies and women’s studies. Queer theory is a part of post-structuralism. If you aren’t sure what post-structuralism is, somebody happened to explain it very well in a Yahoo Answers post. That post avoids a ton of jargon and is something I believe to be a great summary of post-structuralism, though I would still recommend further reading at Princeton. If you’re not wanting to read more, here’s a 10-minute, three-part video series that examines it. In other words, you have zero excuse not to have some understanding of post-structuralism before reading on.
That’s a bit of context for you, and in writing this piece, I don’t expect my readers to have a complete (if you read the stuff/watched the video series, the word ‘complete’ should be dripping with irony) understanding of post-structuralism or queer theory. Nothing’s wrong with that, and so I’ll provide the context I feel is most relevant and necessary. I highly recommend being on the lookout for any biases I bring in, such as my whiteness, educational privilege, and class privilege. It is in itself a privilege to engage in theoretical gender discourse, so that needs to be named as well before proceeding.
Gender Cannot Be Performed, Only Expressed
What inspired this piece has been recent conversations I’ve had with friends, where we concluded that saying “gender is performance” is inherently racist and transmisogynistic. Queer theory, not so coincidentally, is a perpetrator of both of these, and because queer theory is such a powerful influencer in queer and trans spaces, I need to address it directly.
Judith Butler, one of the pioneers of queer theory, characterized gender as something that is practiced/performed. For some people, this practice produces the effect of a static or “normal” gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what is often considered to be someone’s “true gender”, a narrative that is sustained by “[…] the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them” (Gender Trouble, p. 179).
So what the hell is Butler talking about, right? In short, gender is a social position or status that is assigned to you by others based on obvious physical characteristics (what you’re wearing, apparent sex characteristics, etc.) and behaviors, i.e. “acting girly.” How people position you is based on their frame of reference, which is informed by dominant narratives. Butler would likely argue that people can only perform gender in the way it is presented to them. In the United States, that means the white patriarchy is what’s presenting gender. You can be boy or girl, but wait! If you’re “born a boy,” you can’t do girl stuff. If you’re “born a girl,” you can’t do boy stuff. The white patriarchy does not have any other options, and you can conform to these narratives, or you can experience violence based on non-conformity.
But do you see what the focus is on? The focus in Butler’s work, and too much of queer theory, is focused on how people “do gender.” I bet some, if not most, of you missed how I employed that exact language in talking about what options the white patriarchy offers, and in how I described gender as a social position or status. That’s the problem. It is not about being gender, it is about “doing gender.”
This leaves a lot of room for people to say that “gender isn’t real, just a social construct.” That statement erases the realities that all trans people live. Gender is very real, and to say that gender only exists as a consequence of this particular social construct is reductive and just straight up wrong. Gender is socially constructed, yes, but that’s not all of it. There is a sort of social determinism required for this understanding to make sense, that people only “pick” a gender because it’s been placed in front of them. Gender does not only exist as a consequence.
Gender is a part of that sense of self, else there would be no need for words like transgender and cisgender. Both of these terms acknowledge the individual determination of one’s identity as they defer or match up with conventional ideas of gender. In fact, words for non-binary genders also emerged to reflect this part of one’s internal sense of self. Being trans means that your internal sense of gender disagrees with the gender assigned to you. Being cis means your internal sense of gender agrees with the gender assigned to you. As Toni D’orsay puts it, “Roughly translated, the whole thing means that a Trans person is aware that they are a woman, man, both, or neither, at the same core level as they are aware of themselves as a person, distinct from other people” (Source).
It is impossible merely to perform something that is intrinsically a part of one’s being. Because gender is a part of you, you must be expressing it. And what’s the difference between expression and performance? Performance means the act of doing something (successfully), using knowledge instead of just possessing it. Think acting; think Jared Leto. Expression, on the other hand, means to communicate who you are. Gender is not performance, because gender is not something you take on. It is in part something you take on, because we all live in a gendered world, but more accurately, gender is one aspect by which you understand yourself and move through the world. As my friend voz told me countless times, “You are a self-gendered person operating in a gendered world.”
Given all of that, I will now briefly describe why characterizing gender as performance is both racist and transmisogynistic.
Characterizing Gender as Performance Serves Whiteness
First, it is very important to point at who set up gender in what is now known as the United States: white settlers. Essentially, all things constructed about gender in the United States are eurocentric (read: white). It follows then that this construction of gender serves whiteness: eurocentric beauty standards, the abolition (by way of genocide and boarding schools) of gender systems in Indigenous communities, and a whole lot more all point to this construction of gender serving white people. To say gender is performative gives us white folks a whole lot of room to appropriate, exploit, and devalue “performances” that defer from white patriarchal standards. Why? Because us white people have the “truest” performance of gender, because everyone else in the United States has been forced into our gender system. Our experience of gender is the only legitimate one–now quick! Think of the history of feminism! Never having to acknowledge that gender is a part of someone’s being creates space for us to easily dismiss and/or co-opt other “performances,” especially when they don’t line up with the standards of the white patriarchy. Everything is then ours, because nothing is truly anybody’s in this framework, except for white people. It’s only true and authentic if white people do it. Conceiving of gender as performance energizes whiteness.
Why Characterizing Gender as Performance Is Transmisogynistic
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “gender performance?” Probably a drag queen, right? Something similar might come to mind if I had said “gender bending.” Why is femininity always seen as mockery? Artificial? Inherently fake? To demonstrate why, makeup is associated with femininity, something people (usually women) put on in order to change the way they look or to enhance features they already have. What is also associated with this? Deception by way of creating a new image. Words that people use to insult folks who wear makeup: fake, plastic. Who is deception associated with most often? Trans feminine people. What’s being energized when gender is conceived as a performance? Transmisogyny, because if femininity is constantly associated with deception, then how could it ever be a legitimate part of someone’s identity? Think about the way that ties into the last section. If nothing is ever a part of someone’s identity and only performance, then it is up for grabs at all times. Trans femininity, in the context of gender as performance, then belongs to everybody else and is presupposed to be weak and submissive. Making sense now? Good.
Do not trust white DFAB queer theory just yet. Gender is not a performance, it is an expression of one’s internal sense of self. To say that gender is performance energizes both whiteness and transmisogyny. The implications perpetuate oppression. Saying that gender is an expression of one’s internal sense of self affirms everybody. However, I do understand that calling something an expression rather than a performance will not suddenly stop oppressors from bending our identities to their whim, but the moment we begin to build into academia and movements that gender is performative is the moment we accept defeat, and I’m not about to accept that. Not now, not ever, and I implore you don’t either. Do not embrace frameworks that remove your agency. Do not embrace frameworks that imply your identity is artificial. They are nothing more than the same old repackaged as brand new.
This piece is going to be pointed and confrontational, because too many people have been telling me that “Hey, trans women are in media! You should be happy! You’re represented, after all.” I’m thinking a lot of you don’t know the difference between representation, visibility, and slandering. Everyone who is not a trans woman has a suspicious pattern of calling all appearances of trans femininity in media “representation.” This may come as a shock to some of you, but not all “representation” is good and helpful. In fact, what most folks call “representation” of trans femininity is just slander. Sure, we trans women might be a bit more visible, but what does that visibility look like, and does it justify further violence against us? Yes. Yes, it does.
Don’t get me wrong, I am ecstatic that strong women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox (there are more, but these two are the most known) are receiving a lot of media attention. But hey, as great and important as they are for the trans movement, two or so trans women of color do not suddenly erase all the slanderous appearances of trans femininity in media. Adding a few pieces of silk to a bowl of knives doesn’t make it soft. You will get cut if you stick your hands in it. People, especially DFAB trans people, look this over way too often.
I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.
People are conditioned to defend oppression, because they benefit. Being aware of an issue doesn’t necessitate any kind of follow-up action or self-reflection. What happens an unfortunate amount of the time is this: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem.” Classic white liberalism. It’s rarely ever (read: never) some enormous moral revelation that gets somebody to stop their oppressive behavior completely.
Now, what’s this got to do with representation? Representation, visibility, and slandering are all very relevant in regards to conditioning people’s behavior, because these are what people see (or don’t see) of a particular group of people.
Visibility is really pretty neutral by itself. It doesn’t necessarily have a ‘good’ or ‘harmful’ attached to it until we start looking at it more closely. Visibility is usually what artists mean when they say ‘reach.’ Reach is the number of people they’ve networked with, the number of people who like their Facebook page, etc. It’s their fanbase, the number of people their work has the potential to influence. A person with a lot of reach is a lot more visible, because of how many people can see them. In regards to trans people, trans visibility is very important. Trans women, and trans femininity more broadly, is hyper-visible. There’s a few reasons for this:
- Femininity is already marked as Other under patriarchy, and so is always noticed.
- Masculinity as the default, and so it goes unnoticed.
- “Man in a dress” is a longstanding visual trope used to mock an emasculated man or to deceive others. Think Bugs Bunny switching into a red dress to fool Elmer Fudd.
- The obsession with the genitalia of trans feminine people. Sleepaway Camp is a perfect example of this.
- Gender variancy among DMAB people is highly discouraged, because under patriarchy, the only place for DMAB people to go is closer towards femininity. Patriarchy does not offer a gender-neutral option, and ‘men’ must always be masculine.
The appearances of trans femininity in media are harmful 9.9 times out of 10, reinforcing toxic narratives regarding the lives of trans feminine people, especially trans women. The reason these appearances are simultaneously harmful and hyper-visible is because patriarchal systems and people with stake in these systems do not want me to be treated humanely, because these systems and people benefit from harming me, whether they are actively engaged or not.
So then, the next logical step in making sure I am not treated humanely is to make sure that any and all appearances of trans femininity are erased or slanderous.
Caricatures and Punching Down (AKA Slandering)
I’m going to introduce a concept which may be new to some of you (nothing wrong with that, but let’s make sure we’re on the same page). It’s called ‘punching down.’ Imagine a house that’s cut in half, and you’re looking at the sliced portion. For the sake of simplicity, this is a two-level house. The person on the upper floor can reach down and smack the person on the lower floor with ease. All they have to do is lean over and punch. They don’t have to climb down, but the person on the lower level has to climb up to the upper floor, and their hands can get stomped on when they attempt to grab the end of the ceiling to pull themselves up. No, it is not odd that this house has no stairs, because marginalized people are not promised upward mobility, and why would a privileged person ever want to go to a place they believe is “beneath them?” Therefore, there’s no need for stairs in this system. What is important is that a person with privilege in a scenario has a much easier time abusing someone who they see as beneath them, whereas the marginalized person can’t really fight back as effectively for numerous reasons involving gatekeeping, disenfranchisement, exclusion, and more.
Punching up can happen, but it is important to know that punching up is not unethical. Because trans feminine people’s lives are characterized by the violence done against us, rebelling against or mocking a privileged group is an act of self-defense. Hell, our existence as people is an act of self-defense because the society we exist in is ultimately bent on our annihilation.
In regards to caricatures, they are always punching down. 99.9999% of appearances of trans femininity in media punch down. Depictions of trans women in particular have gone from gruesome murderers (Sleepaway Camp) to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (Dallas Buyers Club). Caricatures only show the features of a subject in a simple or exaggerated way (read: emphasizing stereotypes/cis perceptions of trans femininity). These caricatures are often passed off as authentic experiences when they aren’t simply employed to mock an already marginalized group. And why are they authentic? Because cis people wrote it, produced it, acted in it, and more. It is authentic because the oppressors say it is.
Trans femininity is not represented, it is visibly slandered on a mass scale. Representation means we are speaking our own stories. Representation means we can speak truth at power. Representation means we are not only visible but also in charge of our own lived experiences. Representation means our stories have real value, because we are speaking them ourselves.
If other people are going to tell our stories (which they will whether we like it or not), then we as trans feminine people need to be heavily involved in the process, not token diversity so beneficiaries can pat themselves on the back for “being inclusive.” If we aren’t heavily involved, then what is centered? Cis perceptions of trans femininity, which is inherently false and oppressive. And then who benefits? Cis people, because they make money off of us, they gain fame, and they receive awards for pretending to be us (looking at you, Jared Leto, and all the folks involved in Dallas Buyers Club). They receive all of the benefits while we are stuck living the same old hurt every day. This is exploitation. You cannot represent trans feminine people without us involved. You can never get it right unless we are part of the process in a meaningful way.
No more stories about us without us.
For all the folks involved in the work, it is news to nobody that this stuff gets really tough. Some days are excruciatingly difficult, and other days you really wonder if your life will actually leave any kind of dent on these oppressive systems. Being an activist is hard. Living as a marginalized person is hard. In this post, I do not necessarily want to address how to fix everything (because I don’t know how to), but I do want to talk about self-love for activists.
I am an educator and writer who dabbles in multiple forms: essays, short stories, novels, page poetry, and spoken word. Lately, I have been focusing a lot on the essay writing portion while dabbling in page poetry and short stories. My educational efforts have me interning at a public charter school, where I work with this school’s feminist club and GSA (gender and sexuality alliance) and has me facilitating workshops, writing groups, and a discussion group called Gender Chats. Outside of my internship, I also facilitate another discussion group called Queer Theory Wednesday, co-facilitated my college’s first Trans 101 workshop for staff and faculty, worked as a team lead for Free Arts MN, helped develop and facilitate an 8-week workshop series for Face Forward MN on art and identity as well as performing some spoken word poetry for them, and a whole lot of other things that I don’t want to list off. This is, in essence, my “activist resumé.” I keep myself very busy with the work I do, and there are times where I feel I have taken on too much, am overwhelmed.
To help demonstrate this, I have recently gotten involved in an off-campus study program called HECUA. In figuring out my internship for the program, I visited the Plymouth Youth Center, where I would be working with students who were labeled “at-risk” (a very problematic and harmful label) and predominantly Black. These students also had EBD’s (emotional behavioral disorders), and I was warned right away that these students would, in all likeliness, find ways to mock my trans womanhood. Given that I am pre-everything, and sensitive about my identity, I declined this internship for the one at the public charter school I had mentioned previously.
In taking up the other internship, I knew I would have a bit of an easier time. I mean really, this public charter school had all-gender bathrooms. In reflecting on this decision, I labeled myself as weak. I didn’t think I was strong enough, confident enough in my identity to work with people who would seriously challenge me on it. At this time, I defined strength as the ability to consistently defend my humanity against any and all adversity.
I am confident that my definition had come to be that way because 1) I’m the only trans woman on my campus, 2) I’m very isolated from trans women/femme people on other campuses, of which there are three out trans women/femme people, and 3) I feel as though I experience a heightened amount of transmisogyny and am always the only trans woman in the room. If I didn’t defend myself, I couldn’t expect anyone else to stick up for trans women because the majority of my friends are DFAB trans/trans masculine people who benefit from transmisogyny. This also instigated what I call “justified paranoia.” I have to assume transmisogyny in others for my own safety. This means I constantly have my guard up in one way or another.
I’ll be the first to admit that this paranoia and defensiveness made me a pretty unlikable character for a while. These things also pushed me to be far less patient with others when they messed up with me. So what would have happened if I had worked with the Plymouth Youth Center? A student, or a number of students, would potentially mock my trans womanhood. Couple that with my already heightened paranoia and defensiveness, I would have either withdrawn and isolated myself from these students or I would have not-so-kindly told a student to “Shut up.”
But you know what else would have been a major dynamic in that? My whiteness. What would either of my actions have potentially done to a young Black man? I would have just been another white person pulling the same old shit with Black youth. It doesn’t matter what my background story is in this case. If I had snapped, that would have the impact of a white person asserting their authority over Black youth. That’s white supremacy. If I had isolated myself, withdrew myself, then what message does that send? It sends the message, “I don’t care enough to work with you.” Whiteness will always assert itself in my interactions and relationships with people of color regardless of how I approach the situation. It is always there, because I am a white person who grew up in a racist society, and I need to unpack that. I do not exist in a vacuum. I am not a self-made person. Anybody who can leverage power, regardless of what situation they’re in, needs to be aware of that privilege and when it rears itself.
I spent a good while reflecting on myself and where I was at, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just not in an emotional or mental state to effectively work across differences which may have been heightened, given the circumstances. I decided that if I chose to intern at the Plymouth Youth Center, I would have caused more harm than health. My own situation had me on edge with everybody, and putting more vulnerable youth at risk to my not-so-healthy self was not something that needed to happen. I had to exercise honesty with myself in regards to where I was at and where I would be more useful. I couldn’t, at the time, work with students who had EBD’s. I simply didn’t have the patience with others to do so. Given the racial component of the situation, my presence would have been especially toxic, even if I had been reacting to transmisogyny.
People too often make self-love synonymous with self-care. Self-care is a component of self-love, not the other way around. For me, self-love also means facing ugly truths about yourself. Self-love means being honest with yourself about where you just aren’t capable or qualified. In all cases, the exercise of self-love requires a certain degree of self-awareness and situational awareness. For my case, self-love is not my excuse for inaction, but the explanation. It was a form of violence-prevention. I knew I would not be able to work effectively in the setting that was the Plymouth Youth Center.
Self-love is also the realization that you can’t do everything about everything. You can’t be all things to all people all at once, and sometimes that means stepping back and just not getting involved in something, especially if you feel that you would be toxic. You have to take care of your own needs before you can support others in addressing their own. As my partner, Ollie, puts it in one of their poems, “There is a reason airplane emergency instructions insist parents fasten their own masks before those of their children. | Activism without self-preservation is a sea of masked children and dead parents.”
The word ‘queer’ is often used in so-called radical LGBTQP+ spaces to refer to one’s sexuality or as a shorthand for the community as a whole. It is a reclaimed word, an act of reverse engineering to turn an oppressor’s weapon into armor. Sometimes people within the LGBTQP+ community will say “I’m queer” to ignorant cis-hetero folks instead of having to explain their sexuality as the wibbly-wobbly thing it probably is. I’ve done it, some of my friends have done it, and I’m positive other folks do the same. ‘Queer’ has also been used to suggest things about gender, such that certain genders (that are trans) and expressions/performances of gender are more or less transgressive than others. This places trans women like myself in a very uncomfortable position, and that nudged me to the realization that perhaps ‘queer’ isn’t for me.
Queerness has evolved into a political identity, culture, and academic body (queer theory), and it believes that all forms of sexism/cissexism arise from the patriarchal gender system: the gender binary. Julia Serrano summarizes this ideology very well in her chapter on subversivism: “All forms of sexism [and cissexism] arise from the binary gender system. Since this binary gender system is everywhere—in our thoughts, language, traditions, behaviors, etc.—the only way we can overturn it is to actively undermine the system from within. Thus, in order to challenge sexism, people must “perform” their genders in ways that bend, break, and blur all of the imaginary distinctions that exist between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, and so on, presumably leading to a systemwide binary meltdown” (346, Whipping Girl). Queer spaces are predicated on subversivism, because that is what they aim to do: queer gender and sexuality, to blur these constructions and ultimately create room for total freedom of gender and sexuality.
But what these spaces do is something… not quite as revolutionary as they would hope. The assumption that queer spaces accommodate all genders and sexualities is a myth. They consistently pull from the same gender system they claim to despise, and where this places trans women is dangerous. Not only do we as trans women have to deal with the patriarchy’s oppressive gender system in our daily lives, we can’t even go into spaces that are supposed to be inclusive of us without experiencing similar aggressions toward our bodies and our identities. Many of the quotes from my piece on being in solidarity with trans women have come from these queer spaces.
Queer spaces, in glorifying transgressive, subversive gender performances and expressions, create an Other, which is then labeled as “conservative,” “non-subversive.” The important question to ask, then, is who and what is labeled as the Other? Before we can answer this, we need to know what is marked as bold and radical under patriarchy: masculinity, not femininity. And who do you see dominating queer spaces? You see DFAB white people with the bow ties, the vests, the blazers, things that are more often than not marked as masculine. What androgyny (neutral gender expression) has come to mean in these spaces, too, is a masculine presentation by DFAB people who are overwhelmingly white.
What’s this mean for people on the trans femme spectrum? It means we are not welcome. It means we are not subversive. Because these spaces inherently value trans masculinity over trans femininity, they do little else than create a new binary system that, once again, positions trans women/femme people as lesser. So really, how are these spaces any different from plain old transmisogyny? How are they edgy? Radical? This is just more of the same for me.
As a trans woman, I do not believe ‘queer’ is an appropriate label for myself, given the devaluation of trans femininity within the spaces that stem from queer identity. The way queerness is practiced is dangerous to me as a trans woman. Although I will respect your personal identifier and understand that queerness isn’t monolithic, I can’t help but have a knee-jerk reaction. I have to put my guard up when I hear that word, because any space or person that is not addressing their transmisogyny ultimately seeks my annihilation.
Content/Trigger Warnings: This piece employs transmisogynistic language said by others.
A large number of people just have no idea how to interact with trans women. A lot of you say degendering, belittling, dismissive things to us. And by a lot of you, I really mean everyone who isn’t a trans woman. Now, the reason I need to be so clear about that is because practically everyone benefits from transmisogyny. All of you cis folk already know you’re in that category, so this piece is still written with you in mind, but the focus will be on others.
For me personally, I do not feel all that safe in 99.99999999% of queer and trans spaces, because they are dominated by DFAB, non-binary, trans masculine queers who are far more often than not white. I’ve had trans men derail conversations about TERFs (more accurately, TWERFs — trans women exclusionary radical feminists) and made it about themselves, and how TERF is not necessarily an accessible term because they had to google it. I’ve been in spaces where trans masc people, and DFAB trans people in general but especially trans masc folks, will ignore and silence my voice in order to preserve their own echo chamber of affirmation. I’ve had people all over tell me that women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are somehow damaging to the trans community. It’s very easy to point at trans women, especially trans women of color, as the problem, isn’t it?
Let me provide a list of things people say that immediately clue me into their transmisogyny. All of these have been said to me. (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR TRANSMISOGYNY):
- “I’m too queer for your binary!” (Classic queer elitism that is thinly-veiled transmisogyny and biphobia.)
- “I’m a gender abolitionist.” (The last time someone wanted to abolish gender, it resulted in the genocide of Indigenous communities in what we now know as the United States. TERFs also claim they want to abolish gender. What does that say about you then?)
- “Protect your Mother Earth!” (White people using this, this is transmisogynistic because when people think Mother Earth, they think about birthing, reproduction. This narrows womanhood to DFAB bodies only, which not only makes it transmisogynistic, but also cissexist because of what it suggests about DFAB bodies.)
- “Anyone who reinforces the gender binary hurts my identity.” (Where does this position trans women? Think about it.)
- “Trans women have male privilege.” (This will be a post for a later time, but know that I find it to be simultaneously false and transmisogynistic.)
- “You’re reinforcing gender roles/stereotypes.” (Ah, right, I keep forgetting how being trans reinforces white patriarchal gender roles.)
- “I love ecofeminism.” (Ecofeminism has a long history of transmisogyny.–ask yourself, did the article I linked to misname the problem? If so, who benefits and how?)
- “Can we play dress up??” (Always, always, always teeters on the edge of fetishization, if not already stepping over and jumping rope on the other side. Trans women are treated as kinks and sexual objects.)
- “You identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male.” (No, I’m a woman, so all my parts are female. To deny that is to deny that I am a woman. I gender my parts, not you. My designation at birth is not my destination.)
- “Fake boobs look weird.” (Think about the implications this has for trans women and DMAB trans femme people who want top surgery. How does it other them? What does it say about trans women/femme people who have gone through/want surgery?)
- “I just don’t think binary trans people are subversive.” (Sigh… Luckily, Julia Serano has already written extensively about this. This rhetoric is always employed against trans women, because femininity is marked as Other, but masculinity is marked as bold and radical.)
- “I loved the Michigan Womyn’s Festival.” (Michigan Womyn’s Festival has a womyn-born-womyn policy that excludes trans women, but it does not exclude trans men and DFAB trans people broadly.)
- “Why are you angry? You’re leveraging your male privilege!” (Ahh, because trans women can’t be strong and assertive women. This also reduces trans women to their genitals. It is far too easy to demonize and silence trans women for standing up for themselves, because it is very profitable to do so.)
- “All-female open mic.” (There’s some womyn-born-womyn rhetoric there if I’ve ever seen it.)
To be completely honest, y’all are exhausting. Really, really exhausting for me emotionally, mentally, and physically. You drain me. And this is coming from a white trans woman, so imagine how trans women of color feel about what y’all do. These phrases, and actions related to them, come up so often in my own life. What do all of these phrases have in common? The implication that trans women are illegitimate, cheap knock-offs, “men in dresses.” That is incredibly damaging, and if it’s damaging for trans women/femme people, it’s damaging to the trans community broadly.
Being in solidarity with trans women and DMAB trans femme people is more than just not saying harmful things to us. It is not about posting articles on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, it’s about challenging your everyday interactions with trans women and DMAB trans femme people. It’s about questioning what dynamic your cis or DFAB trans identity plays when you talk to me about anything. How do you speak to me? When do you speak over me? Are you speaking for me, and is it appropriate for you to do so? Are you enabling transmisogyny by remaining silent around your friends? Is the transmisogyny in your queer/trans space being addressed and talked about? What goes through your head when I talk about my experiences and why? How have you been conditioned to hate trans femininity? How do you benefit if you dismiss and reduce my experiences as a trans woman?
I don’t care how many articles you post about transmisogyny (though that doesn’t mean you should stop posting them). I don’t care how often you read about its history and current implications. Studying does not mean you are unpacking your own biases, blindspots, and prejudices. It does not mean that you are actively adjusting your oppressive behaviors. That’s what I want to see. I want to see you critically analyzing not only your own behaviors, but your relationships with trans women/femme people as well as your relationships with others in general who are possibly enabling you to continue being a transmisogynist.
If you’re not, then kindly sit all the way down.