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.

My Social Justice Praxis: Fuck Equality, I Want Justice

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.

Activism And Self-Love

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.”

You can also follow my partner at their youtube page and blog.