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.

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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.

Gender Is Not Performance

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.

Conclusion

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.

Let’s Talk Representation

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

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:

  1. Femininity is already marked as Other under patriarchy, and so is always noticed.
  2. Masculinity as the default, and so it goes unnoticed.
  3. “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.
  4. The obsession with the genitalia of trans feminine people. Sleepaway Camp is a perfect example of this.
  5. 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.

Actual Representation

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.

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.

On The Word ‘Queer’

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.

How To Be in Solidarity with Trans Women

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.