I Wish I Had More Hopeful Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.