(Originally shared as a Facebook status on 11/20/2014)
I’m late with this commentary but, in some ways, my lateness is fitting.
Today is Trans Day of Remembrance – a day when we remember, mourn, celebrate, tell the stories of, and reaffirm the value of the lives of trans folk worldwide. This includes genderqueer, non-binary, and agender people. But it’s also a day on which we should reflect on the ways that anti-trans violence and cultural norms effect trans people of color – especially trans women of color – especially black trans women. This year alone, a heartwrenching number of black trans women were murdered just for being alive.
As trans folk, I think we are often treated as dead-at-birth. Who we are, who we want to become, how we see ourselves is killed the moment we’re named, given a “sex,” and forced through decades of socialization. This is especially true for trans individuals who experience misogyny, racism, anti-black racism, class discrimination, ableism, and ageism. The hard work, then, is to feel alive. To believe you are alive, to treat yourself as a living person, to live the way you want to live.
And even once we do feel alive, we’re expected to fit certain story lines. We’re told we were born in the wrong bodies. We’re diagnosed, offered counseling and “treatment.” The story lines themselves are even more destructive to people who do not fit the model of a white, middle-class, able-bodied, educated trans life. Many people are erased, ignored, or mangled by these story lines. Everyone wants me to tell my story, as though I could know it. As though it’s available to me. As though I have told that story to myself. But I haven’t. And I suspect the large majority of trans folk, like me, are always writing and, in that writing, searching for our stories.
While we remember the friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, mentors, children we’ve lost, let’s also remember the parts of ourselves that we are struggling to keep alive. Let us mourn the parts of ourselves we’ve lost or are losing and celebrate the struggles we – internally – have won.
I’m speaking from a place of privilege. I’m a white, partially-college-educated trans person who speaks a version of white English that has prestige. What I say and write is assigned a kind of value not because of the truth of it or the power of it, but because of the body from which it emanates. And that is real. And that has to be remembered. And people like me must remember to make space for voices which are ignored, which are not privileged, which cannot be typed through a computer on a university campus because of poverty, homelessness, neglect, or abuse.
We should make room for the voices of our elders. We should not bury our elders before their time, covering up their stories and knowledge with academic blabber, theoretical pontificating, or strains of neoliberal political correctness that would eviscerate the truth of our elders’ pasts. We should not be surprised to find elderly nonbinary folk, or elderly folk who simultaneously identify as a boy, a girl, a woman, a transsexual. We should listen to their voices, believe their stories as they convey them in their own words, and keep them in our minds. Because one day, we will be where they are. We will, Grace Jones willing, have the depth of knowledge they have. But we can only have that kind of knowledge by cherishing the experiences of our elders.
And we should push back against political ideologies which would sweep us under the rug. We should push back against gay, white male cultures which vilify the trans body, the trans voice. We should push back against misogyny in our own communities, against rape culture, against a constant focus on English-speaking, able-bodied individuals. We should question the ideology of the self/other when we are faced with stories of immigration, illegal or otherwise. We should remember that there is a parallel between the treatment of immigrant folk and the treatment of trans folk. In both cases, a transgression of imagined – but power-laden – borders has taken place and a life is being devalued, stigmatized on the basis of that transgression.
There are so many things to be said on a day like today. So many things that I cannot say, or know to say, because my experience is not all-encompassing. I am not a stand-in for all trans folk. I am not an example. I am, instead, one trans person who has beat the odds and has stayed alive for 28 years, with the help of caring friends and family and community – not to mention the privilege I seek to resist. I am one trans person who hopes to find its story so that, one day, that story can be told.
To quote Yoko Ono, who is often wrong in all kinds of ways but whose writing is sometimes very apt:
“You are a sea of goodness.
You are a sea of love.
Bless you, bless you, bless you.
Bless you for what you are.”
I am gradually shifting the layout/focus of this site from an artist portfolio to a blog with some portfolio elements. Please excuse the missing content and pages!
Injustice works in a lot of (equally fucked-up) ways. In its most revolting form, it oozes into the back recesses of our minds, lurking and waiting. Like a sleeper-cell computer virus, it waits until we reach a moment of vulnerability – a moment when we are harassed, assaulted, put down, gaslighted, told that we’re “overreacting.” In that moment, it executes its programming and clouds our minds with endless strings of self-doubt, victim blaming, and shame.
It’s that feeling you get when someone shouts, “FAGGOT!” from their car and you think, “Maybe I should butch up.”
It’s that feeling you get when someone touches you without your permission and you think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have worn this dress.”
It’s that feeling, that unending feeling, that poverty is your fault. You did it. You are bad. Adam Smith personally smote you with his great, white, phallic hand.
And it’s that feeling I want to confront, to challenge, to refuse.
A while back, I was invited to attend (not present, thank God) a community panel on LGBT lives “in a global context.” Frankly, it was the standard feel-good event we often see from the Basic Brigade. A few white non-hetero d00dz (and a token woman) are assembled and asked to give a tired “Fags Are Alive 101” lecture to some cookie-seeking “allies.” In general, the poor quality of these awareness-type events is the fault of the program organizers – not the presenters. One presenter worked my nerves, though.
He works/worked for the Pittsburgh mayor’s office. He said that his gay male icon was Will from “Will & Grace.” He talked endlessly about Pride, employment discrimination, and gay marriage. And he did not hesitate to insert “LGBT” into every fucking phrase – even though he was almost exclusively talking about gay men’s desires and interests. Girl, it’s not a suffix.
The repetition of “LGBT” began to echo in my mind like a building loop of microphone feedback. In that moment, I felt overly aware of my own strained relationship to the idea of an LGBT community and gay culture. I remembered how it took nearly a decade before I could shake off the weight of “gay” and “man” in order to figure out my own relationship to my body and gender. I remembered that, because I am sometimes read as G, my difference and my experience are often erased in the search for the principles of Faggot Spock – “The needs of the fags at the gym outweigh the needs of the fags who embarrass us.” This pencil-pushing troll wouldn’t know B, L, or T even if I made a sandwich for him.
After years of sitting, I had an excruciating cramp.
He said it one too many times. I lost control.
In an angry, unfaltering voice, I interrupted and shouted at him: “You don’t mean ‘LGBT.’ You mean ‘gay.’ Say what you mean. You mean ‘gay.’”
A few seconds later, my self-awareness returned and I felt nervous glances directed at the back of my curly head. Later on I found out that some of those glances were, in fact, silent support. But I had awoken that lurking beast.
I felt shame. Deep, frightening shame. Discarding politeness and decorum, I had become the shrieking harpy who is derided, seen as unstable and unsuitable. There was some nice, white man trying to help other folk understand the normalness of the gays. How dare I derail him. How dare I put my own survival before feel-good vibes of a politically correct pep rally. I walked away feeling as though I had alienated an entire room of strangers, upset the sanctioned speaker of the gays, and embarrassed myself. Standing at the bus stop this afternoon, I reflected on my outburst. I told myself, once again, that I did the right thing – but I still felt embarrassment. “Maybe I’m just crazy and unreasonable.”
And I am crazy and I am unreasonable at times, but that is no cause for shame.
I would like to reclaim that moment. I would like to reclaim the instant my mouth opened and his closed:
I did absolutely nothing wrong. There is no shame in stopping oppression where it starts. If I could turn back time, I would tell that two-bit politico the exact same thing. Stop faux-including me. Stop talking about me when you’ve never talked to me. Stop thinking you know what it is to be LGBT because no one person owns every fucking experience. Yo, Christopher Columbus – I found your fucking grandson. Still colonizing.
I will not apologize for refusing to be placed on a social “equality” waitlist. I will not feel ashamed for telling “Will True-Man” to stop erasing me through his careless words. I will not, through silence, cosign the continual deferring of non-binary bodies, lives, and desires. I am not sorry that I slammed the door on your broke-ass version of progress. I hope the Amish are still making nice chairs, because you need several seats.
Respectability politics are for people who want to become the oppressor. Marketability and “image” are for people who want to sell us to corporations and governments as eviscerated drones of perceived diversity. They try to force you into one of these roles through shame. If you speak out of turn: shame. If you don’t look like the TV version of queerness: shame. If you don’t kiss the great white feet of the HRC: shame. If you do not aspire to images of wealth and whiteness: shame. If you, just for one second, try to be alive without their express, written, attorney-approved permission and chaperoning: shame.
But shame only works until you speak its name, until you talk about it among friends. Shame only works when you feel alone, like you’re the only crazy one. As soon as you realize you aren’t alone, the game is over. You win.
I’m not here for any of the mindfuckery they’re peddling nowadays. I’m here to live, to thrive, to make spaces for others to do the same.
I’m here to be the shrieking harpy. I’m here to be shameless.