Much to my great shock I was nominated and added to the Trans100 List, a curated, non-ranked list of US trans activists working intersectionally to improve conditions for the community—I accepted with profound gratitude, and I feel humbled to know that I’ve been added to a list that includes some truly astounding people, considering I’ve only done a fraction of what some of them have. I can only hope to live up to the very high bar that my sisters, brothers, and siblings have set.
The Trans100 list is a project that I didn’t even know about until a week ago. But it grew up from We Happy Trans*, This is HOW, and other projects dedicated to the proposition of trans visibility, and the idea that the lives we live—even in the midst of a stricken world like ours—are worth celebrating. That’s an idea I can get behind, to say the least, and coincidentally I wrote something this past week that gets at why I think we need things like the Trans100. I was expressing my discomfort with the often Manichean tone of the same-sex marriage debate on my Facebook feed. Oh no no, not between liberals and conservatives, but between radicals and liberals. I was very uneasy with the simple, dyadic terms of a discussion where marriage was posited either as a capitalist-cum-patriarchal evil, or a completely unproblematic institution that merited no critical analysis. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the HRC, with its awful history, was squatting on the whole discussion like a dreadfully white elephant.
In many cases, trans people and POC were political footballs: “same-sex marriage is a nonissue because trans POC have totally different issues!” – partially true, of course, but it also misses some complexities. In particular, I grew weary of how we were being talked about mostly in absentia and mostly in terms of tragedy. What follows began as a lengthy Facebook post and has now been edited and remixed for you, Nuclear Unicorners (I’ve officially named you, revel in my originality). Enjoy.
I’ve noticed a trend amongst certain people in the queer community where white/male/masculine/cis people/who-don’t-live-in-my-hood are telling me what my issues are, and that does make me more than a little uncomfortable. The majority of people I know who’ve recently been married thanks to same sex marriage law changes are folks of colour and trans people, for one. It did matter to them, and that needs to be factored into our consideration here—that we may be standing in a more complex place than reductive ‘lived politics’ may permit.
But it’s more than just that. Allow me to explain.
What defines recent media coverage and liberal discussions of presumptively-cis gays and lesbians? Normativity? ‘They’re just like us!’-ism? Yes, in no small measure; but go deeper than that. What is that pointing to? In what substantial ways, beyond the white picket fence, beyond 2.3 kids and a dog, are they just like (some) cis heteros?
They’re shown to be having lives. Increasingly, cis gays and lesbians are at last being recognised as people who are everything from activists to artists, journalists to teachers, scientists to non-profit organisers, parents and family; people with dreams and aspirations. In particular, it is once the latter are accorded an equal place in the firmament of human yearning that we come one step closer to substantive justice.
This is not just about normativity, it’s a question of living and thriving. Of humanising. Many of the same radical queers may critique that, but they want to live those same lives– as activists, artists, academics, poets, writers, community organisers, queer polyfamily members, and so on.
That’s a life. A real life-as-lived that can be a source of inspiring pride.
Yet every time I see a Facebook post from someone about us, usually an ally of trans women who’s either a cis man/woman, or a queer trans man or trans masculine person, do you know what I hear?
About how dead we are.
Stab wounds, immolation, genital mutilation. We’re heels pointed up out of a dumpster, we’re arrest and incarceration statistics, and we’re “bodies” (oh how I loathe how that term has replaced “person” in so much discourse). We’re dead, voiceless names and brief stories read at TDOR. And when our issues are talked about and screamed about from the top of a cis man’s lungs, that’s mainly what we are. Dead and dying. Unable to speak for ourselves as trans women of colour.
It’s why I cheered when I saw Janet Mock on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show because holy mother of Goddess, when’s the last time the mainstream media heard from someone with her life and perspective? I finally saw a living, thriving sister talking about the need for justice, not a cis person speaking for us as so many bodies, but a real trans woman of colour. My sister.
My living sister.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project—the non-profit where I’m a proud collective member—takes on the hard jobs, the cases no one else will. We do the hard work of responding as a collective and a community to the hell imposed on us by the state, by the police, by uncaring institutions and the violence of a society that hates us, but especially hates trans women. We do that, and we do it gladly. But you know who “we” are? Trans folk and people of colour. We’re not just victims, we’re doing. We’re lawyers, social scientists, activists, artists, and beautiful living, thriving people who are doing great work and striving to make our own issues and lives visible.
Our Prisoner Advisory Committee is comprised of incarcerated trans folk who are now fighting for meaningful lives– both during and after incarceration. They’re trying to thrive and do work; budding jailhouse lawyers who refuse to be “bodies.” (I encourage you to check out PAC’s newsletter, In Solidarity, where PAC members submit editorials, art, and poetry to be shared with the wider community– in and outside of prison.)
The people we serve aren’t just “clients”– they’re neighbours, friends and loved ones with vibrant communities too often ignored by both the gazes of mainstream media lenses and trendy radical indie film lenses. Instead we’re “bodies”– victims and statistics.
That half-truth is how we are seen by all. Even by our ‘allies.’ Through it all we hear next to nothing of these women’s lives and loves. We learn not of how trans women live, only how we may die.
Now we return to the beginning: this is why I get uncomfortable when white masculine queers angrily talk about how dead we are. We’re not all dead, and those of us who live have real, lived lives just as valid, beautiful, and dreamy as those of my queer sisters and brothers who get to have the house with the white picket fence. Even as we struggle—and every day it feels like I hear another story about how someone was shitty to a sister, abused or harassed her—and even as I still fight dysphoria, there are beautiful lives and stories and dreams there.
Talk about them.
I’m not dead yet, my queer family.