Last night, I had the privilege to be the keynote speaker for Central Michigan University's Pride Week. This was my first major (hour-long) keynote, and although I was a bit nervous, and have some critique on how I delivered the talk (I still have some learning to do about how to present keynote addresses), what I discussed was good to get out. I've been thinking about some of this stuff for months, and was so very fortunate to be given the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts. As the lights came back on after my talk, I also saw a couple people drying their eyes...it seems like many of us in the room last night needed to be reminded of these words.
Below, I have posted my slides as well as my talk in full text, with permission from my colleague at CMU who brought me to campus. I would love to hear people's thoughts and feedback, should you feel comfortable sharing.
Before I begin, I want to thank the generosity of those who worked hard to bring me to campus. First and foremost, I want to thank Shannon Jolliff-Dettore, whose loving kinship I have been blessed to bask in for the past year. I am so honored to be in community with you, Shannon, and I hope the entire CMU community knows what a gem they have in you. I also want to thank the Women and Gender Studies Department as well as the Office of LGBTQ Services for helping to bring me here, along with Dr. Matt Johnson and Erica Johnson for hosting me for a night, along with the Jolliff-Dettore family. Thanks also to the queer and trans* students with whom I have been in community with during my quick stay. It is for us that I continue to be motivated to do the work I do. We have always been on college campuses, and we have always been doing college our own way, but it has only been recently that our narratives have begun to surface in ways that go beyond pointing to our deficits. I want to dedicate this talk to all of the queer and trans* people in the crowd tonight. I hope this will honor our stories, which are a confusing and beautiful muddle of wonder, sadness, banality, and plain old fun.
Next, I know that sometimes listening to someone talk for 40-45 minutes can be tough. At least I know it is for me. Because of this, I want to invite you all to use your phones to tweet about my talk tonight. Feel free to share quotable moments, takeaways, and insights that resonate with you by using the hashtag #TransingCMU. Together, we can create a backchannel that can be shared with people who cannot be here tonight for one reason or another. We can also extend our conversation past the hour or so we are going to share together. Again, that hashtag is #TransingCMU. Feel free to use it early and often throughout our time together tonight.
I am going to break my talk up into three parts. In the first part, I will frame my talk by discussing the centrality of mirrors to my life. Next, I will share two stories that highlight how mirrors are trouble in relation to notions of trans* (in)visibility, as well as how mirrors can help us trouble those very same normative notions in potentially liberatory ways. Lastly, I want to do some imaging with all of you. I want to create a mirrored counter-story by peering through the looking glass and thinking about how we can work to reflect a more equitable and just campus community at CMU. Without further ado, let's get into Part I, which I am calling, "I'm Looking at the [Wo]man in the Mirror."
Part I: "I'm Looking at the [Wo]man in the Mirror"
Mirrors have held a prominent place in my life. I suspect the same may be the same for many of you in this room. Not only do mirrors act as a physical thing into which we gaze, but mirrors also act as a metaphor for introspection and self-awareness. Mirrors also act as a way in which we can act in accordance with and mimic other people (to mirror one's behavior). In this sense, then, mirrors can both reflect who we are as well as who we aren't. Mirrors can also project who we want to be; or at least who we think we want to be, or who we are told we should want to be. As a critical scholar, I cannot separate mirrors—as an object or a metaphor—from broader systems of privilege and power. For example, mirrors connect me to my ethnoreligious faith tradition as a Jew. When a family member dies, we are meant to cover all mirrors while we sit shiva. This practice is said to have multiple meanings, ranging from a disavowal of vanity in a time when we should focus on the life we have lost to not welcoming in the demons of regret, loss, or guilt into our homes. Additionally, mirrors seem to carry with them a sense of seeing and being seen, which privileges ableist visions of our selves, as if to not see or be seen renders ourselves devoid of meaning. As if not being able to "see" oneself means we are not "real."
As this may be the first time some of you have interacted with me, it's probably important that you know a bit about me beyond my fancypants bio. I am a trans*, non-binary, femme-of-center person. I use the pronouns ze and hir, and my racial identity as White, disability identity as able-bodied, and cultural identity as Jewish frame much of how I experience and navigate my world. I also have a critical paradigmatic orientation to the world, which means that I believe that how everyone is able to move through their world is mediated by systems of privilege, power, and oppression that affect us all differently, and often do so in asymmetrical ways that allow some of us to traverse our environments easier than others. While I have had experiences where I am consistently mis-seen, or mis-represented, as not trans* or not femme enough, I also have experienced moments, places, and everyday utopias in which I am just as trans*, femme, and trans* femme as I want to be. So in some senses, the mirror that reflects my not-trans*-enoughness is often broken, or at the very least, it is not a mirror worth looking in.
And although I know I am enough, it's the very act of the mirror people in society and the institutions of which I am a part hold up as not seeing me as enough that I want to tease apart tonight. In other words, what I want to talk about tonight is the connection between mirrors and (in)visibility. Or perhaps I am more interested in the disconnections between mirrors and (in)visibility. Or more likely, it is both, because for those of us on the margins, mirrors are not simple objects, nor is a mirror a simple metaphor. But before I get lost in the philosophical, let me share a couple stories that happened for me recently. Here is where I transition to Part II, or what I am calling, "A Tale of Two Tales"
Part II: A Tale of Two Tales
The first story is one I have blogged about before, and actually has to do with my visit here today. In anticipation of my visit, I wanted to get some nice clothes so I could show up looking my best for this keynote. I am rarely one to wear skirts, but I have recently come to the realization that my distancing myself from skirts is likely a reflection (notice the mirror metaphor?) of my own internalized shame, which is itself rooted in the transmisogyny I learned throughout my life, and am still trying to unlearn now as someone who identifies as a trans*femme. Contrary to what some may think, even those of us who research, study, and are ourselves trans* still have a lot to unlearn about ourselves, our bodies, and the reproduction of shame narratives that are mirrored throughout the social sphere.
When I opened the package with my new skirt, I was struck by both a wave of delight and intense shame. I stood there, looking in the mirror, both delighted and incredibly scared. And my fear made me feel even more shameful, especially when I realized that my being White and able-bodied meant that I would be able to navigate my time on this campus as a trans*femme person all the easier. Indeed, for those who may not know, it is the lives of trans* women of color, and of trans* people with disabilities (and trans* women of color with disabilities) who are most on the margins and most vulnerable. If our lives are intersectional, then it seems that so, too, is our shame.
I quickly moved to my computer and, through tears, opened up a conversation between Reina Gossett and Grace Dunham titled "Touch One Another." If you haven't read this piece, I strongly suggest you do. It is brilliant in its provocations, and haunting in how it continues to reflect to me the very depth of how being a trans* woman, trans*femme, or a #GirlLikeUs is so difficult. In the conversation, there is a segment—which I quote at length—where Reina, a Black trans* woman, shared:
Mirrors have held so much power for me, and not in ways that have always helped me feel good about myself. There was a time in Boston maybe 20 years ago when I looked in a mirror and I started crying. I was so consistently navigating a racist and transphobic gaze that I couldn’t help but reflect that back at myself. I was overwhelmed by the me that existed through that lens.
What I connected to at the club with the mirrors was a different gaze that reminded me of the powerful moments of becoming I’ve had in front of mirrors, seeing and imagining myself for who I want to be, or who I already might be. The becoming gaze happening that night helped me feel confident enough that I wanted to risk feeling humiliated, risk feeling beautiful and powerful. So often, it’s the same risk. Something I’ve learned is that it’s harder to accept that I might be beautiful, powerful, maybe even hot, than it is to organize against the institutions I hate.
So the next day, the Sunday we went to Jewel’s Catch One, I put on a dress. And I was hit with an incredible wave of embarrassment. I was overwhelmed by embarrassment. I wasn’t surprised—this feeling is why I hadn’t worn a dress in years. The history of laws and punishment and shame washed over me and through me. After so long, and so much work, it’s still so fucking hard to be a public woman.
Even in social movements, capitalism gets reproduced and tells me that I’m not supposed to be in a place of becoming, that I’m supposed to have arrived on the scene already with a sense of my own internal power and a brilliant political analysis to articulate it. We’re told that if we have emotions that say otherwise, they’re our own fault. I felt embarrassed of my embarrassment. I am deeply embarrassed by my own embarrassment.
What I needed in that moment was for my friend to tell me I looked okay, or even that I looked hot as hell. So many of us depend on other people to reflect back who we are, how we want to be seen. I’m trying to understand those moments not just through a framework of trans liberation, but also through dependency. I believe dependency is one of our greatest sources of power.
I sat, tears streaming down my face, repeating the same realization that Reina shared: After so long, and so much work, it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman. And it's not just hard for me, in my house. It's hard for us, as a trans* community, in public and in private spheres. Take this past year, 2015, which has been heralded as both the bloodiest recorded year for trans* people as well as the year when some of us took center stage (quite literally) in the social imaginary. It is not a surprise to me that the increase in visibility for some trans* people paralleled an increase in violent erasure (or violent invisibility, if you will allow me to extend the mirror metaphor).
And even when we are not the ones subject to violent invisibility, it is a part of our cultural and communal past/present/future. We trans* people share communal trauma. This was exemplified by one of my participants from my dissertation, Megan. Megan, a White trans* woman who was a gamer, talked often about her needing to "go outside," signaling that she knew she needed to get out of her room and make other trans* friends. She felt the need to be visibly trans*, and to find other visibly trans* people with whom to connect. In talking about the risks associated with this, Megan stated:
I always knew that I was gonna get outside of my room eventually, and so I guess this whole time I've sorta been preparing myself for some things I might encounter. And so I've always been reading articles, like, ah, the bad articles, I guess, you know? The sad articles about transgender stories. Transgender reviews…Yeah, like, um, I don’t know, I guess some of them are more funny stupidity articles, like, about Fox News not accepting trans* people. But then other stuff, like, ah, you know, stories about where trans* people are beaten, or raped, or stuff like that.
To be clear, this was not Megan's past or present. I hope desperately it is not her future, either. However, the collective communal trauma we have experienced as trans* people embedded itself in Megan's mind. In doing so, both Megan and me, and all other trans* women and trans*femme people know what Reina shared so poignantly in her talk with Grace Dunham: it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman.
So there is one story about mirrors, and what mirrors can do to, for, and against us. Mirrors can be objects or metaphors into which we "see" particular pasts/presents/and futures. And these pasts/presents/futures can both encourage and delimit us, sometimes doing both at the same time. For at the very moment that both Megan and I recognize the hurt, shame, embarrassment, and potential violent invisibility mirrored back at us when we look into societal notions of trans* femininity, we are also in community with other #GirlsLikeUs. At the very moment when we both utter, in different words, what Reina shared, that "it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman," we are together, holding each other, and alongside one another in a way that resists the violence, individualism, and capitalist reproduction of normative femininity as attached to certain bodies; bodies that don’t look like mine, or Megan's, or Reina's. And this can happen even at a time when more and more cisgender people are becoming aware of trans* lives…or perhaps it is happening as a result of the increased awareness.
And this is where I want to head for my next story. And this one strikes a bit closer to home. In fact, it may be one that takes place on this very campus. And if it doesn’t happen on this campus, then it certainly happens on many, many college campuses across the country each and every year. I am talking about the celebration and valorization of Coming Out Weeks.
Now don't get me wrong, I am way down for coming out. Y'all, I am here for that. Often, when I come to new spaces such as this, and I am feeling nervous, I remember the words of a mentor of mine. She worked with me in crafting my first syllabus I used when I taught at Miami University as a doctoral student. In our time working together, I remember asking her how she dealt with students' potentially limiting understanding of who she was as a person. See, she did not identify as trans*, but as a masculine woman, we shared some similarities in that students often would—and still do—read certain things onto our bodies, regardless of if we want them to or not. I suspect this is also a shared experience with many people in the room right now, queer or otherwise. I was nervous about this very thing happening, and its having a negative impact on the classroom dynamic and the students' overall learning. What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that these sorts of dynamics also have negative implications for how students evaluate instructors, as women and people of color (and, by extension, women of color) are marked lower on teacher evaluations, which are a main mode by which promotion and tenure—which is our livelihood, as faculty—is decided. While the literature on teaching evaluations is fairly binary in its conceptualization of gender, I have to imagine the same goes for trans*, gender non-conforming, and trans* femme people, both White and people of color. And so while I did not yet know the data, I knew there was something to be worried about. So I asked her how she navigated that, and she told me, "Z, there is always at least one person who needs you to be you."
Let me say that again, because I think it is really important and I want to make sure you got it: "There is always at least one person who needs you to be you."
So yeah, I get the importance of coming out. Indeed, I come out lots, and often, as I am sure many of you in this audience do, too. Coming out not only serves as important so that we can mirror our queer existence for other people, but so we can reflect the resilience, beauty, and importance of who we are back to ourselves, too. Sometimes, when things get bad, when the noise in this world clutters my head, it is helpful for me to proclaim, to someone or no one, "I am here! I am queer! And they betta recognize!"
But I never want to suggest that coming out is either necessary or a panacea. In fact, some of my queer and trans* kin have started talking about this dangerous illogic—the suggestion that one should always come out, and that by doing so we will be liberated by our outness—the hegemony of visibility. In other words, it's not coming out that is necessarily a problem, but the supposed necessity of coming out, or the idea that when we come out it will necessarily increase the livability of our lives as queer and trans* people. In fact, the very opposite may be true. As I suggested previously in this talk, the awakening of more cisgender people to the existence of trans* people in 2015 rests uneasily next to the realization that last year saw the most reported deaths of trans* people in the United States. In this sense, heightened visibility can be seen to reflect heightened threat and vulnerability while at the very same time, it also represents heightened liberation. Put another way, the connections between our liberation as trans* folks is often closely linked and intertwined with our peril. Furthermore, to suggest that coming out is good for all of us across the board is to deny the ways that racialization, compulsory able-bodiedness, and other vectors of systemic oppression create environments through which we cannot all navigate easily.
Moreover, coming out is not always a choice for all of us; some of us are always out just by entering a room. And even when coming out is something we can “choose” to do, not coming out may hold both possibility as well as peril. For while not disclosing our queerness or trans*ness may allow us to traverse spaces previously foreclosed to us, not coming out also surfaces deeply-held emotional trauma, especially around not being queer or trans* enough. For example, when I travel, be it by air or driving, like I did when I came here, I often attempt to "pass" as not-trans*. Now, I am trans* regardless of how I show up, because trans*ness is not always written on the body. We all know that in this room; however, the way other people come to know or read trans*ness is always through the body. This is due to the problematic assumption that to be trans* is to be deceptive, or to not be who we say we are, and that our being trans* is only surface or clothing deep. But regardless, when I travel, I know my ability to get where I need to be is policed, quite literally, by the state. Whether it is by the TSA or State Troopers, I know that any gender transgression I show may invariably put me at risk should I be pulled over or pulled out of line. However, my attempting to pass as cisgender also does damage, as it often does emotional or psychic damage in my denying who I am and not honoring how I feel best showing up. Also, when I attempt to pass as cisgender, I feel separated from my trans* community in ways that feel completely alienating to me. So even when I make choices about passing as cisgender, choices that are based on my own safety and vulnerability, I still feel negative effects associated with those choices. Passing is not always what it seems to be, and coming out or not coming out is never an easy choice to make.
So the idea behind Coming Out Weeks, that we as queer and trans* people can just come out, can do it once, and that coming out is always already the best and most desirable option, is overly simplistic. Whenever Coming Out Weeks roll around each year, I cringe, worrying who feels shamed because they cannot come out due to safety concerns. I think about Megan, the participant from my dissertation study who I introduced you to earlier, who had a history of bullying in her youth, and who didn’t come out specifically because of that bullying. I think of Silvia, a Black agender participant alongside whom I worked, who chose not to come out due to the overwhelming press of systemic trans* oppression she faced on her campus. Although she may have wanted to come out, she knew that to do so was to enter into a relationship where she would have to defend her trans*ness rather than be affirmed in her gender, and for her, that was not a comfortable or safe choice to make.
Coming out can be liberating, don’t get me wrong. It can be fabulous, especially when we look in the mirror, proclaim our queerness and trans*ness, and love is reflected back to us. Coming out can be empowering when we can do it with people on campus who we see ourselves in, and who see themselves in us, especially other queer and trans* people. Coming out can also feel liberating because we can finally name what we see when we gaze into the mirror: a beautiful queer or trans* person who is worthy of love and support. But there is a shadow side to the hegemony of visibility, and when we suggest that one must come out, or that coming out is the best or only way to be, then we are in trouble...and we are erasing differences regarding race and ability that deny some people’s humanity in the queer community—for example, queer people of color and queer people with disabilities—while valorizing others—for example, White queer people, trans* masculine people, and queer and trans* people who are temporarily able-bodied.
So what, then, are we to do on college campuses? If coming out isn’t always the answer, and if mirrors can deny as well as reflect our humanity, how are we to build better futures for and amongst ourselves as queer and trans* people? These questions move me into the last part of my talk, which I am calling, “Imagining Possible Futures: A Mirror Counter-Story.”
Imagining Possible Futures: A Mirror Counter-Story
A counter-story is one that, quite simply, runs counter to the dominant social narrative. For example, if we think about U.S. history, it is commonly taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. However, the counter-story to this narrative is that Christopher Columbus brutally and violently took and colonized the country we have come to know as the United States of American from the Native and Indigenous populations who were always already present. I share this with you because what I want to do is think about how we can create a counter-story about mirrors. Instead of mirrors reflecting who we are or are not on an individual level, I want to create a counter-story where we turn mirrors out toward the CMU campus. I want to think about how we can create a story about mirrors that reflect how our campuses need to improve and where other people—and here I am talking particularly about cisgender and/or heterosexual people—need to work hard to create the conditions into which we as queer and trans* people can feel comfortable and safe coming out. I want to create a story about how we as queer and trans* people can find the spaces in which we can be who we want, when we want, in spaces that are ours. To do this, I am going to speak first to the cisgender and/or heterosexual folks in the room, and then I will end by talking with my queer and trans* kin.
For the cisgender and/or heterosexual people in the room, I implore you to stop waiting for us as queer and trans* people to come out for you to take action. You know we are here, and you don’t need to gaze at our difference to know this. Doing so only objectifies our difference, and suggests that we are subject to scrutiny in determining if we are queer or trans* enough. Furthermore, you don’t need to do more climate studies to ascertain if there is a chilly climate for queer and trans* people, because we already know there is. During my dissertation study, I uncovered what I called a gender binary discourse whereby college campuses are steeped in rules, both written and unwritten, about gender and how gender is understood. It was no surprise that gender was only understood in binary terms, and that this understanding harmed the trans* participants alongside whom I worked. We know our campuses are unsafe and uncomfortable for trans* students, so instead of waiting or looking for more data, you all need to use your agency and act. As bell hooks stated years ago, systemic change will only take place when those with privilege leverage that privilege to create more equitable spaces. Only you can do this work, and I encourage you to do it.
To the queer and trans* people in this room, I want you to know I see, feel, and am with you. Regardless of how you show up, if you are out or not, if you feel not enough or not, I am with you. You are enough. You always have been, and you always will be. Paraphrasing the words of Reina, I want you to remember it’s still so fucking hard to be a public queer and trans* person. Despite the visibility we have achieved—or perhaps as a result of that visibility—it is still so fucking hard. And so I see you, regardless of—or perhaps in spite of—our environments that tell us we are not enough.
I also want you to know it is okay to take a break. We don’t need to be constant educators. We don’t need to hand over our bodies, and our stories, and our lives for the betterment of others. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves for the hope that maybe other people will recognize our humanity. Of course, if you get energy from doing this, please do. I certainly am doing that very thing right now. However, you don’t always need to do this work. You get to decide with whom, where, and when you share your queerness and trans*ness with others. Our queerness and trans*ness is a gift, and it is something we get to share—or not share—on our own terms.
Lastly, I want to remind all the queer and trans* people in the room that we come from a rich and beautiful legacy. We have been at the center of so many liberation movements. We have been central to the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960’s. We were central in the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco that so many people forget. We were at the very epicenter of the Stonewall rebellion in ways that the mainstream gay and lesbian movement want to deny. And we have been central in the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is so very present currently. Remember that it was three Black women, some of whom are queer, who are at the center of this leaderfull movement for Black justice. We are here, we are present, and we are a vibrant and beautiful community. You don’t need to show up a certain way, or be “out” if that isn’t safe or comfortable for you. We can create kinship regardless of other people’s assertions that our queerness or trans*ness isn’t enough…because really, what is not enough is the way environments have yet to be constructed for us. So instead of looking into the mirror and hearing the demons telling us we aren’t enough, I propose we turn the mirror around and reflect back to others how our campus cultures need to change, and who needs to lead that change. Meanwhile, we should invest in creating the type of kinship and localized networks of love and support that have always sustained us.
Regardless of how hard it is to be a public queer or trans* person, I want you to know:
I am here for you.
Visibility be damned.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.