Dear Radical Mentors and Role Models,
For someone who literally writes for a living, words sometimes are difficult for me to find. Ironic, isn’t it? I practice writing, I grade writing, and I read writing. A lot. And yet, sometimes I find writing to be one of the hardest things to do. Who am I kidding – it is often the hardest thing, and I know you feel me on this point, right?
I share this to say…this letter has been a long time in the making. And even still, I worry it will come off as trite, silly, or just the midnight musings of a quasi-sappy trans* femme in her feelings because it is the end of term. While part of that is true (I am a quasi-sappy trans* femme), the reality is, quite simply, I wouldn’t be here without you.
Let me repeat that: I wouldn’t be here without you.
All of my success, I owe to you. Every word, every manuscript acceptance, every pedagogical innovation, every positive conversation I have with a student, and every bit of publicly engaged scholarship I do. It is all because of you.
This year has been good for me in many ways. My first book dropped, I just signed a contract for another one, and in many ways, I feel better about the work I am doing in the classroom and on campus. I also feel healthier than I did 12 months ago, and I mean that in a variety of ways. In January, I made a commitment to center my health and wellbeing. I scheduled meetings with all sorts of doctors, met with financial advisors, bought a house, and gave my everything in my counseling meetings (which I started this past fall) to divest from the toxic people, relationships, and dispositions that have been holding me back for far too long. For months, I felt like all I did was schedule and attend appointments. Oftentimes, I wanted to cancel these appointments, but I remembered my commitment and kept them all.
Much of this meant sifting through pain. The pain caused by people no longer in my life, and remembering that I am better off without them; the pain of trans* oppression, which has made me so intensely fearful of attending doctors; the pain of my working to confront and overcome my own internalized ish around issues of lack of self-worth; the pain of feeling like I was working through all this stuff in secret, because all other folks saw was a supposedly charmed life (i.e., refer back to the previous paragraph).
As I have been working through this pain, however, I have noticed I feel far freer than I ever have felt in my life. I have been using my voice more and more to speak truth to power, have pushed students hard in the classroom to dig deeper and think more critically, and am trying to stretch myself on my own learning edges. I have reworked syllabi, done deep self-reflection on my own pedagogical style, and have stayed true to my values of centering all my efforts alongside my kin who are the most vulnerable, and who have continued to put their bodies on the line because, in the end, there is not any other choice but to do so.
I feel as though the past year has been a bit of a rebirth for me. I have been able to honor the work I have been doing for years, realize I have different spheres of influence now, and am trying to think about how to leverage those spaces to continue the fight for justice.
And I have you to thank.
You have been there for me when I couldn’t be there for myself, and you’ve been there for me when I refused to be there for myself.
You have been patient with me, and have kicked my ass in gear when I have needed it.
You have reminded me that good work is not easy, and that framing my work through radical justice lenses, whilst necessary, will be—in the words of Angela Davis—a constant struggle.
You have never let me go. In fact, you have only gripped on tighter, all while managing the intense commitments you have at your home institution, with your family, with your own life.
You have reminded me I am beautiful and worthy of love when I least believed it.
You never gave up on me, even though at times I may have made it easy to contemplate that.
You reminded me that I matter, and that I am who I say I am, despite living in a world that continues to deny my existence.
You never tokenized me, despite living in a world where people continue to fetishize and objectify my existence, my knowledge, my body, and my abilities.
You were real with me, you gave your time to me, and you let me into your life in various ways.
You gave me a sanctuary in which we could be free and unbothered together.
You reminded me what liberation sounds, feels, smells, tastes, and looks like.
You have let me crumple in a heap of tears, and have picked me so gently after.
You have cheered me on from the sidelines, opened doors for me, and reminded me I am powerful and strong.
Because of you, I am.
Because of us, I can keep going on.
Thank you, my mentors and role models. I promise I will never take you for granted, and I promise I will pay forward all you have given me. I promise to be alongside others as you continue to be alongside me. Because in the end, we are all we have, right? And I am only free when we are all free. And my liberation is wrapped up in yours is wrapped up in all ours.
So I promise to keep lifting while I climb, to be bold and fearless, to scream at the top of my lungs for the justice this world needs and craves, and to find new ways to be in-but-not-of the institution. I promise to divest from the negative messaging I have feasted on for so long about not being enough, and to remind you how meaningful you are in my life, both personally and professionally. I promise to reflect the beauty, fierceness, and brilliance you shine out onto this world.
Words are failing me. I am fighting back tears as I write this, because who you are, and what you have done for me, and the chances you have taken for and alongside me are so awe-inspiring. You took a chance on me very early on, and I don’t know what sparked you to do so, but I am so thankful you did.
Words are failing me, and these two seem not to be enough to portray all you mean to me, but thank you. A million times over thank you.
About a year ago, I was talking with one of my friends about some really difficult dating experiences I had. “You should blog about this stuff,” she told me.
“You think? Like, do you think anyone would really want to hear about my dating life?”
“Yeah. I do. And I think it may help you process through some of this stuff,” she mentioned.
We moved on from the conversation, and after an initial spark of curiosity, the idea got lost under a sea of syllabi, papers, and, if I am going to be honest, some of my own internalized shame. You see, I have been trying to work through what it means to date while trans*, and a large part of this “working through” means confronting head on ways I have invested in cis-normative scripts about my own worth and deservingness as a trans* femme. As I have written about previously, this self-work is tough as hell, but massively important, not only for the QT* communities I love, but for myself as a queer and trans* femme person.
So after not thinking about writing about dating, I was reminded of the topic when I had the pleasure of meeting Taz Ahmed a couple weeks back. For folks who may not know, Taz is one half (with Zahra Noorbakhsh) of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. She also is an incredible writer and activists. When we met, I shared with Taz that the first time I bumped into her work was when a mutual acquaintance posted her piece, "Why I Don't Date White Men," on Facebook. That night, after driving home from dinner with Taz, Zahra, and some friends, I revisited that post, and found myself having a bit of awakening about my own dating choices.
See, I date femme folks. This doesn’t mean I just date cis women, but that I am attracted to and date feminine people of all genders. I am also not attracted to some mythical, essentialized notion of femininity, as if there even is such a thing, or such a thing is what we should be striving for (because it doesn’t, and we shouldn’t). Instead, I find various forms, embodiments, and expressions of femme identity completely delightful. Whether painted in bright lippy, maintaining a cool pose, framed by an athletic build, or unabashedly screaming the lines to show tunes, I have found myself taken by so many forms of femininity through the years.
As someone who was assigned male at birth (AMAB), I have wondered if my desire for femmes and femininity is itself a manifestation of heteronormative socialization. I have also worried that what others may see when I am on a date with a femme/feminine person may not match my/own queerness. However, I have been realizing more and more that these erroneous beliefs are rooted in some devastatingly crap assumptions.
For starters, the first assumption is rooted in a socialization-as-destiny discourse that positions my own trans*ness as false. In other words, when I worry about my own investments in heteronormativity based on my sex assigned at birth, I foreground my sex designation, and corresponding socialization, at the cost of my own trans* identity. In this sense, I am positioning my own trans*ness as somehow false or “not enough.” Moreover, this line of thinking is sexist, as it demonstrates an essentialized notion of femininity and womanhood. The second assumption also foregrounds the cis/het gaze, and invests in others’ determinations of my own trans* femininity. It also suggests my femininity must be consistent and constant without taking into account the ways in which systemic sexism, cissexism, and transmisogyny operate to regulate trans* women and femme’s lives.
So, you see, I am still working through my own body shame and stigma. Add this to the various ways my trans* femininity has not been seen in dating situations, and it all coheres into a bit of a perfect storm. Not only have I been fetishized and had my femininity disavowed by people, but I have also been deemed undateable, and been told that perhaps “people just aren’t that into you,” as if my personal experiences could in no way be a manifestation of systemic issues facing many trans* people.
Look, I get it; I am not everyone’s cup of tea. Trust me, I get that. However, what I am recognizing is a pattern of behavior across people and experiences, with which my experiences slot in. This is not a personal sob story, nor is it a cry for help. Instead, this is about thinking through how we all—myself included—must divest from the normative regulation of who has a claim to femininity and womanhood, as well as what forms of femininity are deemed “enough” or inherently beautiful.
So as I have been working through my stigma and shame, I have realized that my choice to court femininity is both political and a deeply embedded preference. That is to say that while I also find masculinity attractive (here’s lookin’ at you, #bigguytwitter), I want to surround myself in femininity when it comes to my romantic life.
In other words, in a world that diminishes, disavows, and violently threatens and erases femininity in various forms, I choose to love, affirm, and amplify femininity in my life. I have taken steps to do this in my writing, speaking, and kinship networks…and now I am choosing to do this intentionally in my dating life. Yes, this is a political choice, but then again, whose dating choices are not in some way political choices? Even those people who have never questioned their choices (i.e., many, but not all, cis/het people) are investing in political choices. One’s awareness is not a prerequisite to making political decisions. Every choice we make is invested in our own politics; I am just choosing to be open about my politics, and am letting my politics intentionally guide me.
This doesn’t mean I don’t find masculinity intoxicating (see above for: heeeyyyyyy boooooyssssss), nor does it mean I will never date masculine people. I am not instantiating a binary, and if that is how you are reading this, let me be clear: my preference for femininity is not hard and fast, but it is both personal and political, and is a choice in which I am deeply invested. And through this choice, and recognizing the various ways in which femininity attaches to bodies, attitudes, subjectivities, and positionalities, the more I invest in myself and my femme communities.
Because we are terribly beautiful, we femmes and feminine folks. And we are worth wanting.
As a final note, I would like to express my eternal gratitude to two people for this post…
First, I am deeply thankful for the cajoling of my dear friend who first suggested I write about dating. While I did not add her name to the piece, I am so glad she saw what I could not at the time: that writing this piece was not only healing, but a reclamation of the beauty that is femininity.
I also want to express my thanks to Taz Ahmed, whose original piece linked in my blogpost had me thinking not only about femininity, but how my various different identities have mediated my dating history, including my working to unlearn how oppression and dominance has circulated through my engagements with dating and partnership.
Not all of my thinking has made it into this piece…which means there may be further dating-related posts…but the thinking has been ongoing, and I am glad to have my thinking spurred by such wonderful people.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.