Lately, I have been incredibly moved by the notion of refusal. I am particularly indebted to Dr. Michael J. Dumas for introducing this concept to me. During a session titled, "Toward What Justice?: Describing Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education," presented at the 2015 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Dr. Dumas made the statement that for him, justice looked like refusal; refusal to capitulate to the norms, structures, and desires of systems, institutions, ideologies, practices, and polices that continued to erase, ostracize, annihilate, hurt, and harm those who are deemed abnormal, abject, and unworthy subjects. Of course, to refuse such systems poses the potential for serious consequences. However, Dr. Dumas' statements on the act of refusal as a way to resist and (re)claim one's humanity while moving toward justice in education opened up a way to think about how one's individual, collective, and institutional liberation are all intertwined and deeply influence each other.
At about the same time I was listening to Dr. Dumas discuss justice as refusal, I had been reading some recent interviews with Reina Gossett, specifically this one she did for MASK magazine with her sibbie Che Gossett (who everyone to should follow on Twitter if you don't already) and this one with Grace about the loss and extreme importance of touch for LGBTQ communities. These concurrent commentaries, set on a backdrop of conversations with several important trans* kin in my life about self- and communal love and the continual work of embracing non-binary trans* aesthetics as inherently beautiful have me thinking about my own trans* aesthetic. I kept wondering, what might it mean for me to show up as trans*, particularly as someone who identifies as non-binary and, more recently, has begun to embrace a trans*femme identity and style? As Reina mentioned in her interview with Che for MASK, aesthetic has often been chided as trivial or superfluous in social movements. However, in relation to one's gender identity and expression, the way we as trans* people show up--in this sense materially and, by extension, stylistically--and are thus read/recognized/go unrecognized by others is very much a part of trans* resilience and resistance to the pervasiveness of genderism. So, in this sense, one's trans* aesthetic is not only not frivolous, but demands serious attention, both in its intention and enactment.
I'll pause here to share a recent story. A few weekends ago, I went shopping with one of my trans* kin for a graduation outfit. I had it in my mind that I wanted to wear a skirt during graduation; that wearing a skirt would be an important symbolic enactment of my trans*femme identity as well as a way to resist the gendered logic of the institution of my institution that had continued to wedge me into uncomfortable binaries for the past four years. In our shopping, my friend and I did not find a skirt that worked (too frumpy; too big; needing alterations). I grew anxious and despondent. I had really set my hopes on wearing a skirt, and I could feel myself sliding into a typical "not trans* enough" self-talk that is always right around the corner for me. As I struggled to resist these feelings, I remembered Reina's discussion with Grace about the importance of wearing a dress to a club full of mirrors, and about how she was continually working to overcome the shame she has been made to feel as a trans* woman of color. I looked in the mirrors in my changing room, forcing myself to see my body, and more importantly, to refuse the cultural logic that any single part of my body, clothing, or selfhood was not always already trans*femme enough. I knew my friend was waiting for me, but I also felt that what I was doing, the act of looking and of refusing, was too important to pass by. I needed this moment. I needed to overcome my shame, the shame that has been so deeply ingrained in how I have come to know myself because it is so very much a part of the cultural in which I live. So I looked. I stared. I questioned. And in the end, I refused.
I refused the logic that my legs are too hairy, my arms too big, my shoulders too broad, and my clothes not right.
I refused the idea that I cannot claim my identity as trans*femme and non-binary if others do not see/recognize me as such.
I refused the notion that to be (enter identity here), I need to enact it in similar ways across time and space.
I refused to believe that my buying or not buying a skirt, and wearing or not wearing that skirt for graduation would make or break my ability to be fabulously trans* in any way, shape, or form.
And then I took a deep breath. And then another one. And I walked out of the dressing room and handed the skirt I had in my hands back to the dressing room attendant, smiled at my friend, and said, "It didn't fit; I'm ready to go."
Weaving these stories, interviews, experiences, and discussions together, I have come to understand my trans* aesthetic as one of refusal. Yes, I refuse normative conceptions of gender identity and expression. However, there are times when I fold that refusal in on itself and refuse to feel bad, guilty, or not enough if I don't refuse gender normativity in the "right way." Being made to feel like I am not "doing trans* right" has come from trans* and cis people, so although it is a tool of oppression, it is not exclusive to those who experience privilege around their gender identity. So, for example, one of the genderqueer students with whom I worked this past year began a practice of policing my shoes on a fairly regular basis, making a note of telling me how much they loved when I wore heels and, conversely, pointing out when I didn't wear heels, as if to signal my "not-trans* enoughness."
These moments have, in the past, really affected me in a deeply negative way. Although I cannot claim to be completely beyond this, embracing an aesthetic of refusal has been helping me work through the shame, guilt, and loss that, when it comes down to it, is not my burden to have to carry, but is about someone else's shit that they are trying to transfer to me. My aesthetic of refusal, then, is helping me say:
Not this time.
Miss me with that.
And so style and aesthetic are deeply important.
And so I resist.
And so I refuse.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.