The past week there have been a number of changes for me. One of the biggest is that I packed up and moved to the Northeast, where I will be teaching two graduate courses for the next six weeks. Although I have been looking forward to this summer for some time, the notion of ‘coming home’ has always been one that is a bit difficult for me. I have written elsewhere about what exactly ‘home’ may mean, but suffice to say, I feel a number of dis/connections about the geographic area in which I was raised. Part of this has to do with the vibrant communities of queer people I have become a part of over the past three years while in Ohio.
It’s hard to put into words how much my queer family has meant to me, especially the trans* people I have had the absolute delight to be amongst. When I first came out, I was living and working in rabidly gender-dichotomous spaces, and the only real trans* community I developed was through literature. I felt cut off from people, save for one dear friend who was by my side, and I was eager to move to Ohio, where I thought there was a chance for me to meet and be with other trans* people.
The past three years since my move to Ohio has been exactly what I needed. Although not perfect (wanting/needing any place to be perfect is a bit unreasonable, really), I have found, developed, and maintained a number of terrific relationships with queer and trans* people. The past year especially has brought into sharp focus just how very important these queer communities and spaces are for me. From the ending of a meaningful relationship to the passing of my grandmother, with whom I was very close and was my last living grandparent, it has been my queer and trans* communities who have been there for me, no questions asked. Living out the advice of one of my mentors, I definitely feel like I have ‘found my people’ in Ohio.
This weekend was yet another striking reminder of how very important ‘my people’ are to me. I traveled to New York City for a family wedding, which was scheduled (unintentionally) for the same day as the NYC Pride March. As I got ready that afternoon, sat in the limo with the wedding party on the way to the ceremony, and took part in the festivities, I felt so torn. I wanted to be there with my family, the people who I grew up with and who I love with all my heart. But I missed my family, the queer communities and people who allow me to ‘do me’ in ways I can’t with my most of the people at the wedding and are committed to creating a more just and equitable world for highly marginalized populations. I kept thinking of the trans* women of color throughout the decades who have been so important to the opening up of spaces. I kept recalling the faces of the trans* participants with whom I have worked the past two years, remembering our stories and moments together. I kept thinking about the powerful reminders of trans* resistance to genderism, both within and outside of LGBTIQ communities. I tried to keep it all with me as I floated through the night, but there were so many reminders that I was very likely The Only One at the wedding. I was very likely the only trans* person and queer person. I was also one of the very few single people, which meant there was pressure from others to ‘seek out’ someone to dance with, chat up, and whatever else folks expected me to do.
I felt then (and still do as I write this) so confused and conflicted. I was so happy to be there for my family and to see so many people so very happy. I was glad to add to the joy I saw, and be there in a way I often am not able to due to my living far away. However, I also felt very much like where I was, the people who I was with, was not my ‘home.’ My home was with my radical queer and trans* family, who were resisting oppression in Manhattan. My home is with ‘my people’ in Ohio, who are mourning the loss of one of our trans* sisters of color right now. My heart was (and still is) heavy with these conflicting feelings, and I sat in the limo heading to the hotel at the end of the night feeling like an imposter, like a nomadic trans* kid who had lost hir way. I wanted something I knew I didn’t have at the ready; I wanted my family, my community, my home. I wanted my people.
In one sense, the weekend was tough as hell. It was hard to miss and (hopefully) be missed. It was hard to feel cut off, lost, and adrift at a specific moment in time when I felt so badly like I wanted (and needed) to be elsewhere.
In another sense, though, I realized how very powerful ‘my people’ have become for me. Thinking of their faces, remembering those who came before me and with whom I am working alongside of now, and remembering our stories together got me through an otherwise very discombobulating experience for me. Going back to my community, although only in an imagined and disembodied way, was my strategy for getting through and processing a tough time for me. This strategy resonated with what I have been talking about with the participants I have been working alongside of, too, as many of us have realized that a way of successfully navigating our gender-dichotomous worlds depends heavily on the development and maintenance of a variety of coalitions. My use of the word coalition here is intentional, in that these groups have been consciously constructed as a way to mediate the overwhelming presence of the gender binary. These groups, although not always political in nature themselves, aid in the ability to deal with social expectations around gender, which is itself an inherently political (and oppressive) set of norms.
And so I go on. I may not have all my people here with me, but I have a few. And those who are not with me in body are there in memory, through social media, and by emails, phone calls, and texts. To them I say thank you for being my people, and allowing me to be one of your people. I miss you all like you wouldn’t believe. And even though I felt like The Only One this past weekend, I know that at the end of the day, I wasn’t. Because you were all there, too. And you will be in the future. Just like I will be there for you.
And so we go on. Together.
By now, I am assuming most folks who read this blog know that Laverne Cox has been gracing covers of TIME Magazine on newsstands far and wide for the past week or so. In doing so, Laverne has become the first openly trans* person to be featured on the cover of TIME. This is no small accomplishment, and has been celebrated far and wide by trans* scholars, activists, allies, and supporters. This is as it should be, in my estimation. That Cox is (a) a trans* woman of color, (b) has continued to be a spokeswoman for trans* rights and advocacy since becoming a public figure, and (c) has an impeccable ability to counter commentary steeped in transphobia and/or genderism while not alienating those (cisgender) people who ask ridiculous questions/make ridiculous statements (be it consciously or unconsciously) (Katie Couric, anyone?) make her cover shoot all the better. Laverne is, I believe, an amazing face for the continuing trans* movement, and I know I was not the only person (trans* or cis) who made multiple trips to multiple stores to buy multiple copies of this historic magazine issue.
Regardless of the positivity of the Laverne TIMEy goodness, there were some who (again, rightly so) critiqued the cover story, which was written by Katy Steinmetz. For folks who may want a summary of what Steinmetz mucked up, Mey over at Autostraddle did a great job of this. Essentially, Steinmetz misgendered Christine Jorgensen, used Janet Mock's birth name, talk about trans* people as being 'biological males' and 'biological females' as though that isn't reducing one's gender to one's genitalia (just so we are clear, it is reductionist, and it is incredibly problematic), and give space to articulating the "anti-science, anti-logic, anti-human-decency opinion of people who 'don’t believe in' the concept of gender identity" (Mey, 2014). The article also suggests that the trans* movement just kicked off, which conveys an incredibly limited understanding of all the badass trans* people who pushed for radical change for decades, most of whom were trans* women of color.
These are problems, no doubt. They are infuriating, and I, too, wish for a world in which trans* people and our allies do not need to continually point out/react/respond to these sorts of microaggressions because people just 'get it.' I mean, wouldn't that be just the best world ever? However, as crumby as these problems continue to be, I do think it is important to think about what it means to write about topics in a complex way when the audience for whom you are writing may not be ready to hear/cannot fully understand the complexity of one's writing. Far from being a TIME apologist, I think the TIME cover story (and the ensuing critiques) allow those of us who are trans* and/or those of us who are working on trans*-related scholarship to think about how to share our lives, experiences, research, and findings with wider publics, many of whom likely will not have any understanding that, for example, gender is not innate. If this is our starting point (as it likely was for many subscribers to TIME who picked up the June 9 issue and where like, "Whaa-??"), then how are we to talk about, for example, trans* people who do not identify with any gender? Or, for people who think trans* = drag queen = gay, how do we begin to talk about the Butlerian concepts of the heterosexual matrix and the logic of cultural intelligibility. Things get real complex real fast, so instead of seeing this as an either/or argument (either we go all the way complex and condemn pieces like the TIME article for 'not getting it right' or we just sit on our hands and be happy with what we get), which is a no-win situation for everyone, I suggest a both/and perspective. In other words, I think there are ways we can and should seek to write for multiple audiences, which will require varying levels of complexity. Furthermore, suggesting that we write in more accessible ways (read: less complex) does not mean we 'dumb down' our lives, experiences, or research. Instead, it means we scaffold our claims, arguments, and findings, making sure to explain what, for many, is very new terrain. Oh, and we should also make sure to do this in a way that doesn't trigger the crap out of people or further repressive ideologies (read: we should not forgive the mistakes Steinmetz made in the TIME piece).
Writing for different audiences, and audiences with varying levels of understanding regarding trans* identities, subjectivities, and experiences has been (and continues to be) a struggle for me. I have had an ongoing conversation with my advisor about the frustration I experience regarding the need to define every single one of the terms I use (like, every. Single. Term). At my worst, I want to say (and have said a few times), "Can't people just Google it?," and at my best, I remain a bit incredulous as I shake my head while footnoting the heck out of my manuscripts. I am also working with a colleague on a manuscript where we argue the necessity for people studying alongside marginalized populations needing to constantly define terms (while our friends who study alongside normative/privileged populations don't because, well, privilege) constitutes a microaggression. I know these concerns are not new for people who have and/or work alongside those with marginalized social identities. I feel like we could (and often do) tell you'd-never-believe-what-I-had-to-deal-with sorts of stories that revolve around these microaggressions. But still, the struggle is real, and it is not easy to navigate (for any of us).
But the reality is that, in some contexts, writing in an accessible way is not 'giving up' on complexity; it's just making sure your readers will stay with you while you ramp up the complexity throughout whatever you are writing. Also, it means that although the constant need to define is indeed a microaggression that needs to be addressed (I know, I know, I'm working on it), it is something all scholars should do rather than none of us doing. And, when it gets too exhausting, it's important to find and utilize venues that attract audiences for whom you do not need to do this sort of constant definition. Thus, we can embrace a both/and approach to sharing our stories, experiences, and research findings. We can both share them with audiences who may not be ready to fully embrace their complexity by scaffolding how we do the telling and find venues where we can jump right into the complexity because people already 'get it.' Similarly, we can both write in less complex, more accessible ways and do so in a way that doesn't further the harmful narratives, myths, and misperceptions about who we are as trans* people. And when I use the word 'we' here, I mean both trans* scholars as well as our cisgender peers who work alongside trans* people; trans* people should not have to feel the burden of teaching others about us (just like other marginalized populations shouldn't have to be the sole bearers of the responsibility to teach dominant groups about themselves). Finally, I believe we can (and should) realize that we can both continue to scaffold our arguments and writing and uncover, interrogate, and problematize the sheer ridiculousness of our needing to scaffold in the first place. The critique does not mean that scaffolding serves no purpose, and vice versa.
This issue of audience and complexity has an additional impact on my own research alongside trans* college students. Specifically, I have been talking with some colleagues about the difficulty of doing resilience-based research because it may promote the sense that trans* people have arrived. In other words, if we as trans* people are resilient, then we must not struggle at all. More to the point, when we realize our embeddedness in a cultural moment that foregrounds an either/or perspective (either one is resilient or one is not), it is hard to talk about our lives, experiences, and narratives as being full of both resilience and struggle/hurt/shame/pain/frustration/enter-counter-resilience-term-here.
I am not convinced I have been able to negotiate this fully, nor have others. In fact, this is another one of my own critiques of the TIME cover story, in that it vacillates between the trans*-as-victimized and trans*-as-incredibly-successful narratives (fairly wildly at points) without any sort of nuanced understanding that these could both be realities for the same person, possibly even at the same time! It's a dang tricky negotiation to undertake, but it is a necessary one if we want to provide an accurate reflection of who we are in all our beauty, tragedy, and overall muddiness. And not knowing how to do this doesn't mean we give up the ghost; it just means that we are humble in our attempts, become comfortable with producing shitty first drafts, and, again paraphrasing the words of Anne Lamott, take it on, bird by bird.
The following blogpost was written for my friend Neena "Domino" Thurman over at The M.I.C. Neena has graciously given me permission to also post this on my own blog, as it relates to my work around trans* identities and resillience. Thanks, Neena!
After a hectic spring, I have spent the last few weeks doing some self-care. For me, that means riding my bike as often as I can and reading some books that have sat on my nightstand for a long time. The first two books, which I have been meaning to read for years (no joke) are Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embracing Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Now, perhaps it is odd that my definition of leisurely reading are books that deal intimately with difficult issues that have plagued me for what seems like an awful long time (e.g., perfectionism, vulnerability, and what Brown refers to as not feeling ____________ enough, where the blank space can be filled in with any number of adjectives). For those of you thinking this very thing, I would say two things: first, I am also (slowly) making my way through George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and second, I often need to be intentional about setting aside time to invest in this sort of self-care. If I do not, it is likely to be the first thing that falls off my To Do List, despite my knowing it is important. I am also preparing for a job search in the coming year, which, as a trans* person, has been something that is already surfacing some deeply held insecurities. Thus, I figure now is as good a time as any to begin doing some of this self-exploration.
For fear that this post could easily turn into a book report, I will just say that Brown's work revolves around issues of shame and vulnerability. Brown argues that when we are vulnerable, and embrace ourselves as imperfect people, we are able to build our own resilience to shame. Her work, then, is about moving people from saying things like, "I am not ___________ enough," to, "I am ___________ and I am comfortable with that." And, if ever we become uncomfortable with being ___________, as often is the case, we are able to address these feelings in ways that allow us to live with courage, purpose, and connection. As Brown wrote in Daring Greatly, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more" (p. 16, italics in original).
Now I know the critique of Brown's work and, in fact, I agree with some of it. Yes, Brown's work is rooted in the seeming immutability of a gender binary (e.g., Brown often uses 'men and women' and 'he/she' language) that forecloses the possibilities of gender variance. Her work also leans on heterosexual narratives, which is problematic. These issues are real, and I am sure Brown, who is a talented and thorough researcher, has (or would) respond to them with the importance they deserve. However, the one thing I have often heard from people, especially those friends and colleagues of mine who share my critical worldview, goes something like this:
Well, Brown's work is fine, I guess, but come on; not everyone can be vulnerable all the time. And really, what does authenticity even mean? I think Brown is forgetting that there are some real issues of safety that make a lot of what she writes about inaccessible to marginalized communities.
This critique has been on my mind the past few weeks as I have been reading (and really jamming on) her work. Certainly, I have several privileged identities; I am White, temporarily-able bodied, and have a level of economic security that affords me some comfort. However, I also am trans*, and am not out to everyone in my life specifically due to issues of safety. Put in other words, I hear, get, and live the critique to Brown's work. That being said, I still don't agree with it, as I think it misses the point of what Brown is trying to say.
I do not read Brown as saying, "Being authentically you means being the same person in all settings at all times." Nor do I read her as saying that being vulnerable means sharing your life story with everyone you know, meet, or with whom you interact. In fact, she says something much to the contrary; she suggests we all need to find those people with whom we can be vulnerable and will be vulnerable back with us. Brown states that our stories are precious, and we should be careful and planful in determining with whom we choose to share them. So I think she gets that there are spaces and people with whom we cannot--nor should we feel compelled--to be vulnerable. Also, related to this, I read Brown as saying that being authentic means doing what is best for us in terms of taking risks and making meaningful connections with other people. What Brown sees as damaging is isolating ourselves and falling into our own feelings of shame and worthlessness, not that we do not reach out to every single person around us. Therefore, if we do not share pieces of ourselves, our histories, and/or our identities, it does not mean we are being inauthentic or are trying to eschew vulnerability. Instead, it means that we may be making good choices about with whom, and where, we can take the risks that encourage connection and build our own resilience to shame so that we can state affirmatively, I am enough.
Thus, the critique I laid out above seems like a bit of a red herring to me, as it is not wholly based on the point Brown is making. In fact, I think she would likely agree with the comment, and then quickly say something like, "but that's not really what I am suggesting in my work.
Another word that I have often struggled with is 'bravery.' This word came into sharp focus for me this weekend when I was with a participant with whom I have been researching for the past two years. We were walking together when we heard Sara Bareilles' song "Brave." I have to admit that this song holds a special place in my life. Although I have struggled with the imperative in the song to 'be brave,' (as if that is an equally accessible, safe, or wise thing to do for everyone), a dear friend introduced me to the video about a year ago and whenever I watch it, without fail, it brings me close to tears. There is something so lovely about seeing people 'do them,' and I am always slightly envious of their abilities to be comfortable enough to just dance. So there I am, wondering again what it means to 'be brave,' and if it is safe/accessible/ever okay to not be brave, with a participant walking alongside me singing and dancing to the lyrics. The more I thought about it, I started to realize that Bareilles isn't suggesting bravery looks the same to people across all contexts and in all moments. Instead, one way to think about the song is to queer the notion of bravery as a unified concept and see that being brave means different things across times and spaces.
Similar to my thoughts on 'bravery' as a concept, I think 'authenticity' and 'vulnerability' do not have stable or static meanings. I have spoken with several friends about my own discomfort with authenticity as a singular construct, as it seems to suggest we are--and should be--the same person in all settings and at all times...and if we aren't, then we are inauthentic, which, as it sounds, comes with a normative value judgment (i.e., authenticity = good; inauthenticity = bad, immoral, fake, false, deceptive). The labeling of 'inauthenticity' as 'bad' or 'deceptive' in this sense hits very close to home, as the trans*-as-deceptive narrative is still a widely-held common conception, especially for trans* women (for more on this, please see Julia Serano's 2007 book Whipping Girl, published by Seal Press). But I don't read Brown or Bareilles as saying this. Instead, I see them as telling folks they need to make good choices about where and with whom we are vulnerable, brave, and authentic (in the myriad forms and iterations these may take across spaces and times). If we do this, then we are reaching out, making connection, and working to reclaim our narratives rather than being subjected to the negative messages that tell us we are never _____________ enough.
And maybe, just maybe, if we do this, we can reclaim vulnerability, authenticity, and bravery, which are terms that speak to many people across a wide array of identities. I am also thinking there may be something here that relates to how one can understand resiliency as not a solid, stable, or unified concept...but I'll save that for a future post...
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.