Now that I am home from my summer teaching in the Northeast, I have been trying to get back into my usual routine. As someone who tends to be a fairly strong 'J' on the Meyers Briggs scale (no comments from the peanut gallery), having a routine is helpful for me in order to get things done. Especially given my own commitment to completing and defending my dissertation by the end of March 2015, routine feels essential to my ability to making the progress I need to be making.
Part of my routine has been to wake up, make my morning coffee, and do a bit of correspondence before diving into my work. I find that answering emails in the morning and evening is a good way to wake my mind up, and thankfully it rarely takes long to get through. I also tend to scroll through Facebook as I work through my coffee, checking in on all the latest from friends across the country. Lately, however, among some of my friends, there have been a devastating rash of postings about Black youth being murdered by police as well as the murder of trans* women of color. While some of my friends continue to post about these atrocities, I have also noticed a visible silence among many (not all, but many) of my White peers regarding these incidents. It is this continuation of the murder of Black youth and trans* women of color, the systemic nature by which this persists, and the seeming lack of conversation by many of my White peers that has me feeling a range of emotions lately.
I feel lost and confused, particularly because I myself am not sure what do to. I am not sure how to move forward given the pernicious realities that face Black youth and trans* women of color. As someone who is a resiliency researcher, these tragedies are stark reminders that there may be limits to one's ability to be resilient. That despite one's ability to bounce back from facing difficulty, there are ways in which many will not be allowed to bounce back, and that inability is through no fault of their own. Not everything is good and well in the land of resiliency-based research, and sometimes I struggle with how to tell a narrative that highlights the complex both/and nature of the lives of participants alongside whom I've worked.
I am angry that more people are not talking about these events; that more people do not understand that these are not singular events, but they are the manifestation of the persistent and ongoing realities racism, genderism, and transmisogyny in this country. My anger is also bound up with a complete and utter sadness, a gut-wrenching feeling that I have not known to this level for some time. I am sad for the lives that have been taken, and I am sad for their families. I am also sad for the people who have lived in fear (and will continue to do so) as a result of these murders and these forms of overt policing of identities and life chances. My sadness reached a zenith a few weeks ago, when one of the participants with whom I have been working for the past year and a half uploaded a #iftheygunnedmedown photoset. Seeing this photoset served as another painful reminder about the ways racism and genderism intersect to further delimit possibilities for some. Even thinking about this photoset brings tears to my eyes as I type now, as I don't want to imagine a life without Micah (a pseudonym), a world in which these forms of senseless violence continue to happen.
In the wake of the recent media attention regarding Ferguson, and the people in my life who have been posting important, yet painful news articles about the many Black youth and trans* women of color whose lives have been taken, I have found myself asking on more than one occasion, "What can I do?" I understand that I have a specific sphere of influence, and I have a set of talents, but I have been wondering what I can do that will make an impact, and will, in some way, help to increase life chances for those who are the most marginalized (Spade, 2011)?
And so I continue to post and repost, and I continue to talk about the effects of these systems of oppression in the classes I teach, and I continue to talk to my friends and family about what it means to live in a society regulated by White supremacy and genderism, and I continue to explore how I am complicit in that same White supremacy and genderism (among other systems of oppression) that I work to deconstruct on a regular basis. And yet, it still doesn't seem like enough...because there are more news articles that are posted each morning, and there are still many of my White acquaintances who are not talking about this.
Now I get that I am a Millennial, and I know one of the (several) uncool things about my generation is that we need instant results. I am guilty of falling into this logic (again, no comments from the peanut gallery). I also know that these are realities about which there are no easy or quick fixes. Change, especially the sorts of cultural change I am wishing to see, take massive amounts of time. Because of this, I have come to the realization that I, too, need to spend large chunks of time focused on these events if I want to see some change. I need to be dedicated to continuing to bring these things up in singular moments, or in spaces where the attention span of those listening is short (e.g., Facebook), but I also need to be heavily invested in continually building a narrative about how these systems of oppression play out in the lives of those who are highly marginalized.
Because of this, I have decided to focus my work toward exploring the effects of racism, genderism, and transmisogyny in the lives of trans* women of color. This is not so much a calling as something in which I feel it is truly important for me to be invested. This is my community, and these are my people who are being found dead and are being slain for no other reason than being Black and trans*. As I told the students in the Diversity and Social Justice class I taught this summer, this is not an abstraction; this is real life, and these systems of oppression have real effects on people's life chances.
I don't want, nor do I expect, high fives or pats on the back for this post. In fact, I hope they do not come, because at the end of the day, the work isn't about me. It's about us, and it's about making change within my particular sphere of influence in a way that makes lives better for those who face extreme marginalization, vulnerability, and threat. It's about making sure that Micah, and everyone else who has posted a #iftheygunnedmedown photoset, can feel safe, and it's about lifting up the power, support, and love of community action and resistance against state-sanctioned violence. It's high time I did something, and in fact, I still fear my actions are not enough. But I have to start somewhere, and I hope that I can propel the conversation and action further, even if it gets one more of my White peers to wake up and realize there is a persistent problem regarding racism and genderism in our country, and that these acts of violence can no longer be overlooked as singular, isolated events.
Black lives matter. Trans* lives matter. And these events have been, are, and will continue to happen unless we collectively wake up and resist it. So I add my voice to the collective resistance.
Thanks for the people in my life who have continued to talk with me about these recent events and who have (and continue) to work alongside me in not only checking my own White privilege, but also helping me refine a research agenda that will address these intersecting forms of oppression. Specifically, I would like to thank T.J., Susan, Dan, Tobias, Michael, A.J., and my mother, Nancy. And for my friend Micah, who I care for immensely and am honored and humbled to be witness to your vulnerability and determination to make our world a safer place.
I am assuming most people who may happen across this blog know who CeCe McDonald is. If not, the short story is she is a trans* woman of color who was imprisoned (in a men's prison facility) for 19 months for defending herself against transphobic violence. The night she was arrested, she and other friends she was with faced racial profiling from a police officer who stopped them without provocation.
Since her release from prison, she has continued to be a vocal activist for prison abolition and trans* rights. Along this front, she has partaken in some brilliant dialogues with Dean Spade, the critical legal scholar and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Reina Gossett, Membership Director for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Activist-in-Residence at Barnard College's Center for Research on Women (how cool must that gig be?!), which specifically address themes of prison abolition, community development, and community love.
As I have written about in previous posts, I have been spending some time this summer listening to all the interviews I had with the lovely trans* students with whom I am engaged in my dissertation study. During these conversations, one of the things we kept coming back to was the notion of community; how to develop it, what it meant for us, and how community allowed us to navigate our multiple environments. Furthermore, we talked about the importance of developing and maintaining community (and the difficulties associated with doing so) in light of our living largely in environments that are not welcoming to us as trans* people. And, because colleges and universities are microcosms of the larger social environments in which they are embedded, these difficulties do not stop at the edges of campus. Instead, they are present for the many trans* people who bump into transphobia on a regular basis; as CeCe did. Or as Jordan Henderson is when thinking about how she will vote in Kansas given the new voter ID laws, which will likely lead to many people, including trans* people, being turned away at the polls for not having names, gender markers, and/or appearances on their identification documents that don't match their current lives and realities.
In light of these complexities, I found this short clip of CeCe McDonald talking with Dean Spade and Reina Gossett so incredibly compelling. In it, CeCe makes several important points. First, she highlights the absolute imperative to come together as a community of trans* and queer people. She rightly points out that police, prisons, and other regulatory institutions are not out to 'protect and serve' trans* populations. Because of this, she states we need to come together, stating emphatically, "We keep each other safe." She also makes a compelling case for setting aside the respectability politics and trans*-normativity that keeps us from coming together as a collective in the first place. She argues that we shouldn't ostracize our fellow trans* comrades because "they don't have this surgery or that surgery," but instead, we should all come together to create a coalition based on safety, care, and love. In her words, "We as a community ... need to put our pride to the side" and come together to look out for one another.
If you don't know of CeCe or haven't heard her speak, you should take the time to do so. She is a brilliant activist who has so much love for her trans* family, and her words are a real beacon of light at a political moment when identities have the ability to be just as divisive to some as they are meaningful to others. As she stated toward the end of the above video, "Prisons don't help; cops don't help. None of this is actually helping our communities. ...We keep each other safe."
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.
Recently, I was able to watch the first part of the Frontline special, United States of Secrets. For those who have followed the news the last few years, the release of information regarding the government's warrantless wiretapping of Americans is nothing new. The special traces the now-not-so-secret policies of the US government, many of which have been made public by the NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked. Although much of this story has been told, often from various perspectives (e.g., Snowden-as-whistle-blower, Snowden-as-traitor), one of the things I kept thinking about was that trans* people should all have a vested interest in this case, as the issues of state surveillance, the culture of fear in which the vast apparatus of surveillance has been constructed, and (gender) non-normativity are heavily linked. Thus, regardless of one's political orientation, all trans* people have, as the saying goes, some skin in the game.
Toby Beauchamp has done a brilliant job writing about the threat posed to trans* people by the increased US state surveillance in an essay included in The Transgender Studies Reader 2. Essentially, the argument is that there is a pervasive culture of fear that has increased exponentially in the US since the events of 9/11. This fear is based, at least in part, on not knowing/being able to see 'the enemy.' This manifests in heightened surveillance by the state in an attempt to seek out and prevent threats, which are oftentimes discussed in terms of hiding in plain sight. The result of this means everyone is told to be on alert for those people, events, or interactions that seem 'out of the ordinary.' Think about announcements that you hear when you are waiting for a flight in an airport. You are asked to report 'suspicious behavior' to TSA officials. However, there is no real discussion about what should be considered 'suspicious' or why that is suspicious in the first place. Thus, suspicious individuals are linked to those who are non-normative in some way. Enter the reason why trans* people should care about the rise in surveillance, the linking of suspicious individuals with non-normative identities, expressions, and embodiments, and, thus, the heightened risk for trans* people, many of whom are labeled as deceptive to begin with (for a great primer on the labeling of trans* people, especially trans* women, as deceptive, I would recommend checking out Julia Serano's (2007) book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity).
The effects of living a non-normative life in a culture that demands normalcy are very real. Not only do things like travel become unsafe, but everyday necessities (e.g., using a restroom, finding housing, accessing healthcare and shelters) become dangerous, tenuous, and, in some cases, downright impossible for many trans* people. Moreover, trans* women of color are invariably under greater risk and threat, as shown by the recent national study, Injustice at Every Turn. Furthermore, because college and university campuses are microcosms of the broader cultures in which they are embedded, these deleterious effects impact trans* college students. For example, studies have shown that trans* spectrum students feel less safe and have a lesser sense of belonging on campus than their cisgender peers. This is not due to any lack of behalf of trans* students themselves. Instead, it is due to an environment that was not constructed, nor has it been perpetuated, with trans* people in mind.
Because trans* people identify with, express, and/or embody non-normative genders, and because normalcy has increasingly been required as a prerequisite for maintaining a livable life, trans* people face numerous barriers throughout a variety of social institutions, such as (higher) education. Granted, not all is lost; trans* students thrive, despite these barriers. However, the culture of fear and cultural push for normalcy impose a series of high-risk consequences for those of us with diverse genders, including within educational institutions.
And this is why increased US surveillance, both abroad and at home, should matter to trans* people. As I said above, not only do we have some 'skin in the game,' but based on the multiple identities we may have (e.g., trans* people of color, non-binary trans* people, homeless trans* youth, undocumented trans* people) and the other communities with whom we have natural alliances who are also deemed 'abnormal' or 'non-normative,' we have a lot to gain from facing these threats to our shared humanity together in a pro-active fashion. What these confrontations may look like could take several forms, but the important first step is to recognize that these issues, which may otherwise seem isolated and/or mutually exclusive are very much linked.
I have a confession to make: there was a period of time this past year when I questioned my long-held belief that I was a feminist. It wasn't because I came up with a rationale for the pay wage gap or wanted to revert back to a 1950's domesticity; both of these things were far from the truth. It was because I began to question what feminism as both a sphere of activism and as represented in an academic discipline (a la Women's Studies) could do for trans* people and burgeoning field of Trans* Studies. Many of my concerns regarding the possibility of no longer being able to call myself a feminist revolved around the critical legal scholar Janet Halley's (2006) treatment of what lies at the root of feminism, which I found (and still find) to be highly compelling. In her book Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, Halley laid out three points she suggested all feminisms have in common. She described these as:
(1) m / f, or that "to be feminism, first a position must make a distinction between m and f" (p. 17), which she noted could look differently in different feminisms (e.g., male/female, masculine/feminine, man/woman);
(2) m > f, or that "to be a feminism in the United States today, a position must posit some kind of subordination as between m and f, in which f is the disadvantaged and subordinated element" (p. 18); and
(3) feminism carries a brief for f, or as she wrote, "And third (here is the normative turn), feminism opposes the subordination of f" (p. 18).
I think these are fair claims to make about feminisms, and because of this, I became concerned that thinking, theorizing, living beyond, and/or transgressing in any way a binary understanding of m/f, which is very much the realm of trans* people and Trans* Studies as a discipline, meant I may need to, in the words of Halley, Take a Break from Feminism.
After reading Halley's book, and after several ongoing conversations with dear friends who do or have worked in Women's Centers/Women's Studies on college campuses for a bulk of their careers, I was still hesitant. Is feminism for me? For us? Do I need to consider taking a permanent vacation from an epistemology that has given me so much in terms of how to read, see, make sense of, and resist systems of oppression? Was there a middle ground? Or was holding hope for a middle ground just wishful thinking?
Due to my unrest, I purchased an edited volume titled Women's Studies on the Edge. My hope was to gain a critical understanding of Women's Studies as a field of study that could work in collaboration with trans* people, subjectivities, theories, and perspectives. Although I had read several of the chapters previously (most notably Wendy Brown's The Impossibility of Women's Studies, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in challenging the normative assumptions are what it means to create disciplines around "area" studies), my main objective in purchasing the text was for Gayle Salamon's chapter titled Transfeminism and the Future of Gender. It was in this chapter that I was hoping to find some way to reconcile what I had previously held as being at odds with one another (i.e., feminisms and trans* realities). Thankfully, Salamon's work did not disappoint.
In this chapter, Salamon addressed the issue head-on, suggesting in the second sentence, "In asking after the place--or lack of place--of transgender studies within the rubric of women's studies, I want to suggest that feminism, particularly but not exclusively in its institutionalized form, has not been able to keep pace with nonnormative [sic] genders as they are thought, embodied, and lived" (p. 115). She goes on to state emphatically, "Genders beyond the binary of male and female are neither fictive or futural but are embodied and lived" (p. 115). This statement alone is a powerful one to make in the context of feminisms and Women's Studies, as there are some who claim that being trans* is a fiction that is damaging to feminism and womanhood itself. Although this is not a pervasive view held by most feminists, it certainly has a grip on the field, so reading these words from Salamon was terrific. (For more information on the supposed 'harmful effects' of trans* identities on feminisms and 'womanhood,' I would recommend you look into the Butch FTM Borderwars as well as Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism).
Salamon goes on to claim that the major contribution of feminism to Trans* Studies is its ability to account for an historical understanding of the discourses of gender, including how the present state of gender emerged socially. Similarly, feminisms and Women's Studies needs trans* people and Trans* Studies to provide a deeper understanding of just who it is that is affected by gender discourses. This means thinking beyond binary understandings of m/f, or what Halley stated was a hallmark of historical underpinnings of feminisms.
The remainder of Salamon's chapter was a critical analysis of several depictions of trans* people via a dismissive New York Times article and a series of photographs. What is important about these sites of analysis, and what shines through, is Salamon's questioning the link between certain bodies, specifically those bodies with breasts, with certain identifications, specifically 'woman.' By doing so, Salamon raised important concerns about how femininity is read on the body in ways it very much shouldn't be. This is a similar analysis to the one written by C.J. Pascoe (2007) in Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, where Pascoe suggested that masculinity and bodies should not be seen as tethered together. It is also similar to Halberstam's (1998) analysis in Female Masculinity, which Salamon cited.
All things tolled, I was relieved to find some connections between feminisms and trans* subjectivities. It is true that they two are not the same, nor do I hold the opinion that there is heavy overlap between the two all the time. However, I do love Salamon's language of their both being able to offer the other something important. These offerings, and wrestling with the tensions and confluences between and among the fields of study/lived realities has helped me gain a new perspective on how coalition-building may be able to take place not just on the individual level, but on the disciplinary level as well.
And, at the end of the day, I am happy to be able to call myself a trans*feminist.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.