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."
This past week ended in a bit of a blur for me. It started out harmlessly enough, with days full of course prep and teaching in the evenings. I even got to have lunch with my Aunt Mary, which was wonderful. However, things came to a head on Thursday.
For those who are not in the field of student affairs, one of our leading professional associations (ACPA – College Student Educators International) announced that Laverne Cox would be the closing speaker for this year’s Annual Convention. However, what was exciting news was largely overshadowed by the use of an overtly racist slogan in the announcement. The next day (Thursday), the Association posted an apology for the underlying racism in the announcement. In one sense, this was revolutionary for ACPA, which, as an Association, has made a number of gaffs throughout my 10 years of membership, but has not always apologized (or done so far too late and after a lot of hemming and hawing). Unfortunately, the apology was further problematic in a number of significant ways. First, it traded in deficit-based rhetoric, highlighting the importance of Cox being the closing speaker as a way to highlight the fact that “millions of trans-identified individuals experience bias, hatred, violence and the threat of death every day” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). They went further, saying they “hope[d their] mistake didn’t overshadow this [reality of ongoing fear and violence]” (We’re Sorry. We Made a Mistake, 2014). There was no mention of the fact that being trans* is not always already synonymous with tragedy. Additionally, ACPA marketed Laverne’s speaking by way of her being in the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black,” which led me to wonder if the Association was trading on her celebrity as a way to get people to register. Essentially, I wondered what the effect of highlighting Cox’s being a part of a hit show shadowed her radical gender activism, and, by extension, allowed ACPA to back away from the reality of genderism within higher education and the Association itself. ACPA also missed a chance to interrogate the propagation of the Prison Industrial Complex (and the school to prison pipeline that pervades in US education) by trading on Cox’s stardom in “Orange is the New Black.” Needless to say, there was a lot amiss with the apology, regardless of how great it was to see an apology happen (and for it to come so quickly).
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Cox’s coming to ACPA may not really signal the sea change I (and likely others) were hoping it would bring. Historically, I and other trans* individuals and advocates have had to push very hard to get minimal accommodations (like all gender restrooms). Even when we have gotten these in the past, the LGBT affinity group has had to pay for marketing materials, and the only support we have gotten from ACPA has been largely due to one or two compassionate LGBTQ advocates. Problems abound, and history has taught me to feel ambivalent at best about ACPA’s commitment to their mission of social justice. I don’t think I am the only one, either.
After posting a message on my Facebook wall about the complicated emotions I was experiencing regarding this all, I was contacted by a flurry of people. One individual is a dear friend of mine who asked if she could pass my messages along to members of the ACPA leadership team. I let her know I was fine with that, and although I was uncomfortable speaking on behalf of all trans* people, I was glad for others to see my message as my thoughts as a trans* person and as someone who used to serve on the ACPA leadership team. About twenty minutes later, I received a Facebook message from the person who had been sent my status updates. The message was, well, not good. It was defensive, minimized my feelings and experiences, and gave a lot of ‘perfectly logical explanations’ for how things were being taken care of for the upcoming Annual Convention. So, basically, it was a bit of cisplaining, wrapped up in some language about wanting to ‘work together to create change.’ To be clear, there was no togetherness in this message.*
Oh, and did I mention this all happened about two hours before I had to facilitate a dialogue on race and sex for the Diversity and Social Justice class I am teaching at Merrimack this summer? Because it did…so there was that, too.
I ended my day exhausted. Class went well, which was life giving, but it gave just enough energy to allow me to drive home. I ended my night by sending a message back to the person who had sent the defensive note to me. I tried very hard not to call this person out, but to call them in…which was way harder than I had wanted it to be. I detailed how the original message did not acknowledge anything I had said, operated at an individual level of oppression without addressing the historic institutional and systemic genderism throughout ACPA, and minimized my perspective. What I received back was a message full of apologies and the recognition that, yes, the original message was very defensive. We left it at trying to contact each other over the next few days to talk via phone.
Now that I have had a few more days to think about all of this (much of it done alongside some amazing colleagues who has reached out to me and done an amazing job listening and allowing for dissent to exist without needing to come to a resolution), I keep going back to something the students and I discussed in our Diversity and Social Justice class. We were unpacking an article by Audrey Thompson (2003) called, “Tiffany, Friend to People of Color.” For those who have not read this yet: do it. Seriously. The article is amazing, life changing, and an amazing challenge to the notion of being a ‘good White person.’ In the article, Thompson wrote about a situation that I feel deserves to be quoted at length. Specifically, Thompson wrote:
Guilt is indeed paralyzing. But I do not think it follows that the solution to white guilt is to help whites feel “good.” Let me tell you a story that I hope will show you what I mean. A year or so ago, I spent a couple of weeks taking care of the children of my friends Howard and Janet, who live in another state. A few hours after Janet and Howard left, I realized that they had forgotten to leave me any keys to the house or the car. I knew that the next-door neighbor had a spare key to the house, but no one had a spare key to the car, so I phoned my friends’ hotel to leave a message asking them to Fed Ex me the car key. After they got the message, I received daily, anguished phone calls about how dumb it had been to forget to leave the key, how guilty they felt, and how lucky it was that I am a bus person and could make do without a car. During one phone call, Howard urged me, “Be sure when you talk to Janet that you make her feel better; tell her it doesn’t matter. She feels so guilty, and it’s just ruining our vacation.” “There’s no need to feel guilty, Howard,” I said. “Everything’s fine. These things happen. Stop feeling guilty. Just send me the key.”
In reply, Howard suggested various ways to get around the car problem – maybe call the dealers to see if they had a copy of the key, maybe ask neighbors for rides to the grocery store and the dentist, maybe ride bikes or take the bus. “Why don’t you just overnight me the key?” I asked. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, “We’re not sending the key. It just doesn’t seem practical. By the time we find somewhere to mail it and everything, we’d almost be home again. And we just don’t want to think about it any more. It’s ruining our vacation.” In later phone calls, therefore, I concentrated on making my friends feel better and assuring them that we were having fun, that the kids were enjoying the adventure of taking buses and bikes everywhere, that it was no big deal and not to worry about it. Once I knew that there was no question of doing anything about the key, I focused on making our conversations as comfortable as possible. But I did wonder why alleviating their guilt was the issue. Recently it occurred to me that there was an analogy here to white guilt about racism. It is not a perfect analogy, by any means – putting up with racism for a lifetime is not exactly like having to take the bus for a couple of weeks – but there’s one point I think the two situations may have in common. People of color are not really interested in daily phone calls about how bad we feel. They just want us to send the key (pp. 15-16).
Admittedly, this is a bit of a clunky analogy for me to make, because genderism is not (nor should it be seen as) the same as racism. They have different historical legacies, political realities, and impact people differently across a variety of social contexts. However, like Thompson’s analogy, I have come to the point where I just want ACPA to send the key. I don’t need apologies, or messages about the fact that people are working on it or there is progress being made. That is all fine and well and good, but…send the key. Don’t tell me you’re sorry…just don’t mess up in the first place.
I know I run the risk of being seen as a fuss-fuss, or as an angry trans* person, or as someone for whom it is never good enough. But I have to say, for an organization that has had an affinity group for LGBT individuals for 30 years now, I expect a bit more. I expect not to have to push so hard for all gender restrooms, or the recognition of various pronouns and honorifics on name badges, or the recognition that the sharp increase in registration cost over the past three years (the cost has remained steady from last year to this year, thankfully) does not create a situation whereby young professionals (that make up over half the Association’s membership) can readily access the Annual Convention. I also shouldn’t have to remind people in leadership of the inexcusable reality that several years ago, the Governing Board structure was changed to remove marginalized voices from the Governing Board itself! And remember, all of this happens in spite of the Association heralding its commitment to social justice. So I guess I am okay with that risk…and I am okay with calling it all out.
Don’t get me wrong; I have loved ACPA for 10 years. I have gone to the Annual Convention and been so pleased to have created microclimates of support. I have been involved in some truly radical educational sessions and have created an amazing group of colleagues who are badass radicals and activists. These people, spaces, and sessions have been life-giving beyond belief, and I feel so honored to be accepted as a part of these initiatives, groups, and spaces.
But at the institutional and systemic levels, I just need ACPA to send the key.
*I included this piece of the story as it is very important to the unfolding events and my overall thinking. However, I did not, nor will I, reveal the individual who sent me the original message. This is not important, as I am focused more on the broader systems at work rather than the "who" of the message's origins. As I was recently reminded by a colleague (who was quoting another individual), "Oppression is the enemy, people, not each other."
ACPA -- College Student Educators International. (2014). We're sorry. We made a mistake. Retrieved from http://www.acpa.nche.edu/article/were-sorry-we-made-mistake.
Thompson, A. (2003). Tiffany, friend to people of color. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 7-29.
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.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.