Tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). I was debating whether I should write about TDOR, because erica, ascendant
and Monica Maldonado
have already spoken so much truth on the subject. If you haven't read what they wrote, you should go read it. I'll wait.
The only TDOR event I've attended was two years ago, at Portland State University. To the organizers' credit, Tobi Hill-Meyer was a featured speaker. But other than her speech and showing of her movie, there wasn't a whole lot in the program that was on-topic. What I remember most about the evening was the "genderqueer acrobatics" performance, featuring a number of mostly white youths in furry costumes, cavorting. It didn't seem appropriate for a memorial, any more than a dance party -- which is apparently happening tomorrow as part of more than one city's TDOR event -- is. Do white people jump for joy at the deaths of trans women of color? One might be left thinking so.
I think that part and parcel of this fundamental not getting it
is the characterization of violence against trans women of color -- which makes up the overwhelming majority of reported violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people -- as "transphobic violence" or "violence against transgender people".
It's no such thing.
As people like Erica and Monica have already written about, violence against trans women of color is fundamentally violence against women
-- specifically, those women who are most vulnerable due to the intersecting oppressions (such as race, poverty, and participation in sex work) they experience. Being trans makes a woman even more vulnerable to violence, because there is no place in the world where law enforcement has much, or any, motivation to investigate a violent crime against a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color who's not wealthy. It's not that violence against trans women of color happens because of some special
kind of violence that's different
from run-of-the-mill violence against women because it's rooted in transphobia. It's more indirect: yes, trans women make easier targets, but to understand the real story you have to understand misogyny, racism, poverty -- in other words, the same issues that make cis
women vulnerable to violence. Strangely enough, violence (to personify it) seems to be more respectful towards trans women's genders than are the trans men and cis women who often organize events like TDOR. While the latter group seems to need to construct a narrative of transphobia to explain violence against trans women -- so unable are they to see that men commit violence against trans women because they're women
-- certain men show that they see trans women as women, by treating them in the same way they treat cis women: only more
When trans men organizing TDOR celebrations talk about the suffering of "transgender people", when academics like Dean Spade make their entire careers
off talking about the litany of ways in which "transgender people" are oppressed, they're being wildly misleading. Perhaps not intentionally, in most cases. But it still comes off as self-aggrandizing when college-educated white trans men (like myself!) talk about how they could be killed for being trans, when the worst thing they've ever experienced was someone looking at them funny in the men's room, once.
I don't mean to say that even the most privileged white trans men never
face oppression for being trans. Health insurance companies are allowed to deny us needed medical care because we're trans, which affects all but the very richest of us. Many of us can't get government-issued identification that reflects our sexes correctly, which is humiliating if nothing else. I've personally known trans men who had trouble getting employment due to being perceived as trans men. I could go on, but I won't. There are issues that affect all, or almost all, trans people, regardless of their privilege along other axes. And no one should feel that those issues aren't important to work on just because someone, somewhere is suffering more.
So I am totally not opposed to someone working on health insurance discrimination in the US, for example, because that's the issue that moves them, even though having health insurance at all is a privilege many trans people lack. What's wrong, though, is erasing
and distracting from
the experiences of trans women facing intersecting oppressions by blurring the boundaries with the phrase "transgender people". That phrase groups together trans people who, in fact, profit
from white supremacy and unequal distribution of incomes (hello, like me) with trans people who are being profited off, and implies a common set of interest where there is none. The same set of forces that means trans women of color often get the rawest deal even
within a particular underclass is the set of forces that allows me to earn a very comfortable living by pressing buttons on a computer all day.
Therefore, for me -- or someone who resembles me -- to go on a stage tomorrow and talk about all the violence that "transgender people" suffer would be wrong. It would be self-aggrandizing. For me to pretend that there is something significant that makes me more similar to a trans woman of color doing sex work and living in poverty than I am to a white cis man running a well-funded Silicon Valley startup would be dishonest. And it would be hard not to see that as a cynical attempt for me to use dead women as instruments to advance a political agenda that -- because it serves the most privileged rather than the least -- isn't really about
much other than a self-perpetuating machine of publicity and fundraising.
The rhetorical sleight of hand in grouping all trans people's experience together with the phrase "transgender people" is not just inaccurate and imprecise. It's actively harmful
in a way that's very much like the use of "die cis scum" as a rallying cry for some white trans people
. The ability to prioritize cis people's oppression of trans people as the
most piercing injustice is a reflection of privilege: the privilege of being someone who expects to be in a position to dominate others, but is blocked from being in that position solely by being placed as transsexual and/or transgender. Just as seeing cis people as the only threat is a luxury for those who can rely on white trans people to have their back, garnering sympathy because one could be "killed for being trans" is a privilege reserved for those who can identify a unitary threat to their rightful place of privilege, a single reason why they can't live life at the very lowest difficulty setting
Clearly, we white trans people (and the cis people who love us) need a common enemy to rally against. But because there's so little
violence against us that could reasonably be called "transphobic" (there's a movie called "Boys Don't Cry" because it is indeed so rare for a white trans man to be attacked; if there was a movie about every trans woman of color who met a violent death, there could be an entire category for them on Netflix), it's hard for us to make our movement seem vivid enough to get people interested. Health insurance exclusion clauses, medical gatekeeping, and state bureaus of vital records that refuse to change gender markers on birth certificates are not exactly the stuff of which an attention-getting crusade for justice is made. But the answer isn't to steal stories from people whose lives have inherent value because they were, or are, who they are, as opposed to because a more socially privileged person can use them as an instrument.
What's the harm in all of this? Isn't it always good to raise awareness
? But when a group like the Transgender Law Center gives an "Ambassador Award" to Chaz Bono, a man who told the New York Times that testosterone made him feel bored when women were talking, you have to wonder whether ameliorating misogyny matters to self-styled trans activists. (The same group saw it as a priority to help Bono file a legal name change
, something that many trans people of more modest means do on their own, without help from a nonprofit.) I think there's a connection between how many groups that claim to be concerned with "LGBT rights", or even with "trans rights", serve mainly the most privileged, and the treatment of trans people's experience as unitary that's exemplified by TDOR and its accompanying rhetoric of "violence against transgender people". The result is a fundamental misdirection of resources. It's been pretty rigorously shown that trickle-down economics doesn't work, and I don't believe that trickle-down social justice works, either.
If it makes you feel good to watch candles being lit and listen to people who look like me mispronounce the last names of people who, well, don't, then it's possible that nothing I've just said will change that. I'm mainly writing this to sort out my thoughts. I've been wanting for a long time to do more than just write about trans activism, to get involved, but I've never been able to see a place to start that clearly
does more good than harm. So maybe that's a sign that it would be more effective to work for health care and fair working conditions for everyone, cis people and trans people.