One of the worse fears of transwomen is that you are inhuman, and we search for ways to prove that this is not true. This is behind the ways we police ourselves and each other. Certain expressions, gaits, postures and ways of speaking are unbecoming of, “real women”. To get healthcare we must show the right signs of dissatisfaction with ourselves, and say the right words to a professional before we get what we need. We must scrub, pluck, shave and burn everything about us that may get us clocked. We attach an implicit morality to one’s ability or chance to be able to conform to this system. After all, if you were really who you say you are, you would be getting there, right? And out of a sense of courtesy, you tell everyone else who expresses dissatisfaction with what themselves that this is what it takes to be real.
That’s just one part of it. But that’s all I was given for years, even by other well-meaning transwomen I read/met online and the spaces I inhabited. Somehow it felt selfish for me to assert that I was this way, because how could I be? Everyone else had found out the truth at a younger age than I did. Everyone else had the words and the spaces to express themselves, however contested and I felt that, at best, I was just an ally whose job it was to stick up for them and not overstep my boundaries, which I did multiple times over many relationships but felt terrified of doing to the transwomen I got to know, to the point of disappearing from social circles for periods of time. Worse, there seemed to be such thing as a black transwoman who wrote about their struggles with gender in an accessible way compared to their white peers. The few that existed were vilified as tricksters, either possessed by demons (as I was told I am by my abuser) or acting as pawns in some elaborate plots to divide the black community. There wasn’t a guide for questioning black people raised under patriarchy, religious cults, domestic violence and police surveillance while living in Compton. So I just did what I could. After a lifetime of reading, overthinking, embarrassments, abuse and toxic coping mechanisms thereof, I connected the dots and came out. But there isn’t a happy ending. I am now unemployed and in debt. Sometimes I read, write and draw, but most of the time I’m playing video games while sharing selfies online for the dopamine rush I get from exhibitionism.
But no matter how intense things are, I am just one part of the worldwide fight for black and brown queerness. Navigating the alienation and developing one’s politics as they go is a source of inspiration, community and despair for many other trans people. Centuries of works and words have been pointing out the nuances and conflicts that come from gender. And today, many in trans spaces fight against the maliciousness that comes with believing that only certain people who go through certain procedures matter as trans folk. It persists nonetheless. We are called upon to speak up, in marches and artistic mediums, and because we are often the only ones speaking up about what is affecting us, often our work is interpreted under a biographical or, “activist” lens, which give us distinction but barely seem to make a dent. Even with centuries of allegedly beneficial exposure in the global north and south, we still have to fight for our lives.
The threats on our lives are so great that some of us adopt separatist, even supremacist methods to fight for ourselves. We joke about the absurdity of binary gender, throw back the rhetorical barbs Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists and conservatives throw at us, and give some of the harshest criticism towards those who take a assimilationist approach to the trans question, believing that to do so would mean turning our backs on the work of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. But our fight for self-determination is hampered by lack of resources, created by a transphobic society and augmented by the western world’s racist history, which is far from over. While it seems heroic to carry on by ourselves, bitch about the downfalls of life amongst each other, and draft our own spaces with blood and tears, not everyone can be a Miss Major. And we shouldn’t have to be.
What has been difficult to accept is that having a fear of being a predator is not the same as having a moral conscience. The former is self-awareness through a prism of socialization and fear, the latter is an active philosophy linking and going beyond the particulars of one’s space. It is in the interest of those who surveil, exclude and pathologize us that these distinctions are blurred and hidden. This is weaponized when it comes to the question of who is allowed to be in society, as seen in the rhetoric around the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the ban of trans people from the U.S. Military and the recently lifted, “vices against nature” colonial-era law provision forbidding homosexuality in Angola.
But while the wider public is hostile enough, the hostility is not evenly distributed. Black and brown folk are a majority of those abused and killed, wedged between intracommunity violence and white supremacy. The standards through which we are allowed to express gender and sexual divergence are filtered through Eurocentrism and class interest, affecting not only who gets to express themselves but who is allowed to be human. And this is so pervasive that even people who espouse critical political rhetoric perpetuate it. People paraphrase Mao and say that women hold up half the sky, yet don’t go far beyond that. M any accept colonial notions of personhood, especially around gender, as the basic contradiction of society. Liberation often either means off-sourcing the suffering, like cheering on FOSTA/SESTA and invasions of other countries, or crass individualism, as in writing the one-thousandth article on whether makeup, porn or twerking are, “empowering” or perpetuating patriarchy.
On the other edge of the spectrum, for too many self-professed revolutionaries materialist politics consists of being pedantic towards the marginalized and ineffective because one’s action won’t immediately get them the revolution they want. Worse, they create petty social structures and leveraging them at the expense of community organization or solidarity with marginalized people. Both are happy to be the boot on black and brown people’s necks when the need for legitimacy comes. But in spaces where we explore our gender and sexuality, the backlash is even more brutal given our increased risk of poverty and illness, plus our struggles with colonial religiosity and police brutality.
Likewise, people like me are not the only ones in the crosshairs of fascists. Trans as a category seems recent if we only look at western-led enforcements and discourses of gender, and to simply place the history of gender divergence and expression under that category would not do it justice. Decades of activism by indigenous folk and people from colonized nations on gender and sexuality proves that. Fighting back takes more than pointing out that the Heritage Foundation is funding Parker Posey’s harassment campaign or telling people that there is more to biology after what you get in elementary school. We have to address the very social invention of gender and sexuality themselves, and doing so centers non-whites, those of us most victimized by colonialism and imperialism.
But doing that is difficult. There is no shortage of discourse on social media, and one can witness some of it filters into local support groups and vice versa. I can only say that I have been following individual people for years on the internet, reading works by Julia Serrano, Michel Foucault, Zinnia Jones on the way to figuring out what the hell I was about while living with black and brown trans peers and elders. But that presents a problem: I live in a world where a lot of what is considered legitimate is hosted or done by white folk, whether they are gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual, pansexual, nonbinary or asexual. Meanwhile there is a whole world of contributions by black and brown folk which props up a lot of what we collectively call, “gay culture” but is rarely attributed to them, or does get put in the spotlight but is distorted, vilified and commodified (see also: Kimberly Crenshaw’s work on Intersectionality being dismissed by noted white feminist writers like Meghan Murphy and Julie Bindel). Its a scary world to be in, wondering if the people around me truly see you as human on the basis of both your body and what your produce, whether it is at the workplace, in organizing, in social media or even a simple dive bar. And there is no guarantee that we get the credit for what we do, or even that we will get benefit for it.
Is black and brown labor not entitled to what it creates? Spaces lead by white folk, even when they are queer, working class-led and egalitarian, answer this question in the most dehumanizing ways on the basis of race, at the expense of their own power as leftist spaces. And even in these spaces, there are issues with many come to politics in this media landscape, resulting in more punching down at those who are already excluded.
There is no guarantee that a space for the marginalized will continue to be for and with them in a capitalist society, but that is no reason to not press on our peers in the left to do better. Not helping is that how we navigate these spaces and found our politics is based on extrapolations and readings from messy interpersonal dynamics, disconnected from material basis and founded only on spite and grudges. It is not enough to have had a falling out, said falling out has to be marked along a political axis. It is not enough for a rapist to have victimized someone and for their survivors to be recognized, they have to be pinned onto an alleged failing of a political order or way of organizing, to the point where sometimes the very act of supporting a survivor can lead to responses leading from defensiveness to being categorized as a political enemy alongside the survivor. Our rhetoric is sky-high, but our actions are straight out of high school. And organization, instead of being about doing the right thing, is about instead sustaining the rush of dopamine that comes from being in a group and going on a parasocial journey alongside popular members of our in-groups, with us growing bolder but none the wiser.
To be fair, its simplistic to attribute this to an individual failure on the part of many organizers. Human connection is what helps us survive. In my case, a few friends on the internet saved my life many times and helped me get the courage to be who I am. And it is easy to say that everyone else has failed to see the big picture when talking about what is to be done, if only because of how much easier it is see mistakes than it is to see solutions. But the big picture affects us in a multitude of ways. To simply attribute the atrocities and failures leading up to today to specific ideas and non participation of peoples can only lead to people tilting at windmills instead of changing the ground they stand on, no matter how materialist or revolutionary you claim to be. This path lies contrarianism, brand-building and victim-blaming, not liberation.
It is not enough to say, “Identity politics has failed us” while gawking at the news and individual takes (which can be ineffective at best the prevalence of social media bots, algorithms and state-led cyber attacks). We need to scrutinize, examine and apply to a world that grinds people to dust and has many people convinced that this is all there is. That people only do the first while claiming to be revolutionaries is what leads to reactionary politics stemming from interpersonal spats and a desire to belong. When all of this fails to galvanize people and bring revolution (and it can only ever fail because for how all-encompassing it can seem, social media attention can only deal with alienation so much), the finger pointing begins. Black folk were blamed for the California Prop 8 ban on Gay Marriage passing in 2008. Black and brown folk voicing their dissatisfaction with politics were again blamed for Trump being elected president, despite evidence to the contrary. And we stand at the tail end of the blame game after the shortsightedness of prescriptive, exclusionist politics around queerness, combined with the cultish behavior that comes with parasocial media consumption and dysfunctional relationships, rips entire communities to shreds before fascists finish us off.
White people can’t in good faith ask why marginalized people aren’t contributing more to the struggle or even to discourse while neglecting these structural inequalities and keeping these aggressions in place. Rather than leading the revolution, they are leading cliques. Instead of helping communities, they gossip, leak messages and photos, condescend to people with certain jobs, and target survivors who don’t agree with them. They craft idols out of the white dead at the expense of solidarity with the living, sometimes even at the expense of history! And all of this gets to be called political development or consciousness-raising while more people are ground to dust to pave an exclusive road to Progress for themselves.
Whatever victories there are in our communities happen because those who fight have skin in the game, whether certain political cliques believe them to be legitimate or not. Structure and organization is not all there is to politics, nor does it come before experience, it works in tandem. Rather than annihilating the personal and flattening all of humanity, we need organizers to embrace and work with it. The failure to do this is why The National Question had to be posed in various political organizations around the world, repeatedly, by people ranging from Claudia Jones to people currently contending with harassment and marginalization in organizing spaces. It is why people host forums, Discord servers and even IRCs to vent about what they go through. And it is a motivating force for abuse survivors running support groups, complete with protocols and guidelines that sometimes get revised after consideration and debate.
The white supremacist discourse and organization around gender is long overdue for toppling by a big push of the race question. We need to reckon with how black and brown folk have not been afforded humanity from the outset, before being further victimized under white supremacy on the basis of sexuality. James Baldwin, a black gay man, spoke on the grievances of white gay men as stemming from being shut out of a promise of white supremacy on the basis of their sexuality. He says in an interview with Village Voice:
I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society
Gender and sexuality, if left to whiteness, will only be sunk by its greed and entitled grievances. The history of feminism is a demonstration of this, from the Suffragettes to the end of the Second Wave in the western world after the sex wars to even contemporary discourse on empowerment and choice. And for the left to have a chance against fascism, this shall not be repeated with gender and sexuality.
There is no victory without dark skin.
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