nihil de nobis, sine nobis: trans women of color and Remembering Your Dead

nihil de nobis, sine nobis: Latin for “Nothing about us, without us.”

as i’ve remarked before, i come from the disability rights movement, where we talk frequently about trying to navigate the map of inclusion at the table in matters affecting our basic rights and dignity, since we often find ourselves excluded from that proverbial table.  as trans women of color, we similarly are occupying a place of exclusion in something that deeply affects us: Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day which was unquestionably started with the best of intent but ends up with the worst of results, namely that it’s about us (trans women of color, the majority of the names being read), without us, because we are shut out from involvement in the “trans community” in life at every turn, but y’all have no problem claiming us once we’re dead.

it’s disappointing to see that there is little to no mention of race on the official TDOR site other than in raw statistics. trans women of color have met with everything from passive-aggressiveness to outright ignorance when attempting to deal with the folks who run TDOR. long ago and far away, Gwen Smith was unwilling to talk about the realities of race when it comes to violence against trans women back when TDoR was her one-woman show; the current volunteers are no different. (the extent of Ms. Smith’s involvement at present is unknown, but she is credited repeatedly as the “owner” of TDoR; see http://www.transgenderdor.org/about-2 for an example) so this leaves no question as to why TDoR is so, well, uh, *white*; there is an unchecked/unquestioned monoculture at work. i’m sure the intent of the volunteers who run TDoR is not to create such a monoculture, but this is how it ends up, and the expectation seems to be that TDoR is by its very nature exempt from accountability for being such a monoculture, especially when most of the stories they’re telling, and too often mistelling, are about dead trans women of color.

i do understand that TDoR events are organized locally and can vary from place to place, and that this is the responsibility of the local volunteers. however, given that many trans women of color seem to express the same experience regardless of where they are, chances are that the local example of TDoR is probably pretty common, namely that an overwhelmingly white cadre of men is reading the names, with a token trans woman or two thrown in; make sure they’re always older and white, because when practicing that type of tokenism it’s critical to present trans women as all the same since that is what many transmisogynists, especially those within the queer community, use to justify their transmisogyny. when troublesome patterns seem to be repeated in many places, it points to two possible kinds of systemic failure: passive failure, where the result is unintentional, or open disregard, where the failure is intentional. i posit that this is passive failure in most cases rather than open disregard, but either way the end result is the same.

the organization of TDoR in every case i’ve ever seen or heard reported is done by a closed ecosystem; to be able to participate, you have to already be a known quantity; locally, for women, you must be previously known to the transfundamentalist support group, and for men to the local trans guy group, which is far less malignant in terms of who it lets in, but it is open only to trans guys, so that does no good for the rest of us, and it would be wrong to invade that space. i don’t know if the tokenized inclusion of trans women is intentional, because visibility is very dangerous for trans women, or because the transfundamentalists being given the ability to decide who can participate ends up self-selecting, but the end result remains that the people up there butchering the pronunciation of the names of a bunch of dead trans people, a group which is overwhelmingly trans women of color. how is this providing a fitting memorial to these people?

the intersection of whiteness and trans identity is invariably part of the problem here. i’ve talked about the mechanics of exclusion/derision of trans women of color before; the “trans community” basically requires Caucasianness, tokenism, or importance to enter, and given that some of us arrived too late to be tokens, aren’t famous (…and don’t want to be), and aren’t white, you’ve got a recipe for how you can keep the monoculture going. you can keep all sorts of trans/genderqueer people of color out all the time, so why should TDoR be any different?

the reality is that though trans identity is not limited to white people, the hurdles that we as people of color are expected to be able to clear to be “trans enough” are higher hurdles. people who play the “trans enough” game almost always come from a position of financial privilege; much as it might seem to be pretty obvious, this is rarely acknowledged when it comes to the “trans community” and its enforcers. like many trans people of color, i transitioned outside any of these structures and don’t really understand things like being expected to talk forthrightly about what surgeries i’ve had when asked by a complete stranger inside trans space; this isn’t the kind of thing anyone asks me when i’m walking down the street or sitting on a train, but the changed spatial context means that i’m supposed to tell you about the butt lift i’ve never had? yeah, i don’t think so. most of us who are trans people of color, especially trans women of color, cannot clear the hurdles of “trans enough” and are thus disregarded by and excluded from the “trans community.” the fiction that there is some magic parallel universe for trans people of color, by the by, is just that: fiction. we might organize informally in small groups, but we don’t have secret meetings of the Black trans woman junta in the basement of the AME Church down the way.

because trans identity is so caught up in Caucasianness, a new problem emerges with both the claiming of dead trans people of color altogether: if we weren’t “trans enough” in life, why are we suddenly being counted by the same people who wouldn’t have us once we’re dead? it’s because the idea that it’s dangerous to be trans has to be sold somehow, given that cis people generally ignore violence against trans people regardless of what color we are, and i do have no doubt that it seems like a good idea to use all these names. the trouble is that when this happens without any discussion of race, class, and how violence is often linked to certain types of work, reading our names uncritically is appropriative and using the deaths of people you didn’t care about in life as a vehicle for activism in death. i get that this has to be sold as a concept because cis people are often willfully ignorant that we’re getting killed out here. thing is, there are ways to sell this concept and be conscious of the racial/class/social politics involved herein. i see what the point of TDoR is in terms of public relations, but it isn’t so invaluable that the problematic things about it should go unchecked.

i had initially set out to say we should boycott TDoR as trans women of color and our allies. but let’s be honest, we already aren’t there to start with, so a boycott is meaningless; we’re going to be tokens in TDoR at best no matter what until the trans community stops enforcing a standard based on Caucasianness on everyone. however, the reality is that TDoR needs to include more discussion of race, gender, and violence because what it’s talking about is people who are dead because of the confluence of race, gender, and violence. i suspect that the same reason the trans community is so viciously exclusive of trans women of color is the same reason this doesn’t come up: it requires discussing uncomfortable realities, especially given that the trans community is shamefully complicit in considering trans women of color disposable…until one day in November, when y’all care about us if we’re dead.

TDoR is hopelessly broken in how it fails trans people of color as it stands, but if you’re involved with TDoR, it’s time to seed some change. even in a monoculture, there are ways one can promote respect and accountability. mention how many of the people whose names you’re reading are dead trans women of color. try to get our names and pronouns right, something i can’t believe is actually a problem inside the trans community, but apparently it is…part of that is knowing how to pronounce a name before you read it. if you’re organizing an event, actually bother pointing out how overwhelmingly Latina and/or Black and female the names of the dead you’re reading are…and think about how to include on a more broad-based basis rather than letting it be run by closed social groups. be accountable for how racist the trans community is, and think about that doubly so when trying to include tokens rather than actually opening it up to all of us. don’t exclude people for who they are so long as they identify as trans (if you’re doing an all-trans reading; don’t exclude people at all if not.) don’t get huffy and angry when someone points out the reality of how TDoR works; rather than getting passive-aggressive or trying the “who the hell are you” angle, two things that are you telling that person their concerns don’t matter, listen and figure out what you can do to work with them, if there is anything that can be done. remember that what might seem like anger is often a direct response to the fact that we’re shut out wherever we go in the trans community, it’s not anger at you. add in that the people who organize TDoR nationally, volunteer or not, don’t want to talk about race at all, and we have a pretty good recipe for what’s happening.

we’re not looking for pity or to be placated with words that don’t mean anything; we seek sincerity and maybe someday inclusion. right now, though, November 20th is coming up, and i implore you to work for us even if you’re working without us and to think about how to break down the whiteness of the trans community…or don’t, and keep making it an othering experience for people you’re not even including and then wondering why we don’t feel welcome. nothing about us, without us indeed.

12 thoughts on “nihil de nobis, sine nobis: trans women of color and Remembering Your Dead

  1. I have a huge problem with this your her story, “we are shut out from involvement in the “trans community” in life at every turn.”

    How is it that you see yourself as excluded? I just don’t see that. I see people unwilling to come out, step up, stand up, stand out. I haven’t seen any exclusion. I know many passionate Trans women of color who refuse to sit down and shut up. Thank the Goddess for that. These women have shaped my attitudes about life in general, but particularly about TDOR.

    Do I think it exists? Absolutely. I also think it goes both ways. Not only does one have to open one’s self and move through old stories, old bones, and old prejudice… one also needs to have the courage (or desperation) to step up to the plate.

    The Trans* movement has moved forward, in warp speed, precisely because so many refused to sit down and shut up like we were told. We continued to press on until we were heard, stepping on toes when necessary, knocking down walls, and demanding that we be included.

    Personally, I think too many have chips on their shoulders that they are unwilling to just remove. They are then stuck, unable to move forward.

    In our local TDOR, the fact that TransWomen of color take the brunt of anti-Trans hate crimes is emphasized all the time. We welcome participation by anyone and EVERYONE.

    Now that I’ve said my peace, let me step off my soapbox and ask you to please teach me how to better bring you to the table, how to learn from you, and how to incorporate your brilliance into our community.

    • i hate to run with a baseball allegory, but since a)the Giants won the World Series so i care about baseball again and b)because it works pretty well, here goes:

      if you can’t get onto the field, you can’t step up to the plate. heck, you can’t even play shortstop.
      if you can’t get into the stadium, you can’t get onto the field.
      if you don’t have what is required for admission to the stadium, you can’t get into the stadium.
      if you can’t even get into the stadium, you’re a hell of a long way from the plate.

      like it or not, as much as the internet is a useful medium of communication, very little actual business gets done on the internet: you need access to real-world spaces, and the real-world spaces tend to exclude, especially when it comes to newcomers who do not fit the real-world space. if that’s not how it works where you are, that’s great, but i’ve covered the reality i live with elsewhere, probably best summed up in this post: http://inchoaterica.wordpress.com/2012/05/25/the-trans-community-trans-women-of-color-and-the-you-deserve-it-mentality/ …no amount of on-line organizing is going to make up for that anything i say generally gets dismissed with “who the hell are you,” which is part of the problem of the internet as a communication medium: it’s always got “who the hell are you” as a dismissal mechanism.

      thius, the real-world space is the option one has to organize, but you have to meet certain standards to get in there. when the standard that people are held to is a Caucasian, able-bodied one, it’s pretty much going to end up being a rigged game when you’re neither, and i’m neither. i don’t think having features which belie my race and disability are the kind of thing which makes me less of a person, but, well, apparently that memo hasn’t made it to the local support group, and that’s the real-world space where business gets done. that’s the real-world space where you look like me and get called “it” and “retard”…i mean, yeah, i get called “retard” or similar about twice a week, but the “it” and all is not the kind of thing i deal with when i’m going grocery shopping, to the movies, whatever. it’s unique to “trans community” spaces; the need to tell someone that YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG and to use degendering and othering as a tool of rejection. if you can’t play in the sandbox, and that sandbox is all there is, then yes, you’re being excluded from “the community.”

      oh yes and then there’s the endless litany of unwanted “passing tips” which are ways that you’re being told how horribly ugly you are…again, holding someone to a Caucasian, able-bodied, heteronormative beauty standard as a condition of entry. it’s broken, it’s not accountable to anyone, and without access to that commons there is no way to get involved. so, yes, i feel quite excluded and i don’t believe that exclusion stems from a lack of courage. call me a weak person, but when someone yells at me and calls me “it” i tend to think maybe i’m not supposed to be in that space. especially given that it’s on private property, i’m alone, and i have no backup. i’m not exactly sure how that “goes both ways”, but in the end i stay shut out because of who i am and i don’t really like that…and it’s got everything to do with race, class, disability, etc. and nothing to do with what someone can bring to the table. i’m not saying i’m exceptionally valuable and/or special, nor do i possess any “brilliance” to speak of, but i do believe that the “trans community” needs to include all trans people, especially given that so much academic ‘justification’ (note ‘scare quotes’) for transphobia is the fact that the “community” is a monoculture with, at best, tokens. i want us all to be included, not as tokens, but it’s going to take a sea change to abandon the toxic, judgmental environment and the idea that some people are not “trans enough”. i’ve been a girl and/or woman for a couple of decades, and nobody outside the “trans community” tells me that i’m not good enough to be a woman, so why the hell does the “community” have such an obsession toward telling me i’m not?

      if you’re going to have a “huge problem”, i do hope it’s with the realities of othering and exclusion. if your “huge problem” is with the fact that i’m speaking up about this to the best of my ability from outside the stadium, i hope you realize the irony of what you’re doing there. either way, it’s hardly something i’ve been alone in pointing out…

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