trans activism as it stands: where do we go from here?

I’ve had one hell of a case of writer’s block for about the past three weeks. I’ve got about five half-finished blog entries where I just lost interest and decided to go in another direction, and I think that’s because there’s something nacent going on in the world of trans activism: I think we’ve gotten about as far as we can on the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is a valuable tool for everything from playing MMORPGs to sending pictures of cats to each other. It’s a vastly powerful information delivery tool…and I’m sounding like a bad 1990s AOL commercial at this point. But the Internet can only go so far, and I’m beginning to think we’ve hit Peak Internet Activism within the trans community. Unfortunately, much as the world lacks a plan for Peak Oil, we haven’t got a plan for Peak Internet Activism. We have tremendous barriers to organizing, and in many cases we are precluded from basic participation within the larger trans community in many locales for a number of reasons, from transfundamentalists controlling space  to the fact that it’s still kind of dangerous to be a trans woman, especially a trans woman of color.  So we have barriers to entry into activism that are somewhat high, and these barriers end up keeping us out and because we don’t organize, things don’t change. Add in that we don’t have organized activist groups in many places or that you have to know someone in the group already (a friend of mine remarked that this is “fucking Friendster”) and this presents an additional barrier.

See, internet-based activism, much as the old guard has slagged and mocked it (while maintaining an Internet presence themselves) has been a way that dissenting, different, and otherwise excluded voices have had a way to speak up. My being disabled, fat, or not that pretty has no real bearing on my ability to engage in discourse and dialogue online, but it keeps me out of traditional trans spaces that are open to trans women. So it’s especially hard for me to have to consider that internet-based activism has run its course, as it gave me my first platform to speak to other trans women and identify myself as such.  Hell, I get mocked and put down as an “Internet Activist”…on the Internet. (The irony, it burns.) This past weekend, I did a panel where I sat in front of a room with a moderate number of strangers and identified myself as a trans woman. I’ve never done that before, and believe you me, I was completely terrified. I spent the entire bus ride over in silence kind of staring off into space and battling to stay in control, to stay in charge of my thoughts and emotions in hopes that I would be able to overcome the urge to jump off the bus at the next stop and run as fast as I could. And yet, it was pretty liberating once I said it. Because someone had invited me to speak, and because it was space for queers of color in general, I didn’t have to worry about the kind of thing that tends to happen to someone who is “other” within the trans community. I didn’t get interrupted, yelled at, or told that I’m an ugly man.

Trouble is, this was a once-a-year event, 180 miles away. It was a bubble, no more no less. And then I went back home, as I always do, and it was right back to my only outlet being, you guessed it, the Internet. Now, I did pwn some n00bz in Arathi Basin and there were certainly cat videos, but mostly I sat in front of a blinking cursor trying to get my thoughts down on something: growing up trans in the LDS Church (promise you that’s coming…eventually) and I ended up Googling on the pressing issue of Jack in the Box “tacos” for a solid 20 minutes. (The filling is beef and soy. You’re welcome.) The problem with the Internet is that we’re using it to discuss things, but we’re not using it to create spaces in the real world where we can actually accomplish things. We’re often railing against the lack of these spaces, though, because so many of us who are perpetually outside want to no longer be outside. I don’t want to be outside anymore.

Now, I know that there are some reasons people can’t participate in real-world spaces. For example, you might live in a town with 54 people in it in Wyoming. You might not be able to be out at work. You might have a disability that affects your ability to participate, though spaces should always take care to be accessible and yes…that’s more than just wheelchair access. You might not play well with others. And that’s fine and that should be taken into account. Just like Peak Oil doesn’t mean no more oil, Peak Internet Activism means we need to reserve the social space provided by this type of activism for people in these situations. We need to center voices who don’t have access to a commons, who don’t have access to activism.

But what I’m not sure about is how to make this possible. Sometimes I have a lot of questions and no answers, it’s just part of Being Erica, as my life has been defined by questions I can’t find answers to, and oftentimes when I do find answers, they’re either horrible or just lead to more questions. But this isn’t about me, even if I’m egotistically using myself as an example: we need real talk about how to create organized change for the trans community. We need to create an actual community and not just a “community.” We need to stop the casual and active racism that pervades our discourse and we need to accept that trans women come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and narratives. No narrative is less or more valid. No sexual orientation is more or less valid. And goddammit, failing to meet Caucasian heterocentric beauty standards doesn’t make you less of a woman, no matter what Jennifer Usher (aka “Just Jennifer”, which you Google at your own risk!) says.

We’re making great strides in terms of rights and visibility, and the rising tide is lifting some boats. Trans women of color are still openly considered disposable by much of the community, but that has more to do with how race and color affect media in general in North America. And recently the truly awesome Trans 100 project dropped a list of real people and what they’re doing in our communities…you’ll note how there are a lot of communities absent, because there’s still no access to community for many if not most trans women in a lot of places. But what we need is what we’re constantly demanding of the rest of the LBGT community: unity. I’m not silly enough to think we agree on everything, or facile enough to believe there won’t always be tyrants within our midst, but we ned to establish goals and work to demand them. We need to work to spread access to accurate identification, to outlaw discrimination both in fact and by policy, and to be outraged about every one of us killed every time it happens, not one day a year. We need to uplift those who fight for all trans women, like Janet MockCecilia Chung, Mia Tu Mutch, or Trudy Jackson (too awesome to be contained by a website) and talk about these folks. And how about trans guys who have our back all the time like Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler or Shannon Minter while we’re at it?

We’re making progress, people. We’re creating change even with the constraints we have! Do you realize how far-fetched it would have been had you found me in high school and told me that someday I’d be telling strangers I was trans? I would have stuck my chewing gum in your hair.  You can say what you will about the Trans 100, but it’s an instrument of visibility, acceptance, hope, and love…and at least 80 out of 100 of those people are people leading the community forward.   But you know how we can really move forward? Quit policing who is and isn’t allowed in “the community.” If you can be respectful of others and you’re trans, you belong in the community. If you want to keep cutting others down at the legs, you can stick to your angry little island. I’m sure “Just” Jennifer Usher and her 54 sock puppets would love the company.

I just wish I could wave a magic wand and make this happen, and it breaks my heart that none of us can as things stand. So for now, I’m going to go get four of those awful not-exactly-taco things ($1.98 for a full stomach, the poor girl’s best friend), spend 30 minutes wandering around either Wikipedia or Azeroth aimlessly, and go to sleep. And maybe, just maybe, you can tell me where do we go from here

6 thoughts on “trans activism as it stands: where do we go from here?

  1. I love your message here, and I’m totally in agreement. Its time to move forward and off the internet. I’ll help however I can in my admittedly small town.

  2. i’m just curious, in your opinion does one have to identify as trans or just have been labelled as such by the medical establishment to be part of the community? i know a few women who technically fit under the umbrella term “trans”, but they prefer terms such as non-cis or intersex and don’t really identify with the word “trans” or its other variants. some of them still want to be active within the small genderqueer/trans/intersex community though, but one of them in particular has expressed feeling awkward having to use a term that she doesn’t like to identify as in order to be part of a community of other women with similar stories as her. basically, when a person who would traditionally be labelled as “trans” doesn’t want to use that term to identify their experience where do you go from there in regards to being inclusive and building community?

    • In my humble Ericapinion, if you fit as basically being what goes under the umbrella, I don’t care about the words you use so long as…

      1. You’re not doing the TS Separatist bullshit and playing Transsexual Not Transgender Fuck The Transgenders.

      2. You’re basically working for our advancement and not stabbing others in the back.

      3. You’re not avoiding words because of stigma but because they don’t accurately describe you. For example, I’m intersex. I’ve had to transition because my early-life assignment didn’t work out and transitioning was right for me. However, that’s *part* of who I am. I still am a trans woman. The “trans women are icky” rhetoric that comes from a lot of people under the umbrella is Deeply Problematic, but I do certainly know IS people who have transitioned who don’t call themselves trans, often for similar reasons to the reason it took me a while to warm up to it: transfundamentalism says we don’t exist, yet hijacks our identities. But there are people for whom it’s not accurate.

      Thanks for an *excellent* contribution to a point I didn’t think to get into. Yes, I think such people should be welcome in the community if they’re not pulling us backwards or pathologizing others for existing. Words are more of a choice than things we can’t change or shouldn’t have to change, but they shouldn’t be a barrier to those who want to go forward or be helpful.

  3. It’s pretty disheartening how many trans, genderqueer, or plain non-cis people I know online who have just completely given up on fleshspace activism.

    …I’m one of them. Except I’ve just given up on activism entirely. I’m not particularly good at mobilizing, I’m really lacking in spoons these days (I can barely make myself breakfast or lunch sometimes) and flesh space is out of the question when I’m in Small-Citysville, Oklahoma and currently unable to drive.

    I mean, how the hell can I think about activism when I can’t even get a damn job flipping burgers (I never get past call backs… I guess they see my birth name [still haven't changed, yaey being poor], hear my deep voice, and put a heinous transmisogynistic thing together), can’t pay off my student loans (which are currently forebeared but everytime i see my owed balance i die instead), and certainly can’t afford to get blood work done that i’m way overdue for and a new script which may end up meaning traveling out of state to find someone who won’t gatekeep my two-spirit ass despite having been on exogenous hormones for more than a year?

    It’s frustrating. When I tried reaching out to other Oklahoman trans people, I get loads of misgendering (hi, not all trans people are trans women and assuming someone’s gender is megashitty and you should know this) and loads of heterosexism (since apparently you can’t be trans and non-straight. I’ve dealt with this too.). I’ve thought about contacting other two-spirit people but, uhh, despite my ass being half-native I’d feel like an intruder because I’m ridiculously light skinned (let’s be honest, I look like the walking dead).

    It just makes me kinda angry because I have no idea where to go through here. It really, really sucks and some nights I just want to tear all my hair out, curl up and a ball, and will myself into nonexistence because I feel like my life has gone nowhere and will go nowhere.

  4. I dunno… connecting with people similar to myself and learning about their accomplishments has gotten me involved in fighting discriminatory policies in my state. I don’t consider myself an activist, but inspiration from the ‘net has gotten me riled enough in real life to take risks and take action…

    • I have no doubt that it has a point…I mean, hi, I’m derided as an “internet activist” all the damn time.

      The problem arises, alas, when people don’t take risks, don’t take action, and think reblogging something on tumblr (and i love tumblr) is radical queer praxis.

      I guess my frustration is that I don’t think I can push things further personally, a complaint I’ve heard from a number of other trans women in my social circles in other places, but as it stands there’s no way for me to push farther where I am. When people don’t use the internet to connect (which is very true at least among trans women on the west coast of the US, other than the Bay Area, which let’s face it i’m not rich so that’s not happening) at all, it loses utility.

      So as I’ve probably mentioned about 900 times on the blog, I am more accomplished as a singer than anything else. There comes a point where you feel like you’ve put your heart out there the best you can through your voice, and there’s nothing else you can do with it. This blog is like that. I’ve said my piece, sometimes repetitively, but I’ve said it. And now I’m sitting in the band room with a mug of tea wondering how to find an outlet for that, what I can do with it, and I can’t do it alone. But if there’s no way to connect to other people because there’s no space for it, you’re always going to end up singing alone.

      And it’s frustrating as hell. BTW: I don’t consider myself an activist, either. But I also don’t like the idea of having to spend the rest of my life isolated from other trans women because I’m not perfect/white/pretty/skinny/whatever enough.

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