TransActive I: Reclaiming the Narrative

I’m sometimes asked how people can advocate for the trans community, usually by apprehensive people who have visions of standing out in front of government buildings with picket signs shouting slogans, or sometimes by people who are whipping themselves up into an energetic frenzy so that they can be as boisterous as possible.  The truth is that that’s only one form of activism (a kind of last resort, really), and the larger picture is, well, more mundane.  That is not to say it’s easier, it can be very complex at times, but in the end it’s… well… a different kind of drama.

I will get to a point-by-point how-to, but want to discuss an important underpinning first, in this part.  This will also be one of the most basic yet invaluable things a person can do to be an advocate, without even having to be an “activist” in any way.  And in typical fashion, I’ll start in the most roundabout way possible, but with a point to it all.

I loathed Avatar.  I couldn’t even sit through the ending.

It’s difficult for me to articulate why, because I know there will always be people who assert that I have no claim to be offended or angry, that I have no entitlement to a First Nations heritage.  Certainly, I’ve been welcome in Aboriginal circles, and it’s been appreciated when I’ve added my energy to the furthering of Native issues, but from some, there’s an outside-looking-in attitude (similar to traveling as trans in the LGB world) in which I as a “halfbreed” who was taught nothing of the traditions growing up will never be seen as “really” Aboriginal.  If you’ve followed my writing on trans issues, you probably have some idea where this experience finds parallels and how it’s shaped my thoughts.

So I’ve lost the narrative.  And coming back from such a disconnected perspective is difficult: no matter how much I learn about the traditions, it seems that I may never reclaim them fully, or at least not with the intimate experiential comprehension of them.  I’ll never really be able to claim any heritage at all as truly being my own.

But while I only have bits and pieces of the narrative, I know when I’m being fed some white guy’s interpretation of it, complete with John Wayne and Sacajawea.  I can tell when the story’s being told from inauthentic eyes and painted as though it takes some bravehearted American white guy to rescue the “savages” from certain doom (even though the doom is also embodied by American white guys, probably to seem “original” — or more likely to stake a claim on absolution from someone who doesn’t feel he’s responsible, and to gloss over the “it’s a good thing for you that we’re your babysitters” implication).

Of course, when you’re accustomed to being portrayed as savages out to scalp the good guys or (at best) victims of mass slaughter, I guess the portrayal in Avatar is somewhat of an improvement, and I can see why some First Nations people have embraced the sympathetic portrayal of being encroached upon by white civilization — even if it still implies that it takes an American good-old-boy to save the Na’vi from extermination.  True, the makers of the film took the time to encorporate some of the legends and some of the spirit of the intent, but somehow, I think if Aboriginal people were given rein to tell their own story, we wouldn’t have ended up with Jake Sully, and Neytiri might have been a woman of depth, rather than a love-interest sidekick.

So I’ve not been impressed.  The narrative has not yet been fully reclaimed.  It’s angering to realize that Hollywood is still reluctant to consider funding genuine Aboriginal perspectives and continues to believe that the potential of these powerful voices pales compared to formula romcom and pablum dramedy.

So it is with the trans narratives. We’ve been saddled for so long with an overdone, caricaturish and sometimes intentionally insulting conflation that ends up being so misrepresentative of everyone trans that anything seems an improvement (aside from the cannibal killer from The Silence of the Lambs, that is).  Yet, we’ve only begun to tell our own stories, and then only through the lens of cisgender (non-trans for newbies to that term) editors and commentators.  People from various stripes have been jockeying for position to reclaim the narrative, not realizing that in the same way early cinema melded all First Nations cultures into one image, so too are we many peoples squished into an indistinguishable mishmash, when we have varied experiences and perspectives, each as valid and insightful as the other.  So it gets complicated, and the reaction to this that’s happening more often these days is to repudiate or shun trans altogether, rather than to find any points of kinship.

I’m sometimes asked how people can advocate for the trans community, usually by apprehensive people who have visions of standing out in front of government buildings with picket signs shouting slogans, or sometimes by people who are whipping themselves up into an energetic frenzy so that they can be as boisterous as possible.  The truth is that that’s only one form of activism (a kind of last resort, really), and the larger picture is, well, more mundane.  That is not to say it’s easier, it can be very complex at times, but in the end it’s… well… a different kind of drama.

But before any advocacy can start, we have to keep in mind the objective and have some idea on where we’re going.  Personally, I feel this objective needs to be the reclaiming and spreading of genuine trans narratives.  And I mean that plurally, because no one narrative will ever be fully representative of all.  It’s not enough for one perspective to replace another – we need to build the lexicon by giving voice to the breadth, depth and uniqueness that is characteristic of transness.

A person doesn’t even having to be an “activist” in any way to help work toward the most fundamental point of reclaiming the narrative.  This underscores everything else, which is why I’ve made it a point of its own before launching into the step-by-step background.

Real and lasting change comes from changing the picture, the impression.  It doesn’t come from laws, although laws are important, since there will always be some people in society who won’t play nice with others until there is a law that says they have to.  But real and lasting change comes from the changing of hearts and minds, and that happens only by telling our stories.

For trans people, this doesn’t have to mean being out and loud, although the more people brave enough to tell their stories directly, the more effectively the old narrative can be challenged.  But regardless of whether one is trans or cis, we need to assist in the telling of trans stories, either by finding opportunity, funding, or creating environments in which it is safe to do so.  We also have to take the time to listen to and learn from perspectives that differ from our own, because racing in and claiming everything as our own exclusive territory can seriously harm those around us.  It’s that free-for-the-taking mindset of the “Discovery Doctrine” that perpetuates social colonialism in this age, and we have to be rigidly diligent in avoiding that kind of mindset as we stake our own territories.

Finding opportunity and funding are mostly self-explanatory, although it should be cautioned that one needs to make sure that said opportunity is something that trans people both want and are currently equipped to follow through on (and this definitely includes time, since most trans advocacy is done on a volunteer basis).  If you yourself are not relating trans experience, consult with the people you are hoping to help beforehand, and make sure that someone is interested in and able to use the opportunity that you’re trying to make. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be told, “here, I set this up for you” at a time when I barely have time to breathe and hadn’t planned on having more on the plate.  Trans advocates have jobs and relationships, too.

That latter point, creating trans-friendly environments, is something that a person can do at any and every moment, and benefits more than specifically trans folks.  The approach I used long before I came out as trans or even as bi- was to interject whenever wide negative generalizations were being made about groups on the basis of race, culture, sexual orientation, gender presentation, sexuality or faith that anyone who lived within the criteria of safety, responsibility, respect and informed consent was fine with me and I wasn’t going to make judgments about individuals simply based on groups they appear to belong to.  A declaration like that requires a lot of diligence to follow through at every moment (and yes, I failed from time to time), but I found throughout my life that it enabled people within marginalized groups to open up to me, and also defused many climates of presumption and condemnation that often force people into closets.  I’ve spoken before of cultures of acceptance: they start with every one of us, regardless of whether we set out to be advocates for anyone or not.

(Crossposted to The Spectrum Cafe)

    • Just Some Trans Guy
    • July 27th, 2010

    I really like this post, especially this bit: “… so too are we many peoples squished into an indistinguishable mishmash, when we have varied experiences and perspectives, each as valid and insightful as the other.”

    I definitely think that trans people have a very wide diversity–in when we discovered we’re trans (or even chose to be trans), in what genders we are (or aren’t), in how we relate (or don’t relate) our genders to our bodies, etc, etc. More voices telling their own unique truths = better!

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