TransActive III: Advocating for Trans People if Not Trans
(Part three of a series on trans advocacy. Part one spoke about changing the narrative used to describe trans people, and part two looked at expectations.)
In order to be an advocate for any group that you are not a member of and that you don’t have the intimate knowledge of from life experience, a person really has to understand the damage caused by the colonial mentality in order to start seeing where the boundaries are.
Colonial practices in history are fairly well understood, settling and subjugation, the taking of land and resources and rule from a distance that occurred. The thought processes that people used to rationalize and justify those practices continue to shape our society today, in ways that we are often blind to. Modern colonialism assumes that there is a right and a wrong, and that the right has a preordained blessing and / or responsibility to (at worst) control and exploit the wrong — or to (at best) rule and “protect” (including from themselves) the wrong.
In Western society, the various sovereign structures have been largely replaced by an idea of democracy, with a lot of push-pull, spin and outright deception over what that majority will actually is, and a solid belief in the majority’s right to tyrannize. But it is still a colonial mentality that leads people to idealize centralism over communalism, masculine over feminine, majority rule over minority rights and respect, conformity over diversity, one faith over all others, a narrowed and unyielding (and often badly skewed) definition of morals and ethics over free thought and the challenging of social norms, and established class and economic systems in their purest forms (i.e. extreme capitalism or extreme socialism [i.e. communism]) over balance and regulation.
Feminist struggles, LGBT issues, racial divides, marijuana reformers, the plights of the poor and the working classes and more all face a common conflict with the colonial perspective that someone knows best and needs to dominate, while everyone else should just get with the program and stop whining. Colonial thinking does not allow for uniqueness, diversity and challenges to its authority. It assumes that there is a one-answer-fits-all solution for everything.
It drives many of the divisions between marginalized classes as well, and is at the heart of the uneasy and even rocky partnership between LGB and trans. And if anything should unite all of us, it’s the recognition of and deconstruction of the colonial mentality.
For a quick illustration, recall the start of the war in Afghanistan. One of the factors that garnered a significant amount of support for the war was the issue of how the Taliban treated women (I know there were more, but let’s just isolate this one as best we can). The problem, however, was that womens’ organizations such as RAWA which had already been doing work to address the issues weren’t consulted for any kind of impact analysis or strategy to truly improve the lot of women. Instead, we’d sent the military in, and now we assume it’s all better. It’s not. One patriarchy replaced another, the region was destabilized, the attitudes of radical branches of Islamic Fundamentalism about women intensified as people united under a common enemy, the infrastructure that womens’ organizations had built was now gone, their ability to network was largely cut off… whether you support the Afghan war or not, it’s not fair to use the previous oppression of women as justification – it has only been replaced by another oppression, with the only difference being that if we’re the oppressor, we can rationalize it to ourselves as being in someone else’s best interest. (Note that this is less an argument about whether or not someone is “better off” under the old regime than the new, and more about whether any regime other than self-determination within a communal sphere is ideal)
Likewise, the displacement, subjugation and even genocide of Aboriginal peoples was justified at the time as “bringing civilization to the savages.” There is also a parallel continuing in the debates in Western countries about the niqab and burqa.
Any time there is rushing-in-and-doing instead of listening, we are seduced into colonial thinking, and it has been done to lesbians, gays and bisexuals (sometimes by each other), it is still being done to LGBT people of colour, there is a long history of it being done to trans people, and trans people likewise have done it to each other and to sex and gender minorities that have not yet found their voice.
In order to advocate on behalf of any group that you are not intrinsically a part of and that you do not have an intimate and current understanding of, there have to be some ground rules. This is not just an LGB & T principle but something that has many applications.
1. It is never acceptable to tell someone else who they are, how they feel or what their life experiences mean.
Just because one person or a group of people in the trans community defined themselves a certain way or were okay with a particular characterization doesn’t mean that all are. We’re an incredibly diverse community to begin with, and not everyone has come to the same place of self-definition, or embraced a particular language to express who they are. This gets back to an earlier comment about other societies, where trans people still accept and call themselves gay men (or lesbians, in the case of trans men), in the same way that gender transgressive people here did fifty years before. The first order of business any community has when they form is to define for themselves what they are, what they need and what words they need to use to communicate that experience. Consequently, things that might have been embraced and celebrated decades ago might be patently offensive, today.
“Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man
And so is Lola, Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola”
2. Never stop listening.
Part of the solution to this is to always be listening and always be learning. In advocating for other communities, you cannot make absolute statements to represent that population. You can only repeat lessons learned by and about the narratives of some of them – and you will have only met some of them. This representation only happens up to but not including the point where someone with intimate experience of being a part of that community becomes available to speak for themselves. A number of trans men were there at the beginning of my transition to give insight and support, and I learned a lot from them. However, my ability to relate the transmale narrative is limited to acknowledging that I can only relate a part of that narrative, and should only be doing so if no guys are around / willing to speak their narrative for themselves.
Sometimes, that means staying in the background, finding other speakers and giving them the opportunities to tell their own stories. And sometimes that means we’ll take the opportunities and only tell our own narrative without being able to show the full dimension of the community. However, from a decolonial perspective, when we wish to empower a minority, that means having to err on the side of that minority rather than our own colonial “father knows best” impulses. In part one, I talked about how one of the most effective things allies can do to help is to provide opportunities for us to speak our own narratives:
“… 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….
“… 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 provide. 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.”
3. Mind Your Language
As I said earlier, the language we use to define ourselves is changing. The phrasing of language does far more to communicate aspects of a marginalized population than just the meanings of the words themselves. George Carlin understood the power of transforming language throughout much of his comedy, with one memorable example being his rant on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
“I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those VietNam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.”
Even so, one thing that the far right has understood thoroughly and developed a skill for and even became weaselly about was twisting language. Changing “global warming” to “climate change” shifts the idea from a global crisis to the weather getting a little warmer (who can complain about that?). Phrasing denial of spousal rights and benefits as “protecting traditional marriage” (even though there is no real protections gained by doing so) has won over centrists with warm fuzzy ideas about family and “protecting” children so that the facts can be overlooked. Equal opportunity hiring practices and aims becomes “reverse discrimination” or even “race-based hiring.” Words like “traditional,” “family” and “moral” have been hijacked so that by their very nature they become faith-focused and exclusionary – the territory is being staked out, and by acknowledging this language and using it in the contexts they assert, we give them province over it. If Americans aren’t careful, “American,” “founding fathers” and other nationalist images will soon be annexed by historical revisionists as well.
I don’t mean to suggest that we need to be outright deceptive like our opponents. However, we do have to be mindful of the words we use, their contexts and implications. We will also have to be wary of acceding to opponents terms and characterizations used to colour impressions of trans people.
Part of this means putting ourselves on the other side of our language and recognizing when the words we use paint us poorly or others us. But that is also limited if we don’t have a developed understanding of that narrative ourselves.
Part of this means doing your best to recognize which words people wish to be used to describe them, which words they find offensive, and which words have restrictions because they are being reclaimed — historically used so badly that most people have had their usage privileges revoked.
Own Your Privilege
Part of that means realizing how developing words like “cisgender” serve as better terms to “transgender” than, say, “normal” or “real.” Yes, in negative contexts, cisgender can imply privilege. The whole point of privilege is that someone who isn’t a part of a minority group has had the privilege of not experiencing the negative aspects of being that minority, not having to be regularly or constantly preparing for these negative events, and not ever had to think about such things in a way that had personal implications. Having the privilege of not experiencing these things is not itself a negative, although it may inspire understandable jealousy – however, it does carry the responsibility of recognizing one’s privilege, and learning to respect the experiences of others, and address them as valid, founded concerns. The better way to correct a disparity like that is to own our privilege and work to equalize it, rather than whine about being accused of privilege.
Labels are too often used to divide us into smaller warring factions. Take the general consensus but be respectful of how people self-identify outside of that as best you can, and focus on the underlying issues and needs.
But this goes beyond labels. Be aware about what words say about trans identities – of when they validate and invalidate them. Be aware of when words try to make people aware of some portions of a community as opposed to when they make broad sweeping generalizations about everyone. Be aware of the favorable or unfavorable contexts they place people in, and when your words play into far right rhetoric.
So. Sounds complicated? Sounds like trying to navigate a minefield? Sometimes it is. However, these are the skills that we need in order to reach out beyond our pocket communities. These are the things we will need to do as we build bridges with other disenfranchised or othered communities and mutually struggle against the colonial thinking that motivates and empowers our opponents, and tries to structure society to exclude us.
Sounds worth doing, to me.
(This series is not connected in any way to the organization TransActive Education and Advocacy, it merely shares part of the name.)