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 want to be clear that I’m not wanting to push the Mercedes way of doing things, nor to make myself out to be a guru of some sort. What I say here needs to be tempered with what your own experience and instincts tell you. Readers’ experience levels will vary, but I discovered that as basic as some of these things seem, sometimes they still do have to be said. For those starting out or debating about doing advocacy, I’m hoping this will help folks avoid stumbling out of the gate.
One of the first things one needs to do is assess their own expectations. Most people realize they’re not going to get rich doing trans advocacy. There are few paid positions anywhere doing this kind of work — most of your efforts will be of a volunteer nature, and you may need to draw from your day-job income to fund some of them. Chances are, you’ll have (or need) a job and have (or want) a relationship too, so everything will be a balancing act.
(more after the fold)
There’s also not a whole lot of glory to be had. “Thank you?” People don’t say “thank you,” and in the rare case where it happens, it’s a year or two afterward when they come back and say, “oh by the way, I kind of appreciated when you did that….” You don’t do it for a “thank you.” You do it because it’s needed. And needed. And needed. More often than not, your short-term acknowledgments will be in the form of being told that you’re not doing your job, or that your accomplishments really aren’t very significant. You do it because it’s needed, and the satisfaction of knowing that you’re making a positive difference for the next person to come out, or transition, or question. You do it out of gratitude for the people who went before you and helped make the path a little clearer and more navigable — people who did it because it was needed.
You will want to be aware of things that you can do to avoid burnout, or how to recover afterward. For some of us, this will mean disappearing awhile and hoping others will step in to pick up any slack.
You will need to be prepared to be Out. Once your name is out there, you can’t hide it again. This is one reason why most people involved in trans advocacy get there by being outted unexpectedly. This is changing, as the consequences of being openly trans or of trans history become gradually easier to live with. There are some options — such as being out there using your middle name, leaving open the possibility of reverting to your first name later (not a guaranteed solution, but helpful nonetheless). You will also want to limit the kinds of contact information that you give out, and keep some of your friendships at arm’s length.
You will also need to be consistent. Make promises you can keep, and follow through every time. If you’re facilitating a support group that meets from 1:00 to 4:00, be there at one, and don’t leave at 1:20 if you’re the only one there. Also, be balanced. Getting angry at injustice is easy; providing solutions can be harder — and if you come back and say “thanks” or acknowledge a sincere effort to do right, that’s golden.
Be aware of the limitations of organizations. For the most part, I’m referring to grassroots organizations (we don’t have many affluent trans orgs on this planet). It’s invaluable to have some kind of unified voice to speak to matters (recognizing that such a unified voice cannot completely represent everyone, and ultimately has to restrict to representing its members), but they have budget and people limitations, and cannot be everywhere, do everything, intervene in every situation. That may sound a bit cold, but organizations do this for a reason: it’s not unusual to advocate for someone, only to have them turn around and say or do something that completely undermines your efforts. Many organizations also have a consensus process that requires time and compromise — there’s no “I” in “board,” either. That said, an established and recognized organization is a voice that will be listened to, networked with and funded, and is well worth getting involved with.
Whether an individual or an organization, much of advocacy happens behind closed doors, and with an expectation of privacy from the folks you’re dealing with. The trouble this causes is that many of your efforts can’t really be discussed publicly while you’re undertaking them, because of the risk of compromising your efforts or offending the person or people you’re lobbying. This has the unfortunate result of not being able to really demonstrate what you’re doing, until those rare moments when something has been achieved (at which point you might be accused of trying to take credit), and in the interim when people accuse you of doing nothing, you often have to hold your tongue. You’ll need to carry yourself with grace.
When you do advocacy work for the trans community, you become a diplomat. You can’t speak for everyone, but how you speak, how you dress and how you act reflects on everyone else, regardless. Be respectful, and build bridges. When you are doing advocacy, there is no room for rivalries, and you will have to know how to put your personal differences aside for as long as needed and keep things amicable. If someone has wronged you, you will have to be able to carry yourself with dignity and keep it out of the view of those who aren’t involved as much as you’re able — don’t engage conflict where it will involve people who don’t really need to be swept up in the drama. If someone is gaming, remember that time (and their own behaviour) will make it obvious who the gamer really is. And if you’re not sure what someone said or think a comment is out of character, communicate with them — it doesn’t help to let something brew until you boil over about it.
Part of being a diplomat is knowing your limitations. As stated previously, you don’t speak for everyone. You speak for yourself first, and then provide a voice for those viewpoints you know well but aren’t present to speak for themselves. When people of those perspectives become available, you defer to their experience on their issues. It is never acceptable to tell someone else who they are, how they feel or what their life experiences mean. I’ll return to this when I write about advocating for trans people while cis, but some of those same rules will apply to trans sub-communities.
To do that, you need to listen openly to other trans experiences, and not try to fit it to your own experiences. You need to educate yourself on other perspectives and take the time to see the value in all of them, even if you disagree. If someone has established something as a core of their beliefs, then there is probably something that has given them reason to do so. Find it. If you can’t, then you can’t give adequate voice to their perspective in their absence.
Part of listening also involves watching the news. There are international news feeds at Transgendernews and TNUKdigest (be aware of heavy email volume) to whom many owe a debt of gratitude (thanks to Zoe for the referral to the latter), and Google provides an Alerts feature that you can use to watch for search terms in news articles. Twitter searches are also quite effective at catching breaking news. In the process, you will become aware of how issues are handled elsewhere, what kinds of tactics to expect from rights opponents and effective news commentary.
And watch your language. Aside from cussing (which many people you’ll deal with will find a turn-off, as much as you might think you’re connecting on a “buddy” level), you will want to develop habits of using open, inclusive language and acknowledging that there are exceptions to every generalization. Our community is incredibly diverse — you will misspeak on occasion, but using open, inclusive language will speak well to your intent. From my own perspective, this also means avoiding getting dragged down in endless debates over labels, which can consume a lot of energy with little productive result.
There is more to it than that, though. Language is a craft. The Conservative far-right has made a craft of twisting language, spinning it to their benefit. Changing “global warming” to “climate change” shifted the idea from a global crisis to the impression of the weather getting a little warmer. Phrasing denial of spousal rights and benefits as “protecting traditional marriage” (even though nothing is really protected) has won over centrists with warm fuzzy ideas about family to the point that facts can be overlooked. Human rights legislation gets twisted into “bathroom bills” to spark panic. Words like “values” and “moral” have been hijacked to become Christianist (radical Christianity, which is not necessarily all Christianity) catch-words that they can define, and have no resemblance to true values and morals. You will need to understand the emotions and effect that your words convey.
And when language is being hijacked so that words by their very nature become exclusionary, our opponents are staking out territory. By acknowledging their language, we give them province over it. Instead, retake the debate with clear, direct language keyed to your meaning.
So there we are, some possibly obvious things to some, but things that should be remembered and prepared for as you proceed.
(Crossposted to The Spectrum Cafe)