Many conversations have emerged in the wake of the DGR incidents at the Law and Disorder Conference. We have stood by as the DGR leaders have effectively shot themselves in the foot over an issue of trans inclusion, alienating potential allies and somehow forgetting that the earth is at stake here. We have seen virulent filth on both sides as the comment threads spiraled out of control in to violent personal attacks. Although much of this conversation, or diatribe, if you will, has taken place online, its real life implications cannot be understated. Lines have been drawn, and people have been forced to take a side. Speaking as the cis-gendered partner of a trans woman, I previously made assumptions that most of my friends saw my girlfriend’s identity as legitimate and our personal struggles against transphobia as real. I have been surprised to learn how many so-called friends have downplayed or delegitimized my feelings about this struggle, and questioned my girlfriend’s right to her identity. I have also been pleased to see real allies come out of the woodwork, with friends who had no personal investment in the issue supporting me and contributing to the dialogue (and one who had incredible investment in the issue choosing to renounce transphobia and break away from DGR). This issue has also brought to light unforseen power dynamics in my relationship, prompting me to recognize and check my cis-privilege.
Now that the clouds are beginning to break and tension is starting to dissipate, it is time to start moving forward. The question that we must ask ourselves now is: how do we make trans people feel welcome in radical environmental spaces? A safe space policy does not an inclusive movement make. This issue is unique in that trans people are quite a minority. I have been lucky that my experience in the radical environmental movement involves gender analysis, but many organizers just haven’t had to think about this issue until now. (I think it is also important to note that, despite our gender analysis, my community, like many radical communities, is full of people on the transmasculine spectrum while having only a few transfeminine voices.) This article is dedicated specifically to trans allyship, but I hope that it is the start of a bigger conversation. Although we pay lip-service to radical inclusion, our spaces tend to be overwhelmingly white, class privileged, and despite a shift in leadership towards gender equity, unchecked male privilege and sexual harassment are far from a thing of the past. Workshops on oppression and allyship are almost always offered at conferences, but they are usually optional and often overwhelmingly attended by those who suffer from that oppression.
I encourage members and/or educated allies of all oppressed or underrepresented groups to provide concrete steps towards allyship, and for conference organizers to make sure that all voices are heard in a mandatory anti-oppression workshop. We must remember that the earth is at stake here. When we alienate potential allies, not only are we violating the right of every individual (human or not) to be treated with dignity and respect, we lose out on the talent, innovation, and people-power that we need to ensure that our movements survive and move forward.
What kind of oppression are we talking about here?
Here’s a short list of appalling statistics: Last year, 78 trans women were murdered because of their gender expression, and those are just the ones that were reported to police, forget the ones that were actually murdered by police (Transgender Day of Remembrance Website). Forty-one percent of trans people have attempted suicide, and 88% have been harassed at school, causing 1 in 6 to drop out. One in 5 have experienced homelessness, and 22% report being sexually assaulted by staff in a homeless shelter. (Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Survey) At least 19% percent of trans women live with HIV, and many have no other option but to do sex work because of widespread job discrimination. (avert.org) Many trans people deal with sexual harassment every single day of their lives, with media sensationalizing and sexualization especially affecting trans women. Trans women experience a unique intersection of sexism and transphobia called transmisogony, in which the authenticity of their femininity is constantly called in to question in a world that assumes that malenss and masculinity is normal and natural and femininity is considered frivolous and performative. Many trans men also experience specific types of oppression, including the cissexism and hypermasculinity within gay culture, and the unique issues that come with being a man who can physically reproduce. It is important to note that trans people experience complex intersections of oppression and privilege, and no two trans people have the same experience. A trans person who “passes” as cisgendered may have power over a trans person who does not have the phenotypical characteristics of that match their gender. A genderqueer person who was socialized male does not automatically give up their privilege by changing their pronouns. These intersections of power should be acknowledged and examined in a compassionate and respectful way. They should NEVER be used as an excuse to disrespect or delegitimize anyone’s personal experience of gender.
Concrete Steps towards trans allyship
(1) Educate yourself!
Let me get one thing straight. It is NOT your trans friends’ job to educate you about why they are trans, or to tell you about the various oppressions that they face because they are trans. They have to deal with gender every day. It gets old to have to talk about or explain it incessantly, especially if you just figuring this stuff out and want to provide some “insight” that they have probably heard hundreds of times. The one book that I would recommend to everyone is “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano. This book is not perfect, and has been criticized by trans people over the use of some terminology, as well as Serano’s defense of the term “bisexual.” However, it provides an amazing analysis of the relationship between patriarchal oppression and transphobia, and also provides biological, as well as socialization arguments for transsexuality.
I’m going to challenge you to take the next twenty minutes to read this trans allyship short list:
Not Your Mom’s Trans 101: http://tranarchism.com/2010/11/26/not-your-moms-trans-101/
trans oppression: http://www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/ntds
(2) Talk to your trans friends!
While it is not trans people’s responsibility to educate you, we should be asking trans people, under the right circumstances and after they have consented to the conversation, what we can do to make them feel more welcome in radical spaces. If they choose to speak about their oppression, it is important that we listen with an open mind and validate their experience.
(3) ALWAYS ask for gender pronouns
I’m happy to see most of the radical spaces that I participate in doing a round of names and preferred gender pronouns as part of a check-in. However, we really need to be asking EVERYONE what their PGP is when we meet them, whether or not we are in a radical space. We also need to be educating people about what preferred gender pronouns are. I’ve definitely seen the abbreviation “PGP” used as a way to alienate those who don’t share our culture or vocabulary, causing new people to get caught off guard and feel self-conscious when they don’t understand what is being asked of them.
(4) Avoid oppressive language!
a. Obviously, deliberately or unintentionally misgendering is oppressive. If you find yourself consistently unintentionally misgendering someone, practice talking or thinking about them with their pronuon until it becomes second nature.
b. Other discourses about language get more complicated, since gender is so ingrained in our minds that we are having to create new language to talk about this stuff. To start off, we need to add the term “cisgendered” to our collective vocabularies. This latin root, meaning “to the near side of,” means that a person identifies with the gender that they were socialized with. It is the opposite of transgender in the same way that “heterosexual” is the opposite of “homosexual.” (Let’s save the argument about “opposite genders and sexualities” for another day and accept this analogy as a teaching tool ok?)
c. When in doubt, always say the word “transgender” over “transsexual,” and identify “out” trans people as “trans women” and “trans men” rather than “male to female (MTF)” or “female to male (FTM).”
d. The word “tranny” has been reclaimed by some trans people, but many trans women criticize trans men reclaiming a term that has traditionally been used to oppress trans women. If you are cisgendered, avoid it. Instead of saying that someone was “born a woman,” say that they were “socialized as female.”
e. Avoid words like “female or male bodied.” After all, equating gender with physical parts is what we are trying avoid here. If you are talking about physical parts, name them as they are: uteruses, vaginas, penises, prostates etc…Doing otherwise is abelist as well as transphobic, as it alienates cis-women without uteruses, cis-men without testes etc…Practice this language in all of your interactions. I am a birth educator, and with a lot of practice I have been able to replace cissexist language with more neutral terms like “birthing person,” “parent,” “breastfeeding person” etc…After attending a cissexist presentation on reproductive health, my girlfriend returned crying and shaking, saying “it felt like they were insulting my body over and over again!” Changing cis-sexist language may seem like a lot of work, but it makes such a difference for trans people. Just do it!
(5) Stand up to Trans Oppression!
Fighting against oppression daily gets tiring, and some trans people choose to suffer silently rather than go through the emotionally taxing process of constantly calling people out for oppressive behavior. If you see oppressive behavior happening, (most commonly a constant or deliberate misgendering,) ask the trans person if they would like for you to stand up for them, and make sure that you agree on the specific actions that are to take place. While misgendering is the most common problem that you are likely to encounter, remember that trans people experience many different types of oppression, including physical violence. Being an ally may include getting in to a fist fight to defend a friend, or you may be asked to take action to seek justice against a trans bashing. Be prepared for that.
(6) Check your cis-privilege
I am constantly forgetting that my girlfriend can’t use the bathroom in any place that doesn’t have single stalls, that she can’t feel safe in public spaces like the bus, and that she can’t feel comfortable around any of my friends that are ignorant of trans issues. Read the list of cis-privileges and take it to heart. Keep it in mind when choosing an event space, making plans, or planning an action, and adjust your behavior accordingly. Even if there are no visible trans people in your group, trans-friendly structures must be in place for trans people to feel comfortable joining.
(7) Don’t be afraid of being called out!
Given the power imbalances and abusive nature of the dominant culture, most of us are socialized with truly awful communication skills. While many of us are doing our best to un-learn those behaviors, those old habits of silencing ourselves until we explode with anger, and denying and deflecting when we are confronted with conflict still rear their ugly heads so often in our interactions. It seems like the zinelibrary.info site is down, and I no longer have access to zines about the culture of calling out. Here is a mainstream resource about how to call someone out, which totally lacks political analysis. Please replace it with something better if you know of something:
This resource utilizes a form of non-violent communication. I want to say that the process of non-violent communication, in many circumstances, has been used against us as another tool of deflection and denial when confronting oppressive behavior. However, I still believe that it can be useful in many circumstances, especially when the end goal is to get someone to recognize and change their oppressive behavior. We need to create a culture where it’s OK to get called out. If a person is truly unaware that they are being oppressive, it is their right to be confronted in a compassionate and respectful manner, and be presented with the opportunity to change their behavior in concrete ways. I also want to acknowledge that trans people deal with so much shit every day, that an ignorant comment, especially in a space that they have been made to believe is safe, can provoke sadness, anger, and even rage. If a trans person calls out a cis person in anger, the cis person should be able to take care of his or her self and leave the situation, but the power dynamics of cis-privlege and trans oppression should be acknowledged and confronted. With explicit permission, this can be a good opportunity for a cis-person to step in and educate/mediate when a trans person feels triggered or overwhelmed.
I welcome feedback about this list (especially from trans people) and encourage others to use it as a teaching tool. I hope that we can turn the shit that has gone down over the past couple of weeks in to compost, and that we can all grow from the experience. Trans people have been silenced for long enough. It’s time to demand equity and respect