Theoretical Trannies

If I call a beauty salon, tell them I am trans, and ask if they will provide me services, there is a good chance that they will say that they will not.

If, on the other hand, I walk in to that same salon, looking good and open, and ask if they provide services, there is a better chance they will say yes.

What’s the difference in these two cases?

In the first, I’m asking if they will help a theoretical tranny. To them that could mean a whole range of possibilities. Are they rough, are they crazy, are they sexual, are they a fetishist, what?

In the second, I’m asking if they can help me, a real person they can see and smell and get the sense of.

Individuals can be taken on an individual basis, but theoretical trannies scare people. Too many variables, too many potential problems, too many possible messes.

Heck, even I am uncomfortable about theoretical trannies. How much challenge do they offer for what reward?

It’s my sense that the key problem with Jessica Pettitt’s training on trans is that her training is about theoretical trannies, and those transpeople, well, they are paper thin and full of problems.

Ms. Pettitt herself is an open-hearted femme-identified woman who is traveling around and doing the work. After a decade of work advocating for transpeople, she has contact with lots of transpeople. She doesn’t trust the beauty in her own voice yet, doesn’t trust her own breath and her own poetry, but she works very hard to stand up for what is good and right, with humor and compassion. She was very gracious and engaging to me.

Still, her training isn’t about real transpeople made of real flesh and blood, with real humanity and real hearts. Instead, it is about theoretical trannys who have to exist in a context of sex, gender and sexual identity, who come at you as one paragraph cases to be considered, squashed flat and dried.

As she taught, I felt the urge to stride to the front of the room in my trans-shaman outfitand tell everyone to queue up. They could then all file past me and hug me, so they could go home and tell people they touched a real transwoman and it wasn’t that bad.

We had a table exercise to talk about how our privilege brought us power. The powerful stories at our table though came from how people walked away from power to claim their own heart, like the soft-butch who walked away from a career as a drag king, losing the money and the honeys so she could be true to who she knows herself to be. At that table we talked about where we cross between being rewarded for taking identities others affirmed and walking away to claim identities based on our own hearts.

Another woman talked about coming out as lesbian in the evangelical communities of her heritage, and how, though they couldn’t theoretically affirm her, they could accept her as a person, being kind and gracious to her and her partner.

This is a key reason why I identify trans not as an identity that comes from a box, but rather as an individual quest for authentic expression. I don’t want the standard treatment for standard trannies, I want personal treatment of me. I don’t want tolerance or acceptance, I need actual engagement, and we can only engage with real people, not theoretical ones.

But Ms. Pettitt didn’t have the advantage of having a box of real trannys to bring out, so her 32 pages of handouts were full of theoretical trannies, dusted and dried into marks from a copy machine.

I guess that’s why it should have been no surprise that people didn’t seem to warm up to her presentation; it’s hard to warm up to a flat piece of 8 1/2″ by 11″ paper copied on two sides.

That’s why I long ago walked away from Trans 101 presentations that start by flattening transpeople and boxing them up, instead affirming narratives that give breath and life to real stories of real people. Heck, even a trans-man acknowledged that his emergence came after he heard people tell their coming out stories and felt his own heart moved.

Maybe there aren’t enough grown-up real trannies to be out and welcoming, taking the blows, showing the flag and giving life and presence to the T in LGBT.

But that’s what I did this weekend at SUNYA, and I suppose I am glad that I did.

2 thoughts on “Theoretical Trannies”

  1. Great to meet you Callan! I had a great day today at the NELGBT Conference hosted by Gender and Sexuality Concerns Department at SUNY Albany.

    I agree that when talking about subordinated groups it is often easier to talk about “them” theoretically. I’m happy you were able to attend today.

    I would also like to say that the training today was geared for college administrators and students who are trying to create inclusive spaces for “unknown” trans people on campus. There is theoretical and silenced. Both are invisible.

    Thank you for your visibility and your work.

  2. Yes, it was great meeting you, Jessica.

    Your words about change being not something we ask for from others but something we foster inside ourselves, something that transforms the way we see the world and affects those we come in contact with were powerful. You clearly are committed to change yourself, and worked to infect the students in the room with that same devotion.

    It is hard to break the silence as a transperson who has experienced the stigma of being shamed into the closet. While it is great for our allies to work for safe space where explore language and other expression , ultimately we have to learn to speak for ourselves, as every individual must.

    Empowering transpeople to find their own voices seems to me to be the key to our moving forward, because it is only when we demand a say in our world, when we claim our own power, that we can be present in a way that demands we be considered.

    For me, at my table today, finding commonalities in how we claimed and shed roles that, while having rewards, limited our individual power, was a step towards that goal.

    Thank you for helping create a space where that was possible.

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