TBB asked me to think about what workshop I might give at the Creating Change conference in Houston this winter.
NGLTF wants sessions that offer activists experiences with tools they can use rather than just offering a venue for people to give their stump speech, at least one version of which all activists carry around in their back pocket.
I work with narrative, with the power of the trans story. My special skill is that I process the heck out of story to find the powerful threads in it. While my focus is on my own narrative, I use the tools of others stories to shape my own telling, working to cut away the dross and reveal the themes that connect us all. “In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing reveal our continuous common humanity,” as my personal mission statement goes.
I can talk about the progression of the trans narrative, from fantasy to function, how we first make stories that enervate us, titillate us because they touch the ecstatic bits of ourselves without being constrained by convention, and how we then move to a functional story designed to carve out a small space in the world where we can operate past social pressure. We grab a functional narrative and make it our own, be that based on crossdresser, drag queen, trans-feminist, transsexual separatist or any other model that we believe can explain and justify our own behaviour and choices in the world.
It’s when we get to the stage where we can just begin to trust the power of our own story, beyond the standard functional narratives, that we begin to show maturity and power. That’s when our story becomes human, with blood, sweat, tears and joy to share, and lets us really stand for ourselves. When go finally personal, we can let go of the functional narratives we used as a prop, no longer have to defend them and are no longer limited by their conventions.
So many transpeople come out and want to practice their functional narratives, still laced with fantasy, that they seem to be the face of transgender. This is a challenge, because it means our adolescents end up speaking for us, the ones with the simple stories who need to declaim, much easier to reduce to a soundbite than the complex and nuanced stories of mature and considered transpeople.
When I was a kid, it was the encounter group period. Between ninth and tenth grade, I was part of a program called “Generation Bridge” where students and business people got together for workshops, including an intensive weekend at Tufts. A business wanted to sell this, and got a local TV station in Boston to do an hour documentary. As by far the youngest person there — the other young people were in college — I had a lot of the focus, the first time I ever did filmed TV interviews.
One of the key components of this consciousness raising period — and if you read this blog, you know that I believe that CR is fundamental to activism — was learning how to listen. The basic exercise for that was simple: you listened to another person’s story, and then said it back to them, and they evaluated how much you understood of what they were saying.
This may sound simple, but it’s not. It’s amazing how much we use our own templates to hear others, trying to squeeze their story into our own expectations, biases and limits. We listen inside of our own fears and limits, not as an open process.
I remember one woman who wanted to do a film on trans. I knew her limits, so when she asked, I replied that I would work with her if she could explain back to me one idea I thought was crucial. She didn’t have to agree with it, like it or believe it, just had to explain it back to me in a way that validated that she heard it. The idea was that sex and gender are separate, one a biological cross-species definition based on reproductive biology and the other a social construct that starts with that biology but extends far beyond it.
She just couldn’t get what the fuck I was on about. When I spoke to some interns working with her, they chuckled as they told me how she had them read my e-mails and explain to her what I was babbling on about. They got it instantly, but their experience in trying to explain it to her just showed them the limits of her understanding.
Of course, it showed me that she was not someone I could trust to tell my story in the context of a film, that she would only use my narrative where it bolstered her viewpoints, her vision of how the world should be.
If I was going to do one experiential workshop with activists, it would be this simple. I would have them work in small groups and listen to each others stories, the polished tales they tell to make change in the world.
And then, I would have them stand in front of the group and tell the story of someone else, a story they just heard.
Can you listen well enough that they can do justice to the story that someone else entrusts to you? Can you take their story and honour their themes and beliefs, even if they are not the themes and beliefs you go to everyday? Can you make connections between their beliefs and yours that they find affirming and potent? Can you be their ally and speak not just for yourself but for a wider community?
This is the fundamental skill in so many areas, with so many people. It’s listening to stories and then being able to advocate for others, even others who are not just not like us, but others who make choices we would never, ever make for ourselves, that make us potent in creating change.
When we open our heart and our brain beyond our stump speech, we grow. And when we value and honour the stories others choose to share with us, we grow community.
This all seems wicked obvious to me, but I have met so many activists who seem to believe that creating change is about banging out their functional stories and demanding people listen to them that I know the understanding that listening is more important than speaking is not obvious to all. I may use my speech to find continuous common humanity between the hearts and minds that others have opened to me, but not everyone does that yet.
So, that’s what I would offer at Creating Change, I think. The Power Of Trans Narrative, where trans means through, or across. What connects us in community, what transverses our stories?
That and the fact that it’s much easier for me to write now I turned the bloody air conditioner on.