I was pleased to see Sharon Stuart again this week, a bigendered person whose work with Phyllis Frye on legal issues around transgender has been fundamental to much of the changes that have come in the past decade.
It was very nice that she valued my contribution at the forum we attended. I really appreciate it when we build each other up rather than tear each other down, spreading the jam around and encouraging the best from others.
When I get called a spokesperson, though, I get uncomfortable. A spokesperson is seen to represent the views of a group. When someone who sees themselves as a member of that group disagrees with what the “spokesperson” says, they can get angry and heated.
To me, a spokesperson is an official position, conveying the official view of an organization. It is a job of service, always accountable to the organization and its values. I have done that work in the past, speaking with the corporate voice, and while I respect it, there is no corporation backing me now.
I speak for me. I express my own experience and my own understandings. Yes, I work hard to make sure that I am aware of and respectful to the experiences and understandings of other transpeople, shaping my words to allow considerate space for their narratives, but I do not, do not ever, claim to speak for anyone else but me.
There was a time when I wanted to be objective and rational when communicating about trans. I wanted to be scholarly, professional, distanced. I wanted to work in theory, not story.
The limits of that approach quickly began to show. At the core, transgender is about desire, about some deep need of the heart to show its truth. Transgender is not a clinical issue that can be medicalized or codified, because dissecting it always ends up squeezing the life out of it, and transgender is in that soul, that life.
Trans 101 session that start with separating transpeople have real limits. So do attempts to create spectrums that try to delineate ranges. The intent may be good, creating shared language, but in my experience the effect is chilling, taking the real human needs out of the heart of transgender nature.
Transgender people need to tell our stories. We need to learn to tell them in a broader context, using clear and precise language which keeps our own narratives in respectful relationship with transpeople who make very different choices, choices we would never make for ourselves.
Internalized transphobia keeps us apart. I asked someone today who was the person who made them the most uncomfortable at the transgender support group they went to last night. I knew that the person who squicked them the most was the person who was struggling with the same issues she was fighting. What we resist in ourselves, we find really irritating in others, which tends to make us refuse to respect their choices, even their choices of rationalization and denial.
My own queerness is often either challenging or incomprehensible to transpeople who are still resisting their own queerness. They end up eliminating, minimizing or surfacing it in their view of me, reducing my narrative to one that supports their own current worldview rather than expanding their vision to respect my story. They cut me down to their chosen size and shape, which leaves me stung and upset.
I don’t ever claim to speak for anyone but myself. That is more than enough of a challenge for me to do in this world.
There are people, I know, who do value what I have to say. They hear my stories and they get clear reflections of their own struggles, experiences and views. They feel that my words respect and value their own experience of their lives. \
These people want my expressions to be heard more widely, to be more known and understood in the world because they believe that my words will help them expand and explain their views in a bigger world. My communication resonates with them, so they are willing to grant me the right to be, at least on a limited basis, a spokesperson for them in the world.
One of my first experiences with this was back in 1997 at a local event facilitated by the National Coalition Building Institute. Many of the transpeople there came up to me and told me how pleased they were to have me speak about trans, and how distressed they were when other participants spoke. I could support a range, but the other transpeople got squicked by each other.
As gratified as I am that people I respect will encourage me to speak up, lending their support and encouraging me to speak for them in the world, I know that, in the end, they are the only ones who can fully speak for themselves. I am not their spokesperson, nor would I want to be, because I value their strong and experienced voices too much to replace them.
This is, of course, part of my resistance to trying to identify transgender as a group identity rather than a queer, individual one. We each have claimed the contents of our own heart over the expectations and conventions of the world, and those hearts need to sing, to speak, to dance, to draw, to shout, to write, to create their own potent expression in the world, glittering with all the pearls and jewels of a hard, brave and bold personal journey.
When I walk into spaces that are supposed to be trans affirming and trans voices are not valued and aggrandized, I find that chilling. I do know how many transvoices are muffled or still strangulated with the experience of the closet, know that we each have been broken some by a society that thinks it is appropriate and kind to try and break the transgender spirit inside. I also know that unless we value the voices of others, we can never really value our own voice.
I speak for myself, not the spokesperson for anyone but me. I am glad to be seen as articulate and thoughtful, even “eloquent,” glad that others see my contributions as valuable and worth their support, but I do not speak for them.
They can each speak for themselves. And as long as they stay to the heart, telling their own positive story rather than their rationalizations and connivances, their negations and dismissals, I am very happy to listen and let their narrative help make my expression of my own story more clear and connected.