It was a long time ago that I went to the first session on the first morning of my first trans conference and asked a question.
“Men and women take power in different ways,” I said. “How have you shifted the way you take power in the world as part of your gender shift?”
That question continues to challenge me 22 years later.
My footing in the world, the way people see me, is always shifting. I can be a big woman one moment and a guy-in-a-dress the next, with no change in my demeanor. Some people see me as smart & courageous, others see me as a a freaky threat. They project their own expectations onto me, deciding that I am wrong or fake or a liar, deciding that I am really this or really that.
Am I one of the women or am I an intruder in female space? Am I just a deluded guy or is my feminine heart and way it responds visible?
Where do I find my powerbase?
For some transwomen, we continue with the power we had before transition, choosing to stay on the same trajectory.
For others of is, we learn to surrender our voice to the group, becoming innocuous, just in the background. We become as abject and powerless as we are expected to be.
And some of us stay iconoclastic crackpots, bold enough to stand against the expected, sometimes finding a place we are valued and often not doing so.
I found my powerbase by being a caregiver. I was the spinster daughter in trousers and polo shirt making sure the parents had one more good day. That was enormously hard work, but at least it wasn’t valued as anything much, so no one wanted to take it away from me.
I need a new powerbase. But I haven’t been able to find the guide that tells me what kind of stance I can take in the world which will both get me the understanding & affirmation that I need and the effectiveness & power which lets me be effective in community.
The first thing I knew about trans was that I needed to hide it. I remember getting caught liking girls clothes when I was very young, remember getting slashed with words for my actions.
The models I found for being trans in the world were about hiding.
I first heard Virginia Prince on the radio just eight years after she founded the “Hose And Heels Club” where, after a businesslike dinner, the men would pull out a bag with their shoes and nylons and put them on before talking about their transvestism. The assumption was that no LAPD officer would degrade himself that way just to bust them.
And it was only two years after Harry Benjamin published “The Transsexual Phenomenon” which clearly laid out the path of creating a new transitional life in a new town which could then be discarded so perfect womanhood could be ascended into.
The choice for transpeople was what to hide and when. Lie or be called a liar (1997) as I understood it.
Today, we don’t have to lie. But what we do have to do is not distress people with the facets of our life that they see as contradictory. Most people can make sense of what they see in front of them, somehow, but what they can’t make sense of is someone who crosses a boundary they see as real, powerful and inviolate.
Asking people to understand our experience tends to just baffle, confuse and frustrate them. They never had to do the work to understand and contextualize their own experience, rather, they just took their assigned path for granted in a way that transpeople never can.
Instead of lying, we just have to simplify. We just have to be easy enough that they can project their normative assumptions, whatever those might be, onto us. Once we can live with keeping big parts of us in shadow, we can start to act as one of the group, being present for them in a way that they cannot be present for us.
If we have to simplify ourselves for the comfort of others, what do we choose to make invisible? Policing ourselves always also attenuates our power in the world, passing our instincts and smarts through a filter to remove what might just be objectionable or challenging. If we have to conceal, why not just attempt to conceal our trans nature altogether?
Building power in the world by focusing on shared concerns is a reasonable plan. After all, nobody brings their entire messy self into the business world. Instead, we all become good corporate citizens, even if that limits the amount of unique innovation and skills we can bring to the shared table.
For me, though, that is challenging because the lessons of my life come directly from my very queer experience. My approach to the world is far from conventional and it is that very unique view that makes it powerful and valuable, even if others have a hard time seeing it.
Only leaders who really value diversity, knowing that if an organization doesn’t challenge itself first it will not thrive in the world, are ready to do the work of becoming inclusive, committing to the bigger picture. Most leaders like the idea of simplification, of dumbing down, of not feeling the heat of different visions.
Transpeople struggle with finding themselves, yes, but more than that we struggle with finding a place where we can be seen, understood and valued for the unique gifts they bring to the group.
How do we take power in a world where our standing is so slippery, where it feels like we have to conceal much of who we are and who we have been to be accepted as real and authentic by other people?
The old tricks were simple. We just built compartments, sealing off part of ourselves in a tomb of our own making.
The new tricks are more difficult. How do we include power shift as part of our gender shift, finding ways to be effective and valued for what we do in community? How do we not get stuck in old patterns or shunted off to the side, marginalized and dismissed as kooks?
How do we not have to hide part of us even from ourselves, living behind armour walls, policing our every expression and trying to be free with than dammed stick shoved up our ass?
How do transpeople take their place as a valued member of the community, not sick or weird, but with a vision that moves beyond separation to connection?
How do I take my power in the world?