Activism Period

The biggest problem facing transgender activists is that for most transpeople their activism period is quite short.   They aren’t activists until they emerge as trans, not fighting from the closet, and they only stay activists until they find a way to assimilate, blending into a full life.

While gay & lesbian are lifetime identities — you are always with a partner or looking for a new one — in many ways trans is traditionally a transitive identity.   You emerge as trans, do the work of finding yourself and then you take on a more normative identity again, still trans but moving that bit to the background where it won’t get in the way of doing other work.

The people in this activity period are therefore quite raw, unformed and undependable.   They are in the process of change, so they can change at any time, resetting priorities and acting out against former allies.

As a mature person who happens to be trans, why do we want to be identified with these raw people?   We know that they are likely to bite the hand that reaches out to help them, acting out of pain, aggression and rebellion.   Their rawness is obvious to us even as they try to claim a voice, so we know to keep out of their way.

So many trans activists are in their raw activity period that as a group they have trouble respecting or even understanding those transpeople who have chosen a measure of assimilation for themselves.   They come from “call out culture,” the pattern of slamming and shaming people who don’t play along, who don’t surrender their voice to the will of the mob.

Since these raw activists reject any aspiration of assimilating, they reject people who carry those values, even if those values are crucial to transpeople taking their part in mature political action.

For most mature transpeople, they did their work in the mess and drama of the interlocking communities around trans and have little interest in going back there.

Besides, what does being big, bold and trans gain them, anyway?   For gay & lesbian folks their identification gains them access to a network of potential partners, but since transgender isn’t an orientation, there is no such benefit built in.

Transpeople out of their activism period have had to learn to live within the society as it is, figuring out how to keep their heads down, stay invisible enough and get what they need without additional legislation or the demand that everyone wear a pin with their chosen pronoun on it.    They learned how to show themselves in the world, learned how to make peace with the limits of their expression, learned, at least to some degree to have the courage to change what they can change, the serenity to accept what they cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.

Activists want transpeople to make political choices, throwing themselves against the status quo.  Transpeople outside of their activity period, though, want to make life choices, fitting in where they can, claiming a full life and only pushing for change where it is possible and really needed.

Personally, I don’t need my life to be more politicized, by people who want to erase people like me or by people who want people like me to be tools to be thrown against the establishment.

So many tools that activists use, like the overblown fear of murder (2006) or the rage around bathroom policing are based around promoting a mindset of fear, abjection and victimization in transpeople.   While this may be effective for those in the activist period, mature transpeople have had to work hard to let go of their shame and fear to claim effectiveness in the organizations and communities they belong to.

In the long term, political effectiveness has to be built around possibility and hope, the idea that if we build communal structures that we can get behind we can lift up all of us, offering a kind of integration which allows the benefits of belonging flow even to the least among us.

As long as emerging transpeople have the loudest voice, though, as long as their flaming rebellion setting the agenda, attempts to build structures of inclusion will always be the targets of bomb throwers who have the arrogance and ignorance to reject compromise and destroy the good.   The perfect is the enemy of the good, because perfect is impossible, no matter how much you want to pick apart rather than build up.

Activists often grab the spotlight to inflame anger, believing that is the way to get cohesion and action in the mob.   They like being the point of the spear, focusing their own rage against any who don’t fall into line and do what they define as “the right thing.”

Expanding the activism period for transpeople can never be about getting more people more upset, rather it has to be about offering a mature, considered, attentive and responsive movement that feels inclusive & valuable rather than just feeling demanding & sensational.

This is not easy.   I spent a decade leading a trans group in the area and I know well the experience of putting together events and then being alone at them as I waited to support and encourage other transpeople.   If they were in a closet, either the closet before emergence or the closet at the end of the rainbow, shrunken to assimilate, they weren’t ready to maturely engage with other raw transpeople in a mature way.

There may be few benefits to being a visible transperson, but making being less than visible intolerable by those who are still raw and raging will never change the benefits, never expand the base.

We need something clear and gracious to fight for, not some bogeyman to fight against.   And we need to believe that if we show up we will not be shamed by some raw and raging transpeople.

Pride has long been the focus of gay & lesbian political action, but it is hard to join a movement full of those we do not feel proud of standing with.   No matter how much activists tell us we need to surrender our voice to victims, to the weakest of us, those taking responsibility and acting with grace towards people who aren’t like them are much easier to support.

If the pain of one of us is the pain of all of us, then the joy of one of is is also the joy of all of us.  When support groups can affirm the transperson who just got the promotion at work, now able to buy a better car rather than shaming that sharing, asking us to consider the weakest and most broken of us and how that sharing makes them feel, then we start to have the basis for healthy, inclusive community and effective political action.

It would be great for transpeople to have a more powerful voice in society.

I just don’t think we get that by striving to keep them raw and raging for more time.

Without Ears

For me, the most important question at the regional Trans/Gender Non-Conforming town hall was why so few people showed up.   We had only four at the start time, only seven for most of the event, though a couple more showed up in the last half hour.

When I tried to raise this question with the local organizer, though, she didn’t want to engage my “negativity.”   She wanted to talk about why everyone should be here, what they should have read in the on-line notices, why it is so important that they be out.

In my experience, pronouncing that things “should” be different rarely creates a difference.  Instead, only putting yourself in the mindset of those you want to serve and attract can help you shape event which make them feel welcome, valued and heard.

I can’t count how many times this organizer explained that it wasn’t her responsibility to consider how other people think, how they respond to her choices.

“My grandfather told me when I was nine that it ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to, so if they have a problem with me, well, their problem,” was a line we heard over and over and over again.

While that may be valid path to a bold trans life, walking strong in your own skin, it doesn’t help you understand what other people need and how you can be more effective in drawing them in.

The pattern, though, happened over and over again, when someone would share their experience or tales from another only to be told that they were doing it wrong, taking too much on themselves, engaging what others called them.

This, of course, was the reason I had suggested that few people came to the event, because they didn’t want to hear others pontificate and tell them they were doing trans wrong, that their feelings were wrong and they should come with a political strength that claimed space in the world.

The state leader was well versed in corporate culture, so she did get notes up on the five different boards, the five different categories set up.

To end the evening, though, she snapped into trainer mode — her seat at the front of the room always marked her status — and lectured us on privilege.  She told us that we had to own our own story in a way that would be effective with legislators, 3-5 minute elevator speeches which were earnest and persuasive.

The intent of the leaders was good, creating a space where others could be heard, but at the farm, some animals are more equal than others.

How do we get transpeople who don’t want to have to have their life turned into a brick in the road towards change, politicized and consistent with the common narrative, back into the room?

To me, it’s the big question, and the big answer is simple: make them feel seen, heard and valued for their unique contribution to the group.

When the leaders have trouble hearing, though, encouraging even a pushy loud-mouthed language user like me to drop out of the conversation, well, it is doubtful that those still struggling will find much value in investing their time and energy into the meeting.

Like so very many trans events, the logistics were weak, everyone scrambling to pack up before closing, even if the intentions were good and kindly.

Learning to listen, to ask questions to evoke stories, is at the heart of my own personal understanding of the broader trans experience.  Even if I see someone making choices that I would not make for myself, having feelings that need healing, or offering rationalizations that I know wont serve in the long run, I know they need to feel heard before they can ever hear me.

Why aren’t transpeople coming together to support each other?

I just don’t believe telling them why they should will ever make much of a change in their behaviour.  If what you offer doesn’t seem valuable and empowering, well, then you have to change what you offer.

First, though, you have to actually understand what the punters do want, do need and will give up precious time, focus and resources for.

In my experience, that takes a real willingness to listen, not just to preach the old chestnuts, recite the current doctrine.

Listening and caring what others think and feel is essential to being a good marketer, and more importantly, to being a good mom.