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.
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.