It’s been a weird year for trans people.
Allow me to be more specific: It’s been a heated, daring, tumultuous, graphic, specularizing, aggressive, pointed, contentious, highly fatal, and really, really complicated year for trans people.
Here are a few examples: Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, and many other transwomen of color have been brutally murdered at the hands of lovers, family members, and strangers. Meanwhile, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have come to fame and exhibited incredible feats of grace, articulation, and poignancy under the gaze of an eager media. Blake Brockington, Leelah Alcorn, Taylor Alesana, and many other transgender youth have committed suicide after enduring endless bullying and systematic brutality. Meanwhile, Jazz Jennings became the new face of Clean & Clear and published a children’s picture book about her life, and teen trans couple Arin Andrews and Katie Hill (best known for “Can You Even Believe They’re Trans?!” types of headlines) wrote and published individual books about their very public relationship and their mutual transitions. Transman Aydian Dowling took a dramatic lead in the Men’s Health cover contest, and newly out Caitlyn Jenner displayed her insta-transition on the cover of Vanity Fair. Meanwhile, trans people without the genetic predisposition/material wealth/desire to transition into cisnormatively beautiful bodies are disproportionately homeless, or sexually exploited, or incarcerated, or dead.
So, to recap: Transwomen are either models of cisnormative beauty, or they’re dead. Trans youth are either models of cisnormative beauty, or they’re dead. Transmen are either models of cisnormative beauty, or they simply don’t exist. This is the landscape for trans media representation in 2015.
I’m not saying 2015 has offered nothing in the way of pride and productivity for trans people. I’m not even saying the events being applauded as progress are totally useless. But interpretations of ‘pride’ and ‘productivity’ for transgender Americans, as exemplified by Media representation in 2015, have left most of us transfolks (particularly the ones desperate for space and resources) still silenced by louder, more privileged, more lucrative, and more entertaining trans narratives.
If nothing else can be said about this weird cultural climate, it has certainly established a whole gaggle of cisgender people claiming to want to be good advocates for transfolks. The problem, of course, is most new “allies” seem to think reposting Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal photo entitles them to a freshly baked ally cookie, and anyone (even transfolks) challenging the ways they think about transfolks sends them into an immediate cis-savior defensiveness downspiral. Thanks to the Media, even cis people calling themselves “allies” still think they know more about trans people than trans people do, and they are more than happy to tell transfolks to shut up when they don’t like what they’re hearing.
I am here to tell you that I have no cookies to offer. If you still want to be an advocate for transgender people, then you may actually care about transgender people. Neat. Read on.
Here is a short list of standards and principles you can integrate into your daily life to be an all around better person, and to do something with your cisgender privilege (beyond asking pronouns and not asking stupid questions, which are also important) in the era of armchair activism.
1. Shut up.
If one more cis person tells me they’re “entitled to their opinion” about this whole Caitlyn Jenner thing, I’m gonna go pre-maturely gray. When trans people are talking about trans things, stop talking and listen. Turn down the volume on your cis privilege and take your sound-cancelling defensiveness headphones off. When a trans person says, “This media story makes me uncomfortable,” you can say, “Do you want to say more about that?” You cannot say, “You’re thinking about this all wrong!” When a trans person says, “I am really frustrated by the way I’m feeling/being treated,” you can say “Is there something I can do to support you?” You cannot say “But imagine how much worse it could be!” The number one best thing you can do as a cis person advocating for trans people is remember that trans people are experts on their own lives, and though we may or may not be open to hearing it, we don’t actually need your opinion.
2. Show up.
As a cisgender person, regardless of your other intersecting identities, you are privileged with spaces and resources that trans people are not afforded. You may or may not be aware of what these privileges are or how they affect your daily life, but I assure you they are there. Depending on where you find yourself in the matrix of oppression and privilege, there are a variety of ways you might use your position to support transgender people. Can you give $1000 to your friend’s surgery fund? Amazing, do that. Can you give $5? Fabulous, do that then. Do you parent or work with kids? Identify gender-positive youth work or parenting practices that allow your young people to make their own choices about gender expression. Do you work in management or administration? Help ensure your space is safer and more accessible for trans folks, like supporting trans-inclusive hiring practices. Going out to dinner with a friend who’s trans? Choose a place they’ll be able to pee. Micro or macro, just do what you can, and don’t be a dick about it.
3. Stop crying.
Despite the many severe trials and tribulations experienced by transgender communities, it ain’t all bad. While I certainly appreciate the support I have received from my family and peers, the “gosh, you’re just so brave” line is more than a little exhausting. We are people capable of all kinds of emotions: bravery and fear, celebration and crisis, love and pain, and plenty in between. Most of us have some people we call family or friends, most of us have some hobbies and interests we enjoy, most of us laugh as much if not more than we cry. Trans people, like disabled people or homeless people or otherwise seemingly “tragic” people, do not exist to be your inspiration porn. Show us your pride in us by letting both our pains and our successes be our own.
4. Remember we walk among you.
Turns out not all trans people are celebrities (even if we are in our own heads). In fact, despite our transitions, most of us have incredibly boring lives. I won’t say we’re no different from cisgender people, as that’s certainly not the case. But we do drive the same streets as you, and go to the same schools as you, and shop in the same stores as you. If there are trans people in your life, remember we are more than our gender identities. If you are in public, remember there’s probably a trans person within earshot. Remember we are real people with real lives and real needs, working at jobs and living in homes if we’re so privileged, and we need real, honest, authentic advocates to support us in the parts of survival that feel hard. And we also probably don’t want to talk to you about Caitlyn Jenner anymore.
5. Get your information about trans people from trans people.
That doesn’t mean open season on questions about trans politics for any trans person you encounter. Being a trans person who studies and writes gender theory, I am usually somewhere on the happy-to-okay scale about having these conversations with people, but not all trans people live in that sort of headspace. There are an abundance of transfolk writers, scholars, and activists that continuously publish work on any and all aspects of transgender identity, and they are certainly less likely to include/reproduce icky rhetorical errors and factual inaccuracies than cis people writing on the same things. Plus, reading a narrative that a trans person has published with the intent of being read is a much less invasive way of absorbing information than prodding your token trans acquaintance for answers. Some texts are certainly more academic than others, and those can prove difficult to access intellectually if you are not familiar with gender/social theory fields. If you’re new to this whole thing, start with a few gentle reads: Transgender Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue by Leslie Feinberg, Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, and Redefining Realness by Janet Mock are all excellent places to start. Just read a book, goddammit.
That’s it. That’s all I got. You take it from here.