My Dyke March Story: A Trans Woman’s Narrative

2011 April 23

This is an account of some of the experiences I had while trying to organize with the Chicago Dyke March Collective (CDMC) in 2009. The main reason I am writing this now is the same reason that I participate in trans activism: I want to see the day when no new names are read at Transgender Day of Remembrance vigils. During my brief stint in CDMC I survived a number of instances of transphobia and misogyny, including the decision of one of the members to put me in a potentially life-threatening situation. Whatever else might be said about CDMC, I do not know any member of the collective who would deny this. Indeed a member of CDMC recently sent me an apology on the behalf of the collective. Even so, if anyone were to have visited CDMC’s web presence at any point during the nearly two years that passed before CDMC so much as apologized, they could have been excused for thinking not only that CDMC welcomed all trans people but also that trans people were part of the collective’s decision-making process. If CDMC’s words are not a narrative, they at least implicate a narrative—a narrative that has no room for a trans woman who was effectively driven from the collective and has yet to see justice. As long as trans people are at risk of entering CDMC unaware of its history, I cannot afford to remain silent.

My story begins on April 14, 2009. If this date seems familiar to you, faithful reader, it may be that you remember it as the day I came out to myself as a woman. On that day everything fell into place for me. The reason I had long felt inclined to call myself a lesbian was that I was a lesbian or, as I prefer to say now, a woman. Feeling celebratory, I wanted to find other queer women to express my pride with. The Dyke March was by far my favorite part of Pride Weekend (the weekend when folks in Chicago and many other cities around the world commemorate the Stonewall riots, which mark the beginning of the modern queer rights movement), so I felt I would be a good match for the collective. I was not naïve, however. I knew that there had been a history of transphobia in Dyke Marches in general and the Chicago Dyke March in particular. So I decided to look at CDMC’s web site, hoping to find its policy regarding trans people. This is what I found on its Myspace page (and what can still be found on CDMC’s Facebook page and WordPress blog):

Chicago Dyke March is a grassroots mobilization and celebration of dyke, queer, and transgender resilience.

Though I found this encouraging at the time, it was perhaps my first clue that CDMC had a structural problem. I might have just come out to myself as a woman, but I had known for more than four years that I was not a man, and so I had already long been involved in queer and trans activism. On at least one occasion the Queer and Trans Caucus of the Chicagoland Anarchist Network, one of the groups I worked with, had had a very visible presence in Dyke March. Despite this I had never once known a CDMC member to invite members of the groups I worked with to help with the planning. Indeed it seemed to me that the general perception among the activists I worked with was that the collective was only open to dykes. But with hindsight being better than foresight I quickly sent the collective an e-mail, asking to be involved.

Trouble arose almost immediately. The less severe of the two problems I had when I had first joined CDMC was that, well, I had not joined CDMC. Though my e-mail address was on CDMC’s listserv, available for all thirty or so subscribers to see, no one ever told me when meetings were held. The only reason I was able to attend my first CDMC meeting was that someone outside the collective told me the meeting time. So I went to the meeting, informed the members who were present of the problem, and I gave one of them my cell phone number. After this I continued to miss a number of meetings, because as before no one was telling me when they were being held.

When I was finally added to CDMC’s listserv, it seemed that I had hurdled the obstacles to my involvement just in time. A discussion arose about the Radical Cheerleaders, who had been unfurling an unwelcome mat for trans women and transfeminine people by various means, including the use of the slur chicks with dicks in one of its cheers. Though some red flags were raised during our initial conversation, I left the following meeting feeling that, if nothing else, everyone who had been present at the meeting understood that it is only for trans women and transfeminine people to reclaim transphobic, misogynistic epithets. What I did not know at the time was that one of the members present at the meeting—I will call her Rose—had already forwarded the entire listserv discussion about instances of transphobia at Dyke March, including my name and e-mail address, to two cisgender members of the Radical Cheerleaders. It would be weeks before I knew the extent to which my initiation into Dyke March was a baptism of fire.

Even while Rose hid her indiscretion, it quickly became apparent that problems remained. It turned out that the inaction I encountered when I had tried to join CDMC was not isolated. Any time a trans woman contacted CDMC turn-around time was slow. I developed a strategy for those occasions when a trans woman reached out to us: I asked the other members what the collective’s policy was regarding the issue at hand, waited twenty-four hours for a response (which I would never receive), and then act unilaterally to address the problem. But when I was the trans woman with a concern, who was there to help me? Finally I called out various members for their cissexism; backlash ensued. After reading the content of Rose’s response I felt the need to point out to her that tranny was a transphobic, misogynistic slur, even though I had already done so not long before. I went to the next meeting thinking that we would discuss cissexism, but the double-than-usual turn-out was more interested in discussing me. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to disclose that she had betrayed me, Rose talked about the cis woman tears she had shed. It was in this gaslit setting that I agreed to take a step back from criticizing members of the group. If I have only one regret from my time with CDMC, it was that in that moment I sewed shut the lips of the only member of the collective who was transgender and the only member of the collective who had consistently taken initiative in confronting cissexism and sexism.

After the meeting a week passed before Rose finally disclosed her betrayal. The revelation was not to be found in an apology or in an expression of sorrow but in a message to the collective’s listserv in which Rose blithely announced that the Radical Cheerleaders had found a replacement for the term chicks with dicks—namely, tranny chicks. Only one member bothered to respond; she proposed that the matter of the privacy violation be dealt with in a closed committee meeting where neither I nor any other transgender person would be present. Out of concern for my safety I left CDMC.

I have seen some stellar displays of solidarity since Chicago Dyke March 2009. However, other Chicago activists have distinguished themselves by supporting CDMC, even after it had repeatedly shown that it was more interested in being actively involved in trans people’s oppression than in our liberation. Affinity allowed CDMC to use its space to prepare for Chicago Dyke March 2010. Since then the Creative Justice Coalition has had a fund-raising event for CDMC. I wrote to a prominent member of Affinity on March 23, 2009 to inform her of the threat CDMC posed to trans people’s safety; I never heard back from her. I wanted to ask members of the Creative Justice Coalition why they were enabling my oppressors, but an extensive search for any contact information the group might have has left me empty-handed. I can only conclude that many Chicago activists have a long way to go before they can rightly call themselves allies to trans people.

As for CDMC, it remains to be seen whether the collective’s actions will follow its words. Fortunately not everyone in Chicago has been content to wait two years for justice. This is another story that needs to be told.

Advertisements

Two Questions Cisgender People Do Not Ask Me

2011 January 3

I recently wrote a post about cis feminists who misgender trans women (and more generally about feminists who marginalize women). This post is for cis people who say they understand trans people and in all likelihood sincerely believe that they understand trans people, but after talking to them for a while I have to wonder if they understand trans people.

When I enter a space I consider to be relatively safe, I am usually quick to disclose that I am a woman. Upon the disclosure cis people tend to respond in one of two ways. First, some cis people respond by asking creepy questions about my experiences as a trans person. They ask all about my sex life or, more commonly, my genitalia. They want to know if I am going to have “the surgery”. Offhandedly I can think of eight surgeries a trans woman might want as part of her transition, so I am put off when cis people make the surgery a homophoric reference to the one that involves a penis. But I digress. Other cis people respond by asking non-creepy questions about my experiences as a trans person. For example, they might ask me whether I have encountered discrimination on account of my trans status. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In these situations my problem is not with the questions that are asked but with the questions that are not asked.

Can you, dear reader, guess what the lacuna is in cis people’s responses? What sort of question do you suppose I would hope to hear upon my disclosure that I am a queer woman? If I disclose that I am disabled or working class, do you suppose that I expect to hear people ask, “What is it like to be trans?”

There are two questions cis people do not ask me:

  1. What is it like to be a woman?
  2. What is it like to be queer?

If someone wants to argue that these are overly broad questions that no one would ask a cis queer woman, I would concede the point. But the trouble is that cis people do not even ask me more specific questions like, “Do you encounter sexism at such and such a place?” or, “Do you encounter heterosexism at that other place?” Cis people do not ask me, “Do you think our organization is falling short of meeting the needs of women?” even while soliciting my feedback on how well the organization is meeting the needs of trans people. Cis lesbians do not ask me specifically, “Doesn’t a woman seem so much hotter when you find out she’s queer?” even though I have known them to ask this question in other situations.

It is not for a lack of opportunity. There are people who have visited this blog, undoubtedly seeing the subtitle “A Queer Woman’s Blog”, and still only want to engage me in conversation about my trans status. There are often situations in which I find it natural to ask cis women about their experiences as women or cis queer folks about their experiences as queer folks, and they do not hesitate to answer. But they do not follow up by asking, “And what is your experience?” When an opportunity to ask me what it is like to be a queer woman presents itself, cis people are silent, and that silence speaks volumes.

Some cis folks might say, “Oh, Veronika, I do get that you are a woman. It is just that your experiences as a woman are so different that I do not know what to ask you.” I don’t buy it. Most cis folks know a cis woman who has to shave her facial hair, who does not menstruate, or who does not have noticeable breasts, and they still find a way to talk about their experiences of gender. Also, if it is a lack of common ground that keeps cis folks from talking about my gender, how is it that they have no difficulty asking me questions about my experience as a trans person—an experience that by definition no cis person has had? As I said before, a non-creepy question that involves my trans status is not bothersome in and of itself. So why don’t cis people ask, “What is it like to be a woman, when everyone around you insists you are a man?” or, “What is it like to be a queer woman, when everyone around you insists you are a straight man?” If they did, they might uncover differences that would help them better approach topics of gender and sexual orientation with me. Or they might find out I am not so different from cis queer women after all. Either way, they will have learned something about my experience as a queer woman.

And, yes, I am generalizing. There have been times when conversation naturally led to talk about my experiences as a woman or as a queer person; I do not remember now if these situations began with questions, but I felt that the other parties got it, so I will count them as exceptions. Also I do recognize when cis folks get it, even when they are simply making a statement. I was recently at a party where someone turned to me and said, “It is hard being a woman,” and I knew from her delivery that she was not saying this to inform me but because she knew I would understand. I get teary-eyed just thinking about this—this moment that would have been unremarkable, had I been a cis woman—because for me moments like this are so few and far between.

As you have probably guessed, if a cis person comments on this post merely to ask, “What is it like to be a woman?” or, “What is it like to be queer?” I will not answer. After all the point is not to take just one moment to ask a trans person a couple of questions, never to engage them on the matters ever again. My hope is that the cis folks who read this will make a continued conscious effort to recognize when they fail to seek input from trans folks, when they would seek the same input from other cis folks. I will believe cis folks are sensitive to me as a trans person, when they treat me the way they do other people who share my gender or sexual orientation. I will believe cis folks are sensitive to me as a queer woman, when they understand that they cannot know about every queer woman’s experience without asking me about mine.


Where Are the Trans Queer Women?

2010 September 13

Mainstream entertainment almost never depicts trans women who are unambiguously queer. A work might present a woman who begins transition while already married to a cis woman, but if anything is said about preferences, it will be that the two women have a love that transcends sexual orientation. After all, this is a message that will be more palatable to cis straight audiences. The only movie I know of that has a trans queer woman as a fictional character is Better than Chocolate, an independent film.

Why don’t we see more trans queer women in the media? I think we find the answer when we consider a couple of tropes that are common in our day. I’ll call the first Lesbians as Straight Men’s Fetish. This is pretty straightforward. If lesbianism is depicted, it is as a service to straight men. It is often the case that within a production there will be a man watching, acting as the surrogate viewer. And in an obvious case of fantasy wish fulfillment the lesbianism is temporary or superficial so that men in the audience can see lesbians who end up in committed relationships with men. (The possibility that the characters are bisexual women is never explored.) Lesbians in the media are prime examples of fetishization—objects of desire that exist for people who have absolutely no regard for the desires of the objects.

I’ll call the second trope Trans Women as Inauthentic. As many before me have pointed out, trans women are often depicted as stealthy deceivers or as comic want-to-be women. If a trans woman easily “passes”, it is because she is trying to trick a man. (In horrifying examples of life imitating art some cis straight men have killed their trans lovers and escaped murder charges by claiming that they’d been duped.) On the other hand if a trans woman is harmless, the production team will play up her masculinity or maleness in an attempt to get laughs. Because, you know, failing to blend with cis women in a society where trans women are singled out for violence is comedy gold. One way or another movies and television must say that trans women aren’t real women.

Trans queer women can’t be depicted in popular culture, because we challenge the heterosexism and the cissexism that are so deeply ingrained in our society. The target audience simply would not react the same way if a trans woman duped a queer woman or failed miserably at convincing a queer woman of her womanhood. Even if it did, presenting a woman as a deceiver or a failure would undermine attempts at titillation. If the mainstream media depicted trans queer women, something would break.

But this is not a lamentation, it is an exhortation. Let’s break things. Let’s create representations of trans queer women and put them where they can’t be ignored. Of course care should be taken when depicting trans queer women, just as it should be taken when depicting all members of oppressed groups. We don’t want to substitute new harmful tropes for the old harmful tropes. But I don’t think the possibility of getting things wrong should deter us from trying something that could go wonderfully right. For far too long we’ve been letting cissexist, heterosexist institutions tell us how to view trans women and queer women. Now is the time for us to stop viewing worlds we can’t relate to and start making a better world.