Gay Assimilation Fuels Trans Persecution

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

This narrative that there is so much “internal division” and “conflict” between gay people and trans people within the “LGBT community” is a red herring. It’s intentionally misleading. What it does is blame and demonize trans people (and especially transfeminine people) for being oppressed. Trans people are reduced to our anger and stripped of our politics and experiences of harm. Our rage has a history! What this narrative does is erase a long and documented history of cisgender gays, lesbians, and bisexuals pursuing political agendas that threw trans and gender non-conforming people under the bus.

Our conversations should not be about “removing the T from LGBT,” but rather about what accountability looks like for cisgender gay, bisexual, and lesbian people who stole a powerful movement for racial, economic, and gender justice and made it about love, whiteness, and the acquisition and preservation of private property.

Never forget: Trans people ARE ALSO gay, bisexual, lesbian, and queer! I repeat: trans people ARE ALSO gay, bisexual, lesbian, and queer. This separation of “trans issues” from “gay issues,” this differentiation of “gender minority issues,” from “sexual minority issues,” is only possible because of the rejection of gender non-conformity within the “gay movement” itself.

The distinction of “gay” from “trans,” and “sexuality” from “gender identity” was a conscious strategy to make the (cisgender) gay movement palatable to straight cis white middle class society. “Love” became the organizing frame instead of “difference,” because gay INC knew a politics of love would be much more palatable than a politics of gender non-conformity. This is why millions of dollars were poured into campaigns for marriage and NOT campaigns to decriminalize sex work, campaigns to end police criminalization and brutality, campaigns for housing and economic justice.

In order for cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to achieve “equality,” they had to distinguish themselves from us and reject their own gender non-conformity. Equality (read: assimilation) requires both a celebration of heteronormative white culture AND a thorough and systematic dismissal of gender non-conformity.

So the problem is not “internal conflict,” as if we just “can’t get along.” The problem is that the precarity of trans and gender non-conforming people today is precisely because of the actions and decisions of cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.

Intimate and familial violence is often the most harmful. The pain stings twice: not only being erased & rejected, but also being told that the people doing it are “your community.”
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Push Harder! Beyond NonBinary Inclusion

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

There are people in the world who are neither men nor women! It’s not just that they don’t “identify” as men nor women, they are just simply not men nor women. They are not wrong; the gender binary is wrong. This is not some young people on the internet theory, this is not some trendy politics, this is about real peoples lives and experiences with violence.

It’s not an accident that nonbinary people have been so thoroughly erased from the collective imagination, from political and social movements, from the historical archive. It’s not an an accident that frameworks like “sexual orientation” are always anchored to the gender binary. It’s not an accident that nonbinary people experience tremendous forms of interpersonal and state violence. It’s not an accident that people only understand “patriarchy” as being enacted by (cisgender) “men” against (cisgender) “women.”

This situation is the result of a series of calculated equations, decisions, and histories. Including “nonbinary” in a mission statement isn’t enough. Understanding that nonbinary people exist isn’t enough. Exceptionalizing us and regarding us as anomalies isn’t enough. Push further.

How did all of the complexity in the world, all of its difference, all of its context become reduced to two categories only? How did we come to think it was okay to link and define our sexual orientations to binary gender (let alone mobilize entire movements around them)? How did trans politics come to be about trans people “gaining rights” and not everyone divesting from gender to begin with? How are we upholding institutions, rituals, cultures, politics, and ideas that further entrench the gender binary and facilitate violence against nonbinary people? How did gender become so essential that it has become required for humanity?

These questions are not rhetorical. They have answers. And nonbinary people have been on the frontlines of providing them.
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Q&A

By Alok Vaid-Menon

The other day a young nonbinary person came with their parent to my show. After the performance during the Q&A they asked me how to deal with constantly being misgendered.

It was such a simple and yet utterly complex question. The type of constellation of syllabus that transports you back to a different time and place. How to explain 24 years of denial and hunched backs and averted eye contact? How to encapsulate the hundreds of languages and gestures I have learned to apologize for my existence?

It was one of those questions that felt more like a a declaration, like, “I AM HURT.”

I was touched by their candidness. It feels so rare these days that people express when they are struggling (let alone in public). I had one of those answers that felt more like an apology, like, “I AM SORRY.” And in that moment I wanted to run off the stage and hug them and their father and the doctor that lied to him and the biology that lied to him and the state that lied to it.

I told them that for the majority of my life i just didn’t correct people. I just sort of took it. It wasn’t worth the constant labor of justifying myself. It wasn’t worth the pushback, the skepticism, the violence. I told them that I just waited, which was not the same as being closeted. It was strategic. It was about waiting till one day I could surround myself like a warm blanket with people who got “it,” that intangible sense of being recognized even when I’m wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt, being appreciated outside of visibility.

I started to think about a few months ago when I met some family friends. Their child reminded me of myself growing up, our resemblance was uncanny. We spent the day gossiping and talking about fashion and selfies. Everyone kept on saying, “Isn’t it remarkable how well they get along?” and I just laughed. I wanted to leave the house with that young person take them aside say, “I AM SORRY / THEY WILL TRY THEIR BEST TO DESTROY YOU AND CALL IT LOVE,” but we had to part ways because they had to go to their “home” and just sort of take it and I had to go to “mine” and just sort of take it. And when they drove away I cried because I thought about why all of the beautiful things always have to leave us. How familiar this scenario has become: saying goodbye.

So later that night I cried. Like when I got home from that performance when an honest person told me their heart hurt. I cried because I remembered my own queer child. He/She/They that were carefree, curious, and colorful. They who insisted on wearing their sister’s hand-me-downs and having roses on their birthday cake. They who danced at Indian dinner parties to bad Bollywood songs with no shame. And everyone laughed and smiled because they had no shame. I cried because I remembered my shame. I remembered how it tore me to pieces. I remembered how I had no one to talk to about it. I remember how they stole those pieces and squished them together into a “man,” like a puzzle you can’t quite figure out so you just settle with its jagged edges. Pretend it fits.

I cried because I remembered how so many of us had to destroy our queer child and never got a ceremony for it. Never got a chance to declare in public, “I AM HURT,” because they kept screaming and punching and harassing and ridiculing and humiliating “THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO GROW UP.” “THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BECOME A MAN.” How so many of us will spend our entire lives grieving a loss that comes not just from losing something earnest but from losing what could have been. That double loss that I’ve come to associate with anxiety in my stomach that still tells me I am wrong when I dare to speak about the entitlement of a world that is so patronizing (i mean, so insecure) that it believes it knows what is best for us without even asking first.

Sometimes I wonder who I could have been, who we could have been, if we had a world that didn’t require us to destroy our queer child in order to get “here.” When I look at a movement that so desperately hungers for recognition from the military, from the state, from the very people who disown us I understand that we are grieving. When I look at a movement that celebrates something so simple as a politician saying our name or a bathroom acknowledging we exist I understand that we are grieving. When I look at a movement that does so much violence to other people and calls it “progress,” and “equality,” and “love,” I understand that we are grieving.

I wanted to run back to those two cities find those two queer children say: I AM HURT / SO I HURT OTHER PEOPLE. That’s how I dealt with being misgendered: I HURT OTHER PEOPLE. and when I said I AM SORRY what I meant is I am sorry that the only way we have been taught to heal is to hurt. I am sorry that there was no where to hold the sadness, the rage, the insecurity, the pain, so I wanted other people to feel the same way as me. I am sorry that this entire world is grieving the loss of their queer child and taking it out on you. They/WE are so jealous of your brilliance, its delicacy, its wisdom, its candidness.

. . . . .

Sometimes I wish “the world” staged a Q&A with “us.” I would raise my hand and ask it: “WHO BROKE YOUR HEART?” I would tell it:

“I AM SORRY.”

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Transfemininity & “Feminism”

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

I am feeling disheartened by this increasingly popularized narrative of feminism progressing to “include” trans women (and sometimes nonbinary people). What this framing does is disregard all of the political work that transfeminine people have already always been engaged in outside of what cis feminism regards as legitimate. There is this thing that happens where the contributions of transfeminine people are always seen as just for “trans people” and not for “everyone.” Transmisogyny teaches us that femininity is a selfish and individualistic endeavor, not a collective emancipatory project for liberation. Transfeminine people thriving and resisting in a world that continues to dismiss and demonize our femininity is feminist work that has reverberations for all people (and especially cisgender women). The political work of transfeminine people has and continues to create space, safety, and celebration for people of all genders. Transfeminine people should not have to narrate our experiences and our identities into cis feminist frameworks in order to be believed. Transfeminine people should not have to make our traditions of activism and our practices of survival/resistance fit neatly into cis feminist frameworks in order to be regarded (let alone respected).
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love letter to nonbinary & gnc people

by: alok vaid-menon
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to all the nonbinary and gender non-conforming people out there: i am sorry that the world continues to define us by our absence. as if all we are is a refusal, a protest, a rejection. there is nothing lacking about you, there is nothing insufficient about you. even when so many of us have tried so hard for so long to escape gender we always have to be defined in relation to it, like a shard of glass stuck in a foot. as if escaping from gender norms is a form of negativity, and not a form of possibility. thank you for the new (and old) worlds and possibilities you are creating with your survival. thank you for your creation, for your imagination, for your continual rebirthing. i hope that one day the world will acknowledge our contributions and not just our departures.

Trans Visibility isn’t Trans Justice

On this day of trans visibility so many of us are left uneasy and conflicted. Yes, of course, visibility has been helpful and transformative. But visibility is not the same thing as justice. What has become increasingly evident is that the system is, in fact, much more willing to give trans people visibility than it is to give us compensation, resources, safety.

Here are some quick feelings about visibility on this day so enamored with it:

1) “Trans” “Visibility” is an oxymoron. Trans is who we are, not what we we look like. We shouldn’t have to look like anything in particular in order to be believed for who we are. Visibility often is a form of (nonconsensual) labor that we have to in order to make our experiences coherent to others.

2) Trans Visibility is a cis framework. Who are we becoming visible for? Why do we have to become visible in order to be taken seriously? Non-trans people will congratulate themselves for our visibility but will not mention how they are the ones were responsible for erasing us in the first place. The trans movement isn’t about trans people moving forward, it’s about cis people catching up with us.

3) Invisibility is not the problem, transmisogyny is the problem. Trans people are harassed precisely because we ARE visible. Mandating visibility increases violence against the most vulnerable among us. The same system that will require trans people to be visible will not give institutional support to us when we are harassed precisely because we are visible.

4) Visibility often means incorporation. Often the only way we are respected as “legitimately” trans is if we appeal to dominant norms of beauty, gender, race, and establishment politics. Trans people should not have to be patriotic, change what we wear, undergo medical or legal transition, really should not have to do anything in order to be respected. We were and already are enough.

5) Visibility is easy. Organizing is hard. Sharing photos of trans people and calling us “resilient” and “beautiful” does little to address the persecution so many of us face. We cannot love ourselves out of structural oppression alone. How come media visibility of trans people has not resulted in the funding and support of our organizations, campaigns, and struggles?

Let’s push harder and demand more.
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Gay Progress = Trans Backlash

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

I’m feeling concerned about the way that people are speaking about the flurry of anti-trans legislation popping up all over the country. There seems to be a sense of surprise like, “How did this happen?” “How did things get so bad?” As usual, “conservatives” are being demonized: the prototypical white straight southern racist becomes the straw man for all of the virulent transphobia and backwardness more generally. As always the liberal establishment is quick to produce a foreign enemy responsible for all of the hatred rather than taking responsibility for driving an agenda that not only disenfranchised trans people, but made us even more susceptible to violence.

Certainly there are many factors driving these policies (the rise of right wing nationalism being one of them), but what gets lost here is the complicity of cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and their political organizations and allies.

Never forget: there is no gay victory without trans backlash. The history of the gay movement is a history not just of trans exclusion, but of forging the very ideas, conditions, rhetorics, and politics that contribute to trans violence. This movement made a series of strategic choices that contributed to increasing the vulnerability of so many trans people (and especially gender non-conforming people.) “Gender identity” was defined (medically, legally, socially, politically) as separate from “sexual orientation,” because “love” is more palatable than gender non-conformity.

Trans people as a group, as a symbol, as a rhetoric — were construed as a threatening and abhorrent character foil (read: failure) for acceptable and friendly cisgender gay people (read: success). We cannot understand the ongoing criminalization of gender non-conformity without understanding that‪#‎LoveWins‬ precisely because ‪#‎GenderDoesn‬‘t.

This is the time and place “somewhere over the rainbow.” This is where frameworks of “equality,” commitments to “love,” and pleas of “we’re just like you,” reveal themselves to be morally bankrupt. This is the moment where those of us who have never had the privilege to escape the condemnation of our difference are left behind.

So the solution is not just about educating conservatives about trans people, it’s also about challenging progressive liberalism for its inability (and in fact refusal) to seriously account for the historical & continued demonization of gender non-conformity (especially against transfeminine people).

Let’s be clear: that if these policies were targeting cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people there would be a very different sense of urgency.
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“Trans Issues” are really Cis Issues

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by: alok vaid-menon

been hurting from the wave of anti-trans laws that are springing up across the country barring trans & gender non-conforming people from using restrooms & institutions & quite honestly “the public.”

what is important to remember is gender policing is part of a bigger strategy of establishing who is beautiful, who is desirable, who is worthy, who is allowed to be “seen” (and conversely who must be disappeared, who must be made forbidden). let’s be clear trans & GNC people aren‘t being shut out because we are “undesirable,” but precisely because we are desirable. so desirable in fact that they have to erect hundreds of bills and statutes to keep us in private, to regulate our mobility, to keep us at bay. so desirable that they are uncomfortable sharing space with us, peeing next to us, even washing their hands next to us. so desirable that they cannot seem to stop obsessing about our genitalia, our bodies, our fashion.

the impulse to reject, to dismiss, to expel comes from the shame & insecurity about that very desire. repression breeds resistance. disgust is another form of attachment.

so for me it feels like the project isn’t actually about *making* gender non-conformity beautiful, it’s about recognizing that they already see our beauty & that’s why they hurt us. it’s about recognizing that this movement isn’t about *empowering* trans people, but rather empowering non-trans people to catch up with the way we have already understood the world and all its complicatedness. it’s not necessarily only trans & GNC people who need to “transition,” it is non trans people themselves who need to transition out of their repression, their shame, their hurt. it is non trans people who need to find beauty and confidence in themselves and their own genders.

calling this a trans issue is a misnomer. this isn’t about us, this is about you.
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Massage

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

I spend my evening in a cramped apartment on the Lower East Side with an old white woman and her cat. Susan has a reputation in town for being one of the only massage therapists who does not “hold back.” I do not fully comprehend what this means until our first session.

She walks on top you. She spends copious amounts of time piercing your butt cheeks. She contorts you into positions that you still aren’t sure are possible. She sticks a glove in your mouth to massage your jaw. She is honest with you that she full intends to hurt you. I am honest with her that I keep coming back precisely because she makes me hurt.

There is something beautiful — sacred even — about our honesty. About her strange hands and her familiar touch. About the way we admit our pain so candidly. I haven’t ever met anyone so upfront about their desire to hurt me (I wish Susan could have taught my exes a thing or two about naming ones intentions).

On these evenings I am tasked with the effort of making small talk with Susan for the entire two hour session. She is chatty. She has lots of questions about “my generation,” and “the internet,” and “what is it you do again?” The trick is to keep asking her questions so she keeps talking and you don’t have to attempt speak as she drives her elbow into you over and over again.

Tonight I ask Susan how she started doing massage? She tells me that she has always been fascinated by human pain. (Me too.) She tells me that she has devoted her life to understanding how people experience pain and what they can do to cope with it. (Me too.)

“What can we do to cope with “it,” Susan?” I think we have different “it’s” that haunt us when we both go to our beds alone after the session but tonight the specifics feel inconsequential.

She tells me a story.

One evening a woman came by with some bad knots in her leg. She had no idea what was going on. When Susan started to work on her this woman started weeping uncontrollably. Susan asked her if she was pushing too hard but the woman said, no go deeper. So Susan kept digging and digging into the night and suddenly that woman sat up and had a flashback to a memory from long ago. She remembered that more than twenty years ago when she was a young girl she was assaulted on the way home from school. Her assailant broke her leg so she couldn’t get away. When she got home her mother didn’t believe her and scolded her for being late. Susan sat there with that stranger and breathed the same air and I’m sure her cat meowed and her clock on the wall ticked as she wrote “I believe you” with her elbow on that woman’s back.

Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a country — a world — that teaches us at every level that our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes acknowledgment can be its own sort of antidote. That sometimes people just need to hear that what happened to them was not their fault. That people tend to know what is best for themselves, they’ve just been told over and over again that they don’t.

Sometimes I just need to hear that what happened to me was not my fault. So every month I climb up the stairs to a cramped apartment in the Lower East Side with an old white woman and her cat and she massages me — I mean she performs her own form of poetry. And both of us are searching for ways to survive, to find meaning and substance in the intangible, to delve and dig and prod and jab and yank and pull on all of those parts of ourselves still stuck deep in there.

So sometimes I forget my own power. So sometimes I need to be hurt in order to heal. So sometimes I need to be reminded that my body is mine. (So sometimes I need to be reminded I have a body). So sometimes I want to cry on the street when I am surrounded by hundreds of people wondering about all of the “its” that they are going home with that night. So sometimes there is something refreshing about the intimacy between strangers: its unfamiliar familiar honesty, its piercing candidness. So sometimes Susan does not get my gender or my politics or my life but she touches my body and she understands that there are things in the world that cause me a great deal of pain. And sometimes that feels like enough.

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Why is Everyone So Afraid of Men in Dresses?

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WHY IS EVERYONE SO AFRAID OF MEN IN DRESSES?

By: Alok Vaid-Menon

A confession. Every time I have a photo shoot, interview, or performance — I shave. I shave because later when I look at photos of me wearing a beard and lipstick or beard and dress I feel like I look disgusting. I shave because I know that people won’t believe that I’m trans if I don’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be hairy and to be trans. How the days when I do not shave are actually the days that I experience the most harassment. Shaving is about the distance between, “You look like garbage,” and “Hey baby.” I’ve been thinking about how almost all of our models of transfemininity are hairless — how when I post photos of myself online people tell me that if I want to be recognized as “real woman,” I should AT LEAST shave, otherwise I look like a “beast,” or “a monster.” Sometimes when I look at photos of myself I see a monster.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about monsters. How the monster in the closet of so many of our feminist, queer, and trans politics continues to be the figure of the “man in a dress.” I am not, in fact, a man in a dress. I am non-binary person which means I do not identify as a man nor a woman. But “man in a dress,” seems to be the only way that this particular culture recognizes me. So as someone who is so often read and treated as such I’ve developed a particular sense of empathy and awareness about how revolted our world is by the idea of gender non-conformity.

What is absent from so many discussions of body hair between cis women is why so many of them are offended from being read as “men in dresses,” aka gender non-conforming people like me. What is absent from so many discussions of “passing,” in trans communities is why should we have to be gender conforming in order to be regarded as beautiful (let alone safe?). And certainly not everyone should have to be gender non-conforming, but I wonder who is left to rage, to fight, to love, to find beauty in us when everyone is trying to run away from us.

Why do we think men in dresses are ugly? Why do we think gender non-conformity is suspicious, dirty, uncouth, unprofessional, tacky, wrong? Why do people spit at me, laugh at me, throw things at me, or shove me when I wear a beard and dress?

My experience and so many of the experiences of gender non-conforming people are a testament to the world that it’s not just femininity that’s being policed, it’s the gender binary. Gender binarism teaches us that “masculinity” and “femininity,” must always exist in opposition. So when we see people that have what society regards as “masculine” and “feminine,” coexist in tandem we are motivated to disgust, rage, and sometimes even violence. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’ve been harassed because of my perceived femininity, my perceived masculinity, both, or neither.

I earnestly wish we can imagine and build friendships and ideas and movements that challenge the deep and ingrained aversion to gender non-conformity we have been taught. But sometimes that project feels too daunting and naive. So this year I’m going to make a small commitment to not always shaving my beard. To looking at my photos and not seeing ugly or beauty, or masculinity or femininity, but just seeing me.

What a simple gesture, what an impossible task.
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