The Moment We Are In: Gender Non Conformity in the Era of the Trans Tipping Point

By Alok Vaid-Menon
September 16, 2015

Today was a hard day. I was street harassed and ridiculed by men, women, and children just for simply existing in public. And I’m sitting at home feeling awful and doing what I always do when I feel disposable: writing.

I think we’re in this really terrible moment right now where the alleged “trans tipping point” only allows us to share our narratives of triumph, of victory, of strength, of resilience as if we are supposed to endure all of the hardship we go through and emerge with a smile on our face. Never forget: the only space that trans femmes have in our culture is to entertain the very people who will turn away the minute we step off their stage.

This is what transmisogyny looks like: to not only have to go to hell and back for doing something so simple as living as who we are, but to also have to shut up about the rage and hurt and be grateful that anyone would have the audacity to believe us (let alone desire us). We’re in a moment where your gender is understood only by what you look like and not who you are. Where people fixate on our clothing, our genitalia, our makeup but never our politics, our stories, our art, our ideas. We’re in a moment where we are required to be models or fabulous, sexy, and “strong” in order to have people take us seriously (aka until we can become inspirational models of “authenticity” and “perseverance” for others even though they never actually lent a helping hand while we were struggling in the first place).

We’re in a moment where we are must describe explicit accounts of the ways we have been harmed in order to garner enough sympathy to be recognized for who we are. Our self-identification requires the empathy of others because we are not allowed to own our experiences. They belong to the anxieties, the fears, the projections, the fantasies of the very people who taunt us. And you learn early on that not only do they control your body, they control the language. So when we try to defend ourselves our screams are read as silence. How are you supposed to experience pain when you do not have a body? How are you supposed to be hurt when you do not exist? How are you supposed to heal when they don’t even acknowledge your pain?

And when we do talk about how hard it is they tell us that we are “strong,” and “powerful,” and they throw us adjective after adjective but we learn from a young age that there is a difference between a “word” and “shield.” We learn from a young age that loving ourselves does not keep us safe – that in fact it ends up hurting us more. I am most terrified on the days I feel most beautiful. I am terrified most on the days I feel most beautiful. So sometimes you wear men’s clothes just so you don’t have to look behind your back but then they call you a man again and you think to yourself that it’s almost as if they want you to be harassed so that they can just erase you again – that there is some sort of perverse pleasure in simultaneously witnessing and erasing your pain.

Misgendering is not a moment, it’s a structure. It’s a condition. It’s a worldview. It’s having to wake up and not only be erased out of language, out of history, out of family, out of queer life, out of trans representation, of media, of movements, of public space. It’s to experience constant and relentless denial of our humanity. It’s about men, women, and children saying “What the fuck is that?” It’s about that man at the restaurant who came up to you and asked if you were wearing a Halloween costume that day you decided to wear a beard and a skirt. It’s about all of the cis women who gawk at you and touch you without your consent and refuse to acknowledge that you designed their dresses, you made their makeup, you built femme with your back (and are still bruised from it). It’s about all of the trans women who tell you to shave and take hormones to look more real. But what is reality in a world that tells you that you do not exist?

Why is the onus always on the individual and never the system? We cannot love ourselves out of structural oppression. Why are we expected to be brave for being ourselves? We cannot live our truth in a world that regards us as science fiction.

We should not have to approximate cis and white and binary standards of gender and beauty to be safe. We should not have to “pass” in order to get home without being followed, or spat on, or worse. What if we are never going to look like women or men? That means that the harassment doesn’t stop. There is no before or after there is just the terror. There is no before or after there is just the terror.
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Transition is Constant

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By: Alok Vaid-Menon

Narratives of “transition” always feel hard for me. It’s not as if I was once one gender and have now become another. It’s not as if my identity, my personhood has ever been defined solely by gender. Rather, it’s that I (and by the way I think you, too) am in a constant state of transformation and gender is just part of that. The constellation of ideas and people and aesthetics and places I have encountered in my life have fundamentally changed “me.”

I struggle with how (Western) society is obsessed with the idea of having one self/identity. I struggle with how the only way we talk about gender is as an identity. I think gender just like our “selves” is relational. I think we have been and will become many selves for many different people. So pursuits like “authenticity” aren’t about striving for some far away truth, but rather an acknowledgement (perhaps a submission) to the constant ebb and flow of change. We are all just sort of orbiting around and responding to a whole host of emotions and ideas and experiences and sometimes that involves is changing how we look, how we describe ourselves, the words and images we use to give meaning to our interior life.

Which goes to say here is a ‪#‎tbt‬ photo of me four years ago when I wore different things and said different words and used different language to describe my body. I don’t experience this person as masculine or as a boy or as wrong I experience this person as a product of his/her/their time and place. And that’s okay.

So here is to not being confined to the dilemma of the “now,” here is to a sincere commitment to relationality, here is to a world that remembers how to believe in one another’s infinite capacity to transform. We are far too tremendous to be reduced to the prophecy of perpetual sameness.
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Trans People Aren’t Wrong, Gender Binaries Are!

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Trans People Aren’t Wrong, Gender Binaries Are!

Last week I wore a short dress for the first time in public. I want to tell you that I felt powerful. I want to tell you that I felt sexy. I want to tell you a story about reclamation, about confidence, about triumph. But the truth is I felt terrified. But the truth is I felt exposed. But the truth is I felt ugly. I was hyper-aware of my broad shoulders, my hairy thighs and armpits, my chest hair billowing out. The dissonance between my bold lip and my beard.

Which goes to say I hate the way we talk about gender dysphoria as if it’s my fault that these clothes weren’t made for bodies like mine, as if it’s my fault that the more visibly gender non-conforming I look the more they will stare at me, as if it’s my fault that they wiped us from your history books and TV channels. As if it’s about me being insecure, me not loving myself enough. Me being wrong. Me being wrong. Me being wrong.

Every story about feminine people begins with the premise that we were wrong. It’s not my fault that I grew up in a world that scripted my disappearance so well that I do it to myself.

When I started my transition it felt like something I had already been doing my entire life: erasing myself in order to fit in. At what point does femininity become synonymous with apology?

Which goes to say I hate the way we expect trans women and trans feminine people to be heroines, to be brave, unapologetic and perseverant. As if we only exist to inspire you. As if its our own responsibility to undo hundreds of year of racist (trans)misogyny. As if its our responsibility to liberate everyone else from gender binaries. As if of our safety is not on the line every time we do something so simple as reclaim the femininity that was stolen from us. As if this is our fault (and not yours).

I have learned many things from wearing dresses and beards and the survival strategies that go with them. One of the most important lessons I have learned is how deeply and religiously our world hates femininity. And often trans women and trans feminine people have to bear the burden of that hatred. How not only do we have to get dressed in the morning we have to wear all of your insecurity, all of your projections, all of your anxiety, all of your loss from the feminine part of yourself that you had to destroy in order to get by.

So I got up on that stage and performed anyways. And I didn’t do it because I felt powerful or victorious or strong. I did it because I recognized that the reason I feel uncomfortable in my body is not my fault. I did it because the reason you feel uncomfortable with my body is not my fault. I did it because I am not triumphant — I am tired.

I am tired.
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Original writing by Alok Vaid-Menon. Support the artist.

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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