It’s Wednesday Night: Do You Know Where Your Community Is? A Modest Proposal for the Ingersoll Gender Center Support Group

Like a lot of thirty-something trans women, I have no offline community of trans women to speak of, though I have a community of queers, many of whom are pretty awesome trans men. But when it comes to trans women, I have people I speak to online, who are all in other cities. I live in Seattle, a place where there’s allegedly a thriving and involved trans community, but it’s all well-hidden, and a well-hidden community shelters itself from outsiders.

Trouble is, the space you’re expected to become known is is the one, the only, the Ingersoll Gender Center’s  quite dreadful support group. Similarly, any questions about medical access in Seattle tend to get punted with “go ask at Ingersoll” online, which is a kind of useless answer for those of us the support group works to exclude, and they don’t respond to contact about seeking information about doctors, electrologists, etc. if you email them to ask, though I have been told I can find out more by coming to a meeting.  I’ve had my words about Ingersoll before, which have incurred the wrath of at least one of their core group in ranting about what a horribly bad person I must be. I’m not really sure why the mere presence of criticism of a group leads to this sort of reaction, but it seems somewhat telling. People have scathing things to say about how much Ingersoll sucks when you’re a trans woman who doesn’t meet with HBSer approval in private, but nobody says this in public.

I’ve had some long conversations with other trans folks and they agree with me that the situation with Ingersoll is presently just not workable for someone like me. There’s too much enforcement of the cosmetic side of the HBSer standard for trans women: I’m not white enough, too fat, way too disabled, etc...HBS standards are the patriarchal expectation of how a white woman is ‘supposed to be and behave’. I mean, yeah, I get that that’s patriarchal society and all, but enforcing that by harassing women is kind of not okay, and it amounts to the most exclusionary of activities: punching down. I shouldn’t be harassed for my looks and expected to either change them or hate myself for them, and the fact that this is part and parcel of the Ingersoll experience through the proffering of unwanted “passing tips” is a piece of the way the support group works to be exclusionary. Me and my “masculine eye folds”, y’all.

So I have a question: does Ingersoll intend to not serve trans women who aren’t “good enough” under HBSer standards and just consider us acceptible losses?

I really want to believe the answer is no. So knowing that the group has in the past had “breakout groups”, I suggest a special theme meeting every two months, a judgment-free environment for sharing information and featuring educational programming useful to the whole community. That’s 6 out of the 52 meetings a year. These are my, and by extension our, requests:

  • No “passing tips”, ableist/sizest comments, homophobic BS, etc. That means NO BODY POLICING. Persons who cannot or will not comply may not remain; they have the other 46 meetings a year.
  • No door policing …if you haven’t been 86ed from Ingersoll for violent or creeptacular behavior (the latter of which has been IME perfectly accepted, but I’m just saying) you’re allowed in. There is no judgment of who is or isn’t trans enough, and no “why are you here?”
  • No passing the hat for donations or any minimum “suggested donation.” Put a box by the door. The approach of making an issue of who does or doesn’t donate is highly excluding of poorer people.
  • A moderator who is a person of color. My three previous tragically bad forays to Ingersoll meetings came with white trans woman moderators, one of whom was so vicious that I left in tears after being given a withering evaluation of how I’d need “$37,000 of facial surgery to pass.” Ingersoll is inaccessible for Seattle’s large queer community of color because of people like her and because of the inherently white nature of HBSer appearance policing.
  • Informative topics for the whole community. Listen, folks, I’m pretty sure that some trans women and most trans men don’t really need to know how to use blush. If you’re not clear, every Nordstrom M-A-C counter from Lynnwood to Tacoma will be happy to help you with fashion-forward advice…hell, my Walgreens in the hood has a Beauty Advisor. (Alternately, ask me! My blush game is so strong it’s illegal in 43 countries.)  This kind of thing is othering for a lot of people because it’s not something everyone needs to learn about, nor is it something that appeals to all trans people. And yet, it’s what the topic of presentation was one night that I was there. Again, you’ve got the other 46 meetings a year to do this, and should feel free to do so. It’s one meeting every two months…so very two months, cover topics like:
  1.  The Affordable Care Act and Getting Healthcare when You’re Trans under the ACA
  2. What You Need To Know When Dealing With The Seattle/King County/ Etc. Cops (and why the SPD has some of the most bass-ackwards policies toward trans people in the country and why Ingersoll isn’t making political hay over this?)
  3. Your Rights Under The Law in Washington as a Trans Person in Employment, Housing, etc.
  4. Self-Defense for Trans People (maybe get the Home Alive people in on this?)
    (All this is allegedly, according to some people, “on the internet.” Trouble is it isn’t, and not everyone has a safe place to read trans-related stuff on the internet anyhow. It’s not exactly something where I wouldn’t be scared if the dude next to me at the library looked over and saw on my screen that I was reading about that...and while we’re at it, here’s a killer how to do blush primer, which unlike the things cited above, is on the internet. I don’t want to seem down on blush, y’all, I’m just up on serving the community, not just some of the community.)
  • No misgendering. That means when I tell you to stop calling me “it”, you stop calling me “it.” When I tell the facilitator I’m not a “he”, there’s not 11 more “he”s. Name tags with preferred pronouns would help, but when you don’t stop and keep going, you can get the hell out.
  • Be helpful and share information. If the deal is you have to attend to have access to information like safe doctors, good electrologists/laser techs, etc…share information at these meetings. Help your fellow men, women, and non-gendered people. Listen to what they’re asking for and do your best to be helpful.  This is part of respect, part of community, part of caring for others. This is part of how we build community, and how maybe new people could show up without the risk of 20 minutes of “passing tips” they don’t want or need. Information is power, as Emily pointed out to me tonight, and withholding information or making it impossible for some people to get without withstanding an hour of verbal abuse is a tool of control, whether intentional or not.

So it’s another Wednesday night, and the trans girl I take care of, her brother, and I are sitting on a couch at the library reading about the misadventures of Junie B. Jones. I propose this so I can take nights like this off and go somewhere and find information, communication, and community. Ingersoll openly fails at this right now, so I’m hoping y’all care enough to consider attempting change.

Because in 10 more years, this little girl next to me is gonna be an adult. I want a trans community right here in Seattle where she won’t be eaten alive for who or what she is no matter who she is. It’s time to create this, so here’s my modest proposal.

Let’s talk.

TDoR For, By, and About Trans Women Of Color Now

Like many, if not most, trans women of color, I have a lot of serious anger about the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR). It’s flawed not just in concept, “owned” by a white trans woman who shuns even the most polite constructive criticism or to discuss race on the official TDoR site, but also in execution, where the names of a group that is almost all trans women of color are used almost as objects in many venues throughout the Global West where TDoR events are held.

It’s been mentioned over and over that TDoR is broken, exploitative, problematic, or whatever word you want to use. I’m really not planning on rehashing this, because it’s all been said before. Similarly, I think we’re all on the same page by now that any organized group of trans women controlled by HBSers or New Trans Separatists is going to essay to exclude trans women of color or include us solely on a token basis where our behavior will be so micromanaged you’ll wish for that pointy-haired gentleman from Dilbert. It is neither new nor groundbreaking criticism to point out that trans women of color’s deaths are tabulated but the community shuts us out at every turn to preserve its white suburban concept of “safety.”

But that’s all talking about what’s wrong, and that’s all known. We need to talk as a community about that has to change. The solution is not  bringing in a token trans woman of color at TDoR, bringing in gospel singers (they seriously did this in 2011) to bring some “color” in, or putting your event on social networking to tell people to be there in the audience. The solution is not to have a white person talk about race for 30 seconds as part of the proceedings, and it’s definitely not to have a goddamn dance party afterwards.  So I hope you’ll forgive me for using 2Pac to make a point here, but “It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. (…) let’s change the way we live and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do, to survive.”

I don’t think the “trans community” is magically going to change overnight to include trans women of color. I have been through having that hope dashed over and over again, and like a lot of other trans women of color, I feel very much alone and disconnected from any “trans community” and thus am a little unhappy with it.. But part of the way the community can change to become more inclusive is to at least consider that TDoR is a seriously alienating day for trans people of color, especially trans women of color. The format is always the same: names of trans women of color are read out, usually by white folks, and then white people talk about how oppressed trans people are. It’s kind of like in a sci-fi show when the protagonist lands in Bizarro World and everything is vaguely familiar but completely different…you know, when the cars look the same as they do on Earth, but every part has a different name.

So here’s what I, Martin Luther nailing my grievances to the Internet-style, have to say:

It’s time for white trans people to stand aside from all positions of leadership of local TDoR events.

I’m not saying don’t be involved, but it’s time to stop claiming a right to run things, to organize events (thank you very much to the local TDoR in Seattle for once again this year ignoring emails from me asking how to get involved, btw), or to have any place that isn’t at the direction of a trans person of color. It needs to be organized by and for trans people of color, with a focus on trans women of color.

It’s time for Gwen Smith to stand aside from “owning” TDoR.

Yes, Gwen Smith claims ownership rights to TDoR. TDoR shouldn’t be owned by anyone, and she must certainly be recognized for past service as the founder.  But when one person “owns” something, there is an ability to steer what the message is, like that race isn’t mentioned on the TDoR site, which is then used as an excuse for local TDoR events to ignore race. I don’t think Ms. Smith is a bad person, but it strangles TDoR for one person to “own” it. It’s also deeply improper for a white woman who can’t seem to let race into the official discussion to “own” an official site that’s full of names of dead trans women of color…this disconnect has everything to do with why it’s time for a change. Ms. Smith, you’ve had your chance to reform TDoR, and you haven’t taken it. You’ve been aware of criticism for years, and you haven’t made any changes. It’s time to let trans women of color lead, and for this day to have no owner at all.

It’s time to turn over leadership and management of official TDoR matters to trans women of color.

This would be a huge part of making TDoR TWoC-driven rather than TWoC-exploiting. TDoR should be run and led by a coalition of trans people of color that is predominantly trans women of color…say, 85%? The goal should be inclusiveness and providing a consistent focus on discussing, examining, and preventing violence against trans people, and to foster real solutions, not theory-laden twaddle. TDoR has to see trans women of color as valuable as living people first and foremost, not just once we’re dead when we’re available to pad various bullshit statistics about the life expectancy of a “trans person” or the likelihood we’ll be killed. We’re more than just numbers, we need to be central to the discussion when we’re alive. It’s time to let those of us who are trans women of color lead.

It’s time to listen to trans women of color…(I can wish for every day, but) at least one day a year.

The dead are us. They’re trans women of color trying to live their damn lives. They’re killed by partners, by clients, by random encounters on the street. I mean, seriously, the silence of white trans people when Islan Nettles was beaten to death walking down the damn street, and even worse the attempts at victim-blaming, were truly horrific…including some invective hurdled about how walking around in the hood comes with such risks. There is such a severe disconnect that part of what would help is that if white trans people in general listened to us this one day a year it could be a catalyst, or so I try to believe. Our realities include much more than how we’re seen in the TDoR list-of-names format: dead people. We are so much more than that, and our realities might be uncomfortable to the “trans community” or maybe, just maybe, the “trans community” will see us as something more than just a list of names of dead people and a bunch of inconvenient bodies and realities to dismiss in life.

Reforming TDoR is a huge part of beginning to include trans women of color as part of the trans community. It’s all about addressing the violence against us as trans women of color. And, well, it’s part of healing, a matter on which I must defer once again to the  Prophet Pac: “It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.”  Let’s get started.

The Misery Pimps: The People Who Impede Trans Liberation

The institutional system that has evolved to allegedly serve trans women in fact keeps us from effectively organizing. I say “evolved” because the idea of trans people networking hasn’t always been as controlled or exclusive as it is now, and also given that the rise of the Internet has led to a dismissal of need for community space when internet spaces are often equally exclusive and aren’t available to everyone.

But first of all, a little history. I hear quite a bit from trans women about “why don’t we organize like trans men do?” …and, well, the answer is that history. See, once upon a time, support groups were children of the “gender center” model which provided one outlet for where you went if you were trans. The support group was pretty much the free therapy outlet for peer support and also would “instruct” the trans woman in various matters of clothing and “comportment.” Well, at some point trans men ended up in these “gender center” systems and were treated like absolute shit. The support group component wasn’t optional, and oftentimes the people who anointed themselves as gatekeepers of womanhood didn’t know how to deal with someone traveling the Gender Superhighway in the opposite lanes.

In other words, the gender centers really sucked for trans guys. The insults and exclusion came with a desire to network outside the gender center, to go against the direction to never talk to another transsexual outside the gender center, and to overrule the ridiculous hoops that they were required to jump through. This modern concept that trans men only grouped “because they used to be lesbians” is both incorrect in its assumption and completely wrong in its execution. Trans men grouped up to get away from the gender center and work around it. Their exclusion and shitty treatment by those gender centers were part of what contributes to the wide gulf between trans men and trans women, though there have been many actions by trans men since they gained a position of hegemony that they’ve returned that pain hundredfold.

Unfortunately, trans women have stuck to this model: the support group is the one solution for everything. Sure, the rules are a little different, you’re allowed to talk to other trans women now and you don’t have to have the gender center’s blessing, as gender centers have largely become symbolic…but the support group seems to retain a position of supremacy. I live in Seattle, home of the Ingersoll Gender Center’s “support group”, a term I use loosely. The support group is basically your one-stop shop for having judgment passed on your existence and a volley of unsolicited  “passing tips” and measurement of how well you fit a 1950s Stepford Wife model of femininity…and if that’s what you’re going for, great. If you’re not…well, I was told that I’d never be happy unless I purged, called “he” by their facilitator, and informed that I apparently have, wait for it, ‘masculine eye folds’ by a member of the facilitator’s retinue.

People like that facilitator at Ingersoll and every trans woman who sees other trans women as nothing more than a paycheck or their dedicated fanbase are nothing more than misery pimps. As someone who’s been pimped out, I feel quite justified in using that word, and these people are indistinguishable from pimps in that they promise you one thing and then there’s an endless list of conditions you can’t actually ever satisfy because the game’s rigged and that’s how it’s designed to be. And if you speak up, the consequences are swift and severe: you can’t be part of the group anymore or you will be shunned if you try. It’s the “You can’t sit here” (think Mean Girls) of trans discourse. And if you’ve ever dealt with the business end of the pimping transaction, “you won’t get (something) unless you behave” is a central and frequently repeated part of how control is exercised.

Now, some pimps are worse than others, but there’s no good pimp. The system is by its very nature exploitative, and the conscious choice of control that is exerted by the misery pimp ensures that people will comply or they won’t get information, they won’t get access to the one space where it’s socially proper to network with other trans women, and they will be excluded. Ingersoll itself has lost much of its importance as it’s no longer host to all the professionals you need to see, but if you’re looking for information about safe electrologists, doctors, or the like, that’s where you’re directed. It still occupies a central place in controlling information and networking with other trans women. You still have to deal with it if you need a primary care physician (or take your chances with the phone book, which hasn’t worked yet for me) or you’re trying to network with other trans women when you don’t magically know other trans women like you’re “supposed to.” My life doesn’t come with a lot of contact with other trans women…I’m not seeing y’all at the playground when I’m nannying, and y’all don’t live in the hood. The support group and its incorporated misery pimps control the opportunity to connect and access to information. It’s all about control.

The logic the ruling class used in England to justify their position of sovereignty was that their crown was a right extended to them by God, quite literally Dieu et mon Droit, a system that allowed the royalty absolute right to do whatever the hell they wanted. I mean, is there any proof that God gave them the right to rule? No. Similarly, there’s no proof that society will collapse if trans women share information and network outside the judgmental and hateful support group, but for some reason that’s Just Not Allowed. I’d like to know why.

I think it’s the fear of what the Misery Pimp will do if they find out. I’m free of my pimp in the literal sense these days, and the world hasn’t collapsed on itself and the horrible consequences I was warned about did not come to pass. Though I had that terror, that terror isn’t real. It’s time to start organizing spaces that don’t appoint leadership based on exclusion and maintaining power at all costs and to begin make space for all trans women, not just some of us. It’s time to stop making our community be about exclusion and about being for all of us.  It’s time to stop giving the Misery Pimp power out of some hope that they won’t turn on you the same way they turned on that other person…that’s not going to help liberate us as trans women, and it’s going to exclude many of us from the movement over petty things like “masculine eye folds.”

The New Trans Separatism is the same old White Supremacy

There’s been a rise of late of a new wave of separatism amongst trans women. Now, I’m not talking about having a once-a-week gathering that’s just for trans women, helping each other improve our skills in a safe environment, or occasional cultural events for us by us, all of which are good and necessary…I’m talking a wholesale concept of separatism that requires our removing cis people and many other trans people from many parts of our lives.

Unfortunately, a lot of the same tired old community divisions come hand in hand with this New Separatism, and the end result becomes much like the old-school HBSer separatism: you end up with a bunch of white people of a specific set of experiences, almost all of whom are able-bodied, almost all of whom have similar narratives. In other words, it’s replacing one prison with another.  It’s time to do something different rather than fall back into the same patterns that only injured us and placed us in a position to be left behind, and it’s time to be more than any brand of separatism.

Now, I know you’re sick of invites to surgery fundraisers for privileged white trans dudes. I get it, I’m sick of them too. I know you’re tired of hearing from your cis friends about how they’re going to Michigan to “change things from the inside” and all they do is wear a t-shirt saying TRANS WOMEN BELONG HERE and they expect to be absolved. I get this, I feel you, and I know it’s frustrating to be constantly shoved out and shoved around by cis queers and CAFAB trans people and genderqueers who believe it’s fine to throw trans women under the bus whenever it’s convenient. It’s unfortunately pretty damn common in the queer community, and there’s no excuse for it. But the solution isn’t separatism, it’s not creating a new exclusive group, it’s saying that yes, we have a right to be here in dyke space and no, you don’t get to guilt me for telling you to F off over sending my poor ass an invite to your $50 a head surgery fundraiser. It’s saying that yes, cis feminists who claim to be our “allies”, you need to collect your trash when it comes to transphobic fauxminists claiming the mantle of feminism. It’s saying that yes, cisgays, you have to stop treating us like shit and second-class citizens. We as trans women and CAMAB genderqueers have to stand up and say no more, not take our ball and run home. The big bad cissexist world is still there whether or not you hide from it, and you can hide from it, or we can work together to change it.

The white radical politics “card check”
New Separatism runs around a system which holds up white radical politics as a required condition of entry. Now, hi, I’m pretty radical too, but the way white radical politics are enforced often brings together the worst of radicalism and the worst of white suburbanism. The idea that it’s better to exclude anyone who thinks differently, even if the reasons for thinking differently are differences related to class or ability, is very much buying into that white suburbanist idea that “safety” is achieved by keeping people who are other out. There’s also a significant vein of ableism in white radical politics on top of the inherent racism involved, but more on that later.

We have a lot of common ground, and to move forward we need to focus more on that common ground than the issues that divide us, especially when those issues don’t relate to furthering our push for safe employment, fair housing, shame-free medical access, and bodily autonomy for all people all the time. Having a difference of opinion about watching football, whether or not it’s okay to date cis people, or whether or not you eat meat really aren’t critical to whether or not you believe in trans liberation, whereas people who believe medical access should only be allowed to the “deserving” are against the ends of trans liberation. Rather than choosing the white radical politics card check, we need to focus on what we have in common in terms of liberation. This is the equivalent of pushing deckchairs around on the Titanic…we have a big task, why are we focusing on small things and petty squabbles? Why are we engaging in this proverbial “card check” when we have real enemies to fight?

You gotta know people to know people…
By emphasizing closed systems of interaction, New Separatism is parroting one of the most toxic features of Old Separatism: you have to already have been connected within the ‘trans community’ to have a foothold amongst the movers and the shakers. I’m an outsider…the name of my blog means something. I’ve spent my adult life being a ‘fake cis girl’ and my connections to other trans folks are pretty random. New Separatism has emphasized something that ties into the White Radical Politics idea mentioned above, that you have to participate on its terms to really be participating. Similarly, it requires you to know the right people in the right places; you can be well-connected in another city, but that Just Won’t Do. You can be well-connected with the cis queers, but that’s only used to claim you’re a traitor.

And, of course, when you’re locked out from participation on specific terms because you can’t afford to do something, can’t get into a private meeting, what have you, you’re thus locked out even further. I live in Seattle, which is allegedly quite a good place to be trans. Trouble is, we have one not-so-supportive support group, and that’s how you’re supposed to ‘network’ in the community. Which, as a fat mixed-race trans woman, will result in my exiting in tears after about 20 minutes of unwanted “passing tips”…it’s not a place for me, so I stay shut out of the community because I’m not willing/able/good enough/whatever to survive this hazing ritual, and don’t fool yourself for a second, it’s a hazing ritual, and at that a hazing ritual run by white people. It’s designed to tell you you’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not white enough…and to stay out.

So when you’re shut out, you can’t show up at any of these events you’re supposed to be showing up at because you don’t know they exist. It’s not like my cis friends on Facebook are going to know what the current required-attendance event is (not too long ago it was a clothing swap…in a disability-inaccessible location not convenient to public transit)  so it ends up leading to the idea that you don’t care because you didn’t show up. Separatism builds on the idea that only people who show up are good enough, and when you’ve ruled out disabled people and people who ride the bus (hi!) you’re automatically creating an exclusive class.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’re not one of us, who the fuck are you? And, well, “who the fuck are you” isn’t meant to induce introductions, it’s meant to tell you to go away. Because I’m that foolish girl who, when asked that question, tries to introduce herself…and  gets mocked for trying.

It’s not about money, it’s about…well, money, actually.
I don’t think it takes a genius to realize there’s significant inequality of opportunity in America. Failure to understand that in terms of any movement inherently dooms the movement, and New Separatism is indeed completely lost on this matter. I’ve got a decent education, but my theoretical immersion doesn’t go much past Foucault, and similarly my ability to afford to travel to go to conferences is nonexistent. I envy people being able to afford spendy things like the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and similarly I have some envy issues around scholarship that includes complex theory.  But neither of these things makes me any less of a person, and in the New Separatist world, they’re both moral failings. Maybe if I’d budgeted better, I could have gone to PTHC. (Okay, let me not eat…or pay rent…) Maybe if I’d just read more…yeah, maybe I could get deeper theory. Or maybe I can just affix the blame for oppression where it belongs (the patriarchy) rather than burying it in layers of Derrida and…uh, some other theorist. I don’t need complex solutions to simple problems. I know what the problem is, I don’t need 23 paragraphs of flowery prose and literary allusions to say it. New Separatism, folks, is elitist.

And, well, I know what I call a bunch of able-bodied white people who hide behind closed doors and talk about how much better they are than the hoi polloi: a country club. If you need a ringer for doubles, call me. Until then, screw your country club.