by Alok Vaid-Menon, ’13
As a member of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, a queer activist group on campus, I’ve been organizing Beyond the Binaries: Transgender Awareness Week 2012 for the past few weeks and I want to contribute my thoughts on why you should care that Stanford is hosting Beyond the Binaries.
1. Chances are you know very little about transgender experience
You may have several gay friends and resonate deeply with their struggles. You may identify as an ‘ally,’ and believe that all gay people should have the right to marry and serve in the military. Yet, I doubt that you know much about transgender identity, politics, and the experience of transgender people in our country It’s not your fault. Openly trans* people make up a very small percentage of our population. You don’t learn about trans* people in class. There are only a few out trans* students at our school. This is why it’s important to have a Transgender Awareness Week. Most people (even in the ‘LGBT’ community) are blithely ignorant about transgender issues. In coordinating a week dedicated to trans* experiences we highlight narratives, issues, and perspectives that are often lost or neglected in our dominant culture.
2. Allies are crucial.
One of the major lessons that the gay movement has (historically) taught us is that visibility can be used as power: “Out of the closet into the streets!” The logic follows that the more ‘out’ LGB / queer people we have the more we can change our culture to be more embracing of these identities. This sort of logic doesn’t have as much clout for the transgender community.
Considering the small percentage of openly trans* people in our society and the marginalization of trans* issues by mainstream LGBT and other human rights organizations, tactics that privilege visibility are more difficult for trans* people. Certainly, trans* visibility and trans* people speaking about their own experiences is crucial (and, thankfully, increased media exposure and social media have enhanced the capacity for this). However, considering the small size of the openly trans* community, few people may encounter openly trans* people on a day-to-day basis. This is why critical, educated, and self-reflective allyship for trans is crucial. Who is going to bring up trans issues in spaces where there are no trans people to speak for themselves?
It’s impossible to actually ascertain the ‘size’ or ‘demographics’ of the ‘LGBT’ or ‘trans’ community because we do not know how many people are ‘closeted’ or unsure about their identities. Considering the continuing persistence of homophobia and transphobia in our society it makes sense that many LGBTQ people decide to publically conceal their identities. Thus, we never really know if our friends, our colleagues, our professors, our coworkers are struggling with their identities.
What we do know is that we have the ability to create safe and affirming spaces. Individual actions have the radical potential to contribute to the cultivation of these safe spaces. You never know, posting a Trans Awareness Week flyer on your Facebook or attending an event could save someone’s life. They are reminded that people care about their plight; they may think of your small act of kindness, your small signal of solidarity, in their darkest moments.
3. Trans* experience is crucial to your analysis of inequality and desire to ‘save the world.’
We often speak about ‘poverty’ and ‘inequality’ in monolithic ways – failing to recognize that poverty is racialized and gendered. What does poverty look like in our world and why does it look that way?
Transgender people experience some of the most severe discrimination in the United States. While there have been major victories in LGBT rights over the years, only a privileged subset of people (mostly gay and lesbian) have been affected. According to “Injustice at Every Turn,” a study released by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force: 15% of trans* people have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Trans* people experience double the rate of unemployment, with rates for people of color up to four times higher than the national unemployment rate. The systems established to protect minorities fail trans people: 19% of trans people have been refused health care due to their identity and 22% report harassment by police. Due to a combination of structural inequalities and interpersonal prejudice, 41% of trans* people report attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population.
By viewing trans experiences as a lens of analysis, we can discern the pressing need to restructure social and economic institutions in our country. If these systems change to better accommodate trans* people – of the most disadvantaged in our society – then they will become better for all citizens. It is crucial that we come to understand a trans-specific analysis of poverty and inequality if you are interested in making widespread change, regardless of your particular area of focus.
4. Trans Awareness Week is crucial for all people, regardless of your gender identity
Regardless of your intended career, chances are you will one day interact with a trans* person. Let’s say you want to be a doctor. What are you going to do when a transwoman walks into your office? Will you be prepared? Will you abuse her, will you call her by the wrong names, will you deny her treatment like many other doctors do? Let’s say you want to be a kindergarten teacher. What will you do when one of your little ‘boys’ wears a dress to class and all of her peers make fun of her? Will you know how to intervene, or will you do nothing – contributing to years of psychological harm and neglect.
The more we know about ‘different’ experiences the more ethically and personally we can interact with one another.
5. Transgender Awareness Week isn’t what you think it is
When we think of ‘issues’ and ‘experiences’ of trans* people we usually think negatively. We associate these words with the discrimination trans* people face. We neglect to realize that not all ‘issues’ and ‘experiences’ trans* people have are on account of their gender identity. Trans* people are extremely diverse and face many different life situations with their sexualities, their bodies, their careers, their politics, their hobbies, their interests.
That’s why this year we decided to incorporate several events that don’t appear explicitly trans. We want to focus on challenging binaries of sexuality as well as gender. We’ve invited Dossie Easton, author of Ethical Slut, as well as David Jay, founder of the Asexuality Visibility Education Network, to talk about binaries of sexuality that we can all relate to, regardless of our gender identity.
6. Trans* experiences can teach us all so much
One of the most important ideas that inspires Beyond Binaries is the notion that trans* experience/perspectives are not ancillary to our education but actually central. By dedicating a week to trans* experiences we are taking what is normally thought of as a ‘minority’ subject position and universalizing it. We are attempting to show you that we all – regardless of our gender identity – have so much to learn from trans* experience.
Inside and outside the Academy, Transgender Studies and trans* experiences have critiqued the simplistic and dichotomous way we have come to conceptualize gender as male/female and sex as man/woman. The diversity of gendered and sexual experiences of trans* people remind us of the inadequacy of these paradigms. Indeed, trans* activism has introduced the idea of ‘destroying the gender dichotomy,’ and allowing people to self-fashion, to self-determine their own gender presentations (a lesson that we can all learn from).
This process of critiquing binaries can be expanded beyond gender. On Monday our discussion with Dossie Easton allows us to think about how monogamy/non-monogamy gets constructed as a false dichotomy. It’s much more complicated! Some of us are in ‘committed’ relationships with our lover, but experience intense emotional attachment to our friends. Where does this place us in this simplistic paradigm? Monday evening we heard from renowned queer disability activists who helped inform us that the dichotomy between being ‘disabled’ and being ‘able-bodied’ is much more complicated than we’d originally imagine. Disability is something that people can flow in and out of, it is a fluid and complex concept. On Tuesday night we’re screening XXY a movie about intersex that challenges our notion that there are only ‘men’ and ‘women’ in our world. On Friday we’re hearing from asexual activists and scholars about how it’s more complicated than there just being ‘asexual’ people and ‘sexual’ people – that actually sexuality is more protean, more nuanced, and that some people go through different phases of (a)sexuality (and that’s totally okay!)
Recognizing the false construction of these binaries is liberating! We are complicated creatures and don’t fit so narrowly into these categories. Trans* experiences encourages us to think about how suffocating the boxes and categories we get placed into are. Trans* experiences remind us of the importance of self-identification and self-realization. We should be able to construct and present our own unique identities, regardless of dominant assumptions of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’