(Note: i discuss strategies for intervening in problematic social moments. i do not talk here about people and communities that are consciously open to growth. Those spaces do exist in my life and certainly need to be reflected upon, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Here i talk about folks i know casually or who are not open to acknowledging their place larger systems of power).
i used to be a spy. i wore a beard and lived as a man. But, for most of my conscious life i was unabashedly a feminist (a word that i am not totally sure of at this moment, but was then). Because i was read in the way that i was, people assumed they could say whatever they wanted without being challenged. There was a “just one of the guys” logic applied to me, leading people (cis men) to think that i would buy into their sexism/homophobia/whatever. Needless to say, i was given ample opportunity to call bullshit on people, and did.
After presenting more queerly, i started hearing a different kind of shit. This new kind of shit was either blatantly hateful, or unwittingly ignorant and hurtful. It was often directed at me. i cannot claim to have a perfect strategy for dealing with either of these.
In the first instance i am often confrontational. i don’t pretend that i’m going to change any of these folks minds through confrontation. If someone is being purposefully transphobic, there’s little chance that they’re going to be open to anything that i have to say. My logic here is that, at the very least, i can make them wary of saying fucked up things to queers in the future because one yelled at them once.
This strategy also helps me to survive in my soul. By this i mean that i don’t have to internalize what was said, if i can find a way to turn it back on someone. i’d often rather acknowledge the bullshit, openly and fiercely, so that it doesn’t weigh on my soul. i don’t like being left wondering if it would have felt better if i would have said something.
Although, i will admit that sometimes i choose to not say anything. i will occasionally, willfully let moments pass. This comes either from a place of being too tired for a confrontation and just wanting the moment to be over or from fears of physical safety. i respond more to the former, as physical safety is something that i willfully give up to walk out my front door looking the way that i do, but both are very real parameters in my life.
As for the other type of shit, the more subtle kind, my responses are trickier. It used to be easy to just call something out for what it was. “That was transphobic because ____” somehow seemed to carry more weight before i was being read as trans. At this point in my life i am often dismissed when i call things out as being oversensitive. i literally cannot count the number of times that i’ve been told to grow thicker skin (or some variant of “toughen up” logic).
This type of response totally discounts how resilient i actually am in being able to put up with the shit that society throws at me and still be true to myself. i’m going to place that aside for now because the folks who tell me to “toughen up” are not typically open to this fact.
i’ve been struggling to come up with a new method of intervention in moments so that i can still have an impact and not be immediately discounted. This has been difficult, as i really am most comfortable and articulate when i can face things directly.
i’ve been trying a strategy of humorous interventions. i was hesitant to try this, because i worry about minimizing moments and disallowing for the discussion that i feel needs to happen. That said, because folks have started completely discounting my opinions, those conversations were not happening anyway.
To illustrate my meaning, here are a few examples:
i was talking to someone about the weather, as it’s been inordinately hot in Chicago. He said “I don’t like the sun, I’m such a pussy.” Obviously this is sexist and gross. In the past i would have said that, and then hopefully had a conversation about how discursively using “pussy” in that way reified x, y, and z power dynamics.
But, i chose to forgo that and simply smiled and said, “i don’t know what you’re talking about right now; my pussy loves the sun.” i didn’t get to talk about systems of oppression, i left that invisible and am still unsure how i feel about my part in that. But, this person laughed, and sighed at the same time. There was a look of recognition on his face. Maybe he saw how “pussy-ness” had nothing to do with his self-claimed inability to cope with heat. He said “I’ve got nothing to say to that,” and walked away.
So, i think that i got to put something out there where i would have otherwise been completely incapable of intervention due to my specific marginalization as a radical trans person. Further, i got to laugh and throw this person’s ignorance back at them in a very queer way. Something here felt empowering.
A few days later i asked someone their name. They asked “What do I look like?” Again, my instinct was to explain why that question was problematic: that it assumed that names (which are often gendered, racialized, etc.) are a thing that can be assumed about a person (and thus that gender, race, etc. can also be assumed). i wanted to tell them how often people don't believe me when i tell them my name is ellie. In light of the success of the previous instance, i got cute and fierce.
i tossed my head back to the right, femme and cocky, and said “Honey, i’m a tranny, i am not going to assume shit about you.” Again, this person seemed to get a bit of my point. Maybe they didn’t get the whole discussion of power and assumption in our culture, but they really did get something.
i don’t know what to make of all of this just yet. i certainly don’t want to undercut the fact that real conversations need to be happening around these issues. But maybe this strategy is a way to get folks to begin to open up to the possibility of having those conversations. Maybe these gentle, humorous reminders are disarming in a unique way. Maybe they have a place. How to know when that is the right strategy and when to actually call something out is still up in the air for me, but i have a new tool in my toolbox and i’m excited about that.