What Has Always Been

Originally Published in Harpers Magazine
A Diary of Gender Under Trump

November 2, 2016

Who affords privacy? Who gets to come out and who is outed? There is no gay progress without trans backlash. There was no gay marriage victory without hundreds of anti-trans bathroom bills. There is no protection of the private without criminalization of the public.

I read today about how “LGBT” foundations and nonprofits like the Gill Foundation have decided to back nondiscrimination legislation that excludes public accommodation protections. It is decisions like this that make so many trans people like myself believe that we should just say “trans” instead of “LGBT”: when you look at the policies, when you look at the experiences of violence on the ground, it is gender non-conforming people who are experiencing the brunt of the backlash. Many of the “victories” that the gay movement has enjoyed (marriage, state protections, etc.) have come from campaigns that distanced “LGBT people” from gender non-conformity. “Love” becomes something that happens in private whereas “gender” becomes that thing that haunts the public.

Trump is not anti-LGBT. He is anti-trans. There is a difference.

November 7, 2016

A trans woman in Tennessee had her car spray painted “TRUMP” and then torched on fire in her driveway.

I am horrified. While it has been encouraging to see so much mobilization by young feminists against the rampant misogyny of his campaign, I am dismayed that the presumed subject of Trump’s vitriol is always already seen as a white cisgender woman. I worry for my transfeminine sisters and siblings who are always gendered as perpetrators and never victims of patriarchal violence. It’s not a question of if violence against trans people will increase under this administration, it’s a question of how we are going to respond once it does.

I worry because I know that we will be bashed, attacked, harassed, assaulted, and I worry because I know that we will be blamed for it. I worry that there will be no movements to rally for us because we are not desirable victims. I worry that there will be no feminists to rally for us because we may not identify as women. I worry that they will be able to get away with this because the one thing that bonds liberals and conservatives is their ingrained hatred and suspicion of transfeminine people.

In times of heightened nationalism: borders are erected, fortified, and militarized. Some will talk about the border between the United States and Mexico, but few will talk about the border between man and woman. How there are walls that are being erected there, too—and, how if you cross them, you are punished.

I consider enrolling for self-defense classes. I ask myself why it’s taken so long.

November 8, 2016

I am sitting in the living room with two non-binary friends of color as the election results come in. We sought out each other’s company on this night because we wanted to be somewhere where we were affirmed for our cynicism. We are not surprised when Donald Trump is declared the next president. Just like we were not surprised when we were harassed on the street on the way to my apartment. Just like we were not surprised when we had to leave our hometowns to be safe when we were younger. Just like we were not surprised when we weren’t safe in New York City, either. Just like we are not surprised when we read that fifty-seven percent of white women who voted went for Trump. We have experienced firsthand white women screaming at us on the streets. We have understood that white women’s allegiance has always been to racism and money.

The news anchors ask: “What happened?” And we want to shout, “You didn’t consult us.” You never consult us.

November 9, 2016

I have never seen so many people cry in public before. It’s as if the entire city is in mourning. There is a possibility in this tragedy. Will this pain propel rage against the system and not just an individual?

But in the streets, they are already chanting that Hillary should have won. And I remember how much easier it is to believe that something is broken, and not just working the way it was supposed to.

November 10, 2016

Eight transgender youth commit suicide after Trump is elected. Many are saying that this data has not been “confirmed.” But what they do not understand is that violence against trans people is rarely confirmed. We do not have the data about what you do to us because you misgender us after it happens. To be a trans activist is to learn the art of believing people over publications.

My inbox is full of journalists asking questions about trans issues and mental health. I wonder why they only reach out when we are under attack. I think about how the only space trans people have in the cultural imagination is as entertainers. I close my laptop and I go have dinner with my trans friend. They are sixteen years old and they are much stronger than me. I tell them to text me when they are getting home. They tell me to text them when I wake up.

November 11, 2016

I am walking home with another transfemme after a party in Hells Kitchen when an older white man starts screaming, “GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!! TRUMP!! GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!!” I laugh in his face and call him a patriarchal pig. I go home and post a Facebook status discussing how transfeminine people will be uniquely targeted by this state-legitimating of misogyny and how we will be erased nonetheless. Multiple white cis women comment and tell me that I am a man masquerading as something I am not. That feminism isn’t for me. That I should shut up. I am only supposed to be afraid of the man on the screen (Trump), but I find myself just as afraid of the cis feminists afraid of him.

November 12, 2016

There are hundreds of thought pieces going around with everyone’s attempt to understand how the unthinkable happened—how did Donald Trump win? The white liberals keep on blaming people like me: Why did Hilary spend so much time campaigning to transgender people? Why didn’t people take white working-class men’s rage more seriously? I can’t tell whether I’m more hurt by this election’s blatant endorsement of white supremacy, or by white liberals’ continual denial of it. It’s such a strange feeling to witness something so simple be theorized into oblivion.

November 15, 2016

I am giving a poetry reading tonight at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The organizers emailed me a few days ago expressing concerns about my safety. They said that there had been pro-Trump rallies in town. I thank them for letting me know and tell them that I think it is more important than ever to keep events like this going. During my rehearsal, the tech supervisor introduces me to his daughter. “I just wanted my daughter to see someone like you. You are like what America should look like.” I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but it feels like a slur. I am tired. I don’t want to be a symbol of anything other than myself.

November 22, 2016

I am back in my hometown of College Station, Texas, visiting family. I read online about trans people choosing to go stealth (pass as cisgender) in light of the Trump election. I look outside and see Trump signs everywhere. I see American flags everywhere. I see churches everywhere. And I understand. I hate how we romanticize people “persisting despite the odds,” and don’t allow people to do what they need to do to survive. To truly love trans people would require you to accept our ownership of our bodies and safeties. I often wonder whether being your inspiration matters more to you than our safety. Being stealth and “invisible” (whatever that means) doesn’t make you any less real, any less trans.

November 29, 2016

My mom and I walk around our neighborhood as we always do in the evening. She tells me that she is worried about me living in New York as a gender non-conforming person during the Trump era. I tell her that I’m afraid of her and our grandparents living in Texas as Indian immigrants. We tell each other to be safe. I wish I could believe that was enough.

December 3, 2016

I’m in Saigon connecting with LGBT activists and artists for a few days. Tonight I am at a bar run by local artists that serves exquisite teas in little petri dishes. It is all very quaint. My hosts tell me about how when President Obama came to visit Vietnam a couple of years ago, their government put all of the political artists under house arrest for several months. They spoke about it so matter-of-factly: how they organized meals for one another, kept each other company inside. Being abroad is a constant lesson in how limiting U.S. exceptionalism is. People across the world have been living under surveillance for a very long time.

December 5, 2016

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. A new HBO documentary called “The Trans List” was released, and I’m one of the interview subjects in the film. After of slew of congratulatory texts from my friends, I get a text that feels starkly different. “Are you okay? I just saw your Facebook.” I log online and see that there are hundreds of comments on my photos from people telling me to kill myself. I am used to things like this, but not in this concentration and intensity.

Every time I participate in a mainstream project I get vitriol like this. The current moment of trans politics is that trans people are somehow supposed to courageously declare ourselves (with little to no support from anyone else) and then weather the backlash—looking fabulous throughout!

Later that night I receive a message from a young Indian trans person telling me that I was the first person they had ever seen who looked like them.

January 20, 2017

Today, the day that 45 is being inaugurated, I am with my family in Kerala. My uncle looks out at the Indian Ocean from the beach near our family home. “I wish everyone got a vote in the U.S. election,” he says, “They don’t understand that what happens over there affects us over here the most.” I nod my head. Later that day, we eat a big lunch. We do not watch the news.

January 21, 2017

They say that the Women’s March in the United States had over 600 locations with over four million protesters, making it perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history. As I look at all of the photos from the march thousands of miles away, I think about how I wish there was more space in our movements to hold contradiction. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I am inspired by the sheer mass of people who took to the streets. This is an unprecedented testament to the power of direct action. But on the other, I wonder: would as many people have mobilized if this was a march for refugees, a march against Islamophobia, a march for trans people, a march against incarceration, a march against white supremacy? Why “women?” When the majority of white women voted for Trump what does it mean to march for “women?” I think about who is not invited to speak at marches – I think about how absence isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one. Is the future “female,” as they suggest – or is the future beyond essentialist ideas of gender to begin with? It is much easier to march for women, then it is to march against misogyny.

There are so many photos of white cis women wearing pussy hats from the march. Everyone wants me to write a thought piece or a response about how this prioritization of genitalia is misguided. But I’m exhausted. It feels as if the only political space we have to express critique anymore is to perform a narrative of trauma, is to say: “I [insert identity] felt erased because you [insert identity] erased me.” The critique has to be articulated as a minority speaking to a majority. The critique has to be articulated as an individual speaking to an individual. What would it take to get people to realize that trans feminism isn’t just about trans people, but about everyone? A critique of vagina-centered feminism is a critique that expands the horizons of what is possible for all people, of all genders.

February 3, 2017

Everyone is celebrating because Ivanka Trump and her husband convinced the president not to pass an anti-LGBT executive order. But all of the other executive orders were anti-LGBT too. Last time I checked, LGBT people were Muslim, were poor, were black, were incarcerated, were undocumented, were not just rich, white, and cisgender.

February 22, 2017

I am in London for a performance when I read the news that 45 has repealed protections for transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice. What this election has made very clear is that an “LGBT friendly” administration is one that is ruthlessly anti-trans. That in fact the current moment of trans politics in one in which the symbolic act of saying “LGBT” is actually how trans violence gets pushed under the rug. They don’t know who we are; they don’t know what we go through. This becomes evident to me when I see people post statuses that it is “time to stand with our transgender brothers and sisters.” I appreciate the effort, but I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Where do those of us who are gender non-conforming go? Those of us who are neither brothers nor sisters, neither men nor women, neither girls nor boys? Those of us cut out of LGBT nonprofit campaigns for public accommodations, those of us ignored by the trans movement for being complicated, those of us most directly scapegoated by the rise of racist nationalism. I want to post statuses online telling transgender youth that I am there for them. But where is there? What does it mean to be ‘there’ when I am actually over here?

February 23, 2017

My achamma (grandmother) texts me from Kerala saying that she is worried about my father’s safety after reading that Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer, was murdered in Kansas. I don’t really know what to tell her that wouldn’t involve me lying. But isn’t this what love is about? Lying so that the people you love don’t have to worry anymore. I tell her that everything will be fine.

February 28, 2017

Today I receive the news that Jaquarius Holland, an eighteen-year-old black trans woman was murdered in Louisiana. This makes her the seventh black and/or Latinx trans woman pronounced dead in 2017. I am devastated. Last year at least twenty-six trans women of color were murdered. The ongoing genocide of black and indigenous transfeminine people is relentless.

I remember how easy it is to understand this Trump moment – with all of its tumult and terror – as unprecedented. But then I remember how important it is to resist that temptation. Our country was founded on this kind of violence. “Shock,” then is already always racialized and gendered. Who is surprised? And why? For many this is just a continuation of what has always been. There is something sobering about this recognition: not just a president, but a system.

cis feminism's double standards

The amount of vitriol that cis women (including those who identify as feminists) levy to trans women & femmes (especially those of us who are gender non-conforming) is staggering and concerning.

Trans women & gender non-conforming people know intimately how dangerous a feminism is that displaces sole culpability on cis men, and not a gendered system to begin with. What is becoming increasingly apparent to me is that cis women redirect many of the patriarchal tactics used by cis men on them against US!

In response to trans critiques, liberal cis feminism has created a binary of the *good tranny* and the *bad tranny* to establish who is permitted in feminism and who is not.

The *good tranny* identifies as a woman, mostly keeps quiet and dresses conservatively, defers to cis leadership, is heterosexual and gender conforming, narrates her transition as always knowing she was a woman, tries her best to invisibilize her difference, blames her oppression on cis men only, does not speak about violence she has experienced from cis women, and re-confirms what cis women believe about gender (that it is real, fixed, binary, etc.).

The *bad tranny* is gender non-conforming, may engage in sex work, queer, not respectable, does not claim allegiance and sisterhood with all cis women, speaks explicitly about the violence they/she have experienced by cis women, does not apologize for their body/genitalia, does not shave, asserts their leadership, is critical of the essentialism of "womanhood," is skeptical of dismissing men as uniformly privileged and oppressive, and directly challenges cis women's political project and worldview more generally.

In a political moment where it's increasingly unacceptable for cis feminists to openly exclude trans women, new forms of exclusion through the performance of inclusion have been devised. while perhaps more subtle, these tactics are just as troublesome. it's a moment of "I accept trans...but!" Our acceptance is contingent on our erasure: both of our appearances and our experiences. Our acceptance is contingent on our willingness to perpetuate gender binary thinking and not challenge it.

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misogyny socialization

the failure of cis feminism is not just its failure to be "inclusive" of trans people.

it's not just that cis feminism has been unable (and indeed, unwilling) to embrace trans and gender variant people, it's that cis feminism has been actively harmful and detrimental to the lives and safety of trans and gender variant people.

take for example cis feminism's obsession with the reductive idea that "male socialization = privilege." inherent in this logic is the presumption that patriarchy is 1) the same thing as male supremacy and 2) only exercised by men against women.

what i, and many other transfeminine people can tell you, is that my experiences with "male socialization" was actually about school/community/state-sanctioned harassment, surveillance, and verbal and physical violence because i was gender non-conforming and didn't fit into the stable category of "male." i not only experienced harassment from cis men, but also from cis women who joined forces with them to demean me for my queerness and gender non-conformity.

cis feminism provides no ideological framework to understand these situations, let alone strategize about what safety for people like me looks like. in fact, cis feminism often manipulates us to doubt our own experiences of harassment because they don't align with its exclusionary paradigms.

i can't tell you how many queer men, how many gender non-conforming people, how many transfeminine people i have spoken with who experienced routine gender based violence while (and perhaps from) being "male socialized." many of these people have never been given permission to give legitimacy to these experiences of injury and hurt because they felt like they were not significant or even *real* because they are not cis women.

i dream of femme-inist worlds and futures and pasts where everyone (regardless of their gender identification) can be understood as a victim of a profoundly (trans)misogynist, gender binarist, and patriarchal world -- where we can understand these things as systems that we are all indoctrinated in and produced through, where we can move away from talking about "male socialization" to talking about "misogyny socialization," and how we are capable of doing patriarchal harm to one another and how the task then is how we create/remember new/old/different ways of relating, treating, caring, and laboring for one another.

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patriarchy is more than male supremacy

there's this strange thing that's happened where patriarchy has become regarded as synonymous with "male supremacy." certainly (white, gender conforming) masculinities maintain structural power, but patriarchy is much more totalizing than just "male supremacy."

patriarchy is the institutionalization and policing of the gender binary. patriarchy is the very creation of this thing called "male" and this thing called "female" which must always exist as mutual exclusive and oppositional states of being. patriarchy is the mandate that gender is required for personhood, respect, and citizenship. patriarchy is the denigration of femininities across gender experiences. and so much more!

a simple equation of patriarchy = male supremacy does not actually capture what's actually going on and continues to invisbilize the experiences of gender non-conforming people who experience the brunt of patriarchal violence.

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transfeminism helps everyone

when transfeminine people critique cis feminism we are not doing so because we necessarily "want to be included," but also because we want to expand the horizons of what justice could and should look like. 

for example: the presumption that all of the social, cultural, economic, racial, political, and ideological differences among millions of different people can be subsumed under the universal category of "woman" is deeply troublesome not just for trans people, but for everyone. the idea that ones personhood should be contingent on their body (let alone their genitalia) is harmful not just for trans people, but for everyone. the notion that one word/one identity (let alone in english) could describe our constantly changing being for our entire lives is reductive not just for trans people, but for everyone.

every time i witness the intense backlash to trans people calling for more expansive and profound ways of understanding gender and the world i am reminded that people have been so conditioned to their own suffering that they often reject the very things that have the potential to set them free.

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infantilization of trans femmes

cis women. an earnest plea:

when transfeminine people share our experiences of harassment and violence with you, please do not respond with some variation of the following:

"welcome to femininity!"
"what did you expect?"
"welcome to being a woman!
"did you think being a woman would be easy?"

trans women and transfeminine people ARE women/femmes. we did not *become* women/femmes. our identities and experiences should not be gate-kept from us.

part of the way transmisogyny operates is a thorough and systematic infantilization of trans people -- so much that we face constant condescension about "how things really are," as if we lack experience and intelligence ourselves. instead of responding with support and solidarity, cis women often use our narrations of harassment to re-entrench a hierarchy that positions cis womanhood above trans and gender non-conforming experiences.

femininity, womanhood, and experiences of gender based violence do not belong to cis women.


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cis feminism's limitations

i am feeling vulnerable from all of the hate mail i have been receiving and determined to move from a place inspired by it to make something salvageable out of all of this hurt -- so i am just going to put this out there.

growing up it was the men who harassed me who first acknowledged my difference. from literally the age of 4 i remember being called a girl and a sissy which eventually became faggot as i grew up and now tranny. what has always struck me is how cis men have been so much more able (and willing in their own perverse and vitriolic ways) to acknowledge my difference and the ways in which i am failing to be a "man" much more than cis woman have. cis women continued to insist that i was "just a man," just a little different: "he just loves his sister." for cis men my femininity was regarded as something that disqualified me from manhood, but for cis women my femininity was observed as something less salient than my manhood (an addition to it, if you will).

these days when cis men harass me there is a sense of recognition and acknowledgement: i am that which they had to destroy in themselves and so therefore i must be destroyed otherwise i remind them another world is possible. when cis women harass me there's a sense of confusion: "what even is that, it must be a man!"

so what i am trying to get at is we have this weird situation where deeply misogynist men are able to acknowledge my difference in ways that progressive cis feminists still cannot. there is a disaggregation of what masculinity/manhood is, a complexity afforded to it, a recognition of internal hierarchy and lateral violence -- and none of this makes it to cis feminism's insistence on dismissing and homogenizing this and me all as "man" on the basis of my genitalia.

cis feminism refuses to acknowledge, validate, and center forms of patriarchal violence that run contrary to the gender binary of cis man against cis woman. but what my experiences as a gender non-conforming person have shown me is that cis men can be deeply misogynist and violent to each other, to men who they perceive as feminine, and to trans and gender non-conforming people. femininity is what is under attack here, not necessarily "womanhood." the forms of patriarchal violence that are enacted are not just about genitalia, they're about femininity more generally (speech, dress, gestures, interests, etc).

the question remains: why are misogynist men often able to recognize (often through economies of violence) forms of femininity that are not linked to womanhood whereas so many cis women refuse to? i often find that many cis men -- and especially queer cis men -- understand what i go through much better than cis women because of this fact.

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Always Include Gender Non-Conforming People

Friends: Over the past few months I have been receiving an unprecedented amount of vitriolic and repugnant comments, messages, and online abuse. Many, many rape and death threats are included in this.

This has everything to do with the social legitimization of (trans)misogyny by the state-endorsed right wing. Thank you to the many of you who have sent me comforting messages of support. Many of you have been asking what you can do to help and I've been thinking about it and here's what I feel is important to say.

As a queer/nonbinary/trans/femme/gender non-conforming person of color I experience harassment almost every day when I go outside and when I post online. You never quite get "used to it," but you develop coping strategies and support networks. But what I can't cope with is the ways in which gender non-conforming people are required to make arguments for the legitimacy of our struggle actively while we are being attacked.

What I mean is: white cis feminism continues to only racialize and gender us as villains and never victims. In fact, white cis feminism has and continues to be used to blame, demonize, and discredit transfeminine people of color for a very long time.

So what this means is when we experience harassment we have to humanize ourselves, make a case for why we deserve empathy and care. We are up against hundreds of years of solidified colonial narratives that prevent people from A) acknowledging that we exist and B) acknowledging that we are under attack, not the attackers and C) that we deserve care and support.

That's the part that exhausts me most -- not even being able to rest because I have to be vigilant to highlight all of the dynamics of racialized transmisogyny.

What I would ask is that you help gender non-conforming people of color like me by including us in all of your feminist & gender frameworks. Language matters. Say violence against women and gender non-conforming people. Say violence against trans women and gender non-conforming people (or violence against transfeminine people). Don't just say patriarchy is violence from men directed to women, say patriarchy is also violence against gender non-conforming people.

Be vigilant to constantly and at all levels refuse to participate in the erasure of gender non-conforming people. GNC people deserve spaces and time to rest and recuperate and we shouldn't have to worry that we will be misgendered and misrepresented.

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do you want to end patriarchy or preserve cis supremacy?

This narrative that we should focus on cis women's issues and "address the nonbinary question" in the future is so pervasive, entrenched, and troublesome. What it shows is that many feminists are fighting for cis supremacy, not the end of patriarchy (there is a difference).

If you were really interested in ending patriarchy you would recognize that relying on the gender binary to advance your political claims and secure justice means that you are not fighting for total and complete liberation.

Challenging the gender binary helps EVERYONE, not *just* nonbinary and gender non-conforming people. This is not about a disgruntled minority overstepping our bounds and speaking for a majority -- this is about a concerted effort by people of various genders to dream and imagine a way of living in the world where our personhood, our safety, and our dignity are not linked to gender.

Your body -- every body -- should have an intrinsic worth for being, a right to self-definition and authorship, a right to choose your own gender, a right to existing outside of the mandate and mechanisms of gender itself. No doctor, no politician, no parent, no document, no policy should be able to decide your gender for you.

The reason trans and gender non-conforming people critique feminism is not because we are "divisive," it is because we know intimately how detrimental the gender binary has been not just in our own lives, but in the lives of the communities that we are from and the people that we love.

We believe you -- and we -- are worth so much more than having our bodies belong to gender and not ourselves. We believe that you -- and we -- are worth so much more than having all of our uniqueness, our differentness, our complexity be glossed over in the service of homogenizing billions of people into one of two categories. We believe that your -- and our -- existence is so complicated, so nuanced, so textured, so vast, so incredible that no one category can hold all of our multitudes.

Do you?

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a more honest love

an earnest proposal:

from this point forward
can we replace every instance of
“i love you” with
“i capitalism you” or maybe even “i patriarchy you”
just to be a little bit more
honest with ourselves
about what’s actually going on here

because every love story
can be retold as a story of scarcity

in one telling it’s “i’m happy”

in the other it’s “i’m not lonely”

in one telling it’s “love at first sight”

in the other it’s “i said love so he wouldn’t leave me”

in one telling it’s “i wanted to spend the rest of my life with him”
in the other it’s “i wanted health insurance”

in one telling it’s “i do”
in the other it’s “i don’t know how to separate my own desires from what I’ve been told to want my entire life”

remember
in the beginning there was capitalism
which gave birth to ‘loneliness’ and ‘insecurity
which gave birth to ‘possession’ and ‘jealousy’

which gave birth to ‘want’ and ‘have’
which gave birth to ‘you’ and ‘me’
and our tangled limbs
on the floor
and your hand in my hair
and my sweat on your back
and your cum on my
sheets and all our
lies on the table
which gave birth to ‘betrayal’ and ‘heartbreak’
which gave birth to ‘cynicism’ and ‘regret’
which gave birth to me wishing
we could all rewind
to that moment right
before the first kiss
when all of the boys say
“i want to fuck you” and we
replace it with
“i want to fuck you up”

and everything
makes
sense

again.

an earnest proposal:

caution do not touch when hot
applies to bodies too


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saree not sorry

to the two indian cis women who pointed at me & said, "look that man is in a saree isn't that hilarious?" & laughed. 

i wanted to let you know that my mother never taught me how to tie a saree. that my grandmother never gave me her jewelry. that i have been made to feel like an imposter in my own body my entire life. 

what a strange thing it is to be accused of masquerading as yourself -- as if we have become so accustomed to lies that we mistake truth as fiction. 

this body does not belong to a man. 
this fabric does not belong to a woman. 
but this power belongs to me. 
this power belongs to me.

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