[Image description: large dark green leaves against a millennial pink background]
STRIKE! has just published my essay “Fuck Passing: Class, Respectability, and Trans Healthcare” in their Summer 2017 issue! I’m in brilliant company and could not recommend it highly enough. There will be a launch party in London soon, hold tight.
I’ve written an essay about information security and privacy in Queer Privacy, a collection of essays by other queer people on privacy and community, family, coming out, activism, domestic violence, and suicide. It’s edited by Sarah Jamie Lewis, who was an absolute dream to work with, and I’m very pleased to say that she was able to pay me a proper fee for my writing. You can support more work like it by buying the book as an ebook or paperback. The whole book is under a creative commons license; if you’d like to read it but can’t afford to buy it, send me an email and I’ll send you a PDF.
Book: Queer Trouble
This spring I signed a book deal(!!!!) with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, who recently put out the kids’ book Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? My book is provisionally titled Queer Trouble, and aims to explore the intrinsic relationship between gender and sexuality, discuss and contextualize queer words, and destabilize pervasive “normal” words and concepts like “gender”, “sex”, and “man”. It’s my main project right now and should be published in spring of 2018.
[Image description: Me, smiling in a white-walled art gallery, holding a copy of the magazine]
Content Note: non-graphic mentions of rape, abuse, and transphobia
Last night I read my piece “I Pity The Cis” at the launch of SALT. Magazine‘s launch for issue 9 at Deptford X. SALT is a feminist magazine run by women, and this issue was themed on The Furies (not to be confused with “the furries”). My piece was about the slow realization of being trans made slower by my abusive rapist ex-boyfriend, and how I pity cis people for having such narrow, heavily policed genders.
The gallery was sparse and the room eventually filled with art school graduates (or people who wanted to look like art school graduates) sitting on the floor. The first performer read an excerpt from her piece on what we will do under duress; the next un/did a hex; and the night ended with a dramatic reading about articulation and cadavers, done over a very wet, reverby soundscape. My piece was angry and bitter and quick, and people seemed to like it. Two friends came with me and I had a nice enough time—but if I’m honest I’m bored of how insular (uncritical) and abstract (inaccessible) the art scene is. I didn’t talk to anyone but my pals and the organizers, who were all very gracious and complimentary, because everyone else was doing that aloof posturing thing that artists and their critics do.
The only acceptable ways to behave in an art space are: like an enthusiastic, just-so-happy-to-be-there puppy with no complaints; or, like a cynical, self-righteous edgelord who is too cool to enjoy anything. Even now I feel guilty for what feels like whining. I’m always glad to be given a platform to talk about stuff I think is important like transphobia and rape apologism, and I did get paid a small sum: £20 with the promise of more, contingent on fundraising. I don’t want to be an edgelord, and I want to be invited back to do more readings. But like my friends have been saying lately, no more fake orgasms to boost the art world’s self-esteem (thanks for sharing that link, actual-artist Megan Pickering). Who is it for? Who’s allowed in and are they legitimate if they’re doing any less than a dozen projects? Am I going to be let back in after trans stuff isn’t “trendy”? Or will I be left outside, a killjoy yelling about rape culture? Maybe I feel the need to be extra nice because if I’m not, I’m a scary/angry trans person (or survivor, or sex worker, or migrant, or autistic, or Jew, depending on what I’m shouting about that day, can’t be all at once tho that’s Too Much). No one wants ‘people like that’ around because it’s uncomfortable. Imagine how much nicer I’d need to be if I wasn’t white.
I don’t have conclusions about how to navigate the tension between performing gratefulness in an ugly institution (the Art World) and relying on that institution for money and networking (to get money), but I want to highlight it anyway. It seems valuable to put a spotlight on tensions.
[Image description: Selfie against white wall. Main features: white skin, short brown hair, a white shirt, a black & white tie, round glasses, thick eyebrows, and red lipstick drawn off-center of subject’s lips]
CN: Street harassment, transphobia, misogyny
This is what I wore to the Proms on Saturday night: a normative shirt, slacks, and tie, with a pair of lips drawn on my cheek. I nearly wore a short black business skirt and heels instead, but decided against it at the last minute despite the hot weather.
On the way there, on the tube, a child pointed at me and yelled “Look!”. The parent “shh”d and didn’t say anything else. I smiled and said, “It’s ok”. The parent looked away and the child stared.
The child wasn’t threatening and they were probably more curious and excited than anything else, but the parent’s reaction had strong implications.
“Shh, we don’t point because it’s impolite.”
“Shh, we don’t talk about when people are different, we just ignore them.”
“Shh, if you draw attention to this they might have the nerve to talk to us and how awkward would that be?”
“Shh, yes I know men in makeup are freaks but it’s rude to point it out.”
After a few years of obsessing over how the public read my gender, I’ve gotten very good at knowing how I’m being gendered and emitting gender cues so as to be gendered how I want. I know how to be read as a harmless girl who needs help, a hard woman who might cut you if you mess with her, a boring (i.e. straight) middle-class white guy, a flamboyant (i.e. gay) middle-class white guy, a scruffy queer, or a Is That A Boy Or A Girl androgynous mess. I know how to make a shopkeeper dance between “sir” and “ma’am”, “darling” and “mate”. Gender is so flimsy, I can collapse it with a step, a facial expression, a gesticulation, a vocal inflection, or the application of lipstick. You could tell me I’m wrong, but you’ve never seen the way people make space for “men” in public or the way they stare at “women”.
[Image description: a crudely-drawn graph of my experience with street harassment depending on my gender presentation. I had lots of violence as a femme “girl”, none as a “man”, and expect lots more as a “man in a dress”]
My experiences with street harassment as a “woman” were extremely common: constant aggressive “compliments” and invasions of space, occasional groping by strangers or being chased by lads for bantz, a couple of times being stalked and attacked. Once a man helped me carry some groceries for a block and did the “Don’t I get a hug?” line, and when I politely said no he grabbed me and held me against him while he pushed his face against mine. I yelled and beat him off me, and he followed me into my apartment building. That was a single experience which punctuates my long, dull history of street harassment from strangers; and that’s not saying anything of sexual and gendered violence I’ve gotten from people I know.
After nearly a decade of “womanhood” I changed my gender expression from hegemonically feminine to an attempt at hegemonically masculine, which took some six months to perfect. I kept it that way for six more months. That year of performing white masculinity gave me reprieve from the public gaze like a spell of invisibility, only broken when I dared to hold hands with a partner who was also read as a man. But hegemonic white masculinity—bland suits, blending in—felt wrong. It was an uncomfortable gender expression for me to perform and I’ve since moved to gentle-femme boy. The street harassment has resumed, a grotesque reflection of my once-again overt femininity. Will it be enough to dampen my femme expression, especially as my body continues to “masculinize”?
When will our comfort in public stop being conditional?
[Image description: A billboard advertizing the opening of a Byron, photoshopped to include an Immigration Removal van. It reads: “Byron / Exploitation / Immigration Raids / UKBA Collusion / Coming soon”]
On July 4, Byron Burgers called in undocumented workers from 15 UK stores for a “training session” which was actually a UKBA raid. Home Office officials detained and deported “dozens” of people. It’s being widely ignored in English media; that link is to Spanish media. Most of the people detained and deported were Latinx.
Byron is a microcosm of Theresa May’s “hostile environment”: a UK chain company can exploit undocumented migrant workers as long as they rat them out to the Home Office if they’re caught illegally employing them. Byron benefits from cheap labor and precarious workers; the UKBA benefits from companies like Byron ratting out their employees — everyone wins, except the workers, who are apparently disposable. Employers are becoming border guards, along with landlords, neighbors, teachers, and universities. It’s unacceptable.
[Image description: Sisters Uncut members holding a banner and raising their fists in front of the squatted building which is their social centre in Peckham. The building has a large banner which reads “S.E.L. [south east London] SISTERS UNCUT”; below is a smaller banner which reads “ALL WOMEN AND NON-BINARY PEOPLE WELCOME”. The Sisters hold a banner readings “RINGFENCE D.V. SERVICES”. Photo by me.]
CN: mentions of domestic violence and rape, misogyny, transmisogyny
You know I love you. I’ve hyped you since I found out about you, and several times I’ve taken on support roles for your direct actions. But your gender inclusion policy is a point of contention and confusion.
I’ve only been to one Sisters meeting, which happened sort of by accident immediately after photographing the opening of the occupied/squatter social centre in Peckham (great work, btw!). The Sister facilitating tells us that the meetings are open to all women (trans, intersex, and cis), non-binary and gender nonconforming people, those who experience oppression as women, and those who identify as women for the purposes of political organizing. She tells us that in this space, “sister” is a gender-neutral term. We go around the circle and say our names and pronouns: nearly everyone is “she” with a handful of “they”s, and I’m the only “he” (caveated with “I’m non-binary”). Some Sisters look at me funny and later complain on the internet.
Sisters is a decentralized non-hierarchical group and I don’t know exactly how the gender inclusion policy is articulated in every meeting across the UK, but here’s what is says on your website FAQ:
What is your gender inclusion policy and what does it mean?
Our meetings should be inclusive and supportive spaces for all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as women (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organising. Self-definition is at the sole-discretion of that sister. If you have any queries regarding our gender inclusion policy, please don’t hesitate to ask questions.
Why can’t men come to meetings?
We believe that women must be at the forefront of the movement for women’s rights and therefore we need safe, collective spaces where we can organise, share our experiences, learn from each other and support one another. We want to ensure our meetings are safe and welcoming for survivors of domestic violence, and for that reason we ask men not to attend.
I want to question who the space is for, and highlight the direct contradiction between it being open to “people who experience oppression as women” while not being open to men. (If this is the only phrase you take away from this without reading the rest, you’re killing any chance we have at a nuanced and complex discussion about gender. Please don’t do that.)
Trans men are not “men-lite”, and they don’t experience anything (oppression or otherwise) as women because they are not women, they are men. But claiming the identity label of “man” does not mean that the world genders you as a man. When I realized I was trans, no one else saw my masculine gender or believed me. I was still street harassed, still talked over, still objectified in public space, still abused and raped by my then-partner (s/o to Charles Potashner aka Chuck Potashner, I hope this ruins your reputation). The violence I experienced was absolutely gendered. In fact, it was often transmisandrist, if you’ll entertain the notion that such violence exists: he attempted to correctively rape me into being a cis girl. I stayed with him for years, mostly because I had no money to leave. I later found out about Sisters Uncut but felt like my presence, as a trans masc*, would be imposing, despite my extremely relevant personal experience of gendered domestic and sexual violence and my enthusiasm for direct action.
*I loathe the term “trans masculine” as a catch-all for afab people who aren’t cis / don’t identify as women: personal example of its failing is me being trans but not very masculine. Still, I think it’s the best we’ve currently got.
Trans men are not always read as men. When trans men are read as women, they experience the same external gendered violence as cis women. The transphobic violence which trans men face is gendered violence, usually about a biological essentialism that trans men are not really men but women, and are then objectified and abused as miscreant women. Claiming the identity label of “man” or “masculine” does not change the way you are coercively gendered by society, and it does not erase your history of being coercively gendered (and possibly assaulted) as a “woman”. Trans men might be sex workers who work as “women”.
In discourse, trans women are hyper-visible and fetishized and othered, constantly needing to self-advocate for their gender to be respected; trans men are invisible and also constantly self-advocate, or else assimilate into cisnormative masculinity. In queer spaces, trans men and masc people are dominant while trans femmes, femmes, fat babes, and QTIPOC have less social capital. The desire to create a space which centers these voices is understandable and valuable, but I don’t think including trans men would diminish them; it would empower otherwise disenfranchised trans men who have no safe/r spaces in discussions of domestic violence, like femme trans men, POC trans men, and trans masc sex workers.
There is a theoretical trans man who does not belong in Sisters Uncut: he has always known he was a boy/man, he has lived his whole life “stealth” and is assumed to be a cis man by people on the street. This is the assimilationist trans man, who is honestly completely unknown to me (to everybody) and who has a very different gendered experience than most trans masculine people. The domestic violence he might face, if his abusive partner did not know him to be trans, would not have the same gendered dynamic as a trans man who is out to their partner, or a closeted trans man. As you know, 4 out of 5 trans people experience domestic violence. This is not exclusive to trans women.
I am sympathetic to the desire to create a safer space which does not include men, and the empowerment which comes from politically organizing without men. I also appreciate the assertion that trans men are men despite its reductiveness. But if Sisters Uncut welcomes “people who experience oppression as women”, then it must welcome men. Who “experiences oppression as a woman” or is “a woman for the purposes of political organizing”—yet is not a woman or non-binary—if not men? If men are not welcome, what is the point of these clunky phrases?
There’s understandable reluctance to say that “trans men don’t have male privilege before they’re read as men” because it could imply an inverse “trans women don’t face misogyny until they’re read as women” or even worse that “trans women have male privilege until they’re read as women”, but this isn’t true. Trans femininity and trans masculinity are not opposites in patriarchy. Both are differently punished. This is very difficult to bring up for fear of treading on trans women, and because trans mascs have years of internalized shame and discomfort with masculinity.
Identity policing, whether it’s in-person at meetings or written to exclude certain ID labels, will keep some people away from the space who have relevant and valuable contributions to the discussion. Even saying “no cis men” will keep out amab trans people who aren’t ready yet to claim a trans identity. Baby queers and baby transes need space where they have plausible deniability as straight/cis to explore their non-normative identities. Instead of policing identity labels in order to keep out the wrong people, may I suggest: doing lots of housekeeping to frame the discourse so those who choose to participate are self-selecting as feminists who know when to speak and when to listen; and removing people from the space based on their behavior rather than your perceptions of their identity, e.g. if they’re taking up too much space or being aggressive.
It would be simplest for Sisters if you decided that the purpose of the group is to empower and help women, and only women, in protesting the closure of domestic violence services. This would make Sisters a still-valuable group, but ultimately it’s a cop-out. I would be surprised if Sisters is comfortable with the compromise of excluding people who suffer gendered violence for the sake of maintaining the purity of a No Men Allowed policy. Sisters Uncut has already made controversial but important decisions, such as supporting sex workers’ groups in demanding the decriminalization of sex work. You like doing the hard work and being at the forefront of feminism. It would be deeply disappointing for Sisters to take a reactionary, second-wave feminist stance on gender. Assuming that trans men are inherently violent because they identify with masculinity, or that they’re “gender traitors” for “abandoning womanhood”, is the kind of TERFy bullshit I hope we can wholly reject. Our language is utterly inadequate and will never capture the nuance of our lives but that’s no excuse. You (we) need to be better.
I would bring this discussion to the occupied space itself, but at this point I don’t feel comfortable there even when specifically invited by Sisters who have been active in your organization for months. If a group purporting to support survivors in demanding the end to austerity cuts for DV services excludes trans and non-binary survivors like me, it’s failing in its objective.
With fondness and in acknowledgement that this will literally lose me friends (oh well),
Post script: I’d also critique the inclusion of “gender non-conforming people” as part of the gender inclusion policy. A cis man in drag is gender non-conforming, but he does not experience gendered violence (though he does experience violence from patriarchy which insists that he repress his femininity, which might manifest in physical violence). “Gender variant” is a more appropriate term, but still unnecessary since you explicitly include “non-binary”, but I’ll concede that “non-binary” is a new and very western term and I might be missing some context.
EDIT, 4 July 2016: The following is some more context, lifted from a comment I made in the conversations on facebook:
Maybe this needs some more context. I’ve been on the sidelines of Sisters Uncut for several months. A couple of Sisters have explicitly encouraged me to attend meetings & actions but I haven’t because it felt like I’d be intruding on a women’s/femme centered space, even with the “non-binary people allowed” caveat. The reason I’m writing this *now* is because I did (very gingerly) attend a meeting *which I was explicitly invited to* and was met with a sense of discomfort, which (I’ve since learned) reflects the experiences of lots of people read as men/masc, including amab non-binary / trans-femmes. I know everyone at Sisters is exhausted by all the work they’ve been doing and some people think now’s not a good time—but this is in direct response to a particular moment at the space, and at a time when the gender inclusion/exclusion policy is being visibly, publicly “enforced”.
I’ve privately and publicly supported Sisters—individuals and the group—for a long time and hope to keep doing so. I’ve broached this topic with some Sisters and my trans family privately, and decided to write about it publicly for two reasons: because I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up in the forum of a Sisters meeting; and to make this a wider and transparent discussion about gender and feminism. I also know that this semi-/academic language is not necessarily accessible, but I’m a single individual and this is just how I write. I’d be super enthusiastic about re-working these points into a more accessible format if there was an interest in that.
Sisters Uncut is a wonderful group and I’m so encouraged by the responses I’ve gotten (thank you again everyone for the love and support). I’m also concerned by some people suggesting that they’re above public, online critique. I know this is hard. I know it’s a lot of work and most of the labor is invisible. But Sisters is a public/community group and I think it’s fair to make a public comment about it, especially when that comment is about my inability to make a comment internally. Tbh I’d rather have these talks in person and this online stuff makes me pretty anxious.
PS Don’t call me a trans man; I’ve been really clear about being non-binary for months now. It’s disrespectful misgendering—and in this context it’s a willful political attempt to discredit what I’m saying—and I’m out of patience for it.
[Image description: close-up of two hands gently holding each other, both covered in red paint. Photo by Jade Jackman]
Carl Andre killed Ana Mendieta.
Yesterday, at the opening of the new Tate Modern building, the Whereisanamendieta collective and Sisters Uncut protested the inclusion of Carl Andre’s work and the exclusion of Ana Mendieta’s (objectively better) work. It was a protest in three simultaneous parts:
Several activists silently circled a Carl Andre piece and held out their arms painted red—both a reference to Ana Mendieta’s murder and her piece Body Tracks. They covered Andre’s art with a banner which read: CARL ANDRE KILLED ANA MENDIETA
Other activists held a banner in the Tate windows facing outside asking, demanding: WHERE IS ANA MENDIETA
I distributed 1000 fliers in front of Andre’s work which read: CARL ANDRE KILLED ANA MENDIETA
The Tate owns both Andre’s and Mendieta’s work, but are only exhibiting Andre’s while Mendieta’s is hidden in private storage. We will not be complacent in cultural institutions willfully glorifying the work of violent white men. We will not be complacent in the exclusion of women of color. We demand the removal of Carl Andre’s work, and that Ana Mendieta’s work replace it.
[Image description: Travis, a black trans femme, wearing black lipstick, a black headscarf, black shirt and chunky gold chain, sits in a bookshop facing camera with a stoic expression. Photo by Alexander Lijka]
Beyond The Binary asked me to review “Stories Of A Queer Brown Muddy Kid” by Travis Alabanza. It was their final performance of the intense, funny, moving autobiography of queer black life in London, and I’d already seen it twice before. The piece is all about, and for, queer black femmes, so I was reluctant to take on the task as a white boy(ish), but I gave it my best.
Acutely aware of racialized violence in the queer scene, Travis scornfully highlighted colonialism in sexual relationships, their role as “his bucket to empty his microaggressions” and a “brown fetish of the week”. “I’m not your black boy top”, they insisted, but then, “Why do I still need him?” Their vulnerability about intimacy, about simultaneously recognizing abuse but longing for your abuser(s), was bold and affecting.
tl;dr I absolutely loved it, Travis is amazing, give them all your money.