gender can be a daunting topic – daunting for trans and cis people alike.
for the latter, discussing gender can seem difficult. anxiety-provoking. tentative to engage, cis people often avoid asking about pronouns, avoid trying with pronouns, avoid learning about gender altogether. all this employed in the spirit of fragility: as if it is better to evade and notfuckup than it is to make a mistake and sit in the unease of learning.
yet the anxiety of gender, for cis people, simply ends there. for the former, gender anxiety is a different reality.
hegemonic western society conditions us to seek “normalcy,” but for so many, normalcy is elusive and suffocating, erupting along lines of sexuality, gender, race, Indigeneity, class, ability. for those of us who confront traditional gender roles on an everyday basis, asserting difference within ourselves can be emancipatory, but frightening and unsafe too.
difference is deviance. difference is a bullet in your back. difference is power.
upon contact with Turtle Island, european colonizers observed the influence of Indigenous peoples of alternate or “third” genders (and sexualities) – essentially, those who embodied fluid masculine and feminine energies. now identifying under the reclaimed term of Two-Spirit, these people were respected throughout various Indigenous nations. many were consultants, healers, and mediators between the sexes, revered and upheld for their uniquely gendered contributions. noting this power, the colonizers attacked. targeted. today, against century-wide tides of homophobia and transphobia, Indigenous Two-Spirit people and youth continue to push back against ongoing dispossession and trauma, reclaiming their identities, finding spaces of healing, and making art and rage.
difference is power.
today is friday, november 20th, marking the sixteenth annual Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR). in a world in which gender non-conformity is continually policed and targeted, TDoR recognizes the trajectories of difference and power, exception and oppression, and shines a light on the knotted place in which they meet. TDoR is about honouring lives, acknowledging brutality, and identifying the divergent ways power can be wielded: disciplining power in the hands of the oppressor, collective power in the hands of community.
on a cold november day in 1998, Rita Hester was murdered in her small apartment in allston, MA. she was statuesque and gorgeous and killed because she was a Black trans woman. communities mourned, then came together. the next year, two candlelight vigils commemorating her death were held in San Francisco and Boston. since then, TDoR has transformed into a worldwide service to honour the lives lost to transphobic violence. like many of these murders, Hester’s is still unsolved. it bears noting that a mere fifteen years ago, anti-transgender murderers were rarely arrested or trialled. when they were, many claimed a “transgender panic” defense: that their masculinity was so “threatened” by the presence of their victim that they “snapped” and had “no option” but to commit murder (Smith).
most murderers went free.
difference is deviance. difference is a bullet in your back.
but difference is also power. since then, transgender activists have “worked to pass groundbreaking legislation to treat anti-trans violence as a hate crime, to disallow the “transgender panic” defense, and to even preserve our identities in death” (Smith). as TDoR founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith writes, these advances “provide us respect, dignity, and potential justice for those of us who are still lost to these murders.”
nevertheless the arrogation of “transgender panic,” though no longer legally enshrined, continues abound. by the first five weeks of 2015, five trans women of colour had already been killed in the united states. five. one for every week. one for every week before mid-february. before valentine’s day. before the cusp of spring. globally, a trans person is killed every three days.
in what world does a person’s anxiety about gender warrant the cold killing of a life?
on november 20th, we remember. we remember here, here, and here. in the names of Lamia Beard, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja DeJesus, Diosvany Muñoz Robaina, L.A. de Souza, Mercedes Williamson, Natália Ferraz, Joyce Akira; in the names of the people whose deaths were never reported or whose lives may never be commemorated on a list, a vigil, or a candlelight service; in the names of so many more, we remember.
in may of 2014, Time magazine declared Laverne Cox an “unlikely icon” — and is she ever. trans, Black, femme, and bold, Cox is paving the way for thousands of gender non-conforming people across the world. from blazing onto the white, cis-dominated scenes of Orange Is The New Black to raising awareness about racist, transphobic violence, to creating a reality show about seven transgender youth and speaking candidly and eloquently on media appearances across the world, Cox has been an unwavering fulcrum for the “transgender tipping point.”
Cox is not the first, nor is she the only. today let us also honour the Black, Brown, multicoloured gender warriors and allies fighting in the intersecting trenches of trans and queerphobia: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two transgender women of colour who ignited the New York Stonewall Riots in the seventies. Jessica Yee Danforth (Mohawk), Harlan Pruden (Cree), Qwo-Li Driskill (Cherokee), and Ken Monkman (Swampy Cree), Two-Spirit activists nurturing initiatives in decolonial academia, Two-Spirit archiving, critical theory, and resurgent art. DarkMatter, Jasbir Puar, and Kai Cheng Thom, QTIPOC educators who speak against white homonormativity, corporationalization, and nation-state homonationalisms, and who make visible queer of colour existence for racialized people like myself. Leanne Simpson (Anishnaabe) and Sarah Hunt (Kwaguilth), scholar-activists who work tirelessly to take a stand against colonial gender-based violence and its targeting of Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit people. the Audre Lorde Project, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, and Elixher, grassroots organizations that advocate for community wellness and socioeconomic justice for QTIPOCs, self-determination of Indigenous youth’s sexualities and bodies, and visibility for trans women of colour in love.
our communities are colourful and diverse. gender is a kaleidoscope.
fellow trans, Two-Spirit, and non-binary people, today is our day of remembrance. today is our day of visibility, of reflection, of gathering together and finding a looser, gentler breath. whether online, at the steps of a school, or in the middle of a city, spaces will reverberate with the sounds of us – murmurs and stories leaking through walls and washrooms and other borders, returning to those who came before.
we carve these spaces out everyday, but especially today they are ours. ours to see each other, to celebrate each other, to find ourselves in mirrored others, to cry with and for each other, to speak stories through tears, to share food in clamour and warmth, to ask for pronouns and get them right, to fuck up and carry on learning, to never stop remembering.
a friend recently remarked to me that our world is aching more than ever. anti-Black violence across schools in the united states. anti-refugee hatred throughout the globe. bombs in Beirut, attacks in Paris; a disparity of reaction. islamaphobic arson in Kitchener. colonial dispossession, intergenerational trauma, environmental racisms, militarized borders slashing territories like knives, Black and Brown collateral, communities under cold capitalism, violence against bodies of all genders and sexualities. sometimes I feel nothing and sometimes I feel everything; lately numbness has been my most salient instinct. it scares me.
there shouldn’t have to be a trans day of remembrance. there shouldn’t already have been sixteen TDoRs. there shouldn’t have to be a day where communities gather and read their dead. we need not be quiet, but we should not have to scream so loud.
today I am numb and screaming, so I write.
it is late november in BC and the coast is wet, misting, and still unceded. nearby, the fraser river, known as StÓ:lŎ by the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam people, froths a dirty brown as it meets the pacific estuary. the territories here are unremitting and temperate; every morning the old pines by my window reach their arms higher into heavy skies. this land holds us, carries the weight of rain and witnessing.
writing about trans day of remembrance has been difficult. as a non-binary person, gender remains for me a tentative, unchartered landscape; feeling phony hits hard. when I read Stone Butch Blues earlier this summer, Leslie Feinberg’s words stayed with me like a warm fist. I sobbed and sobbed until my breath gaped, my chest clenching and unclenching. I didn’t know it was like that. how little I know about trans and queer hxstories. how little I know about the lives of Feinberg and so many others, our olders.
and yet whose hxstories? whose voices? whose stories about gender and sexuality are we centring? the whiteness of queer and trans spaces is not only an ongoing “trend” in communities or a problem to be “remedied” by way of racialized quotas — it is a violence upon those whose lands we walk. fellow settlers, we need to do better. how can we practice a stronger accountability to the queer, trans, and Two-Spirit folks in our communities? how can we better educate ourselves? how can we hold up the neverending cascades of Indigenous resistance from a relational, respectful distance? trans day of remembrance does not exist in isolation from these lands; it is intricately connected to the centuries of racist and gendered colonial violence that Turtle Island and its First Peoples have survived.
as a queer, non-binary Chinese settler, I often feel estranged by cries to be Out and Gay and Proud. western queerness and transness feel like imported concepts, like I’m imitating a whiteprint on drafting paper. I am the only non-binary and queer person in my family and I know nothing of my queer or trans Chinese ancestors, let alone if they exist. I know little of my culture’s conceptions of gender and sexuality. the labels of “queer” and “non-binary” serve their purpose, though not always. I have no mother tongue to soften these experiences.
last year, when my gender began to unravel in the fallow transition between autumn and winter, I felt deeply, reflexively isolated. I had just published an article about the politics of coming out, but parts of my writing felt alien. nowhere around me existed Chinese narratives about my identity. “cisgender.” Western. I yearned for a different arrival into myself.
as summer came, the upheaval slowly lifted. later it came to me. I’m seasonally gendered. or something like that. as in, my gender fluctuates with the turn of earth, with the tides, with our rotation around the sun. summer is skin on fire, shaved head, she/her. fall is compact, quieter. tight lines, they/them. winter is softer around the edges. spring is for the rising. summer, in its return, releases a new cycle of motion, shifted. no season is ever the same. it was emancipatory, arriving to gender this way. of course I am tied to the earth. of course I tilt with its rhythms. we all do.
gender is not simple. though it still grasps and unsettles me, tracing its shape in my own words helps me breathe a little looser. fellow trans, Two-Spirit, and non-binary people, my experience may not be your experience, but we all deserve to be known. today, amidst the sadness, grief, and commemoration, as the banners lower and the crowds part, remember that we hold power in our difference.
so on this day, ask yourself: where were you before now? where were you when you were quiet? how did it feel to search for yourself; how does it feel now? what pathways do you see leaving your body, where might gender gesture towards, and how will the seasons unfold ahead?
k. edits for The Talon and works on a team that delivers workshops on trans*-literate pedagogies to UBC faculty. they spend their time sitting under maple trees and being suspended in or by the ocean. sometimes they take pictures of cute queer ppl.
acknowledgements: maneo mohale, you catalyze and honour me so well. jane shi, kelly cubbon, zehra naqvi, laura mars, ciara-maëlle thibault, cicely-belle blain, sol diana, yulanda lui, naheed jadavji, marlee laval, afie bo, anne kessler, mary chen, matthew ward – thank you for holding me up in big and small ways. sarah hunt, janey lew, and everyone in my Indigenous Feminisms and Asian-Canadian/Indigenous Relations classes – from you I learn so much. coffee.