Growing Awareness as a Trans and Genderqueer Ally

This past weekend, I spent time with the lovely folks at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium. I had a great time sharing but more importantly learning, learning, learning. Being challenged. Doing some growing.

One of the themes that seemed to run throughout our time together was the importance of people of privilege taking up the gauntlet to do this work of awareness-raising and education. For me, particularly in the context of this specific gathering, it really resonated as a call to step up my game as an ally to trans and genderqueer people.

As a cisgender woman, there was a time when I was thoroughly confused by the distinction between sex and gender. I just couldn’t get with the idea of gender being a social construct and marked by fluidity. I’ve since come to a better understanding of what this means and figured I would share my thought journey as a way to help educate other cisgender folks who may be mired in lack of understanding. My hope is that my process can serve as a potential resource so that trans people aren’t forced to bear the emotional burden of fielding ignorant and insensitive questions from confused cis people.

Though I also want to note that our understanding as cis folks is really not the point in the grand scheme of things. The Struggle is real for trans and genderqueer people whether we understand or not.

So, think of sex as nothing more than a biological description. Sex organs are like kidneys or blood type. There’s no social meaning to kidneys or blood type. You can be A or B or AB or O, and it really doesn’t matter from a social standpoint. It only matters for medical type stuff.

Now imagine that a group of As and Bs, the dominant groups, randomly decide that A blood types would distinguish themselves by only wearing the color red and B blood types would only wear the color blue. Anyone who has an A blood type but really identifies more readily with the Bs or feels more comfortable wearing blue is ostracized and vice versa. The random clothing rules are strictly enforced.

And when the ABs ask, “What about us?” The answer is, “Just pick one. We don’t want to deal with your difference.” And when the Os ask, “Well, what about us?” The answer is, “You’re really different, and we hate that. Just pick A or B and dress accordingly. Now, go away.”

And for those who don’t identify with blue or red, regardless of their blood type, and simply want the freedom to wear purple or orange or chartreuse? Just forget about it.

That is gender. This random social construct created by folks in the dominant group. Now, there are complexities to this—for example, the As could be further dominant over the Bs, in an intersectional twist, devaluing their labor and only paying them 76 cents on the dollar among other things—but I’m going to keep it simplistic for now.

Let’s take it a step further. Imagine that in order to buy food, which is essential to everyone’s survival, people have to go to carefully marked shops according to their blood type. Red shops are only for people with A blood type wearing their requisite red. Blue shops for the B blood types in blue. No exceptions. If you aren’t following the color-coded, blood type rules, then you aren’t allowed to get food. There are no shops for A blood types identifying as Bs, Bs identifying as As, or anything for ABs or Os or anyone who does not identify with either blue or red. Those folks just have to starve or find food where they can.

This is the kind of situation trans and genderqueer folks face when restrooms are marked according to the male/female binary and strictly policed. Transphobic actions, attitudes, and laws–like HB 2 in North Carolina–are an affront to a person’s basic human and civil rights, much like denying food to people based solely on their blood type.

There is, of course, so much more to know and learn. Like I said, this analogy is simplistic. But hopefully, my thinking out loud can help other cis folks out there get started in doing this kind of background ally work. We really need to step up to help fight the injustices constantly committed against trans and genderqueer folks. Let’s do our part to be effective and informed advocates and allies.


A few recommended readings:

“My Gender is a Journey” by Eric Anthony Grollman

Anything by mx. b. binoahan

“Intersectionality and Bathroom Panic” by Chris Bourg

 

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Whiteness and “Oppressive Normativity”

This weekend, I’ll be in Vancouver presenting at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium, organized by the amazing and inimitable Emily Drabinski, Baharak Yousefi, and Tara Robertson. We’re going to sing and drink coffee and discuss intersectionality, so it’s guaranteed to be a good time.

My talk is based on my article on whiteness for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, with one notable difference—I’ve added the term “oppressive normativity” to the title and substance of my talk as an alternative (or rather complement) to my discussion of whiteness as ideology and hegemonic practice.

In my article, I join Angela Galvan in taking a broad view of whiteness to encompass not only race but other intersections of identity along the “matrix of domination,” as defined by Patricia Hill Collins. For me, whiteness is an appropriate umbrella term for the multiplicity of oppressed identities; the argument can be made that that whiteness plays a role in the marginalization of people based on class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, able-bodiedness, and other modes of identity. When we talk about whiteness in general and white privilege and supremacy in particular, we are also necessarily talking about an ideological practice that specifically privileges those who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, and fully able-bodied as being truly “white.” Those who do not fit those standards, while still enjoying significant benefits of race privilege as white people, do not reap the full rewards.

Nevertheless, I realize that this collapsing of the matrix of domination under an umbrella term more traditionally associated with one form of identity—namely race—is not entirely helpful. While I embrace that broad definition of whiteness that Galvan and I adopt, I recognize that my understanding of the term is not necessarily readily apparent from the term itself.

So, in the interest of providing clarity to my work, I’ve adopted the phrase oppressive normativity as an complementary term to describe the operation of this matrix of domination.

A quick and dirty search shows that while the phrase oppressive normativity has been used before, it has not been used in quite the context I’m proposing for it. There are mentions of oppressive normativity in the social sciences, particularly gender studies, psychology, and law, to refer to compulsory and often unofficial behavioral norms found in a community or society. (And it’s worth noting there are a few references to Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.)

My use of the phrase, however, is centered in norms of identity that dictate who is privileged in our society and who is marginalized. For me, oppressive normativity isn’t about what one does but who one is.

Oppressive normativity, as I’m defining it, refers to the fact that people who are middle-class, male, straight, cisgender, Christian, fully able-bodied, etc. are privileged in their professional and personal lives, while those who do not fit within all of those identities are professionally and personally marginalized, excluded, and erased.

What this means is that the systems for reward, advancement, support, fulfillment, and livelihood that we’ve constructed in our society are based specifically on the values, experiences, and practices of those in the dominant identities. They are the norm, and that norm is oppressive because of the way that it naturally forces out all those not fitting its dictates.

I guess you can say that I’m coining this term “oppressive normativity” for a new purpose. Feel free to reuse it with attribution.

Thus, in my talk for GSISC this weekend, I will be applying this concept of oppressive normativity to diversity initiatives in LIS, examining the ways in which our diversity programs reflect this hegemonic norm that privileges dominant identities while marginalizing all others. I’m really looking forward to embarking on this phase of my work and invite you to join me for the journey!

 

You’re Gonna Screw Up

Yesterday, I guest-hosted a session of #radlibchat on my article about whiteness in the library profession. It was a fabulous discussion.

One of the more common threads that came out of the chat were the fears many white people have about screwing up when getting involved in race work. Several people expressed apprehension about doing the work and making a mess of things. So, I thought I’d take a moment to address some of those fears.

Fair warning: I’m going to say some encouraging things here. But I’m also going to share some hard truths. And it is vitally important that you absorb both if you’re serious about doing this work.

Another note: I’m going to focus on race work and the ways white allies get involved. But the fact is that all of this applies intersectionally, as well. I—as an ally to LGBTQ folks, to poor folks, to disabled folks, etc.—am learning and practicing these lessons.

Truth #1: You are gonna screw up. I guarantee it. No matter who you are, no matter how good your intentions, no matter how careful you are, YOU WILL MAKE A MISTAKE. YOU WILL MAKE MANY MISTAKES. It’s simply a given. You’re going to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and make some or many people of color very angry and disappointed and frustrated with you.

Truth #2: This is okay. Just breathe. It’s okay if you when you mess up. It’s okay if you when you anger the people to whom you are trying to be a good ally. This will happen and you will survive.

Truth #3: You will be hurt. No one likes having someone angry at them. Especially if they’re trying to do something good and right. When you screw up with the people of color around you, you will be very hurt when they get frustrated with you. You will feel defensive and sad and very, very hurt. This is also okay. Because you will be smart and go away to a safe place and share your #whitefeelings and shed your #whitetears with fellow white people who are also doing this work and who can mentor you in your process. You will not unburden your feelings on the people of color to whom you are allied. You will process your feelings in a separate space.

Truth #4: You will deserve this anger/hurt/frustration/wrath of the people of color you’ve offended. You messed up. You did something wrong. Even if you didn’t intend to. Even if you have no idea what you did. You did it, and they felt it. Just as your hurt feelings will be perfectly valid because they are yours and they are real, their frustration will be just as valid, just as much theirs, just as real. So even in the midst of your hurt and bewilderment, you will be careful not to dismiss the reality of the people you’ve offended. You will resist the urge to defend yourself, shut your mouth, and listen.

Truth #5: You will learn from your mistakes…if you are serious about this work. Many white people pretend to be serious about antiracism yet ghost the minute things get tough. (And they do get tough. See Truth #7.) But if you’re really serious about doing this work, you will take the initiative and learn from your mistakes. It is YOUR responsibility to learn what you did wrong and what you need to change. Maybe the people of color you offended will be willing to tell you. But don’t assume that is the case. This will be another great opportunity for you to connect with those fellow white folks who are mentoring you through your antiracist process. They can help guide you.

Truth #6: You will experience extraordinary joy and fulfillment. Race work is not easy. The history of racial oppression is ugly and the present is not much better. But the work we all do is vital to the future of our society, and despite whatever mistakes you may make, your contribution as an ally is absolutely crucial. Plus, you will learn and grow in ways you never dreamed possible. You will interact and bond with people whom you, in your lily white life to this point, never imagined. You will help to build a more just society, and you will never be the same because of it.

Truth #7: But as you can see, this work is not for the faint of heart. To borrow a scene from the Christian Bible: When Jesus gathered together the disciples, Jesus said (April paraphrase), “Hey, if you wanna be down, you have to take up your cross and follow me. This is NOT gonna be easy.” It’s the same for race work. In order to experience that growth and fulfillment, you’re going to have to get down and dirty. You are going to be challenged beyond what you think you can bear. You are going to have the comfy warmth of your white privilege and ignorance stripped away and laid bare in all its ugly truth. You’re going to be made really uncomfortable, and yes, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. (Remember Truth #3?)

So, knowing all this, are you still up for the challenge? I sincerely hope so. Because the Struggle is real out there and we need you.

 

Jim Crow 2.0

During my parents’ lifetimes, the law in many states, like Mississippi and North Carolina, allowed people to refuse to serve them:

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Bus station waiting room in Jackson, MS, 1961.                       William Lovelace, Express, Getty Images

This law also told them where they could use the restroom:

White Only Restroom Sign

1962, South Carolina, USA                                                             Restroom sign for segregated men’s room in county courthouse in Sumter.  Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Officially, those laws don’t exist anymore…for my parents. But they’ve made a comeback.

With the passage of HB2 in North Carolina and the so-called “religious freedom” bill in Mississippi, Jim Crow is rearing his ugly zombie head.

Under these new laws, and others like them that are surfacing, people can tell others where to use the restroom and refuse to provide them with service. Sound familiar?

These kinds of affronts to civil rights cannot stand. While it’s great to complain about them on social media, the time has long come to take action. As my dear friend Chris Bourg notes:

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So, please join me in writing to Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi and Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina. Feel free to use my letters below.

Dear Gov. Bryant:

HB 1523 is an affront to civil rights. The law is unconstitutional and flies in the face of the very basics of human rights. It not only hurts LGBTQ people but all people.

Repeal HB

 

Dear Gov. McCrory:

HB 2 is an affront to civil rights. The law is unconstitutional and flies in the face of the very basic of human rights. It not only hurts trans and genderqueer people but all people.

Repeal HB 2 now!

 

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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“Change” by Conal Gallagher via Flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

I was chatting with my beautiful mother yesterday.

I wish everyone could have daily chats with my mother. The world would be a much better place. There’d be far more understanding and far less ignorance. Because the thing is, chatting with my mother is more than talking to one amazing human being. It’s about talking to all the amazing people who came before her and passed along their knowledge. When I talk to my mother (and my father, for that matter), I’m talking to my ancestors. It’s not just what Mama said; it’s what Mama said, which is what Great-Grandmother Big said, which is what my Great-Great-Grand said, which goes all the way back to the wisdom of the tribal elders in the kingdoms of Africa. I’m a Black American and that’s how it goes: Our culture is oral and communal and passed from generation to generation amen.

That stuff is ageless and that’s a beautiful thing. But there are so many things in our world that are changeless and it’s not at all beautiful.

Anyway, Mama and I were talking about my brother’s impending college graduation. He is at the top of his class earning a Computer Science degree from the University of Central Florida, one of the best programs for C.S. in the country. He is a Black man doing great things and going places. And I used to change his diapers.

I am so incredibly proud. The world for him is so different from the world my parents experienced when they graduated from Florida State University in the 70s.

And yet, so much has not changed.

Mama and I were chatting about Baby Bro’s experiences in his program, how more often than not, he was the only Black person in his class, how he often suffered endless microaggressions as a result. Classmates attempting to explain concepts to him that he already had a better understanding of than they did. Professors showing concern that he’d be able to “keep up” in the class before even getting to know him or his work. (Did I mention he’s graduating top of his class? Ok, just checking.) Being told over and over how great it is that he’ll be a “talented Black programmer” because clearly you have to be White to be just a “talented programmer.” The list goes on.

And the list is familiar. Baby Bro and I are a decade apart, and that list was familiar to me as a psychology and French major, as a law student, as a library school student. What is more, the list goes back even further.

During our conversation, Mama recounted her own list from years ago, experiences that she and my dad faced in what was supposed to be the closing years of the civil rights movement. In an institution of higher education that had just been integrated less than 10 years before. The stories were the same: being the only Black person in the class, having classmates attempt to explain simple concepts, professors showing concern that they wouldn’t be able to “keep up” in the class. Same list. On and on.

The only possible difference was that Mama clearly remembered being in a social science class in which a White classmate openly discussed the “laziness of certain n*ggers.” Amazingly, this was a class taught by one of the very few Black professors at the time. And as far as we know, Baby Bro hasn’t faced any of that overt racial aggression. But as someone who works in higher ed myself, I know it still happens.

Mama was frustrated that so little had changed for her “babies,” that we’d all had to experience so much of what she and my dad fought against in their day. I share her frustration. But I also keep on keepin on.

I continue to do the work of fighting oppression because the history makes it that much more vital. I do it for me. I do it for Baby Bro. I do it for Mama and Daddy. And I do it for all the ancestors and all the descendants going back and moving forward.

Un jour, ça va changer. Il le faut. 

One day, things will change. They must.