Uniting As Allies
Callan Williams Copyright © 1997
In September, 1997, I attended a National Coalition Building Institute Workshop called "Uniting As Allies" sponsored by the Capital District Gay & Lesbian Community Council
This is a collection of material written around that event.
Uniting as Allies: A Coalition and Bridge Building Retreat was the press release I wrote for the event.
To Give Our Gifts was my introduction to the group, written beforehand.
Comments on my first two hours of "Uniting As Allies" was written after the first night. It includes two older pieces, "It's All About Me Not You." and Accepting Meaning: "I Don't Get It" vs. Nuance.
Report: "Uniting As Allies" was written as a public document after the event.
A Whore For the Cause was written as a private document after the event.
"Uniting as Allies"
A Coalition and Bridge Building Retreat
What do LGBT people share in common? What is the basis for cooperation and coalition between us? Can we really get past the closets we each wear to come together and work for shared needs and challenges? Is it possible for us to "Unite As Allies?"
These are some of the questions that will be asked at a weekend retreat for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgendered (LGBT) people in the Capital Region of New York, September 12 - 14. Facilitated by the highly respected National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), up to 75 people will gather at the Arbor Hill Community Center to share stories, open their minds and hearts, discover what connects us as humans, celebrate our differences, and learn how to be better allies for each other.
"This is a weekend that cuts across gender, race, class, faith and other barriers," said Linda McCracken, a member of the planning committee. "The NCBI approach honors each individual and group, and makes it possible for people to hear each other and to feel the power of connection. We can respect the broad diversity that is a hallmark of LGBT people, and at the same time, find common ground for a dialogue about working together and standing up for each other."
The retreat is experientially based and is designed to evolve with participants around a basic framework. The weekend will start on Friday evening with introductions and some initial exercises.
Saturday will be devoted to exploration of what participants, as individual humans, face, and how those shared experiences cut across boundaries, and will include discussions of the assumptions & expectations we carry which can be a block to coalition. Saturday night will feature a shared dinner, and then a celebration of the heritage of participants - a chance for them to display what they cherish.
Sunday is dedicated to beginning the process of framing controversial issues so that dialog can happen between people who would otherwise be in conflict. In addition, there will be a discussion about how to bring the coalition building skills back to the groups, organizations and networks that participants are connected to.
A number of people in touch with the project have had experience with NCBI workshops and retreats. Kamilah Majied, a local activist comments, "The NCBI retreats are not just superficial events. I've found them to be a meaningful experience - a great forum for people who are willing to challenge themselves and examine their beliefs about cultural diversity."
Debra Johnson, a member of the planning committee adds, "being a Person Of Color who experiences some form of discrimination, prejudice, racism, etc. quite regularly, I thought there was nothing anyone could teach me about the subjects. I was wrong! During an NCBI workshop I attended, I was 'blown away' by the words I heard from others, and the things I learned about MYSELF!!"
"LGBT people have often felt marginalized, like no one is listening to them, and others cannot understand what they are going though, and this is particularly true for those who have also felt marginalized by race, gender or class issues," said McCracken. "This weekend is a real chance to gather with others who are willing and ready to hear what we have to say, to move past the fear and pain and find new ways of connecting. We are working to bring a diverse representation of LGBT people to this event, and to empower each of them take and spread the skills and seeds of coalition building.
"This can help us unite as allies, coming together to work to create a world that is more embracing of the diverse nature we each bring to it, ready to accept the gifts we bring to a broad community of caring people."
Participants are asked to make a commitment to attend the entire weekend retreat and a commitment to actively spread the information gathered after the event. There is no charge for the retreat, although donations to help defray the cost will be gratefully accepted. Volunteers are needed to help both before and during the retreat. To obtain registration materials, and/or to volunteer to help, please leave a message at 462-6138, VM80.
Uniting As Allies is sponsored by the Capital District Gay & Lesbian Community Council and is supported in part by a grant from the Community Foundation for the Capital Region's Lesbian and Gay Funding Partnership.
"I think it's important to communicate that although CDGLCC is largely funding this retreat, it will be only one of many organizations represented that weekend and will not be the focus of the retreat," said McCracken. "The planning committee has worked hard to try to ensure that this retreat will be a safe space for people who may have had negative experiences with the Council in the past."
To Give Our Gifts for "Uniting As Allies"
Callan Williams, 1997
You ask me to talk about my heritage, what I value.
For me, as a transgendered person, what I value is that I am a direct descendant from a heritage of shamans, healers, two spirits, translators, bridges, or whatever name you choose to call them. We are people who, from the anthropological record, seem to have always been an important part of human life. We have often been the negotiators between groups and cultures.
Anthropologist Anne Bolin said, "In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender transgression remind us of our continuous common humanity." This is my personal mission statement, to be a living reminder that the boundaries that we think divide us are simply illusions, that there is only one human nature and that we all share it. The bridges we build are over illusions of separation that we create in the first place.
What do I think humans want? Do they want to be given a cushy life, to be alone in an enclave?
William James: "The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated." I believe that the number one thing every human wants is the power to share their own unique gifts with a world that honors and respects those gifts. The pain of being marginalized is not the lack of what we can get, it is the lack of what we can give, the pain of being denied the chance to participate meaningfully in our own world.
To be oppressed is to believe that we have no power to affect our world, that people will not see us, will not respond to our questions, will make us invisible, will cut us out of their world. We are denied the simple pride that comes from making a real contribution, denied giving the unique gifts that our creator gave each of us to a world that would rather erase us, see us as separate, apart and isolated.
People don't receive our gifts because to accept our gifts is to have to see for a moment though our eyes. To value our contribution is to value us, and to value who we are. To accept our gifts is to accept us as neighbors, as humans, to accept our views as a reality.
We often don't accept the gifts of others because accepting the gifts of others demands we drop the barriers between us and them. However much we complain about those barriers when they block our path, we feel comfort in those barriers when they block others who come to the space we call home. The hard part of growth is not giving up the walls that limit and oppress us, it is giving up the walls that make us comfortable.
We all have many walls that keep us comfortable, lots of expectations of how "they" will respond and what "they" will expect of us, how "they" will marginalize and write us off, refusing our gifts. We often end up not even trying to get our thoughts, our work, our gifts, ourselves though the wall, making separate space and becoming isolated.
What do I think the answer is to all of this isolation? Is it some group hug or new age comfort zone?
I think the answer to this lies in the market. After all, it is the free market that first civilized humans years ago, the gathering together to share skills, resources and gifts to make everyone in the tribe, and eventually beyond it, more comfortable. We have seen the global dropping of barriers as fast communications and transportation remind us that we are one world, one race. Facing the challenges of the market is facing the challenges of the world, the challenge of building a synergy that sees us each with unique gifts and the same human nature.
We can dream of a meritocracy, where each gives as much as they can in their own unique way and receives a fair and just piece of the pie. Building organizations that empower humans to give their best, to feel the pride of being seen and being able to contribute, and to receive enough to build comfortable and secure life seems to me to be a high goal.
One of the highest complements in my book is to call someone a professional. Professionals deliver more than they promise, understanding how to what they do well enough to satisfy others with their work, whatever it be. I was in a mini-mart, trying to get some ice for my drink. The woman behind the counter heard the empty machine and went to get ice. I smiled. She was probably making minimum wage, but she cared and delivered - she was a professional. The heritage of humanity is a heritage of learning and building competence, becoming a pro.
I believe in a world of opportunity, where techniques such as microlending can empower people to become the proud owners of their own life. We must educate children not to be clones, but to take responsibility for their own choices and their own future. When they can begin to give their gifts to the world, making the hard balance between their unique talents and the needs of the greater community, they can make a better life for both.
Business is about relationships - relationships with customers, employees, investors and the community, and for relationships to succeed there must be an open give and take, a learning on all sides. Successful people must work to understand the threads that connect all things, understanding that each choice has a wide ranging impact. It is easy to be compassionate to someone we perceive as taking responsibility for their choices, but it is also easy to ask responsibility of someone who seems to demand our compassion.
The capabilities of entrepreneurs - taking responsibility for change; balancing customers, community, staff and investors; striving for quality and excellence; building organizations that meet the needs of a range of people; dealing with people openly and fairly as individuals and so on - are honorable, and can build community. I often feel that the biggest barrier to my connection with queers is my entrepreneurial view. A commitment to the market often leads people to perceive class and status that challenges the comfort of those who focus on group oppression rather than on empowerment and liberation of individuals, who can come together to support each other in success.
As marginalized people, though, many of us don't believe in this. Some believe that the barriers between "us" and "the people who have money, power, and status" are too big, too strong, and that any attempt to cross them will either demand sacrificing our uniqueness or will be doomed to failure.
As a transgendered person, I am here to speak for continuous common humanity, for the inborn power we all have. To open to giving what we have, we must also be open to receiving what others have for us. To be in the community is to be in the market, offering our gifts in return for the gifts of others, working together with others to achieve goals we could not reach by ourselves.
Transgendered people remind us that humans transcend groupings, barriers and limits all the time, and each human must be taken as an individual. To understand that humanity is without barriers means that we must meet every person as an individual - in our lives, or in the market. What is scared and spiritual in the world is not isolation, but engagement, the willingness to face and address conflict to find common ground to build upon.
The line from two spirit shamans to empowering people to take their place in the market may be hard to see, cutting across so many barriers that it is very challenging. But challenging people to see beyond the walls they live behind, to see that the world is interconnected though sharing, and that each of our acts has global consequences is what transgendered people have always done. In my eyes, our challenge is not to face shared oppressions, but to embrace shared opportunities.
My heritage is of shamans who knew that the way to built a tribe was to honor the nature that lies inside every individual, and to help them communicate across what divides them to work for the common good, the empowering of each individual to give their own unique gifts. And that is a heritage of which I am very proud.
my first two hours of "Uniting As Allies"
Callan Williams, 09/13/97
When I went to my first "encounter group" in 1969 as a young high school student, we were asked to do a "trust walk." In this exercise, you closed your eyes, and another person lead you though the woods. I lead my much shorter partner, and when we changed, I told her only one thing: "Please remember that I am about a foot taller than you are." We started out and within 10 steps, I felt the sharp crack of a branch right into my forehead. It was a lesson for both of us -- hers in listening & responsibility, mine in how other people have trouble seeing things they have never paid attention to before in their life.
If you want to tap into my rage, it's easy. Do what I call "surfacing" me, projecting a simple, two-dimensional surface onto me, and then reducing me to that thin image, try to understand me. It's so much easier to fit me into a category in your mind when you remove the depth of my humanity by steamrollering me flat. For example, anytime someone figures out that my birth sex was not the one assumed for women, they decide that no matter what my clothes and actions say, I must be a man, because I was born penised, I am flattened and my complex human truth is erased.
Transgendered people, gays and lesbians, are always confronted with this erasure. If you are an X, you must be Y. If you are a woman, you must be normative, loving men, or if you are a man, you must be normative, loving women. We fight to for people to not flatten us so we fit neatly in categories, but rather to stand as individuals.
When you flatten me while saying that you are a safe space, full of trust, then I get really feel the rage ripple at the back of my throat. It's much the same as getting more angry people whose racism is hidden, even to themselves, and keep insisting that they understand when they clearly don't, than those who come right out and admit their prejudices and ignorance.
My struggle as a marginalized person in this world is the same as the struggle of every marginalized person: our truth and complexity is erased to simplify the worldview, and allow things to remain unchanged. People cannot see us, cannot hear what we are saying, or they will have to rethink how they see the world. We challenge the conventions so much that there are not even words to describe who we are, because with the erasure of the words comes the erasure of us. To see us is to live in a world where there are no simple barriers between humans -- like no women sleep with women, or blacks & whites are completely different -- and that means that we are without the illusion of being safe in our fixed assumptions.
Can I demand that people understand all this, tell the group what I want them to change in their thinking? I don't think I can. The only thing I can do is attempt to expose my truths to them, to tell them when I feel erased and marginalized, and to tell them how that makes me feel, and hope that they are open and caring enough to work on the places where they have erected separations, walls that block them from seeing complex & challenging truths.
When someone cannot see what I consider the simple truth, that almost nobody would want to go to all the trouble of looking and acting like a woman to be seen as a man, I wonder what else they cannot see. I am not borrowing anyone's dresses, I am wearing my clothes, and if you see my clothes as women's clothing, that probably means something about how I see myself. It must be some sort of statement I am trying to make about the usually invisible contents of my heart.
If I could make one demand of people in this weekend, it would be that they not simply echo back phases of understanding, like "I hear you" or "I am miles ahead because you told me that," but rather that they echo back what they hear me saying. We all have a unique viewpoint on our shared reality, as all the blind men did on the elephant. The only way to create a bridge is to make sure that when we hear people say something about their view that we can say that back in or own language so that we begin to build shared concepts, words and trust. This is the way to make sure that we are seeing the same thing from our very different positions in life.
I believe in a queer world view, that everyone has a very personal reality that is a all real and true view of a shared metaverse, just from a different point in the circle. Listen to others and you not only understand where they stand and what is important to them, but you gain more insight into the world we all share.
When we take the obligation to lead a group, we take the obligation to serve that group, to help empower them to become their best self, to help them speak their own personal reality in a powerful way. We cannot simply demand that they follow us, even following us in demanding that others understand who we are. No amount of demanding will change people's views -- only enlightening them, letting them see though our eyes will.
To be out and queer is to be forced to face a world that tried to erase you and then to find out who you are in complex terms. We have all had our own process of understanding who we are, of facing the diverse viewpoints and eventually finding ways to speak the truths of who we are that are erased by culture. Most of us end up as process queens in doing that. We know not just the words of process, but also the concepts, and I would hope that would be understood and we would be allowed to both experience the process and understand it.
I am committed to listening to the stories of others, both to get new insight on our shared world and to find new ways to find shared language and concepts that allow us to work together as allies. I am committed to telling my own stories, for the same reasons.
I am not committed to telling people what to think about me, nor being told what to think about others. I do not respond well to orders, but I promise to be open to changing how I act towards others, how I think about others when they tell me how my actions and thoughts affect them.
Our "isms" -- from heterosexism to racism -- come from building walls to erase the truth of the messy & challenging beauty of humanity. The hard part is not letting go of the boundaries that oppress us, but rather the ones that give us comfort. As a transgendered person, I am used to being erased in that process of illusory simplification, and it has always hurt me. But to have that done by someone who claims to be understanding and seeing me can really trigger my rage.
"...one of the
differences between straight society and queer society, queer
culture or queer consciousness, is that we have a recognition
that we form ourselves.
At almost every crucial moment of our lives we have to construct ourselves, construct other ways of being."
-- Joan Nestle, in "I'll Be the Girl," from FEMME: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (Edited by Laura Harris & Elizabeth Crocker)
All About Me Not You."
Ms Greer Lankton titled her show, which runs through June at the Warhol Mattress factory in Pittsburgh, "It's All About Me Not You." Ms. Lankton was a transgendered person who died last year at the age of 38, a renowned artist who worked building sculptural dolls. If you haven't read it, Nan Goldin's essay in the December 22, 1996 New York Times, titled "A Rebel Whose Dolls Embodied Her Demons" is amazing.
"It's All About Me, Not You." I sure understand why a transgendered woman would want to say that. All I want to do is explain who I am, to express my inner self, and everybody thinks I am trying to say something about them. They feel a certain way when they see me, hear me talk, read my words, and they assume that my words are targeted at them, when I am, unless I specifically note otherwise, just explaining what the world looks like though my eyes.
I know that the world though my eyes looks quite different than though other people's eyes. This has been explained to me many times, and is the cause of the frustrating self destructive tantrums I had though most of my life. Why couldn't I make other people see what I see? Why couldn't I see the way that they saw? Why was communication so hard? Harlan Ellison had the title to one of his gut twisting stories: "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream."
People couldn't really see me, see who I was. I was opaque, with people seeing one surface that they assigned me and the rest of me being invisible, unseen.
When I spoke, and people felt uncomfortable, they usually assumed that I was making them uncomfortable. Today, I know that I am just saying what I need to say, and their discomfort is their own issue, a mixture of fear, challenge and the unexplored pieces of themselves. While I should avoid consciously manipulating people by pushing their buttons that trigger their gut responses, neither do I should I take responsibility for pushing their buttons simply by the act of being honestly and openly myself.
In other words, it's not my responsibility to negotiate everyone's fears and unhealed places. I do have responsibility for my own choices, but they have responsibility for their responses to my choices.
My choices are about me, not about you. Taking responsibility for everyone's response to them is beyond my capacity, and only serves to limit me and everyone else who ever transgresses lines that make others uncomfortable.
Clearly, however, we do have some responsibility to social order, to others. We cannot be maliciously provocative -- yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, for example. But the lines where we have to choose normative behavior to make others comfortable with us, to avoid pushing their buttons, and the lines where we have to choose transgressive behavior to be true to ourselves, to get what we need, is key.
We have to sort through our passive-aggressive behavior, our unconscious pushing of others buttons to try to control them. Many of us have learned to use manipulative behaviors to keep control of the situation without even realizing it -- I sure learned that well. It was my defense, my protection of the closet, my own "barbed wire" as Minnie Bruce Pratt writes. Understanding these internalized responses of ours is the key to taking control of them.
But past that, I learned that my own manipulations were to avoid pushing the buttons that I knew were dangerous, the buttons that were pushed in other people when I simply tried to tell the truth as I saw it. It was the fear of people thinking that my choices were about them that kept me silent, kept me afraid.
Today, for example, we know that homophobic males are more likely to respond to homoerotic stimuli than non-homophobic males. Others are in danger when these men think that the choices gay men make are about them -- maybe mocking the sacrifice they make. In any case, gays trigger their fears, and they respond, even though the gay man would simply say "It's all about me, not you."
How do I negotiate the buttons of others? I shouldn't have to, but I know that is an unrealistic dream -- people will always respond from their own fears and prejudices, that I may not even know are there. If I steer wide of every button, play everything safe, I deny my own freedom to cater to their fear. If I ignore every button, I put myself in danger, needlessly poison relationships where we might be able to find shared ground.
I know that the answer is balance.
But I also know that if there is one thing I want, it is for others to take responsibility for their own lives, their own fears, their own buttons, their own choices. I want them to know that their response to me is not about me, it's about them. If we can't agree on that, then the expectation that I am the one who needs to change becomes onerous on me, becomes an unreasonable burden.
My life, my choices, are all about me, not you.
The hard question is though: How does that make you feel? And who do you think is responsible for those feelings?
Subj: Accepting Meaning: "I Don't Get It" vs.
"If I was doing that, I'd feel this way, mean this. So I assume that you mean this too."
"I just don't get it. It makes no sense to me, so it must be wrong."
Why do we assume that we should "get it?" I have spent some time in the queer community, and there are lots of choices that I just don't get, that I would never make for myself.
For me, the real challenge of queerness is simply accepting people at their word. We have an obligation to understand what their symbols -- their labels -- mean to them, not just what they mean to us. Of course, the more normative we claim to be, the more centered, the less we feel we have to work to understand others. We just want them to describe themselves in words that we understand.
Why do femmes seem to be more sensitive to nuance than butches? Maybe it's the fact that femme behavior is rooted in mommy behavior, a history of working to understand children (and others) who have trouble symbolizing their thoughts, ideas, beliefs and emotions. Women have been expected to be the interpreters of feelings, men the interpreters of facts.
Of course, that call to nuance means that femmes can become invisible quickly. We talked a bit about the silencing of femmes, but that seemed to me to quickly give over to a discussion of butch and butch-butch interactions. A group of loud voices pipe up, and nuance is lost. Instead I hear people saying "Well, I don't get it," bullying people when they simply speak their own truths in the best symbols that they can assemble.
One of the challenges with labels, if we pigeon-hole ourselves or pigeon-hole others with them, is that labels tend to override nuance. Labels are oversimplifications of our positions, essentialized notions that override the contradictions and beauty of who we are under the signs. When the symbols get too big, too overarching, they replace meaning rather than just symbolize it.
Many of us feel an obligation to essentialize who we are, to code ourselves into a sentence or two. However, when we do that, we cannot then complain that people don't see past those labels, don't see the nuance that we live with all the time.
Octavio Paz: "I am the shadows that my words cast."
I am not my words, my labels, my symbols, but rather I am the shadow of them, the much murkier and more nuanced meaning. Like shadows, the meanings you see shift with your point of view, and are affected by the lighting, the context of where and how my words appear.
I would enjoy communicating meaning directly, or at least I think I would, but I know that is impossible for us humans. The best we can do is use lots of symbols and nuance, from facts to images, from prose to poetry, from body language to inflection, from clothes to gestures to try to convey our essence, and essence sits as shadow behind those symbols.
People have talked about why they like queerspace, because nuanced, complex conversations about tricky issues of gender, where we don't have symbols to precisely communicate all of who we are. I admit that is my love of queerspace too, the underlying understanding that in the end, gender is not symbol but meaning, however our challenge is to find metaphor to share it.
When people speak up to try to communicate about their gendered understanding, to scrape to find ways to express themselves, I love that. I work hard to figure out what they mean by the symbols they use, to respond to meaning and not just to labels, to symbols.
However, when people speak up to challenge language, symbols, in a way that I see as overly confrontational, intimidating, bullying, I see that as unpleasant, the kind of behavior that leads to silencing of femmes, of anyone who is grasping at nuance.
For me, I prefer when we speak from our own beliefs, not challenging others but explaining ourselves, how we feel, think, understand and contextualize our own life.
It's easy to announce that "I don't get it," but, to me, that is an admission of our own failure to accept and embrace diversity. "I see it this way," seems much more supportive and conducive to creating a safe space for people to attempt to express nuance.
We must call people on words, behaviors that we see as silencing. Start with nuanced hints and hope they respond. If they don't then progress to out and out statements that call people on their words, behaviors that come out of an assumption that they should "get it" and that if they don't, then the communicators are doing something wrong.
The best part about Queerspace? An embrace of nuance, an honest attempt to move past symbol to meaning, to respect diversity in behavior and language. In other words, I love Queerspace when it's queer and queer affirmative, supporting each of us in finding both ways to be both wild & tame, normative & transgressive, and finding ways to talk about it.
That's about not working to silence anyone except those who are trying to silence others who make them uncomfortable, who they don't get.
Report: "Uniting As Allies"
I feel that I should speak about "Uniting As Allies," the National Coaltion Building Insitute weekend workshop that was sponsored by the Capital District Gay & Lesbian Community Council this past weekend, September 12-14, but I don't feel that I can be very objective about the weekend, because many people saw me as a key force n the dynamics of the event.
A wide range of TG people were represented amoung the approximately 50 participants, including Tina Andrus, Bridget Nelson & her partner Deb, Ann Coyote, Jordan and Jeanette & Jude'Em. I am very sure that each one of us had a very different experience and came away with very different perspectives on the events of the weekend, and I encourage others to also speak about their experience.
The workshop included modules on prejudice reduction and on addressing controversial issues. In prejudice reduction, we work to discover the records we held about other groups, and then began the process of speaking out about how those labels don't apply and can hurt us. For example, Bridget shared her story of being accosted by the TV news cameras just after she spoke to her boss about transitioning at work, and how that made her feel.
The controversial issues process included Cordell Boone, the leader of Sisters & Brothers In The Life (SABIL) and I addressing the question "Are exclusive groups constructive?" It was an intense process, and in the end, many people said that yhey were moved and felt enlightened about transgender issues.
Each of us who were there, I am sure, opened some eyes, made new connections and touched some hearts. It was a location where people were safe and willing to look beyond their assumptions and fears to see the human side of others. NCBI believes that every opinion counts, and the controversial issues process is designed to find ways to look at the hard, polarizing issues and seek common ground upon which we can do the hard work of balancing the needs of all.
"Uniting As Allies" was a step that 50 some individuals took towards finding new ways to work together and be open to the diversity and humanity that exists among GLBT people. I heard stories that touched my heart, and people told me that I touched theirs.
I thank the large committee, headed by Linda McCracken, that made this event occur, and the CDG&LCC and L&GCFP for their financial support of the process, without which the event could not have happened. They are certainly worth our support.
There are plans to continue this process, with more events, and I encourage each and every one of you to join in and create some new allies in facing the challenges that each of us faces.
For The Cause: "Come
watch the trannie token dance the hoochie-koo!"
Sometimes, I come home feeling like a whore.
The people I left think that they got an intimate part of me, that I opened myself to them in a very private and personal way, when the truth is that it was a measured and calculated performance. I show just enough for them to see what they want, but not enough to really expose myself, let myself be vulnerable. They have what they think is a powerful and intimate way, and I have another reminder of how lonely and isolated I really am.
I know, like every whore knows, that real passion isn't what they want. Commitment is scary, being vulnerable is hard. Much easier to just feel like you had a close moment, that something special happened, rather than to actually have to deal with the intense and messy issues of seeing another human. Women know, for example, that opening their bodies to men is one thing, but that it is often safer to open their hearts to other women who understand the struggles.
The event where I pulled off this performance, this feigned intimacy that revealed only a wisp of who I am, was "Uniting As Allies," a workshop sponsored by the local gay & lesbian center, and run by the canned process of the National Coalition Building Institute. We had two national trainers and a bunch of people from the area who had been trained, working with about 50 local queers.
The first night was hard. Our small group had a facilitator who claimed to be a safe space but couldn't see past the NCBI jargon in her heard and her desire to perform good deeds for all of us. She tried to process with me, and in the process kept putting words in my mouth, but the second time she referred to me as "he," I flickered out the rage. "What part of my message says that I think of myself as he? The shoes? The tights? The dress? The jewelry? The makeup? The hair?" If she couldn't see what I was obviously saying with my clothes, how could she see ever my heart?
The second day was better. I had only gotten a few hours of sleep, writing out my anger, trying to find ways that I could use their words, their concepts to say who I am. I was forced, as always, to have to try to articulate who I am in the simplest words and concepts that others could understand. I had already written for them, bringing carefully crafted handouts to share, and I tried again to filter my thoughts and feelings into a language that has no words for my liminality.
I listened to people, and to my ears, they all said the same thing, simply "I hate it when I am erased by being swept into a stereotype." Yet, when they did that to TG people -- all are drag queens was the predominant erasure -- they couldn't see how that was the same as when whites assumed that all blacks could sing and dance. I joked that I wanted to come out, start to lip-sync and then smash the tape player, saying "Excuse me! For a moment there I thought I was a drag queen." Would people have laughed if a black man came out and pretended to hustle drugs, and said "Excuse me, I thought I was a crack dealer?"
I kept my distance from the 5 other TG males there, all of whom I know -- a cheap looking TS and wife, a crazy old TV, a dingy musician, a flaming dancer and his wife, and a sullen and angry TG. I was open to them, but to swim in their pain would not help anyone. When the TS was asked to relate a story of oppression, she told about having a news camera stuck in her face, and then proceeded, as part of the process, to berate the reporter in absentia -- "You are is gay! How could you do this? I know what you do with little boys!" I gasped.
I had to take a moment to talk about the detachment required to be TG, to talk about facing the stigma and how we often have to build a wall around our emotions so they wouldn't kill us, how the anger at the gender system all comes out at us, and how we cannot easily carry that pain. People seemed to understand.
I had good support from two women in my group, one who was actually past therapy. I sat with her and her partner at dinner, and it was wonderful. The large black man, also in my small group of six, who is the head of the local black gay/lesbian organization, sang a spiritual a cappella, and it was moving.
I read a poem -- not "Pick A Gender," which was deemed too intense, but another milder poem, and left for a TGIC event, in planning for 2 1/2 months. 4 people showed up, including me. Trannies live in the pain.
Next morning was intense. It was the controversial issues process, where we would learn how to address a controversial issue to find common ground. After process, the question was "Are exclusive organizations constructive?" The black man argued for, and I argued against.
It was a bonding time for the two of us, as we were both in front of the group and being lead through the process with commentary. We were together, albeit on opposite sides of the aisle, and that was useful. I asked the question: "Who sets the boundaries?" and he asked "Can you really live without boundaries?" These are the hard questions --- even if process demanded that we not address them, but rather answer more personal ones about how we felt about the issue at hand.
We were supposed to show our feelings. Yet, I knew that I must offer not pure truth, but performance.
"Come watch the trannie token dance the hoochie-koo!"
I talked of the key issue, that the way to empower marginalized people was not to enforce more of the exclusion that marginalized them in the first place. I talked of my own pain at falling though the cracks, at how the threat of exclusion had forced me to deny my heart, been a stick to beat people into submission. I spoke of seeing people cast out of Tri-Ess because they grew, of feeling of never knowing if people would exclude me, cast me out. I talked of how exclusion cuts us off from allies, and leaves us marginalized, still in the shadows because we fear what will happen if we are exposed. I spoke of the absolute need for focused organizations with the mission of meeting the needs of specific audiences, of empowering people without exclusion. I operated just above the terror.
People were moved and touched. A few hours later, more people said that I was a highlight of the weekend than anyone else. They felt opened and enlightened. One woman was touched when I explained that TG women don't like to speak loud because they fear their voices will drop LIKE THIS, and that I don't want that to happen. One feminist came up to me and said that they didn't believe that she could ever be swayed against exclusive spaces when the question was posed, but that my impassioned and articulate response had changed her in some way. She understood that she would have written me off if I had said that in women's space -- "He was born a white male and doesn't know what it is to be oppressed" -- and connected that to the times people denied her standing, marginalized her, because she was a lesbian.
I thanked all the people who came up to me. They were so full of light, so earnest and nice that I had opened their eyes, so sweet. And as I said "Thank *you* for doing the work of opening your heart!" Yet I felt like a whore saying "Oh yes, it was great for me too! You are a fabulous lover!" I wanted to tell them what I really thought about how they treated us for so long, about how shallow their newfound insights really are.
I felt that I had done a kind of emotional striptease for them, deftly parceling out measured portions of emotion, and they walked out of there thinking that they saw my pussy. All they saw was the illusion of intimacy, the fabricated shadow of a breast, the sensuous curve of the hip. They felt like we had shared a moment, and I felt like I had earned my pay.
I wanted to sneer at all of them, like a feminine Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Trannies": "The truth? You can't handle the truth!" The truth of transgender is not in my pleasantly packaged words, laced with the barest scent of emotions, not in the articulations that walk like puppets, but in the raw pain and rage of people who are torn apart by the conflicting demands of culture and of their heart, people who are crucified upon the altar of gender to maintain a system of strict biological determinism.
They all felt so privileged, so uplifted to a more moral plane, to have had the eyes to see my heart. I felt like a cheap hooker performing for a john who will never see who she really is. I know that for most of them, the sweet comfort of determinism will lure them back, that to do the hard work to live without boundaries is work that there is no support for. I know that they will hate the erasures and marginalization that they feel limits them, yet they will also be comforted that in not being seen they don't have to live up to high standards, to face the challenges of being truly global.
For me, I felt like I stood in front of kindergartners who all think that I am now deeply connected to them, but I know that I end up alone and searching desperately for one or two other people who can understand this -- and knowing that there are few in the world. I slow down my vibrational frequency to be seen, but in doing that, I lose a bit of the essence of who I really am at higher frequencies.
This false intimacy is, of course, the nature of an audience. If I had taken their cash, been on stage, I would have understood it. But in this event, where people were both supposed to be seen in new ways and to see in new ways, I ended up with people seeing only a sliver of who I am, seeing a little act, and what I saw was how far I am from real connection and support on the level that I am working on. This was not supposed to be an audience, but the fear that the world is only audience for me is back to the whole notion of "Sorry! For a moment there, I thought I was a drag queen."
People see me, articulate and strong, the model of what a nice TG should be. They think that I am well adjusted, coping well, that somehow I have transcended the abuse and shaming that all transgendered people suffer. But they cannot see the throbbing terror that is with me every moment of my life, and unlike the blacks, I don't even have a home full of people who also understand both the terror and how to rise above it and function. In fact, when I function well, TG people are as likely as not to attack me for not honoring their own morass of pain.
It is the feeling of having to turn tricks to survive, rather than the choice that an actress makes when she takes the stage. Here, we were all supposed to be peers and our reward was in being free to open ourselves I, being queer as fuk, even in this situation, am not free to be me. It felt like when I walk down the street and people stare, laugh and point, seeing me as a clown in a costume there for their amusement.
We each perform to get what we need, but few of us are demanded that we do that, or are so little understood when we just tell the truth I have to carefully craft a public persona, and then people think that I am revealing a private one somehow, that only shows a fraction of who I am in the way that a whore only uses a part of her femininity to survive. I think of those of us who end up working as she-males, eroticised objects to satisfy men's fantasies, and not their own dreams.
Maybe the trick is to be able to open up to a circle of people who understand how we have to perform and be supported in a deeper way. That don't happen for me. A hooker who makes money and goes home to a family feels different than one cast out.
So I seem to open my heart to the group, and they see what they will, and I end up sleeping alone.
Even worse, I don't even get left with a $20 bill on the nightstand to buy myself a bag of crack to ease the pain.
It's a life, eh?