by Michiko Bown-Kai
- There are too many people who have a hard time affirming my experiences when I speak of the need for trans* inclusivity;
- I often can’t advocate for the rights of trans* folk without people feeling attacked;
- I’m frequently told that I’m taking up too much space when I talk about trans* issues when it feels safe and healthy for me (and then repeatedly get treated as a go-to gender expert when it’s convenient for others to learn)
- I feel erased and alienated by mainstream society and social justice discourses/communities;
I would like to share the following thought:
I know that it’s crowded at the margins, that there are many of us seeking recognition and healing, but what I want to be understood is that there are people within the margins who are still silenced and erased. As people committed to liberation, we know the power of affirmation and community, and this is why it is so important that we strive to exist as a community where everyone can feel fully present and validated.
So what does this mean for me as a queer, genderqueer, person of colour? I experience cissexism and binarism in every facet of my life. Those “safe spaces” like the gay village, community meetings, and student movements have all been places where I have felt invisible. I constantly feel the barriers of trying to access support from feminist communities who only acknowledge the existence of two genders and women who remain unaccountable for their cis privilege. Amidst all the talk about justice, love, and intentional listening, I am consistently misgendered and rarely get space to share my pronouns without it being a completely othering experience. I can’t walk into a social justice community without fearing the responsibility of offering a trans* 101 workshop with a friendly smile.
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All of us at the margins know the realities of working for a better world in the face of the trauma of oppression. Time and time again we have learned the message that safety is a privilege. We have every reason to be afraid of anything that pushes up against the boundaries our survival has required of us. But the boundaries that exist in social justice spaces that exclude trans* people are not about safety; they are a reflection of internalized cissexism and binarism that maintains a system of trans* oppression. Trans* folk deserve justice.
In the conversations I am having and the work I am reading, I repeatedly see activists arguing for the need of righteous anger. Women should be angry at men. People of color have every right to call out white people. Yet, for some reason, my anger is policed, my intentions are questioned, and I’m told I need to be patient because people are trying their best to learn. There seems to be this common understanding in activist communities that cissexism is complicated; that it’s the last on the priority list in terms of education. For all of you reading this, I’m sure you are familiar with the pain of privileged people arguing for the need to wait for things to get better, but I am tired of being held accountable for other people’s ignorance. I am tired of the anxiety I consistently feel when I am misgendered and essentially told everyone’s too busy “working for justice” to let me take up space talking about my pronouns. I am hurt every time I go to a social justice event and I have to decide if I want to feel dysphoric about using the women’s washroom or feel unsafe in the men’s bathroom.
I’m not saying that every activist out there needs to drop what they are doing and solely focus on cissexism and transphobia. What I am advocating for is that activists start reflecting, understanding, and creating space for trans* people in the work they do. I realize that all work for justice is interconnected; I want to be supporting as many communities as possible working towards the same goals I have. However, I need you to promise me you won’t use cis-narratives as shared common experiences. As justice-seekers, we need to agree that there is nothing inherently female about getting a period and there is nothing inherently gay about two penises in a bedroom. I am so tired of attending social justice events that only talk about “brothers and sisters” and feminist bloggers that constantly equate having a vagina with being a woman. There is a particular feeling that comes with feeling excluded from communities who claim they value justice and solidarity – and it is horrible. If you are committed to truly intersectional liberation, you need to include trans* folks. If you want to focus on a particular issue, especially for a direct action or a small project, that’s fine – just be willing to name its strengths and limitations and be accountable for them.
So yes, queer women of color, take up space. Yes, indigenous women, share your experiences. Yes, undocumented folk, challenge the ways we think about borders and the state. Of course these communities are not exclusive of each other either, but don’t forget that there are people in all of your communities with trans* experiences and that unless we are all committed to challenging cissexism, we will not have true liberation. This is a challenge and a critique to all of you out there working for justice – and it is also a gift, another set of tools for illuminating diversity and dismantling empire.
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Michiko Bown-Kai is in their second year of a Masters of Divinity program in Toronto. They are deeply passionate about youth empowerment, queer spirituality, and the role of the arts in anti-oppression movements. Michiko identifies as a middle class, settler, able-bodied, genderqueer QPoC; survivor, artist, and student. You can check out their blog here.
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