Recently, someone suggested to me that I am condescending and obtuse towards low-income transgender people of color.
She noted that I insist on putting white wealthy trans women as the judges of what is legitimate, and worthy of further action.
It was noted that my privilege is blinding me to other people's lived experiences.
She also said I insist on denying those experiences unless they fit my existing worldview.
Well, that hurts. I have worked so hard and so long to help...blah, blah blah.
As my ex used to say, the truth hurts.
The truth is, we all have biases. That's the nature of being human. Whenever someone shouts loudly about how "objective" they are, my antennae go up. The best hope is to recognize one's biases, and to account for them and their subtle influence. So my antenna are up on this Jillian Weiss person.
That's the path towards objectivity. So am I a smug, privileged jerk? Sometimes, for sure. Am I biased? Of course, everyone is. Can I recognize my biases and account for them so that they don't go on making decisions for me? Frankly, I think it's the only way our divided, fractious queer community can hope to be just and to prosper.
Self-reflection. What a concept.
How To Be Dismissive In Three Easy Steps
There are lots of ways that our LGBTQ community leaders are smug and privileged. They affect all kinds of choices, like how our federal legislative first choice got to be DADT repeal.
But this isn't about them. This one's about me. When this woman said I was condescending and dismissive of others' lived experiences, my first thought was that this was simply someone who wants to be angry at someone. There's sure enough to be angry about in the way that low-income trans women of color are treated.
But angry at me? What possible basis...what conceivable incident...why, it doesn't exist!
And then I thought of something. Hmm...but I didn't mean...didn't intend. I apologized, etc.
And then I dismissed it and moved on.
Wait...I dismissed it? Did I do that?
Yup. And then I recalled someone who used to say I was smug and self-righteous. (One of my exes, if you must know.) She said I got this look on my face and my tone made it sound as if the other person was dumber than dirt. Not a very attractive quality.
Gosh, that hurt. Well, as she used to say, the truth hurts.
Take A Chill Pill, Dumbass
Yes, there was an incident a few weeks ago where I was discussing ENDA on this blog. A commenter raised a question about whether we should support it when, in fact, we know that there is going to be an amendment allowing restriction of bathroom usage of trans people.
However, the leadership has refused to release the exact language, saying it's not yet finished. However, a conference call with Mara Keisling of NCTE revealed that the language will maintain the status quo, where employers are permitted to decide about bathroom usage, so long as it is not inconsistent with the employee's gender presentation. She said that even though this was unsatisfactory, it was the only way we could get the bill passed, and that trans people would not be worse off as a result.
I've been really focused on getting ENDA passed the last year and a half. I have a lot of personal time and effort invested in its passage. I accepted her explanation, even if somewhat dubious about it.
A commenter to my post about this suggested that this could allow genital checks by employers. That would be very demeaning for trans people. (A side note: remind me to tell you the story about the genital check that Hilary Clinton required of me in order to help me get a passport. I can assure you that it was demeaning when the doctor reached in to feel my genitals. Not kidding.)
Here's what I said about the possibility of genital checking under ENDA.
I think everyone should keep in mind that the EEOC has the right to issue regulations to define exactly how the bill will function in practice. Not everything is nailed down when a law is passed -- that would be impossible. I believe the EEOC would be sympathetic to these issues.
So take a chill pill. Your concerns are legitimate, but they don't mean we have to oppose ENDA. There is more than one way to get the results we want.
Another commenter replied, a bit angrily:
That's easy for a post-op with a secure job and political position to say.
Come back with no marketable job skills or recent work experience, and lack of surgery than tell us to take a chill pill you hypocrite!
Dr. Jillian T. Weiss - Talks the moral high ground talk but never walked the lowest status in society walk
That got my dander up. Hypocrite? The remark didn't even make sense. I told her that wasn't true, "Now you're just angry and you want to lash out. But you have every right to be angry." I noted that I'm not poor now, but I have been poor in the past, and unemployed for quite a while.
Then someone else came in with a left hook.
It is true. You are white, you are middle class if not better, have your surgeries, and have your money.
You are not at all equipped to speak for poor trans women nor trans women of color, yet you claim that anyway with a flat dismissal.
You need to be less patronizing and dismissive. This is about OUR lives, not yours as a post op.
Please address people's questions here in a less flippant, dismissive manner. They are legitimate, even if you disagree.
WTF? So what if I'm white, post-op and have a good job? That doesn't mean I shouldn't have an opinion on ENDA. I didn't say I spoke for poor trans women of color, or dismiss anyone. Flippant? Illegitimate?
In Which It Turns Out That I Am The Dumbass
And then I thought about it for a bit.
I remember being very, very angry at one point in my transition. That lasted for a couple of years.
It seemed that everyone else was getting a piece of the American pie, and ignoring the incredible problems that I was having getting a job, finding housing, living in dangerous neighborhoods, retaining friends, dating and being treated like crap, constantly afraid of violence, having people laugh at me on the street and in public places.
I was sick and tired, damn it, of having people pretend that America was a place of equal opportunity, and that my poor treatment was my own fault for not taking the opportunities presented to me.
And then I applied to and got into grad school, graduated in record time, got a job in record time, and now have been teaching for the past seven years, received promotion and tenure, making a decent salary and paying off a lot of debt.
Why do you think I take great pains to title myself as "Doctor Jillian Weiss"? Because I am self-aggrandizing? Not at all. Trans people are so routinely disregarded and dismissed as freaks that I want people to understand that I am speaking from a position of knowledge and credibility. Of...privilege. It makes it a bit harder for people to dismiss me as just some freak spouting nonsense that no normal person could credit. Sure, it comes off as self-aggrandizing. My friends call me Jill and I'm just reg'lar folks at home, but in the wider world it's a fight for recognition for our community and I'll use every tool I can get.
No one laughs at me anymore I can afford to live in a safe neighborhood, get respect and a platform to speak with my articles being published in academic journals. I've also gained a platform on Bilerico, which has become quite a little powerhouse of a blog.
Am I privileged? You bet. The fact that I worked hard to obtain my position is beside the point. Without passing privilege and whiteness privilege and middle class privilege, I would never have gotten the job I did that has afforded me all these things. Working one's fingers to the bone, minus privilege, only gets you sore fingers.
Back to the comment against me - it may be true that I didn't intend to be dismissive, or speak for anyone else. But, whether I like it or not, I have a platform from which to speak as some sort of authority, and have positioned myself as someone who is a leader on ENDA.
This is political. President Obama has got to be very careful what he says, because he has great power. If he says the oil spill is being worked on with all possible diligence, and it turns out there were some other things they weren't doing that maybe they should have been doing -- people are angry. And they have a right to be angry. The person with the power to handle the issues effed it up. Minor screw-up or major doesn't matter. People with power have to approach that with due respect.
I don't have much power, but I have some. My voice is listened to by a lot of people here. I said "chill out" to someone who is close to the bottom rung of society, and it is dismissive, regardless of my intent.
So, I apologized.
I may not be poor now, but I've been poor. I'm post-op now, but it's not always been so. I never did claim to speak for poor trans women or trans women of color. I will be less patronizing and dismissive, but I reserve my right to disagree with you vigorously. Although I used the informal phrase "chill out," I didn't intend it as flippant or dismissive. I meant that one should not allow anger at a compromise to overcome the question of whether or not it holds important benefits for you. I also went out of my way to note that these concerns are legitimate. But I understand what it's like to be angry, what it's like to be left out, what it's like to have someone else tell you to be quiet. I have no problem with anyone here being angry. Even at me.
What It Means To Be A Community Leader
In retrospect, I can see that the issues facing the trans community, particularly among low-income trans women and trans women of color, are so enormous, are so enormously personally devastating, that I need to be careful what I say.
Not to avoid criticism, but to avoid poking a stick in the eye of people suffering under incredible hardships.
People facing rejection from just about everyone -- friends, family, lovers, employers, people on the street -- are not interested in what I meant. They are interested in what am I doing to help.
At this point in time, when ENDA has been put off until July, it would be extremely unlikely to see it enacted into law. Our community leaders suggest that passage of ENDA is nonetheless important, because if passed by the House, it will set a precedent for inclusion of gender identity for when it is introduced in 2011.
But it will also set a bad precedent if it has a clause in there that restricts trans people's bathroom access. For people working in most corporate offices, where the social milieu is respectful and there's another bathroom around the corner, this wouldn't really be much of a problem.
But people who work in factories, in agriculture, in retail sales, and all sorts of occupations are subjected to uncaring and even cruel managers. Those managers wouldn't bat an eye at asking for a picture of people's genitals, or making someone beg for a key and go to the dirty sub-basement to use the bathroom.
I thought it might be okay to have such a clause if it makes us no worse off AND the bill gets passed into law. But to have such a clause (and we don't even know what it is yet really) in a bill that passes the House would give this type of clause a cachet that could make it a really dangerous tool to restrict the rights of trans people, particularly low-income trans people and people of color.
This issue is being played out politically in an environment where, as it happens, upper middle class white transwomen are playing some key roles. Congressional officials are looking to us to say what is acceptable to trans people and what is not. And that includes trans people of color and low-income trans people.
So what did it mean to that woman who objected when I said "chill out"? Unintended as it was, it said "you don't know what you're talking about." Unintended as it was, it meant "screw your concerns, I know best."
Is that a way to build community? It is unequivocally not.
Trans people are divided by the same sorts of racial and social stratifications that divide our whole country. Anyone who wants to be a leader has got to understand that. Anyone who wants to be a leader has got to understand that they represent not only themselves and their in-group, but also lots of folk who are suffering great hardships.
If those leaders don't keep this in the front of their minds, certain segments of the community that are at the sharp end of the stick are going to say their truth about smug, privileged jerks.
And they will be right.
And the community "leaders" will wind up making a hash out of this supposed community.
This conversation isn't over, not by a long shot. I think it's just beginning.
Click here for Part II of this series.