Austen Crowder

Battling Activist Burnout in the Trans Community

Filed By Austen Crowder | November 15, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: activist burnout, burnout, trans activism, trans community, trans rights, transgender

To begin with, hello. It's been a long time since I've typed an essay for this site. I'm not sure how long it's been, but "months" certainly comes to mind. In fact, that's precisely what I'm here to talk about today. So: "What have you been doing, Austen?" Good question.community.jpg

First, I've found myself absolutely drilled in on youth advocacy. I volunteer for a drop-in LGBTQ youth center here in Indy and just can't get enough of it. Sure, it only affects youth in the Indianapolis area, but man, does it ever have an effect! What I've seen at that youth center gives me hope for our community's future.

Second, and perhaps more terminal than the first, is that I've burned out on writing about LGBT issues. I keep trying to get worked up, angry, or otherwise excited about the injustices that face the LGBT community only to find myself lacking. Sure, I keep up with the news and all that, but lately it's been a struggle to muster any gumption to get incensed over things. On one hand I've burned out, and on the other I think I've grown into a different sort of activist entirely.

Time heals all wounds, they say. And on that score, here I am wondering how the community can offset the "two years and out" burnout that seems to come along with trans activism. I think our best bet is in recognizing that the trans and LGB community follow two completely different structures, and that two different approaches are in order.

How about some context, Austen?

The specific needs of the T community differ from the LGB community. We know this. We discuss it to great lengths on this site. What I think really needs explored is the precise mechanisms in which we enter and exit the community; namely, the fact that members of the T community can, with sufficient practice, luck, money, and passing privilege, avoid many of the roadblocks society places in the path of transition and sexual orientation.

Where the LGB experience involves discovering a social space that facilitates finding romance and camaraderie, the trans experience centers around a process with predefined landmarks, procedures, paperwork, and professionals.

As someone who recently worked through her own bisexuality this difference becomes clear. One lands in the LGB community and stays: how else can we find romance? However, the same cannot be said of the trans community, which resembles more a trailway with waystations. One can stop anywhere along the way, sure, but one can also just plow right on through to the end if they so choose.

This is not a criticism of the trans community as a whole - it's a side effect of the process itself. Understanding this context is vital to balancing the trans activism equation.

But Austen, that's harsh! Trans people need community and visibility too!

Coming out trans requires a trans person to discuss intensely personal - and sometimes painful - issues. While this is affirming and exciting in the beginning it turns out that there aren't that many questions to answer in a trans 101 conversation. I mean, after you discuss the process, how you feel, what led you to transition, and surgeries you end up at "I'm just one of the girls" and life goes on. Repeated coming-out conversations end up feeling like a rerun of "Groundhog Day." Many trans people - myself included - eventually dial back situations in which disclosure is warranted on a count of wanting to avoid this same-old, same-old conversation, as well as the side effects the conversation creates.

In other words, if I say I'm bisexual, or if I were to come out as lesbian, people have few questions. As a society we already have a framework within which sexual orientation resides, built upon media representations, previous social interactions, and news stories. It's much like saying "I'm Christian" or "I cook" - people know enough from previous interactions to fill in the blanks. If I come out as trans, however, most people have never had the chance to parse the identity. There are few representations in the media, few people have knowingly met a transgender person, and we simply haven't had the time to put together a list of "questions I'd ask a trans person," let alone a way to find the answers in media.

Additionally, people tend to treat me as a more "genuine girl" if I'm not out as trans in the first conversation. (To check my privileges: yes, I have passing privilege, and people seem to think I'm pretty - two huge factors to this conversation.) By withholding my trans status until disclosure is truly needed people get to know me as the woman I am, not couched within the context of "strange type of person I've never encountered." Is it fair or right to have to withhold this information to gain that respect? Nope. But it is what it is. The less I bring up my status in casual conversation the better off things tend to be.

For better or worse our society rewards the most quiet, passable, and successful trans people. As I've passed through the waystations on the transition path this idea keeps ringing truer and truer.

Okay, smartypants. Let's say you're right. How do we fix this?

First, we need to accept that the LGBTQ community shares a lot of spaces both within our community and within our laws. Together or separate we will always be dancing to the same tune of gender and sexuality. Do not misinterpret my call for a specific approach to trans activism as a call for separatism; far from it, I think now more than ever the community needs to stick together. I say this as a bi, trans fag hag who works with LGBTQ youth of all shapes and sizes: we may have different needs, but the second we start trying to dance alone we'll be stepping on toes all along the way.

The good news here is the trans community has, by necessity, built a successful network of local activists. I liken trans activism to a sort of "fight club" - nobody talks about it in public but once someone decides they need to transition and reaches out the resources open up to them. Sure, it isn't as loud as Gay Inc., and certainly not as visible in terms of change, but when it comes to making the system work in our favor we tend to make do pretty decently for ourselves. In fact, we seem to have the best luck when we are the least intrusive, working behind the scenes to create small changes that don't encourage political backlash.

Much of this has to do with our relative powerlessness in the political process. While polls show a consensus on transgender people being treated fairly we do find ourselves needing to hide the loopholes and processes in place to help trans people from public eyes. Once outside groups get hold of the information these holes tend to disappear. Take, for example, Indiana driver's licenses; once people got wind that a gender changes once only required a doctor's note the process changed. Again, this comes part and parcel with the whole "dancing together" game - when people get in a tizzy about LGB relationships gender policing becomes a priority, and vice versa.

The trans community as a whole is never going to be loud and in-your-face about their rights. The power of passing privilege over time, the community's relative powerlessness, and the mostly linear nature of the trans experience make that noise hard to generate. What we can do is encourage good stewardship by those who come across the path, encouraging everyone, no matter how stealth, to pay forward the favors paid to them through transition. We don't have to be loud, and we don't have to be boisterous, but I think being the "friend of a friend" someone needs as they're starting their journey is worth a thousand protest signs, hands down.

The trans community needs to encourage and value decidedly not-sexy activism. Things like identifying medical staff with experience treating trans patients, or behind-the-scenes lobbying to change BMV policies, or creating trans-inclusive support structures in the local community may not change laws but they do make the struggle to find transition resources a whole lot easier. These activities will never appeal on a DADT or DOMA level but are certainly some of the most important things the trans community can figure out going forward.

Most importantly, these are activities that work within the "waystation" trans community's existing structure, allowing people to maintain discretion while simultaneously helping others. Is this how we'd tackle the problem in an ideal world? Certainly not. But this is what we have to work with in the here and now, and we need as many boots on the ground as possible to make changes.


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Austen, I have known literately hundreds of trans activists in all aspects of the community and the most successful have one thing in common. They all have a great sense of humor. If you ever had a chance to sit and talk with people like Mara Keisling and other long-time activists and you would see what I mean.

A sense of humor helps people get through those tough times. It doesn't mean you laugh at the bad things. It means to take the time to just laugh. It has been medically proven that laughter helps people who are physically sick. It also helps to hold off burn out.

I've been an activist for 14 years. I may not show a sense of humor on this blog. It seems rather humorless at times. But, the people who truly know me will tell you, especially my partner.

From my own perspective, I have found that being an openly trans woman in activist circles is largely more work than it is worth. For example, I stopped identifying as trans when working in LGBT spaces. I found that my perspective and opinions were actually considered when the people in question assumed I was a "straight ally" and dismissed or ignored when I was a "trans woman".

So while I'm generally less publicly active due to other pressing issues, when I am (especially in an LGBT context) I'm much more likely to not disclose my status. It is simpler and I can actually get stuff done, and people listen to me when I talk about being inclusive for trans women in ways they didn't when I was openly trans.

I somewhat agre with laughrio T girl about not disclosing your status. I tried to do the LGBT volunteer thing as a heterosexual Trnssexual that wished not to be labeled transgender or part of the LGBT. My identity was not respected nor was my request not to be labeled Transgender. So now you have me working against the LGBT and the Transgender label. Shame you could have had an allie now you have me actively lobbying against the use of the word Transgender and the LGBT.