I have days darkened by despair. Mostly not for my own plight — despite my struggles with self loathing, I float in a fragile bubble of privilege that keeps me relatively safe. But for the plight of my people: the trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming folk of this Earth, and particularly the young ones, trying to find hope in a global wave of legal and cultural assaults that aspire to ostracize, segregate, and erase us. The backdrop of climate crisis, authoritarianism, and general trend of cis silence in this escalating assault does not help.
But some of my despair actually comes from these words: “my people”. This probably means different things to each of you. Some who think me white might think I mean white trans people, or even specifically white trans women. Some who think me Asian might think I mean Asian trans people, or maybe even partly Asian trans people. Some might even see it more narrowly, as just the trans folk I personally know. I’m sure those words are being read a myriad of other ways too.
So let me be clear: when I say “my people”, I do not mean it in any of these narrow senses. I mean it in the absolute broadest sense, in that transness is not limited to some particular racial, ethnic, geographic, class, or cultural category. Transness is an intrinsic part of human diversity, and thus exists everywhere, in every category. “My people” span the entirety of this planet, and vary in all ways imaginable and unimaginable. Some are safe to be themselves, some not at all.
For me, this global sense of community is not a hypothetical. I spend much of my time trying to be with and support this global community. I mentor trans academics on all continents, some proudly out, some fearfully closeted. I support trans doctoral students, some in my lab, some in labs across the world. And on evenings and weekends, I support trans youth, who come from all over the world, some who have sought refuge from war, some who seek refuge from family. “My people” are Black, Brown, Native, Indigenous, Asian, white; adults, adolescents, children; urban, rural; North American, Central American, European, African, Asian; disabled and not; poor and not; houseless and not; happy and not. They are everyone, and we find each other, because there is often nowhere else to go for support.
Why, then, do I find the words “my people” despairing? Because inside it is the idea of a group. Or an in-group, to be more precise. It holds a notion that there are trans people and then there are not trans people, and that this binary is sufficient to describe our interests, our diversity, our needs, and concerns. But how could a cross section of the entirety of humanity be such a monolith? How could we possibly be a community? My own challenges as a wealthy, mixed race, academic trans woman from the sleepy Pacific Northwest are nearly non-intersecting with the trans Ukrainian refugees in my community, many of whom are newly disabled from war, struggling with English, and searching for space for themselves in their family’s confining cultural ideas about gender. And their challenges do not align with the Black trans young adults I support, who struggle to find supportive communities of other Black trans folk, and even supportive communities in general, amidst centuries of oppressive racial hierarchy and intergenerational trauma. And so on, for the neurodiverse, disabled, and poor cross-sections of the trans community, each of whom have distinct needs and wishes for how the world would change. Any honest account of our diversity would conclude that we are vastly more different than we are alike.
One might think that despite these differences, we are bound together by shared oppression. But our oppression is distinctly intersectional as well, given the sheer diversity of our cultures, ethnicities, genders, abilities, and minds. Mine, for example, is one of trying to navigate the highly masculine, socially ignorant world of computing, and make space in it for myself and everyone else who wants to be a part of it. But the oppression of trans Ukrainian refugees is one that is decidedly and geopolitically Russian. And for the Black trans youth in the U.S., it is unavoidably racial, as they navigate a mélange of racism, sexism, and transphobia, constantly gaslit by the world about their place and worth. And so on, for those seeking disability justice, reproductive rights, freedom from stigma, and space for chronic illness.
If we are not united by our experience of oppression, perhaps it is our oppressors? Even this is complicated. It’s absolutely the case that the white, cis men and women in the United States trying to impose a racist white Christian nationalism are our shared oppressors. But it is not only them, and sometimes not especially them. For example, sometimes our biggest oppressors are our families. Sometimes it is our communities of color, who often cling to oppressive gender binaries, even while fighting for racial justice. Sometimes it is our religions, which have worked for millennia to suppress the inescapable fact of gender diversity in order to uphold the patriarchy. Transphobic laws, as tragic as they are to our ability to exist in society, are sometimes negligible in the absence of love and support from a parent, especially when that rejection also means homelessness and poverty. And so yes, we are all oppressed by racist white cis men in the seats of power, but we are also often oppressed in more devastating ways by the people closest to us, who are of all races, ethnicities, and faiths.
Sometimes I think we might be bonded by our shared traumas. Many of us respond to the world’s rejection of us with self self-harm or self-loathing. Many of us are rejected by loved ones. Many of us struggle to make even the smallest amount of space for ourselves, aspiring for a parent to get a pronoun right, securing even intermittent access to medical and mental health care. But while these shared experiences are common, they are not universal; I talk to many trans youth who have everything they need and find nothing but pride and joy in their identity. Some have the deep love and support of their friends and families and supplement these with beautiful chosen families. These youth and their families show us a future of trans experiences centered in love, acceptance, and happiness. And so trauma is not what unites us, and it is only temporary.
What then, makes up the “trans community”? I’ve come to see our bond as more of an idea than an experience. The simple liberatory idea that we shall define ourselves, and not be beholden to culturally bound gender roles, to the assumptions and expectations of strangers who judge us by our appearance, to dictates of religious moralism, or to the limits of human imagination about what it means to be human. It is this idea that so often brings us together: a celebration of our differences, not only in gender, but in all ways of being, and most of all, our choice to accept ourselves as different, and accept each other as different. Trans identity is one that fundamentally commits to the beautiful diversity of human biology, identity, and experience, and all the complexity that comes with trying to love and embrace it. We are bound together by our commitment to unapologetically being.
If we our bound by this idea, then it is no surprise that we are perceived as a powerful political force. But to be clear, we are not: there are few of us, and so in our democracies, and particularly in our autocracies, we have little voice or sway. We unfortunately rely on the cis majority to see and respect our humanity. And too often, they forget us, dehumanize us, or even demonize us.
But at a cultural level, we actually do have great power. Because our binding idea fundamentally questions every racial, ethnic, sex, gender, sexuality, and ability hierarchy. It says that simply by being bold enough to be ourselves, and to love ourselves and each other, we can create the conditions for peace, equity, and justice. These dreams rely fundamentally on everyone accepting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, trans or not. And so we embody that very idea by proudly being.
When I see the trans community through this lens, it becomes clearer why we are a political target. It’s not just that the broader public does not know or understand us, and therefore fears us (though this is certainly a factor). Its that our community, just by being, question every gender role, every gender expression, every gender hierarchy woven through our larger matrix of oppression, and demands that it be replaced, to make room for everyone of us, in all of the ways that we vary. I cannot imagine anything more terrifying for a white Christian cis man who likes the social order as it is, or the white Christian cis woman who is comfortable in her diminished role as as “wife.” I have family in these positions, they tell me that our demand for respect is a demand for anarchy.
And yet the white Christian right making us a political target is also deeply ironic. The Republican party used to stand for freedom and liberty (or at least a highly racialized version of liberty that preserves white power). But all it took was the existence of a tiny group of trans kids proudly existing for them to abandon those values in favor of an authoritarian vision of society in which everyone conforms so that we may preserve white supremacy and the patriarchy. Of course, this is only rhetorical irony. White cis Christian nationalists have always adopted whatever values are necessary to preserve their power, because it was never about values or religion. Just look at the centuries of white Christian-led war, genocide, and enslavement, all in the name of God, but actually in the name of power.
It is this political reaction where I find hope. If all it takes is trans people proudly, unapologetically existing, and trans people are in every social group, every community, every country, every religion in the world, and always will be, then our capacity for liberation is global, perpetual, and ubiquitous. This does not mean that freedom will be free — many of us will give our lives by simply being; many of us will exhaust ourselves fighting for the most incremental of progress. Many of us will continue being traumatized by our white cis systems of power. But no matter how much white oppressors or even our families try to pretend that we do not exist, we always will. In every band of society, in every community, in every part of the planet, for as long as humanity lives on it.
Of course, as fortifying as this hope can be, I still find myself getting lost in the daily friction and despair of advocacy. Even in the trans community, we struggle immensely with remembering our shared idea, instead calling each other out, shaming each other, casting each other out for the smallest of transgressions. Other coalitions fighting for racial justice, disability justice, and women’s rights repeatedly set trans people aside, asking us to be patient or even excluding us, as if the trans people in each of these communities do not also deserve racial and disability justice. The left’s chronic struggle with its loosely connected coalitions seems to always stem from forgetting that none of us are free until all of us are free. And so it’s about time we started leading with grace, as if we actually want the messy, beautiful, diverse world that we’re all fighting for.
And so I’ll end with something that I’m reminded of when I meet with my eclectic groups of trans youth. In their silliness, their willingness to give, share, and love, and their relentless, passionate, truly unique journeys to find themselves, I am reminded that there is beauty in difference. Let us come to love each other for those differences, not despite them, and learn to set aside judgement to make space for that love. Our lives are too fragile and too contingent for anything less.