This past Wednesday, a likely well-intentioned, but ultimately off-the-mark article appeared in the Boston Phoenix penned by trans activist Gunner Scott. The article is a comment on the status of trans activism and the ongoing struggle to improve the lives of trans people today; it makes a note of certain types of progress that has been made in recent years and comments on future work to be done.
However, the article is problematic in several respects. For example, Scott acknowledges some recent advances that may impact certain trans women’s lives, saying
There have been some … recent successes … like the Girl Scouts’ decision to include transgender girls, and the rule change at the Miss Universe pageant, which enabled the first transgender woman to compete.
What’s weird about this statement is the use of passive voice rather than acknowledging the role that trans women themselves played in bringing these changes about. The fact is that Jenna Talackova, an indigenous woman from British Columbia, could have merely accepted being brought back into the Miss Universe Pageant after initially being kicked out based on her trans status.
But instead, she made the issue larger than herself by demanding a rule change that would allow any trans woman to compete in the pageant in the future. That was not a rule change that simply occurred out of luck, it occurred because a sharp, strong trans woman demanded that it be so in order for her to participate further in the pageant. She stood up, and she won.
(Now there are those who have tried to sideline this accomplishment, after all it’s true that it’s `only’ a beauty pageant. However, if women are the ones who compete in this pageant, Donald Trump’s initial instinct to kick a trans woman out makes clear his message: “She’s not really a woman.” Obviously this is totally unacceptable cissexism and trans-misogyny, no matter what the venue in question may be.)
In fact, the only trans people who are presented as activists in the entire article– Chaz Bono and Gunner Scott himself– are both trans men. Meanwhile, the only trans women who appear in the article are presented as passive victims.
The fact is that in the last decade or so, trans men (particularly white trans men) have come to take the lead roles in trans activism in many ways in many parts of North America. One result of this has been that trans women (particularly trans women of color) have often found themselves struggling to find space within which they could speak for themselves. By presenting himself and Chaz Bono as activists while presenting trans women of color as passive, Gunner Scott has unfortunately fallen into this trap by perpetuating the cycle in which trans women are denied agency, even while their stories are used to promote the “need for trans visibility.”
Indeed, “visibility” is presented as the primary concern, right in the title of Scott’s article. However, the fact of the matter is that this issue is often a primary concern for relatively privileged voices in the trans community; meanwhile, trans women of color often find themselves struggling to achieve invisibility just in order to satisfy basic needs like employment and housing.
However, after reading Scott’s article, I was glad to see that at least two amazing trans women of color took the initiative of writing their own response. Over at Transactivisty, Monica Maldonado criticizes Scott for his odd claim that
Some reporters are helping to show the humanity of those lost by including stories from friends and family about how loved and cherished [trans women] were, and how much they will be missed. This type of reporting is challenging the idea that transgender women are not valued.
This statement is almost bizarre given the sensationalizing, trans-misogynistic coverage appearing right in the New York Times of a trans woman who recently died in a fire. I strongly recommend that everyone check out Monica’s piece here for more in-depth analysis and further comments on Scott’s problematic presentation of the status of trans activism.
Another trans woman of color writer, Erica, also gives a quite different take on the status of trans activism and a critique of Scott’s article. Erica comments on the difficulties finding support that many trans women experience even within the trans community, as well as the fact that by generally having a very rigid framing of what counts as an `acceptable’ trans history or identity, many trans people are actually writing off those who don’t fit a certain narrative that largely internalizes both the trans-misogyny and racism that targets the most vulnerable among us.
Ultimately, Erica provides two specific recommendations to bring the community forward as a whole, and I strongly recommend that you check them out for yourself here.