On Thursday night I got to sit at a table at The Elysian on Capitol Hill with four of the coolest, smartest, most badass trans people I know. Collectively, the five of us made for a pretty impressive little crew to roll deep into the unnerving Seattle late-night land of roving packs of drunken grues. I sat there, and knew enough about the assembled people to know that really (really) every single one of us had survived some horrific, fucked-up things in our lives. Things that absolutely can, and have, killed others. And yet, it dawned on me that all of us, on some level, were thinking “Compared to them? I had it easy”. I knew that at least a few such comparisons had been directly, explicitly drawn as such at some point in time, with that consequential feeling of invalidation of one’s own suffering. Like some kind of weird tragicomic inversion of the Monty Python “You had a shoebox? PURE LUXURY!” sketch.
We see this a lot in the trans community, the constant efforts of contrast and compare whereby we undermine our sense of a right to own our own narratives by seeing them as not worth telling, nothing special, when held against the survival of someone else whose history in a different regard involved something horrible that ours did not. It’s often justified under the reasonable premise of acknowledging one’s privilege, and that would be a totally healthy thing to do if it were done in the context of acknowleding privileges, not shaming oneself for them, and were actually about privilege, not allowing oneself to believe a different form of oppression or hurt was therefore “less” oppressive, hurtful. Addiction vs. violence. Violence vs. exploitation. Exploitation vs. “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy vs. survival sex work. Sex work vs. sexual assault. Sexual assault vs. addiction. Etc. But nothing really brings its sad absurdity to the surface like seeing a group (however subtly) collectively play it off one another. If we were all thinking we “had it easy” compared to the others, where was the person who legitimately “had it rough”? And if there was no one who “had it rough”, who are we saying we “had it easy” in comparison to? It’s a bit like when you look at all the world’s religions side by side: they can’t possibly all be right, but they certainly can all be wrong.
But this isn’t the only way that the contrast/compare game manifests. Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and something that I feel needs to be a priority within any kind of genuinely viable trans-feminism or 4th wave, is the diversity of trans experiences, narratives, backgrounds. That since gender variance is defined by its variance, a politic or theory that is to successfully speak to it needs to find frameworks for accommodating that variance itself rather than just certain particular variants. Even attempting to get them all, one at a time, wouldn’t really work. The inefficiency would be staggering. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of exclusion and heirarchies within the trans community itself. We often act as our own gender police, the front-line in determining who is or isn’t trans “enough”, who is or isn’t “real”, who is allowed within our spaces, support groups, therapy sessions, communities, message boards, etc. and who isn’t. Whose narratives “count” and whose do not. Who gets to be heard and whose voice is “irrelevant”. I’ve been thinking about why we do this, why we engage in endlessly sorting and stratifying different backgrounds of non-normative gender. Why we engage in it even when the very real, and unforgivable, human costs are obvious. And thinking about how we can work around that, such that all trans backgrounds and lives and voices can participate in our discourse.
What’s lately emerged then, from a variety of perspectives, is an increasingly disturbing awareness that we seem to have a compulsion to compare and contrast ourselves against other trans people. It also rarely seems to manifest as anything remotely positive, with only the most specious justifications for why it might be worthwhile, that hardly seem to account for its personal urgency and gravity. When it’s not about finding reasons to shame, invalidate and exclude others, or trying to prop the legitimacy of our genders up on the backs of those we’ve cut down, we’re engaging in it as a way to feed our own shame and sense of illegitimacy, to nurse the strange sense of survivor’s guilt that so many of us seem to keep barely concealed beneath the surface of our obsessive efforts to help, to give back, our feverish compassion(?). Often a survivor’s guilt not even based around something that actually happened to us, but just something that we’ve been repeatedly told, over and over again, through our culture and media, is the inevitable fate of the poor, doomed tranny.
I take a lot of risks. I walk alone late at night. Do I just want to get it over with?
Of course, transition itself is a form of temporally inverted survival, if we simply replace “not dying” with “getting the chance to exist”. Transition allows us to be physically embodied, to be real. Right now, Natalie isn’t some buried shadow of myself, a shameful possibility. She’s a living, breathing, physically embodied person, who almost never got the chance to live. Though I’d make a dark wager that of those who don’t ever transition, the majority do ultimately die from suicide or self-destruction, it’s more to the point that they never even get a chance to be born. And this chance to exist doesn’t come without cost. One of the most common negative reactions of family and close friends (and actually the only strongly negative reaction I observed in the most supportive members of my family) is the sense that the old self has “died” and we’ve taken their place. Though we get a much more immediate sense of the degree to which those identities were never really real or alive in the first place (as Marisa Rahm says in Deathwish, sometimes the hardest friends to deal with are the ones who bought the hype), there’s no way we’re wholly immune to that sense, whether its named or not. I have at least one friend who still periodically questions which one of the two was real.
And how much are we ever able to shake the sense of how close we came to not getting that, not getting to be real and embodied? And how much can we possibly shake the sense that not everyone does?
And that not everyone’s life, existence as their actualized self, comes at the same price? That some trans people sacrifice a lot more than we did for the opportunity? Often the price being that their life is earned but cut horribly short.
Contrast and compare.
What drives us towards this? Why do we constantly deconstruct our experiences and narratives into little discrete pieces and hold them up against others to see the differences? If it just drives us deeper into that sense of deep, malignant shame we all carry around, or is part of making the shallow effort to abate that shame by seeing someone else as more shameful, or is just used to stratify and divide our communities?
Maybe it’s about reflections, seeing ourselves. We live our lives in a culture that almost utterly refuses to provide any genuine representations of us. What few there are often come heavily loaded- as punchlines, villains, sex objects or victims. These representations are also very frequently absurdly inaccurate, and in that inaccuracy can’t even begin to reflect our actual lives, experiences and identities. And given the immense diversity of trans narratives and identities, and the intensely narrow range of representations (or representatives) that are palatable or comprehensible enough to a cis audience to ever find their way to “mainstream” (almost any) media, the ultimate result is that most of us are absolutely starving just to see something outside ourselves that can possibly reflect our identity and experience back at us and give us a sense that not only are we not completely alone and isolated in our experience, but that we actually exist in our culture at all. Or that we count.
So perhaps when we encounter other trans people we’re so desperate to see ourselves that we fixate on holding our experiences against theirs to see some resemblance, something that can suggest there’s an us outside of us. And maybe that’s part of the survivor’s guilt thing, that when we hear the horrible things that have happened to others, we feel like it should have happened to us too. We end up feeling more alone in not even being able to share the same pain. But if this were the principle motivation, why the focus on difference? Why do we always seem to emphasise our disparities rather than our commonalities? If what we were looking for was some sense of unity, reflection and not-so-aloneness, why doesn’t this compulsion lead us to forming communities rather than breaking them apart?
Maybe it’s not about being less alone, but just gaining some sense of oneself? Finding some grip on what you actually are, and what your experiences mean, by holding them in contrast to another and finding the contours? Maybe. I’m not sure.
Or perhaps it’s something darker. Maybe it’s only ever about the shame. Maybe the shame is the only thing that drives it. It often seems like there are only two kinds of trans people: those who enact their shame by endlessly abusing themselves, and those who enact it by endlessly abusing other trans people. That would certainly account for the two ways the compulsion towards comparison manifests. At a certain point, feeling ashamed for not being cis becomes difficult to maintain, and we move on to feeling ashamed for not being the right kind of trans.
Or maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe all of them AND a bunch of other things I haven’t taken into account. But considering just how strong a force this is amongst trans people, and just how much it can poison our capacity to relate to one another and build connections, communities, friendships and healthy, positive relationships, it’s probably pretty fucking important that we try to figure it out. Because so long as we can’t move past our fixation on the differences in our experiences, we’ll never be able to locate the commonalities that unite us. All of us. And without understanding that we’re not going to be able to move very far forward.