In an ongoing effort to extend my tentacular reach, I’ve been having chats about the impact of language and symbol on the disenfranchised at large. For instance, when I began my transition, I used the word “tranny” a lot. It seemed to mitigate the seriousness of my decision, and the flippant, and I hoped insouciant, way in which it fell out of my (full-lipped, sensuous) mouth helped those closest to me feel less threatened. I was being, in a Tom Cruisian sense, “glib.” This wasn’t calculated; it was initially unconscious. You could say I used my own transphobia* to bridge my transition, for myself and for others. It was useful for a while, and then it began to chafe. This was because as I began to fit in my own skin, I felt genuinely less pejorative about it. “Tranny” seemed less and less enchanting, and hearing my (non-trans) friends use it began to feel awkward. This I could not articulate until I began reading that some transwomen take real offense at transmen appropriating language used specifically to diminish and dehumanize transwomen.
Being as old as I am and having shown my ass on entirely too many occasions, I was willing to concede I had been thoughtless in my word choice. I mulled over the “t-word” conundrum, until I could finally feel some compassion, and then of course what I’d been avoiding all along, shame for having so blithely embraced such a rubber-bullet word. Aaah, so here is the crux of the biscuit, as Mr. Zappa used to say! The “S” word! One must avoid shame at all costs, even at the expense of others! The moral of this story is that I always have things to learn, and I must be vigilant with my own ego to do this.
More recently, a friend of mine was edited from a Pride-Fest lineup because she has dreadlocks. She’s white, so dreadlocks are challenging for some people. I had forgotten this myself, until it was brought up by the group that snipped her off, if you will. It seemed dated, this posture, unhelpful, emotional. I wasn’t there so I don’t know what happened, but I can tell you what happened for this transguy: I had to do some deep dish diving. When our soi-disant “own community” censures us, it’s unsettling. It seems counter-productive, fascist even, an attempt by the marginalized to wield whatever watery power they feel they hold. It was absolutely none of my business, but the conversation kept sticking – I needed more information. I made pilgrimage to one of the wiser, more judicious persons I know, someone who wore dreads for a very long time herself, Shirlette Ammons.
I intuitively understood that Shirlette would not hold with white people sporting dreads, but I also knew she could shift the dialogue for me enough that I would see it from a new perspective. I am extreeeeemely lucky to have friends and colleagues I can ask to extrude my being into some new space/time dimension, like I’m play-doh and they’re the template; I relish this sort of travel. Also, I enjoy being Technicolor spaghetti dough but this is neither here nor there. I said, “I get it – it’s like ‘this is one of the few things I can call mine and you white people are taking that too, for a fucking fashion for godssake!’” Shirlette retorted, “I wore dreads as a symbol of struggle, rebellion. They had deep significance for us, those of us striving to keep our culture from this kind of liquidation.”
I responded with a possibly weak analogy – race is deep, but I was seeking a foothold. “Tattoos were like that for me! When I was getting them, they were so meaningful, they were like thoughts and dreams I had about myself coming up through my pores. We were this tiny little gang of artists and visionaries reacting to being suffocated by our culture, our political system.” In 2004, when I briefly apprenticed again at an Austin skin shoppe, I was appalled to see how much had changed in two decades. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what tattoos are now; they signify various things, but mostly they seem to semaphore a capitulation to an external pressure, not an internal one.
“But Shirlette, I think we’ve had this conversation, this dreadlock thing. I don’t feel it’s helpful.” She pulled back, clearly agitated, and then sat up in her chair. “This is just the third or fourth tier of us not having this conversation!”
I believe she’s right. Clearly, at least to this transguy cuttlefish, race – and gender inequity - is a conversation that needs having, all the time. We will keep attempting to have it until we have it. It requires openness, the possibility of experiencing deeply unpleasant feelings, it means becoming able to see one’s part in a social/economic system that absorbs the meaningful and renders it for market.
I would also suggest using trans as a lens for re-imagining these conversations. “Life,” as my good friend E. would say, “wants to make life happen! Life wants to explore all its possibilities!” Transgender is one of those life “possibilities,” an evolutionary high note in a soaring aria. If we can envision ourselves as a racial, ethnic, sexual (or non), speckled (or not), gendered (or no), shoot of Life’s curling tendrils, then we are simply another (spectacular) branch on a tree. Trans exemplifies this desire of biology, of God via nature, to create. And create and create and create – exploring every possibility, every permutation, without fear or judgment, simply creation for creation’s sake.
Nonetheless, our capacity to eat our own is also a symptom of the sickness suffered by the societally tortured. When white people critique others for wearing dreadlocks it feels, well, a little like privilege – maybe like when non or even trans people critique transpeople’s fashion choices. I’ve done it and so have you. Who else gets to make these decisions, these excisions, but those of us marginally empowered by our righteousness? We are all activists, and we are all in different places at different times. Jockeying for position to the top of the Activist Heap by elbowing others, critiquing one another’s commitment to fight The Power, means we have gotten lost somewhere, we’ve diluted the Nectar of Connexion we receive when we awaken to our trans/queer/ally/otherness.
My dear, beloved friend, may we always keep the conversation open and flowing, the way life moves after a rain, hither and yon, over and under, but always to the deep bluegreen sea. I will practice being aperture instead of right, soft instead of brittle, maceration rather than laceration. Put me in your mouth, friend, and let your enzymes diminish the shell I have made around me; that which protected me, now keeps me from others. Amen and atranswomen. And always, never forgot that I love you.
*although I think “transphobia” is too neat a package. I found the word itself, “tranny,” to be delightfully playful and archaic, like “fanny.”