Performances 'Transform community'
by Zak Szymanski
As transgender individuals come out into a variety of identities within their communities, the communities themselves also transition: from the gay male community now having female-to-male transsexuals who live as men to dyke and transgender communities revisiting how to structure women's space to accommodate a range of gender identifications.
Unavoidably, conflicts arise. Women's space that allows FTMs has been criticized for negating the male identities of those who are welcomed, while gender-specific policies often fall along binary lines of male and female, excluding the growing number of people identifying as both or neither. Transgenders themselves can clash on everything from feminism to the medical versus social models of gender; non-female identified trans guys in women's space is an inclusion that honors one's female past but also has the effect of challenging the female identities of MTF transsexual women who were not raised as girls.
For those who live in communities with an ever-growing trans presence, the conversations and debates have been impossible to ignore. For queer writer and community organizer Michelle Tea, such conflicts gave rise to an opportunity, and she launched "Transforming Community," a performance event of diverse voices from the trans-inclusive queer communities, at the Queer Arts Festival in June.
"I wanted the private conversations that I felt were being hissed in dark, resentful corners to be brought out into the light so they could be resolved, healed, or taken to the next level of conversation," said Tea, the author of titles such as Valencia and The Chelsea Whistle , and the long-term partner of FTM hip-hop artist MC Katastrophe. "I know all the conversations I've had, and can only imagine that everyone in the community is also having them, and I want the cover whipped off and want everyone to now what's going on and to understand each other."
After a series of mostly sold-out shows over the summer, the performance was launched again by the San Francisco Public Library on Saturday, October 29. Performers â€“ selected by Tea for their artistic contributions to the community â€“ delivered narrative pieces about their experiences of navigating a transgender or queer identity.
MTF writer and spoken word artist Julia Serano addressed the transphobic womyn-born-womyn policy of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, noting that it encouraged lesbian discrimination against trans women as the norm and was largely based on the fear of the penis. "Never mind that there are more dildos and strap-ons at Michigan than you'd ever want to shake a stick at," said Serano, who also took issue with the notion that MTFs did not experience sexual assault or objectification.
"I do know what that's like," said Serano, describing men who have forced themselves upon her as a woman, and the pain of being forced against her will into boyhood. She also pointed out the irony of feminist women defining others by their genitals. "We have a word for reducing people to their genitals and it's called objectification."
MTF musician and activist Shawna Virago discussed the concept of "transgender gentrification," where the newer or more vocal voices were drowning out the narratives that created the movement, ignoring topics of race and class and how privileges affect gendered access. She also encouraged people to sacrifice the things they love and refuse to support transphobic businesses and events if they actually wanted to create change. Many self-described trans allies, she noted, continue to support such places and claim to be doing transgender advocacy work from the inside. In the meantime, however, they are nurturing such establishments and giving them no reason to change their policies.
Tea read from a fictional advice column to queer women who were dating trans men, while Max Wolf Valerio's story about the "forbidden love" of a trans man and a lesbian humorously described how new queer narratives were emerging from relationships that the outside world views as straight.
"The fact that heterosexuality was so gross was part of what turned her on," Valerio read of his girlfriend character in his piece.
Thea Hillman, an intersex activist and writer, performed a piece about her own discomfort with her transgender lovers' reliance on the medical establishment for their bodies, as she is a survivor of non-consensual hormonal interventions.
Author and musician Lynn Breedlove talked about a life between genders as a butch dyke who also considers herself to be a non-hormonal, non-operative transgender person, and described how her identity creates friction in almost all the communities.
"It's good to be dickless when straddling the barbed wire fence between dykes and trannies," she said. "Maybe I'm not a real man. I'm Peter Pan â€“ an eternally small boy always played by a middle-aged woman."
And FTM artist Jordy Jones railed against invitations to display his work in a women's gallery; despite declining the offer he said he received a contract and was on the schedule at a space whose inclusion of him inherently named him as something he is not.
"Annexing someone into a community they don't belong in is every bit as obnoxious as excluding those who do," he said. "If you want me to exhibit in your gallery, the rules are the same for me as anybody else. Listen to the answer â€“ even if â€“ especially if â€“ it's 'no thanks.'"
There were visible and audible moments of audience discomfort throughout the show, and many of those were addressed in the question-and-answer period that followed.
Breedlove, for instance, referred to herself as a man as well as a dyke, when some in the audience thought that a clarification around being genderqueer rather than FTM would have be useful, its absence an illustration of the abrasion between strictly male-identified FTMs versus other female-born transgenders who actually do not live as men.
Similarly, Jones's piece described his gay male sexuality as a distaste for "fish," and referred to trans-inclusive queer events as "no man's land" when in fact many FTMs who attend dyke-populated events do identify as men.
One audience member could not help but notice how it is the women's communities that get most of the criticism surrounding transphobia, as clearly demonstrated by the Transforming Community event. Virago explained that it was the women's communities that have done the bulk of the work around examining gender, accounting for the disproportionate attention and critique. She added that many gay men's communities largely avoid these conversations, even as some of them enforce transphobic anti-FTM policies of their own.
"I don't think gay men have engaged in the conversations of gender that women's communities have," she said.
Being polite and correct was not what the Transforming Community event was about, said participants. Offending each other was even a part of the creative process, as "we needed to see that the community could hold this, and that it was okay to put this out there," said Hillman.
Part of the current friction, said Serano, is that there are "two themes of gender activism moving in opposite directions"; one is gender-essentialist and opposed to transsexuals while the other seems opposed to gender systems at all. Both movements seem to leave little room for queer or trans visibility among those who uphold a gendered system and are also transsexual-or trans-inclusive.
Creating Transforming Community, said Tea, was her way of presenting an oral history of all these narratives, and perhaps part of the solution to fostering greater understanding.
"I didn't come out of the womb with some fantastic understanding of trans politics. I got my ass schooled by a lot of people and came into the conversation with a lot of ignorance, and I know I hurt a lot of people," said Tea. "If I can be somebody who can understand where people are at in their ignorance, and not hate them, but try to help them, that would be awesome."