The Pursuit of Optimism and the New Age of Racism
Reflecting on being a Muslim trans person and attending trans day of remembrance after the US election, and the Quebec mosque shooting.
Content Note: Mention of suicide and violence
On November 9th, 2016, Donald J Trump was announced President of the United States of America. Within 24 hours, the Trans Lifeline received an alarming 523 suicide calls, a striking difference to their daily average of 40–60 calls a day. I was one of those youth waiting on the line.
Don’t get me wrong — racism, violence and bigotry existed centuries before Trump, but what stirred this deep sense of hopelessness in me is that in all these years of surviving and fighting, I secretly believed that the world strove towards becoming a better place. It dawned on me that that day may or may not happen during my lifetime.
Years ago I left my country to come to the West — a symbol of “radical acceptance, progress and human rights” — just to find that it had second-guessed its thoughts on me.
Although, I am grateful to be living in Canada instead of the US, it is still clear to see that similar sentiments were seeping through the borders.
Mosque shootings erupted in Quebec. Graffiti of swastikas covered school and York University walls. Even the Uber driver, who dropped my father and me to the airport one evening, adjusted his rearview and window and said to us, “Aren’t you glad Trump won? Can’t wait till all these Muslims get out of here, too.” With the Uber app hiding my last name, he hadn’t the slightest idea that my father and I were Muslims as well.
During this new age of racism, my social media feed flocks with unsolicited violent footages of discrimination and crime, and politicians’ debates on reversing years of progress on trans rights, starting with removing “gender identity from the sex ed curriculum” in Ontario.
The month of the US election, I have been doing my best to stay at home and evade any messaging that might further exacerbate my mental well-being. I asked myself whether I could attend the Trans Day of Remembrance. Yet, I knew, that it would make me feel better to be surrounded by people who shared similar sentiments.
On my way downtown to the vigil, I stared at the dusty rail tracks of the subway station waiting for my train to come. I watched a mouse scurry across the track, blending in with its gray surroundings. I wondered about daily trespassers on the tracks — the lives lost without a second of hope — just when a train swooshed past in front of me interrupting my thoughts.
I entered the sliding doors and kneeled my head against the window of my seat looking at the girl across me, who was leaning against the silver poles of the TTC in a black striped suit.
September 5th, 2015
I had put on my pinstriped 5 dollar H&M suit jacket — my most prized possession. I bought it at the second-hand store right across the farmer’s market near my house.
I ran my hands down my bargain purchase, satisfied with its snug fit and its pockets. It was as if it was custom tailored with me in mind, and it was a perfect fit for my first day as an intern at college. I always told myself that if I looked the part, the rest of the confidence would follow.
I stepped out of my room hoping to find my father at the breakfast table, eager to show him that I finally put on something other than my usual flannel shirt and jeans combination that he hated so much. After all, he always said to me, “You should dress smarter.”
“Who bought you that suit?” He looked up at me momentarily from his half-mooned glasses and went back to reading the newspaper. His eyebrows furrowed, as if he had something to say, but swallowed back the urge. I was familiar with this piercing silence of disappointment before.
“I bought it myself. Why?” I asked.
“I don’t like it.” His eyes still fixated on the page.
“Is there a reason why?” I probed looking down at my suit, checking for holes that I might have missed. Perhaps it was not fitted as properly as I thought. Maybe it was the colour?
“You look like a man,” my stepmother chipped in from the kitchen, as she took her attention from frying the omelette.
Usually, I would have taken her statement as a compliment that I finally passed. From the sound of her tone, it wasn’t meant to be one.
I sat down on the table and hurried to finish off my eggs and took my coffee to go. I did not want the conversation to last longer.
The first day was slow. I looked at the wall clock, the hands showed that I had 15 minutes until the end of my last shift. My final student was late for her appointment; so late that I even had time to grab a second coffee while waiting on her.
I started to put my notes back into my bag ready to leave early when a disheveled girl rushed into the room.
She dropped her heavy bags to the floor, plopped on the chair, and took out her notebook. She took her time to catch her breath.
“Um, I am off shift in 10 minutes,” I said, interrupting her. “Is there anything I can help you with in the meantime?” I raised my eyebrow, hoping that she would not pull out a 10-page essay to be looked over in the last few minutes.
She acted like she did not hear me, still gathering her breath.
“Hello?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the remaining 5 min on the clock. I leaned back in my chair, waiting until she gave me a cue that she was ready.
She finished taking her last deep sigh, took out her blue notebook, and slammed it on the desk. She shook her head as if muttering something to herself, then, suddenly, put it right back into her backpack & stood up.
“Sorry, I can’t study today. I’m wasting your time.” She started to head towards the door, but before walking out, she turned around.“Can I ask you something?”
Taken aback, and a little confused by the entire interaction, I responded, “Sure, what is it?”
“How do you do it? Smile, wear that suit like you do not care what they say? I wish I could do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Today they called me a lesbian in class because I was wearing my hoodie. I left the class, but then I came here and it was nice to see another person like me on campus.”
I did not know what to say to her, aside from proceeding to outline the college’s standard reporting policies for bullying and harassment. I guess for a person who always felt like I had to do something or say something to make a difference, simply existing never struck me as anything remarkably heroic.
November 20th, 2016 — Trans Day of Remembrance
A crowd of people started to slowly fill out the seats. The theme this year was “Existence is resistance.” I grabbed my agenda, and picked the seat at the back, next to an elderly woman. I hoped my friends wouldn’t see me.
Before the program proceeded, the woman leaned to me with excitement palpable in her voice, “This is my first time here. How about you?”
“I try to come out every year,” I replied.
“You know, this is my first queer event. I am not trans myself of course, but I was in the building and wanted to attend the community event. I waited 60 years to come out. I even cut my hair recently.” Her voice wavered, as she burst into tears behind her glasses.
“I am glad you are here now.” I shot her a reassuring smile.
The program began. A trans woman in her 50’s walked up on the stage. She wore leopard printed dress, and had the grace of Dolly Parton. Or perhaps Dolly Parton had her grace, since I knew from history that trans women were sometimes the first to start trends.
I remembered her from some Prides ago when I was rushing to meet my friends and buy chaser at the nearest convenience store. She held the door open for me while my hands were scrambling to hold the 2L bottles and chips. She gently nodded at me as if recognizing me as one of her own.
This time, her shaky hands pulled the stool up to the piano, and adjusted the microphone.
“My best friend died that morning I opened the newspaper,” she said. “I wrote this song because I wanted them to know that it wouldn’t stop me from living.”
As her unsteady voice sang, my mind kept drifting back to the student.
Did my student deserve to be bullied? What sentiment would I be showing if I gave up showing up for myself or for others?
The truth is bad things would persist whether I chose to continue fighting or not, but so would love. Elders before me did when the outcome was uncertain, but certainly took the risk and sacrifice. Even if we didn’t make strides, and even if things went backwards, showing up despite progress was better than not showing up at all.
Today, when I see the cutbacks by the Ford government, harm reduction sites being shut down, and Jordan Peterson’s book bestselling on the Indigo bookshelves, I know that fascism is alive and well.
With the news of recent New Zealand’s mosque shooting, and hates crimes being at their all-time high in Canada, I see that the road to progress is long and winding.
While I hear my friends with their corporate suits, reflect on their abandoned non-for-profit causes, volunteer hours, or “dreams of representation,” sip coffee from their porcelain mugs and say, “It takes years to see any change if any,” I try to tell myself that there might be still someone who needs me to keep wearing my black suit and just be present.
LGBTQ phone lines
Books on progress and hope
Youth Elders Project — a project run by Buddies at bad Times Theatre to connect LGBTQ elders and youth