The Double-Edged Sword of Visibility: Stepping Up Your Allyship in the Age of the Trans Tipping Point
(This piece is part of the Harry Potter Alliance’s series of writing from trans people for our Protego campaign, which fights for trans rights and safe spaces. If you have a story or perspective you’d like to share, email email@example.com.
If you’d like to support Protego, you can donate here.)
We are living through an age of unprecedented visibility for trans people. It is a time of cautious possibility, and a time of uneasy fear.
Visibility is powerful. So many trans people describe not being able to place that slippery shifting something is not quite right feeling until meeting a trans person for the first time. Representation makes real the possibility of our lives. Visibility shines a light on others’ paths, saying, yes, you can walk here too.
But the same visibility that illuminates a way forward, that glows like a beacon in the distance saying keep going keep going you are real we are real, can also feel like a fluorescent floodlight, pounding on in a shadowless interrogation room, making you squint in its harshness; like the pop pop pop of paparazzi bulbs fireworking too close to your face, making everyday moments subjects of fascination, scrutiny, and surveillance; like headlights unexpectedly turning a corner, blaring through soft darkness, interrupting the privacy of night.
As Caitlyn Jenner made headlines, Laverne Cox snagged Emmy nominations, and Chris Mosier made the U.S. Olympic team, 2015 saw the highest global murder rate for trans people than any other year on record. Hate crimes against trans people increased in New York, London, and many other cities. Over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced across the U.S. in the first six months of 2016. As of this piece’s publication, 18 trans people have been murdered in the U.S. in 2016, most of them trans women of color.
The simultaneous increases in visibility and violence are no coincidence. When people can’t instinctively gender someone, can’t neatly fit someone into a legibly binary box, they respond with violence, time and time again. Those of us who defy easy categorization are intimately familiar with the look in a stranger’s eyes when confusion turns into disgust, when revulsion turns into rage, when attraction turns into entitlement. We know all too well the anatomy of an intentional shoulder check on a subway platform, of a stranger’s hand pulling us off a bar stool by our collar, of the way people search for physical evidence to answer their most pressing question: Are you a boy or a girl? (subtext: Are you tricking me?) It happens every day.
It happens more often these days.
Visibility is power: We are here, we’ve been here, we’re not going anywhere. Visibility is also violence: I am here, a target on my back, a canvas for your projections, a bullseye for your fears.
Visibility means having the worth of your life, the details of your body, dissected on the talk shows and debated around the water cooler, like any other trending news topic. Like, how about those Yankees, did you see what Kanye tweeted last night, I guess Caitlyn Jenner’s kinda pretty for a transwoman, it might be easier if they just used the bathroom at home.
Visibility means having your existence mistaken as performance, as perpetration, as violation.
Visibility means becoming a magnet for other people’s insecurities and despair. Behind every act of transphobia is a question: If you say there is no wrong way to have a body, if you say there is always a choice, if you say you’re happy, then what does that mean about the box I’ve shoehorned myself into? If you love yourself like that, why have I been torturing myself for so long?
Visibility means constantly course-correcting to your better nature, if only for self preservation.
Visibility means learning how to comfort the quiet animal of your body when it sounds the siren of not safe not safe not safe, on the subway, in the bathroom, at the store. To say, you are right, body, and also, now is not the time to rise. We can’t be all bristle, all muscle, all adrenaline all the time. To say, breathe, do not let them take your humanity piece by piece and scatter it to the wind. To say, stay, now is not the time to bare your teeth, now is not the time to run. If you run now, you might run every time, you might never find your way back to yourself.
Visibility is a study in endurance.
So, how do we make sense of this time? How do we hold each other in a softer warmer light? What does trans allyship look like as we balance on the precipice of the trans tipping point?
When thinking about nontrans people’s role in the movement for trans liberation, a few different levels of allyship exist. First, there’s the basic etiquette stuff, like not commenting on or asking about people’s bodies, using the correct pronouns, and generally treating trans people like human beings. Then, there are more concrete action steps like creating gender neutral bathrooms at your workplace and telling your elected representative to vote down anti-trans legislation. The HPA’s Protego guide highlights some very good starting places for this work.
Ready to step up your commitment to the fight for trans equality? Here are some deeper ways to embody your allyship:
- Talk about it: Life does not feel like business as usual for trans people these days. We are holding quite a lot and sometimes we wonder if the cis people in our lives notice. Acknowledging the reality and the weight of this moment is a starting point.
- Create spaces for healing: Reject simplistic notions of “self care.” Everyone’s approach to health and wellbeing during times of crisis — and lifetimes of oppression — is different. Sometimes it looks like organizing and protesting and staying engaged in the larger movement 24/7. Other times people need a break. Provide trans folks with both spaces for processing and opportunities for distraction. Hear them out. Support them in taking a media hiatus. Battle the Twitter trolls on their behalf while they they unplug for a while. Press pause, for an hour, for an evening, for a weekend, on the constant headlines debating the worth of trans lives.
- Take responsibility: Shift the burden of education and advocacy off of trans people. What hard conversations are you putting off? What discomfort might you step into to confront transphobia, sexism, and gender essentialism in your life? Trans people’s bodies and hearts are on the line every single day. How might you also take on the responsibility and risk of this struggle? If you’re physically able, show up for protests. If you’re financially able, redistribute economic resources to trans folks, who are four times more likely to live in poverty than nontrans people.
- Recognize that this is deep work: How can you reframe your notion of trans allyship from one of rapid response to incidents of transphobia to one of completely reworking how we understand gender? The work of trans allyship is not just about making space for trans people within the existing system; it is about transforming our collective understanding of gender and overhauling the binary framework that mediates all our interactions.
- Recruit others: Who are the people you can ask to join you in this work? It can be easy to fall into the narrative of seeing yourself as a lone hero, a solitary defender of justice within your small corner of the world. Challenge that instinct. Bring others along with you. How can you shift the values and priorities of your communities so that this is something you are all working on together?
- Shine the light of representation: Amplify and center trans voices. Use increased visibility to create connection and community. How can you make space for trans people to tell their stories on their own terms? Turn on your media analysis goggles. How are mainstream news and entertainment jeopardizing the safety of trans people by making jokes at their expense? How can you shift your media consumption? Hint: Her Story, This is Me, and We’ve Been Around are great places to start!
It feels easier than ever to be trans in this world, and it also feels harder. Visibility means surveillance. Visibility means violence. Visibility also means witnessing and connection and community and change. And I know these things make all the difference in the world. I’m counting on that.
About the Author
Aaron Rose (he/him/his) is an education strategist, curriculum developer, and educator with 7 years of experience teaching and designing education programs for all grade levels. A lifelong New Yorker, Aaron is an avid history buff, a Harry Potter fan, and a reluctant recent coffee convert. Find Aaron online @aaronxrose and aaronxrose.com.
Check out Aaron’s previous Protego piece, 8 Things That Happened In Hogwarts’ Bathrooms That Are Scarier Than What Trans People Are Doing In There Right Now on Buzzfeed.