Last week, I was watching Pose, a TV show about transgender women of color and the ballroom scene in the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis. Produced by trans activist Janet Mock, Pose is making history by having the most trans series regulars on any TV show ever.
In one episode, there’s a scene where Blanca, a trans woman of color, stages a protest at a bar that caters to cisgender gay white men after the bartender and manager refuse to serve her. Here, we see a trans woman who already faces discrimination from cis straight people trying to find solidarity with other queer people at the bar, but she is shunned. The cis gay white men are more interested in upholding their own privilege than building community with trans women of color. This in itself is a strong message, but the show’s creators took it one step further.
While at the bar, Blanca notices that she’s not the only person of color in the room; there’s also a black cis gay man there. Hoping to find an ally in the room, Blanca points out that they’re the only two people of color in the room and tells him, “They don’t want us here.” His response? “No, they don’t want you here.” Upon hearing this, the manager gives him a free drink, “compliments of the house.”
This cis gay black man is both queer and a racial minority, like Blanca. He doesn’t have to imagine oppression; he’s experienced it many times over. Even so, he is too invested in upholding his cis privilege to side with Blanca as she faces blatant discrimination. And he’s rewarded for this with the approval of a white person.
I’ll be honest: I was surprised with this scene. I thought the show was going to call out cis straight white men (the usual suspect for privileged people being problematic) and cis gay white men (one of the usual suspects for marginalized people being problematic) and move on. After all, cis white men of all sexualities do benefit from many privileges, and having more privileges gives you more avenues to oppress people, whether intentional or not. But instead, Pose pointed out how anyone with privilege, even marginalized people, even people with multiple marginalizations, can oppress others to uphold their own privilege. And specifically in this case, how cis queer people (and not just the white ones) are far too comfortable perpetuating transphobia. And more personally, how I have been and continue to be far too comfortable perpetuating transphobia, even if I don’t realize it. And how we need to change.
BGLTQ people may be in the same community, but that doesn’t mean we all face the same issues. Let’s not “All Lives Matter” this. There are specific and real barriers that trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people face that cis people do not, or at least not to the same degree. These include lack of healthcare access, inadequate or nonexistent protections from employment discrimination, and a high murder rate — one in 2,600 for young black trans women in America compared to one in 12,000 for all young adults. These barriers are symptoms of a structural imbalance that cis people benefit from and continue to uphold. Drawing attention to this isn’t divisive; it’s the only way that we can achieve true equality for our entire community. It’s abhorrent that cisgender queer people would benefit from and perpetuate transphobia while reluctantly throwing in a “T” to the acronym as an afterthought.
While today’s mainstream BGLTQ movement can be notoriously cis-centric, we shouldn’t forget that the first Pride marches were in commemoration of the Stonewall riots, led by trans women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. It’s no coincidence that a key turning point in the movement was catalyzed by trans women of color, yet they continue to be erased from our community. In fact, just this past year, anti-trans protesters disrupted London’s Pride march and were eventually allowed to lead the march. The fact that transphobes felt comfortable sharing harmful rhetoric at a Pride march — and were even rewarded with the honor of leading the march — is a red flag for the ways in which mainstream queer culture does not force cisgender people to interrogate their own transphobic biases.
The first step in fighting transphobia is listening to trans people. They deserve more than just a seat at the table; they helped create the table and should be leading our movement with a strong voice in any decision made. A movement that is not inclusive of the most marginalized is not a movement at all. Countless trans, non-binary, and genderqueer activists have already pointed out the transphobia in the BGLTQ community and how we can be better, but cisgender queer people just haven’t always been listening.
Sam Dylan Finch, a trans activist who blogs at “Let’s Queer Things Up,” highlights the importance of respecting and using people’s correct pronouns, writing on Everyday Feminism that “When you make the decision to not respect someone’s pronouns, what you are ultimately saying is that their personal truth is something you are more knowledgeable about than them.” Shige N. Sakurai from mypronouns.org explains that “sharing pronouns is a great way to disrupt the normalization and privilege of assumption,” so cisgender people should make it a habit to introduce ourselves with pronouns. Adrian Ballou, a genderqueer writer and activist, explains how ungendering our language “can bring us all closer to gender-based freedom.” Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, tells cisgender people to “Leverage your access to resources to create opportunities for our community,” whether that be access to educational resources, money, or certain professions. This list of behaviors that trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people have told cis people to do to help dismantle cisnormativity is far from exhaustive.
To my fellow cis queer people, we need to do a better job of listening to trans people and then interrogating our own actions and biases. It’s hypocritical for us to demand more than performative allyship from cis straight people and then turn around and perform the bare minimum of allyship for trans members of our community. We can’t hide behind queer identities to absolve us from the real harm that cis people create in perpetuating transphobia. It is not enough to just include the “T” when spelling out the acronym. If we aren’t actively dismantling cisnormativity, both within society and within ourselves, then we are part of the problem.
Becina J. Ganther ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Science concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.