Queer Issue 2014
Several of the top search results for your name are about a recent CNN interview with Piers Morgan and the backlash on Twitter. He mischaracterized your life in a way that frustrated many people—why did that hit such a nerve?
One of the things writers understand is that when you do media appearances, you expect to talk about your book. I didn't really get to talk about my book. The CNN interview was more about gawking at the fact that, quote unquote, I don't look trans, whatever that means. I think that is what was very frustrating. It was the idea that a trans writer, a trans woman writer—a trans woman of color writer—wouldn't necessarily have much to say, but we are just going to objectify you for a little while and then label you whatever we want to label you. Which is what led to this, quote unquote, media feud.
We're seeing more online feuds over trans issues, which can lead to important conversations. How can we help make the conversations constructive instead of becoming fights where everyone wants to run away at the end?
I never want to run away. It's a worthwhile conversation to have, because if we don't know how to talk across our differences, we will never talk. On the internet, we speak in silos and niches. But if we are not speaking to people who are not like us, I don't think there is much progress being made. I can talk to queer and trans people every day, but if we are not talking to people who think they are allies and correcting them, what progress are we really making?
What should people do when they put their foot in their mouth and come under criticism for portraying trans people the wrong way?
It's a good thing for allies—people who are for gay marriage, who think they support all of the LGBT community but don't understand those nuances—to listen and learn, and sometimes to be quiet, observe, and take it in. Then educate yourself instead of defending something you did wrong, because you have blind spots. When disability-rights people say that I said something that may be ableist, I shut up and listen. We all have experiences, because of privilege and oppression, and we all have blind spots that get in our way. We make mistakes.
Do the critics ever go too far in the other direction—do trans activists get too angry at someone who puts their foot in their mouth?
I think you can go too far on both sides. I don't care too much to criticize people's anger or how they express their anger online, especially when it was a marginalized person who was hurt. I think that going too far, of course, is violence.
What are some of the worst examples of anti-trans discrimination in America, either outright illegal discrimination or in more subtle forms?
I think for me, the fact that trans people tend to be underemployed is a big gateway for many of us to a lot more oppression. The lack of employment and education lead to a cycle of poverty and criminalization, which leads a lot of trans people into the drug trade and sex work. It's a whole cycle that leads to other social-justice issues. I also think of Monica Jones, an activist in Phoenix, Arizona. She was arrested in a sting operation to stop sex work. She was profiled just for being a black trans woman on the street. Another case would be CeCe McDonald [see the interview with McDonald, who was imprisoned after defending herself in an attack, on page 38]. This young vibrant woman learned that "stand your ground" does not work for all bodies.
Do you see discrimination in the gay community, like strange looks even in gay-friendly places?
When I was in Chicago, and I think New York has the same problem, they were talking about Boys Town and how some people don't necessarily want the LGBT center to be the host of these young queer and trans people seeking resources. The area has become so gentrified, and they don't want these brown, Latino, and black queer kids to be around anymore. These kids are being loud, creating problems—being young people. [Some gay people in the neighborhood] want to assimilate, because you get more money when you are assimilating. I find that it is a problem happening across our country when we ask, "Who do we say these neighborhoods are for?" With trans women, if we are there to entertain, to perform in your nightclubs, then we are welcome, but otherwise those spaces are not always welcoming of trans people.
One of the controversies lately, in part through RuPaul and others, is about the so-called T-word. How, if ever, should that word be used?
My job is not to language-police people within the community. I think drag queens and trans women should be having this conversation. What I found very interesting was that a lot of fans of RuPaul's show, typically gay cisgender men, have found themselves wanting to say the word and have access to saying the word when it's, quote unquote, not their word to say. There should be a conversation between drag queens and trans women, who often overlap in the sense that some trans women find their identity through the performance of gender play.
Some people talk about marriage equality as the finish line for LGBT rights. What do you have to say to those people?
When part of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, I believe the cover of the Los Angeles Times quoted a white, apparently cisgender gay man, who said, "Discrimination is over." Um, I don't think discrimination is over. Yes, you can get married, and that is amazing. We should be more critical and be more diligent about who is not being addressed. Marriage isn't addressing immigrant families or people with queer variations.
You do lots of interviews. Is there a question that you are tired of answering? Maybe it's a question I've already asked you.
Yeah, I think it's the one we opened with, the one about the CNN interview with Piers Morgan. It is interesting to me because none of my work has ever been so closely linked to a white cisgender straight rich man. It shows that when that person chooses to pay attention to this marginalized young woman's work, then we want to talk about it. Then it's okay to have a conversation about these issues. What no one talked about in this instance is that oftentimes, when black women come into spaces like the mainstream media places, no one talks about the racial component. Everyone thought it was a transgender issue that Morgan wasn't getting. But I think I was also doubly checked because I was a woman of color, and nobody talked about those intersections of my identity. Racialized spaces like ColorLines magazine said something about that, and some feminist sites said some things about that, but largely it went unchecked. Many people handled it for me before I even entered the conversation—Twitter was already abuzz—and I had been at my book party. And then other people were just like, "Oh, yeah, she shouldn't have talked back and she should have been more kind to our allies."
Sorry I started with that question. I'd googled your name, and that issue was prominent. You handled it on Twitter, so I wanted to give you more than 140 characters to respond. I'm one of the people who puts their foot in their mouth when they talk about trans people. Do you have any advice for people who are well-intentioned and want to ask a trans person questions about trans issues without fucking it up?
I think the number-one thing is to go online. If you want to know something, take that education upon yourself and don't look for the, quote unquote, marginalized person in your life to answer questions for you. If you are not intimate with a trans person, if you are not a close friend, you probably should not be asking about personal information. It's important to see them as people and not as gateways to your understanding of something. The thing is, once people know you're trans, they tend to just think that you are this open book that's ready to talk about the most intimate details of your life. And most trans people are not. You've got the internet right there on your phone—you can go to Google and ask any questions you have about trans people and the answer will come up.
One way many people see trans people is in advertisements for sex workers. We are considering interviewing transgender sex workers for this package of stories [those interviews can be found on page 30]. At the same time, I don't want to contribute, as an editor, to the sexualization and objectification of trans people. I want it to be humanizing. What are your thoughts?
You are talking to someone who has had experience in sex work. Trans people can be many things. The more stories we have of trans people—whether they are sex workers or writers, artists or teachers—the more people will see how diverse we are. Some sex workers may be completely open and take pride in what they do, and others may have more mixed feelings about their work. Our community is very diverse, so I would applaud any portraits of trans people—I am glad you are doing the interviews with sex workers. But I'm also not someone who subscribes to respectability politics—meaning that the more respectable we are, the more people will listen to us. I don't really believe that. I think we have been sanitized a lot as an LGBT movement, period, because we want to depart from sex.
A lot of journalists are afraid of bungling coverage of trans issues—or, in my case, asking your least favorite question. How should well-intentioned media handle that?
That is understandable. It is why I get fearful of the media conversation sometimes. A lot of well-intentioned people get scared, so instead they choose to not do it. They are afraid to make mistakes publicly. Or they choose to not cover trans people or to just retweet other people's coverage. We need people to not be so scared. You didn't mess up one time in our conversation at all. I had a conversation with another journalist who said, "I am scared to mess this up." That is the PC nature of it all—that we are scared to make mistakes. But mistakes are often gateways to greater understanding.