I do a lot of activism work. Between keeping up this blog, running an adult transgender support group in my town, heading an LGBT podcast (and also planning another), speaking at events for EqualityNC, talking with legislators, and marching in protests, a good chunk of my not-work time is spent in the trenches, so to speak, of LGBT activism. It’s rewarding work, but it’s also mentally taxing. I’ve had multiple nights spent up with people, talking them down from suicide. I’ve heard stories from transgender people in my group about losing everything. My messages have been flooded with requests for help, advice, or just a shoulder to cry on.
It’s tough, but it’s rewarding. I like being able to help. Activism has kind of just become my life. You’ll usually always find me wearing my Trans* Pride bracelet or a rainbow pin, or something else to mark my place within and acceptance of the LGBT community. One thing I’ve talked about in previous blogs and in various speaking engagements is that trans people who live full time live as their authentic gender are ambassadors of our community. Just by existing out in the world we show people that we’re here and there’s nothing scary about us. Of course, many transgender people hold this ambassador role because there’s no other way to be out for them. This is where the notion of cis-passing comes into play. Cis-passing simply means that people can’t tell you’re trans just by looking at or listening to you. For many transgender people, this represents a transition goal (cards on the table: I’m one of those people). Whether it’s your goal or not though, cis-passing is an example of privilege within the transgender community.
Yes, passing is a privilege, and I say that as someone who has it. Early on in my transition it was a scary experience to go out, especially to work. My day was filled with customers doing double-takes, whispering after they passed me, name calling, laughing, etc. As hormones took their effect and laser hair removal took away the stubble shadow on my chin, those problems slowly died away. Today, even going to a public women’s room, which used to be utterly terrifying, has become a mundane routine. It’s a privilege I’ve acquired over time, and I think it’s important to always recognize it for what it is. I still wear my pride bracelet, even to work. I still try to be forward about my transgender status wherever it’s safe to do so because, for someone who passes, that ambassadorship is even more important. People who revile the transgender community often believe they will always be able to tell someone is transgender. They’ll often say they’ve never seen a trans person, not realizing they’ve probably met several and never knew it. I consider it an important responsibility of cis-passing transgender people to remain visible so they can further shape the misguided understandings of the general public.
Still, activism can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. I’ve had many sleepless nights, panic attacks, and bouts of severe depression just feeling the weight of it all upon me. Every person’s problems, every great injustice I can do nothing about, it all swims around in my head. Everyone needs a break. Everyone needs to engage in self care. A few nights ago, I took such an opportunity. Some friends of mine in a band gave me free tickets to a big show they were playing in. On that same day, I was invited to a nearby pride event. Each event was taking place in cities about equal distance from where I live. It was simply a matter of choosing which thing to attend.
I went to the concert.
There was a pride event going on, and I chose not to go. I probably could have done some good there. I probably could have further helped the LGBT community by being there. But I chose not to. I invited a gal-friend to go to the concert with me and that’s what we did. What’s more, I made sure absolutely nothing about the way I looked that night telegraphed the fact that I’m transgender. I wore a sexy little corset top with jean shorts and knee-high boots. I had smokey eyes and blood-red lips. I wore no pride bracelets, no rainbows, no gender symbols. I’ve known for a few months that my transition has taken me to a place of cis-passing privilege, and that night I made the conscious choice to enjoy it.
The show was great. My ears were still ringing the next morning. My friend and I rocked out to bands we’d never heard before. We drank beers and margaritas. I even enjoyed a few flirty looks from guys as they passed me by. I went to a crowded bathroom without worrying about being called out. I made new friends who thought I was cis and I did nothing to make them think otherwise. I was completely stealth, and it was awesome.
People with privilege don’t like to talk about it because it makes them feel guilty. In a lot of ways, ignorance truly is bliss. People want to enjoy what they have without thinking about how other people don’t have it. Men don’t like to think about how much harder it is to succeed as a woman. White people don’t like to think about how America is a very different place for people of color. And cis-passing transgender people don’t want to think about all of their transgender siblings that never get to have a relaxing time out as their authentic selves. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and our minds are predisposed to fight it. This is why, so often, people lash out against things that remind them of their privilege by saying “I’ve done nothing wrong!”. And while that’s true, blame isn’t really the point of it. Privilege isn’t something you took, it’s something that was given to you unfairly. What’s more, it’s not something you can just give up. As long as society stays the way it is, your privilege is going to endure.
So what point am I trying to get at in all of this? Well, for me it’s been the question of weighing the need for self-care with the guilt of privilege. Self-care is vitally important. Just like how you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask on the plane before assisting others, you can’t help anybody until you first take care of your own needs. The problem is in knowing that there are many, many people who have the same needs as you but can’t overcome the social, economic, or cultural boundaries placed between them and the thing you can just reach out and take. Self-care is limited by lack of privilege. We take a quiet nap in our own beds knowing that the homeless freeze on park benches. We go out for a nice meal knowing the poor must beg for food. We go for a walk while others stay behind locked doors because they know their neighborhood isn’t safe. And, yes, we go for a fun night out with friends knowing others would be too afraid of being harassed in the same scenario.
But do you just stop? No. I don’t think that’s the answer. I don’t regret my stealthy night out. It helped to recenter me. It helped to calm my nerves and put me in a better place to rejoin the fight the next day. Privilege isn’t about being guilty or ashamed, it’s about being aware and sympathetic. If you have privilege, enjoy the things it offers you. Just don’t forget that they aren’t something you “earned”. Understand why you are one of the “haves” while others are “have-nots”. Come back from your experience refreshed, but also more aware of what you might take for granted. When privilege is enjoyed in the right mindset, it can help you to be more sympathetic towards those who don’t have it and that makes you even more equipped to make a positive difference.