speech at Trans100
Transcript by Nicole Faerber from video recording published on YouTube at
OK… what an amazing night!
It’s like crazy…
Why am I here?
OK, so, I am at my hairdresser. It’s kind of a motive at this point. My hairdresser now knows everything about me, and we’re talking dangerous levels of TMI, I should probably be paying him for therapy – and speech writing. So I am telling him about this crazy new Netflix show we’re doing, called Sense8, June 5th, so we shot this in eight countries, it has the first trans character I have ever written, and it has some very intense autobiographical scenes and that was very difficult and surreal and I sometimes questioned why I was doing it. But Jamie Clayton was a joy to work with. She is amazing. You will all fall in love with her, I guarantee it. And a lot of very painful things were often made easier because of her. But what I wanted to show is, my hairdresser, was that I wish he could have been with me, as I was traveling all over the bloody world and always the people would freak out about my hair. I am used to people staring, I am used to taking pictures, pointing. But it was wild to be followed by circles of people wanting to touch it, wanting me to hold their babies. I am in Bombay and this car like pulls up on the side walk cutting me off and this family is inside like six people and all like taking pictures of me like I am an exotic safari animal or a Kardashian. Now, none of this was because I am a film maker, they didn’t know me from any of the other crew. But my hair separated me from the rest of them. So in this moment I had this like an epiphany, because I was surrounded by so much difference, surrounded by so much diversity, the bright beautiful colors of their clothes, the patterns, the textures, the wild variety of spices in their food, the breath of their art, the spectrum of language, religion, amidst all of this difference I realized that the hundred men that are following me, that are staring at me across the street, they all had the identical haircut.
This moment also gave me a new found respect for the genius of Aaron Spelling – television producer – Charlies Angels, Love Boat – pretty much everything we watched when we were kids. He expressed the secret of his success in the brilliant aphorism “The hair is the character.”.
Suddenly as if am queue another client stopped at my hairdresser’s station smiling “God, I would love to do something like that with my hair!” and I say “Well, you should do it! He is amazing! He is a genius, he can do anything.”. And she had this sort of sad shrug and said “I can’t. I work in a bank. I have to look normal.”. So I am like,…
[from the audience: What is normal!?]
Thank you! Well I am going, you are with me here…
So that word – “normal” – I am suspicious of everything connected to that word. It is to my thinking a politically correct euphemism for obedience and conformity. When people comment on my hair complaining “it doesn’t look natural” I am going to ask them “Natural? You mean like the shoes you are wearing? The glasses you need to read with? The car your driving, the heating in your home, the fuck’n computer you waste electricity on!? […] You mean that kind of natural?”.
Here is the thing. Our species is unique for our capacity to be born into a set of environmental or biological or social circumstances and limitations and through the often astonishing power of our imaginations we are able to transcend them. Every kid in this world is born with this gift, this power, this ability. They are taught how to use it while they are very young. And as they start figuring out who they are their imaginations begin to picture who they want to be. I would guess almost everyone in the world has at some point dreamed of becoming an artist, an astronaut, a pop star, a footballer, a doctor, a musician, a lawyer, writer, hairdresser, fill in the blank. I would also guess that most people in the world know what it’s like to have that dream crushed or beaten out of them. The world telling them to get a normal job, a normal life, a normal dream.
The difference between us in this room and those other dreamers, first, our dream, to be seen and accepted as trans people can often cost us our lives. And second, despite that fact, none of us in here has ever given up on that dream.
OK. Time for a bit of truth telling. I don’t plan on doing this very much public speaking thing, it’s hard for me, it raises too many nights sweat, tears. But I wanted to do this event, because I admire the work of the people here, Tony Darsey, John Richard who started it. I love the idea of this night. I also feel I hadn’t had an opportunity to speak directly to my community which was important for me because there are things that I wanted to say that I would never say to broader non-trans audience.
I applaud all the activists and the artists and the trans people who are on these lists and are working to take back our narrative rejecting the dominant cultures and systems on the tragedy of our lives, their idea ob abnormality, and our banishment to the misbegotten isle of broken toys. We don’t need their pity! What we need is their evolution. We need them to stop believing that just because their gender or their sexuality feels natural and normal to them that it feels any different to us.
Until then, here is what I would not say in any public space that wasn’t this public space, the fact is that it can be fucking hard to be trans in this world. And I say this with uncommon luck and rare blessings. I say this as someone who is white and knows what this privilege means. I say this as someone who gets to make art for a living, who has an incredibly supportive family and who has married the love her life. So, if I know it’s hard for me I can imagine the amount of collective courage and struggle it has taken to get all of you here to be with me tonight.
This world is a violent place for people like us. Every day it attacks, it rejects, it demeans, humiliates, scorns and all too often it murders us for no other reason than we are different. When Leelah Alcorn begged for the world to fix itself, she spoke for all of us. Her death was an act of desperation like someone jumping out of a burning building choosing the fall over the flames. People have suggested that the violence she faced in her home and her community should be held accountable for her death. I believe they are right. LGBTQ youth require extreme measures of protection because the violence being done to them is itself extreme. In Leelah’s case the word suicide for me is inadequate and inappropriate. For me her act was symbolic that had more in common with a monk burning themselves in protest than a teenager taking her live. The choice or method that people employ to end their existence is important. When I wanted to end my own this being a train made sense to me. When you are trans this is how it can feel the world is coming at you with all the force of an oncoming truck or train. A huge metal fist that has the power to obliterate you from the earth. Most of us take on that fist one day at a time. Leelah chose to take it all at once.
The tragedy of that moment is that when Leelah made that choice to confront with all its hatred, its intolerance, of difference, its violence towards otherness when she stepped on […] truck she was alone. That’s why nights like this are so important. Alone none of us will ever survive that truck. But if everyone in this room had been there I believe we could have stopped it.
Recently I was going through a difficult time, I was at my therapist, the one who doesn’t do hair, I was talking about how I got beat up a lot as a little kid. I was describing this one particular time it is like a sense memory, even now I can feel the blades of grass with their sharp brown tips against my cheek. I can remember curling into a ball trying to use the books in my backpack for protection like a turtle as four boys stood in circle over me kicking and spitting calling fagot, queer, cock sucker. I have been beaten like this many times before but why this time was seared into my memory was because while it was happening I looked past their legs and saw at least two adult women, mothers, walking their kids home, and they did nothing. I was crying, screaming really and they walked by. At that moment an idea was planted in my still developing eight year old brain, it remains there like a malignancy, I imagine one day it could even kill me. What occurred to me was that these other people, these adults, did nothing to help me because I deserved what was happening to me. It was obvious to them that I was a fagot, I was queer, I was different, I was not normal and because of that I deserved what was happening to me.
Violence directed at difference, be it the color of one’s skin, one’s religious beliefs, one’s sexual or gender identity, it’s commonly and casually validated by indifference. Violence and indifference are the principal weapons used by cultures, institutions and ideologies in their pursuit of conformity and the eradication of otherness. Stop coming into out neighborhood, stop coming into our country, stop wearing that yamaka, that headscarf, stop acting like a fagot, a boy, a girl, stop being different or this violence will continue being used against you.
And yet I know African Americans who, if they are given a chance, will vote for bathroom legislation to restrict people like me from using them. There was a time, a more innocent time, in my life, when I would not have thought this was possible! I mean, your grandmother couldn’t use the same toilet as my grandmother and you really want to do the same thing to someone else? Really?
But I am older and through conversation with people wiser than myself, like my dear brother Cornel West, I understand this kind of violence is a language. Parents teach it. Cultures, institutions and ideologies preach it. We all learn it. And once we learn it, we can’t wait to use it, either on ourselves or someone weaker than us. With labels like fagot and cock sucker they taught me how to think about myself, how to understand why I didn’t fit in, why I didn’t fir their definition of normal, why I didn’t belong. And with punches and kicks and spit they taught how to feel about myself.
I was a good student. I learned their language better than most, by high school I had a PhD in hating myself. I have vivid memories of sitting in a toilet stall sticking pins in my legs watching the blood run in bright stripes around my thighs. I have more of those vivid memories than I have of actual class room experiences.
Most of us aren’t fully aware or conscious of much this language of conformity has been absorbed into our thinking about ourselves and about each other. Passing. This idea comes from that language. This is another word for normal. People of color just begun to come through this struggle with this word. When a person of color wanted to pass as a white person they were using the same language, the same lessons that I learned. That they were something less than or wrong with brown or black skin. They valued being seen as white and all the privileges that identity accorded them over being seen as a person of color.
“I like my separate bathrooms,” a trans person said to me. She could pass easily. And another time if she were a person of color she would have very light skin. If you could pass as white, why wouldn’t you. If would pass as white you could use the bathroom whenever you want to. If you can pass as a man or a woman you can also use the bathroom. And what if you can’t?
Passing is an idea that values conformity over difference. Passing is why we are taught to value one kind of human being over another. When I came out I knew that forever after I would be that transgendered Hollywood director. Other directors aren’t called that male Hollywood director or even that African American Hollywood director. But I knew, my difference would forever be attached to my identity. But guess what? That was cool with me. I didn’t want to be seen as a cis-gendered person anymore than say, Cornel West or Malcom X would have wanted to be seen as white person. To be trans is not just a beautiful thing, it is an important thing and I’ll tell you why.
The LGBTQ civil rights movement has been one of the fastest, most successful and peaceful civil rights movements in history. I belief one of the reasons for this can be understood by looking at civil rights as a struggle different tribes. One tribe has power and is treated one way by the law, another tribe wants the same access to power, the same treatment under the law. Few tribes have suffered and been denied their civil rights more than the LGBTQ tribe. The more different you are, the less normal, the more you’ll be persecuted for that difference. But here is what makes our tribe special. We are the one tribe that is a part of every tribe. We not only transcend the isles of political power in this country, we transcend the borders of every country. We are everywhere, we speak every language, we have every shade of skin – and every beautiful color of hair.
Our difference, the thing that defines us as not normal, turns out to be the thing that makes us the most universal. Now take this one step further inside the ever expanding acronym that represents the LGBTQ tribe we, the Ts, the trans tribe, we are the only tribe that was thrown under the bus when the human rights document was being discussed. Anti trans legislation is being proposed daily and people who were once up in arms about gay marriage seem often indifferent to these proposals. We are the most difficult, the most problematic, the most non-conforming. But we are also the one tribe that is again a part of every tribe. We can be gay. We can be lesbian. We can be bi or we can be queer. Our difference, that which makes others see us as not normal turns out to be that which makes us the most universal.
Everyone in this room like everyone outside of this room is exactly like me in that no one is exactly like me. What I have learned traveling all over the world as an out trans person is that there is no such thing as normal. To be different, this is ultimately what it means to be human.
Thank you for listening!