The following piece is the eighth installment in “Dressing the Part,” a twelve-part series exploring cultural issues and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy.
“People were throwing things at him, shouting so loudly that you couldn’t hear what he was saying.”
My friend shook his head as the train started to move. “It was so disrespectful. The university agreed to let this guy come speak, and there were students who specifically showed up to listen. But there were all these student protesters there, trying to fuck up his speech because they decided that they didn’t like his ideas.”
“Don’t you think that those students had the right to do so?” I asked, my voice seeming louder than usual in the empty car. “This is Ben Shapiro we’re talking about. He misgenders trans people on purpose, implies that Black people who get shot deserve it, and likens Muslims to terrorists. His ideas harm the lives of real human beings.”
“Even so, I don’t think that it was right for them to be so … aggressive. I agree that Ben’s ideas are harmful, but the tactics that these protesters used really pushed me away.” He wrinkled his nose. “The left has an image problem. They should be more strategic if they want support. Sometimes, people with opposing views will be given a platform. It’s not a free license to go and do horrible things to them.”
Yikes, I thought. The two of us were coming back from a long day of work downtown. I’d just spent several hours in the Zone; I felt totally depleted and in desperate need of some food. This probably isn’t the best time to have this conversation, my mind warned.
Unfortunately, my mouth was one step ahead. “Now, wait a minute,” I said. “I don’t think you should be tone-policing marginalized people like that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Some of these protesters are personally affected by the things that Ben Shapiro says, and you can’t expect them to react in a detached way. It isn’t right to comment on how they conduct themselves when they’re talking about something that impacts their lives.”
My friend frowned. “I completely disagree. I think that it’s perfectly fine to stand outside with a sign, or to write something in protest on the Internet, but actually going in the venue and physically disrupting the talk is stepping over the line. Why not just let him speak, and let him expose himself as the clown he is?”
I felt a pang of frustration in my chest. “It’s easy for you to say. You’re white and cis and male. You’ve never had to deal with the world discriminating against you in any way.”
“Okay, so what about you?” My friend leaned his arm across an empty row of seats. “Would you barge your way into a talk and try to physically silence the speaker?”
“I personally wouldn’t, but I can see where these people are coming from.”
“Still doesn’t make it okay.”
“I think,” I said haughtily, “that it’s extremely transphobic, sexist, racist, and Islamophobic to defend Ben Shapiro, period. And you are defending him, by the way. You don’t understand what it’s like to be oppressed by society.”
“Can you name three instances where his ideas have actually harmed people’s lives?”
At the time, I’d only heard of Ben Shapiro’s work through angry online rants, but I was loath to admit it. “I’m sure I could find some,” I told him, “but honestly, it’s not the responsibility of marginalized people to educate you. Look it up yourself.”
“You can’t just state something and not have any proof to back it up.”
“Dude, you’re being such a white boy right now.” I rolled my eyes; then, deciding that that wasn’t enough, reached for a phrase that I knew would piss him off. “I can’t believe you’ve gone twenty-three years with this limited worldview.”
“Come on, Marty. I just asked for you to support your claim. I’m not some random asshole on the Internet doing this just to get under your skin. I’m your friend, and I’m very open to changing my mind.” He pursed his lips. “In fact, I already agree with you, pretty much. I just don’t think that people should react to the promotion of an idea with violence. That’s it.”
“Well, as a —” I drew a breath, then stopped, realizing that I agreed with him completely. There were times when physical violence was justified; a controversial speech on a college campus was not one of those times. In my opinion, the protestors were taking it too far.
The train entered a tunnel; the sudden darkness outside enhanced my reflection in the windows. Staring at my face — eyes wide, mouth still set in a determined frown — I thought of the words that had been on the tip of my tongue.
Well, as a queer, trans person of color, I think I’m more qualified to speak on what is and isn’t okay to do.
I had nearly gotten myself into an argument where I didn’t actually believe what I was defending. I’d just heard my friend say something controversial and automatically believed that he was in the wrong. I’d been extra combative because he was white, cis, and male. I’m a victim of oppression, and so I know what other victims of oppression go through better than you ever would, I’d almost said. At a level deeper than that: I have it harder than you, so I have the right to be a complete dick to you in any situation that I want to.
I like to think of myself as a fair, reasonable person, and I was glad that I’d caught myself just in time. It was scary, though, how ingrained these thoughts were in my head. How did they get here? And how could I get rid of them for good?
I was invited to my first online “safe space,” a Facebook group for queer femmes, during my second year of undergraduate studies. Stay soft, read the quote on the group’s cover photo, dark gray text on a dusky rose background. It looks beautiful on you.
This quote must have been ironic, because the things people posted were anything but soft. The content mostly consisted of bitter denunciations of cis men’s “disgusting,” “gross,” and “trashy” behavior. Screenshots were posted without any handles or profile pictures blurred out. Members named names of those who they believed had done wrong and spilled the intimate details of their relationships and sex lives. There was an occasional meme talking about how nasty cis men were. Fights often broke out in the comments sections about whether or not something was actually horrible or offensive.
This space ostensibly existed for femmes to keep one another safe while taking out their frustrations on society, but what I actually observed was a group of people using their historically marginalized identities to act like entitled little shits. The group claimed to be for fairness and equality, but it actively fostered a culture of rumors, shit-lists, and call-outs.
My real-life environment wasn’t too different. As I started coming to terms with my gender identity and sexual orientation, I found myself gravitating towards socially liberal spaces, where such self-righteous behavior was the norm. Brazenly talking shit was okay, so long as you were more oppressed than whoever you were talking shit about. Appeals to emotion were encouraged. Not everybody had the privilege of being so far removed from issues that they could talk about them without taking it personally. Debating was for obnoxious white boys, anyway. You didn’t have to understand somebody to respect their opinions.
I found these spaces amusing — and exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I was popular. All the things I’d once been bullied and shamed for suddenly gave me social capital. I watched my social-media likes and real-life friends grow by the dozens. Sure, my inner rationalist was a little disgusted, but I could shut him up easily enough. So what if my new friends overreacted to little things and held those they deemed “privileged” to an unreasonable double standard? They were victims of the shitty, unfair system. It was only fair that they got to be petty.
“Google it,” they taught me to say whenever someone asked me about my identity. “I don’t owe you education.”
“Fucking cis guys,” I learned to mutter whenever a man did something even slightly offensive. “Disgusting trash.”
Once the novelty wore off, however, I started to question the validity of these points. Telling someone to “Google it” made sense if their question was a common one. But what if they wanted to know something specific to me? Sure, I didn’t owe anybody an explanation, but if I didn’t provide one, how could I expect them to see where I was coming from? In theory, it made sense not to give an answer. In practice, it often meant uttering a version of “it’s true because I said so” to a well-meaning person.
“Maybe I should explain myself,” I said to one of my trans friends a little while before my own coming-out. “My specific case is a little unique, and I can see people getting confused if I go around insisting that I’m a guy.”
“Just don’t engage with them,” she replied. “Like, yeah, people are going to be curious, but you’re not single-handedly responsible for educating them. Your own emotional energy is important too, you know?”
Making arguments based on nothing drained my emotional energy more than anything else. My inner rationalist got harder and harder to silence. One day, I told a guy to “Google it” when he asked me what a “masculine of center femme” was, and I felt so ridiculous that I still cringe every time I think of that interaction. Social justice spaces gave me confidence, but they also put me in a victim mindset, telling me that I deserved to be as rude as I wanted because people like me were at the bottom of the privilege totem-pole.
I liked debate, discourse, dissent. I personally wanted my sexuality, race, and gender identity to be open for discussion, like any other topic. Then again, I’d always been strange, especially when it came to social norms. Maybe my friends were right, after all. Either way, I didn’t want to lose their support, so I kept these thoughts to myself for years. Only when I started writing essays about my gender identity did I realize that maybe my rationalist side had a point all along.
The two biggest things I got from writing were the ability to clearly articulate my thoughts, and connecting with individuals who shared those thoughts. While I couldn’t tell others how to behave, I could certainly set a code of conduct for myself. I could explain and debate my own identity because I wanted to. I could define how I wanted to behave and show up in the world.
I also had the pleasure of making friends with people from different backgrounds — people like my friend on the train, who made me realize that there existed others who believed in social justice without self-victimization. I got to know people from all quadrants of the political compass, and started to see how complex and nuanced the world really was.
I used to be an idealist. I used to believe that there was a “right” and “wrong” way to behave. I used to believe that, when made aware of their actions, people who behaved in a “wrong” way would immediately seek to correct themselves. If someone expressed an opinion that I didn’t like, all it took was a public display of emotion — or the threat of one — to get them to shut up. I used to think that people stopped saying “problematic” things because they changed their minds. I used to think that I had a special say in what was problematic and what wasn’t, because I was a queer, femme-presenting transgender person of color.
I no longer believe any of those things. I no longer subscribe to the idea that the social justice warrior movement is inherently good. In fact, I now think that the majority of “safe” spaces catering to marginalized individuals are toxic, self-destructive echo chambers that accomplish the exact opposite of what they set out to do.
The heart of social justice culture consists of an ever-changing set of rules about what’s “problematic” and what’s not, how people should react to those “problematic” things, who is allowed to react in which way, and what the punishment is for breaking these rules. Rules are usually created like so:
- A person of an oppressed class makes an impassioned emotional argument online about why it’s wrong to do something, and what to do instead.
- Others see this argument, and because they don’t want to be “problematic,” they remember and internalize this as a new “rule.”
- Whenever someone breaks a “rule,” they must be “educated.” If this person has objections and they are not a member of the oppressed class, they are labeled “problematic” and become subject to ad-hominem attacks.
In the context of the conversation I had with my friend:
- I’d seen a few posts online declaring Ben Shapiro’s speeches racist, sexist, Islamophobic, transphobic, and homophobic. These posts defended protesting his speeches by any means necessary.
- I saw these posts and thought, “oh, this dude sounds like a horrible piece of trash. As a fellow trans person, I would hate to be misgendered on purpose. Spreading these ideas can have real, harmful effects in society. Preventing them is protecting marginalized people.”
- My cishet white male friend stated an opinion different from the one I’d formed. When he refused to agree with me right away, I shut him down with a personal attack: “I can’t believe you’ve gone twenty-three years with this limited worldview.”
When I recalled our conversation later, I thought the whole thing embarrassing. Here was one of my best friends, someone I loved and rooted for. Yet, in a misguided quest to prove myself right, my first instinct was stooping to shaming, insult, and personal attack. I’d been so caught up in lording my victim status over my friend that I hadn’t bothered to critically think about the situation. Just because I disagreed with Ben Shapiro’s ideas didn’t mean that I should condone the way that other disagreers reacted to his presence on campus.
“I take back all of the bad things I said about you supporting Ben Shapiro’s right to speak on campuses without being booed,” I told my friend after we’d both eaten a nice, filling meal. “I still oppose some ideas, but I’ve decided that it’s better to defend people’s rights to express whatever they wish.”
“I appreciate that,” he said. “And obviously, it’s okay. I’m just wondering, though. Why were you so determined to start an argument? It seems like you didn’t actually agree with what you were saying.”
“I come from a very social justice-y place,” I explained. “Sometimes, I still default to getting offended without really thinking about why. I’m slowly unlearning, though.” I smiled wryly. “Whenever this happens, I need to openly acknowledge my mistakes.”
It would be easy to reduce myself to a reaction machine against all the ways the world wrongs — and continues to wrong — me. But I want to focus on lifting disadvantaged people up, not tearing individuals down, no matter how “privileged” I perceive them to be. I don’t want others to cater to me just because of who I am. And, for the love of God, I don’t want to automatically think that someone is wrong just because they disagree with me.
This doesn’t mean that I no longer advocate for the liberation of oppressed individuals. I am still an ardent supporter of social justice, but I can no longer endorse any group that promotes moral superiority and self-victimization.
I may be a queer, trans person of color — but never again will I consider myself a victim of oppression. ✦