Tuesday, May 08, 2007

all my transsexuals

I don't think I ever wrote about it, but a couple of months ago, back in January, I met a soap opera star at my favorite gay bar. This fellow was playing a transwoman on the soap opera "All My Children" and was friends with a transwoman who works at the bar. Apparently he'd talked to her a lot to prepare for his role playing 'Zarf,' a sexually ambiguous David Bowie type who begins to transition to Zoe over the course of a few episodes, while trying to make out with the lesbian character. Or some such appropriately soapy plotline- appropriate clips can be found on YouTube, at any rate.

The woman who works there introduced me to him as, I suppose, the only other trans person who frequents the bar, and he wanted to spend some time chatting and asking questions, and telling me about how the producers did all this research with the appropriate GLBT organizations, like GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and how it was really important to him to get it "right" and etc. I think he was hoping to both show off a little as a trans ally, and also try to mine for more information he could use to further his understanding of his character, or some such.

And I'm trying not to begrudge him that, because I think he did do a credible job with the role (what bits I saw from my own YouTube explorations, anyway), and he was sincere in his desire to be respectful and educate himself (again, like my karaoke friend Orlando, with the self denigrating question mixed with flirtation: "May I ask a question? If it's offensive, you can punch me! You can do anything you want to me, actually.").

But I wasn't really in the mood to play "ask-a-trans-dude." I just wanted to sing my songs and hang out with my friends.

I thought of this event again because this past weekend I was at a party and saw a guy I went to college with, not someone I was ever particularly close to, but we had a couple of classes together and were on the cheerleading team (such as it was) together, and at a small school, that's enough.

Clearly, he'd been filled in, whether through Facebook or the grapevine, or by the host of the event, because when I got there he said "Hey Eli!" and greeted me without a blink, which I appreciate, especially since there were folks who know me from my work there as well, and I really didn't want to deal with pronoun/name confusion in front of them.

Later, he told me about his work running a free health clinic, and asked a mildly curious question about the timeline of my transition (I can't quite remember his phrasing, but it was interesting, something like "So, when did you shift?" that was certainly respectful but rather unusual) which I was happy to answer. Then he wanted to ask me about what I think best about how they should ask about gender on their intake forms, and I don't think I gave a particularly straight answer.

Those two interactions are making me feel very keenly the edge between tokenization and education, and the rights and responsibilities of being trans. I have the right to be left alone, but the responsibility to help educate people in my community. It's important for people to educate themselves, but they often seek out and tokenize individuals when doing so, which places undue burden on any one person to try to be the spokesperson of the community. It feels like a double bind- if I don't speak up, then misperceptions will never be corrected. But if I do speak up, there's the weight of all of these notions suddenly squarely on my shoulders, and I know that I can't (and shouldn't try to) speak for all trans people in some sort of pronouncement.

I know that I do my part to try to be proactively educational (like when I participated in that panel a few weeks ago) but I don't always feel like being pressed for details about trans issues on the spur of the moment.

It gets me wondering about how much work I should reasonably be expected to do, and how much work people should reasonably be expected to do as allies. All kinds of people claim space as 'trans allies,' and I certainly think that being trans and being a trans ally are not mutually exclusive, though they often are. The work that I do when I try to educate folks is definitely ally-work, though it has different connotations depending on whether I'm being read as trans or not.

Advocacy on my own behalf carries different weight than someone else advocating on my behalf. I'm grateful for folks who are allies, but I don't know when that gratitude becomes too much. I don't think I should have to be grateful for common courtesy (like not outing me in front of strangers, as my college friend refrained from doing), since that's my right as a human being. But I don't want allies to feel like they're not appreciated for the work they're doing, because I don't want them to stop doing it!

Also, the trouble with being used as a resource (and I think this is a broader question, that extends beyond the interactions I've been describing here), is that one person's requests are another person's insults. The terminology which I find appropriate and acceptable to describe me may be totally different from what another person with a similar history/biology might desire. Makes having a cohesive trans community pretty tricky, but maybe a cohesive trans community oughtn't be the ultimate goal after all?

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