even when they try, failure
April 26, 2014
I just read this article by Autumn Sandeen about [“Sylvia Rivera and community identity”]. She writes:
To me, it’s interesting to see how a trans community icon used terminology to identify transgender (trans) people that most in the trans community would currently find misgendering or offensive.
Sylvia Rivera wasn’t a “respectable queer”; she’d likely even be considered an outcast in much of the trans community now. She was a poor trans woman of color who believed in, and practiced, radical trans inclusive gay liberation…
Terms change and evolve, and so do people. I can only wonder what identity terms Rivera would use for herself now were she still alive, and what terms – if any – she would shun as anti-trans, dehumanizing terms.
I find these comments interesting, given that less than two weeks ago I talked about the very same thing. The last paragraph is especially interesting to me, given the recent blowup in white trans women circles about RuPaul, drag queens, and ‘sh***le”. Indeed, if memory serves this recent blowup was part of my motivation for writing my post.
Yet, I hope it is clear that Sandeen is using Sylvia Rivera here as a rhetorical sock puppet to make some pretty interesting points re: recent debates and about the trans community in general. ‘Interesting” because of the way that this rhetorical move absolves her and her ilk from responsibility here.
First, what, precisely, is ‘interesting” about a ‘trans community icon” using a different set of historical terms than what is used today? Why, exactly, does this matter?
The way that this process of historical change is simply credited to ‘terms change and evolve” as if this were a natural, organic process. Something that just happened.
Except. That these linguistic shifts didn”t just happen1. Twoc, Sylvia Rivera specifically to boot, were thrown out of the gay liberation movement we started2. The abandonment of twoc (trans ppl generally too) of IDing as ‘gay” started at this time. Of course, in iaopoc circles (see Ball Culture) the inclusive use of gay was (is?) still alive and kicking.
So, yes, she did believe in a ‘trans inclusive gay liberation”. But white cis gays and lesbians did not. And the shift towards a trans exclusive ‘gay rights” movement was one of violence, as the white gay and lesbian disavowel of twoc created a situation where it is literally only now can we begin to see signs of recovery and the emergence of prominent twoc leaders3.
As for Sylvia Rivera”s shit in later life towards ‘transgender”, in the 2001 speech Sandeen cites, well. As Denise Norris says in her guest post on Transgriot:
In the early 1990s, ‘transgender” was repurposed by a various groups of transsexuals in the US to basically include anyone whose gender expression was non-conforming with society”s expectations.
So it isn”t like a big fucking mystery why Sylvia Rivera would start using ‘transgender” vs. transvestite or gay. But the point here is, is that, again, this is the result of specific historical processes. This shift towards ‘transgender” was intentional, not accidental. It was (and still is) political.
Which brings me to this line:
Sylvia Rivera wasn’t a “respectable queer”; she’d likely even be considered an outcast in much of the trans community now.
It is fucking hilarious that Autumn Sandeen, of all people, is saying this. No, Sylvia Rivera wasn”t a respectable queen. And she”d probably be considered an outcast in much of the trans community now.
But if Sandeen thinks that this isn”t, in part, a result of her and white trans women like her, she”d be wrong. Absolutely and completely wrong.
The thing is, the thing is, we don”t need to speculate about this.
Sylvia Rivera has passed, but her legacy lives. There are living and breathing trans Latinas following her path RIGHT NOW. In a general sense, there are living and breathing twoc likewise following the trail she blazed.
And, wouldn”t you know…
WE STILL AREN”T CONSIDERED ‘RESPECTABLE” AND WE ARE STILL OUTCASTS
Because, answer me this, white trans women (particularly older, class privileged, assimilationist ones like Sandeen):
What, exactly, are you doing to support the most vulnerable and oppressed within the community?
Besides, you know, using one of our ‘icons” as a sock puppet for your bullshit points about respectability (while also engaging in said behaviour)?
What are you doing to elevate and amplify the voices of all the twoc whose backs you”re standing on?