Dear Kate Pierson,
I'm a 38-year-old trans woman, and I love you. The B-52s have been one of my favorite bands for the last 26 years. Back when I was in the eighth grade, my father took me to see you on the Cosmic Thing tour. I still remember how excited I felt when it was over, bursting with pre-adolescent energy and enthusiasm; I felt like I could have run to the moon and back while my ears continued ringing joyfully for hours. Then, for my first art project in ninth grade art class, I happily drew you and your bandmate Cindy Wilson standing together and looking beautiful.
Not too long after that, seconds after I lost my virginity, I put on "Follow Your Bliss" and just lay there -- feeling, floating, glowing, lost in the gorgeous instrumental textures. I cheerfully devoured your side projects with other artists, like your duet with Iggy Pop on "Candy" and your guest spots on R.E.M.'s Out of Time record.
Flash forward to today. I still have seven of your albums in my phone, in full, glorious FLAC file resolution. I was excited to hear that you had a new album coming out. Then I saw the video for your new single, "Mister Sister" and your related comments, and I'm already seeing the sparks fly online.
As somebody who truly appreciates you and believes that you have only the best of intentions, I want to take a moment as a true fan to let you, the gay and straight communities, and other cisgender artists know about some of the bigger issues at play here and why people are feeling so hurt by this song. As this song becomes the latest pop culture entry attempting to recognize trans issues, I need for you to know in an up-front way that myself and many of my friends and community are feeling once again misunderstood, condescended to and patronized by someone from outside of the trans community.
Being supportive to an oppressed community of which you are not a part often means knowing when to step back and just listen. You've been quoted as saying, "I hope that it becomes a trans anthem." Now, I don't speak for all trans people. I appreciate the sentiment, but it's not for you to write a trans anthem because you haven't lived a trans existence. Trans lives are still very much misunderstood by mainstream culture.
The reason that it's not for you to write a trans anthem isn't some nebulous rule of political correctness. It's that you don't have the experience to do it in an accurate way that doesn't contribute to stereotypes and pain. In a week where we've seen grand juries acquit the white police officers who killed both Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we've seen a lot of protests and direct actions across the country. We've heard many members of the black community ask that their voices not be overrun by those of overeager white folks who are accustomed to being heard without consequence. Understanding that issues of oppression overlap each other, called intersectionality, is important in the way that it helps us to be mindful and to work to recognize our individual privileges and how they affect others. It's vitally important that we not make assumptions about being able to adequately understand or represent communities of which we're not a part.
A trans anthem, right now, is for a trans person to create. We are creating them in fact, all the time. We just aren't given exposure from wider media (although that is beginning to change). It's not that there aren't many wonderful trans artists out there aren't heard by the general public, it's that they're consistently overlooked.
Misgendering is always wrong. "Mister Sister", beginning with the title itself, is a reminder of the constant water-torture drip that trans people endure day in and day out when we're addressed as the wrong gender. Living in a culture that often refuses to identify or acknowledge us, or that actively calls for our destruction is incredibly challenging. Getting it half right by using a title with both genders is not inclusive, it's marginalizing. Whether you're a trans woman, trans man, non-binary, or otherwise, it's no consolation. This misgendering happens constantly for many of us, if not most of us, in ways that range from unintentional and casual asides to insults that accompany absolutely brutal physical violence. "Mister Sister" might be a good title for a 1980s genderfuck anthem -- it is not a good title for a trans anthem.
Using worn-out stereotypes and tropes about the trans community does not an anthem make. You reference a child "playing with toy soldiers", "closets for fishnets" and being "betrayed by the mirror." These references oversimplify many trans people's experiences in ways that make being trans appear to be a collection of superficial aesthetic conflicts instead of an array of deep personal and political issues from a deeply sexist and oppressive culture. They are the same representations that we've been given for years in films and popular narratives, despite the immense diversity of gender presentation found in trans people.
"Nothing hurts when you are a beautiful girl?" The number of beautiful trans women of color who are murdered for going out feeling beautiful, only to find out that others don't happen to agree that they are beautiful certainly hurts. Furthermore, what about those of us who don't worry about "passing" as a beautiful girl, or those who know that we never will?
"Debbie Delicious, now you're on everyone's party wish list" -- does this mean to say that it not only gets better for trans people after they come out ("out and proud"), but also that if we dance and smile along and pick a catchy new name we'll suddenly become the life of the party? If only we're okay with ourselves, everyone else will be too?
That's just not how it works. Not in any way that I've ever seen or experienced. Trans people are generally not partying queens. They can be, sure, but not often enough to make a generalized trans anthem of the idea. Coming out can be a death wish for us. Optimistic though the idea may be, it's currently (tragically) a harmful idea to perpetuate.
Your video features a documented opponent of transgender inclusion and freedom. Alyson Palmer, a performer and director, is also proponent on excluding trans women so-called "womyn-born-womyn only" spaces such as the long-controversial and culturally exclusive Michigan Womyn's Fest. Mich Fest has a long history of not "technically excluding" (i.e. strip searching and ejecting) trans women, but speaking out against them strongly and consistently in their annual festival. Palmer wrote to Michfest performers in 2011:
Anyone who truly understands the suffering of sexual harassment and abuse; the constant small violations and dark steady threat of even larger ones; the savage horror of rape or any of the sick tortures that the penis-proud wield so easily against women and girls of every age, would rise up and DEMAND that WBW [womyn-born-womyn] have earned the right to a place in which to cling to one another and heal. To parade the dangling tool of the oppressor in the face of a woman who has been debased is unconscionable. The insensitivity of trying to force the victimized to get over it already so someone else can party woot woot is an insulting layer of fresh misogyny. It is selfish, it reeks of entitlement and it is cruel.
Why Palmer would be included in your piece is absolutely beyond comprehension.
I've seen today that people may disagree with any criticism of "Mister Sister" along cultural lines. You're getting a lot of support for this song, from the gay community especially. I've seen the comments on the Huffington Post article that's about both the song and your new album. There are comments such as, "For crying out loud, is there ANYTHING people won't take offense to?" On your Facebook page we see, "Despite the negative fall out I'm sure you are going to receive for this song from the 'trans mafia', I'm giving out an 'A' for effort" (posted by a person who doesn't identify as either trans or gay). While it's wonderful that non-trans people are enjoying a song about trans people written by a non-trans person, what these comments really highlight is that people who are finally getting comfortable with their own positions in culture are unwilling to allow us to challenge that culture and work for an equitable place of our own.
Consider the long history of trans activists who have fought with everything they had for gay rights. We have been consistently pushed aside since rioting at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 Incredible activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who were among the first to fight back against unfair treatment by police and culture that fateful night, have been among some of the most outspoken champions of LGBT rights, and yet they both led tragic, poor, and often hated lives. Many of us are in nearly identical positions but remain invisible because our voices aren't heard, and just as often, are silenced. At some point, the gay community will need to step back and make room for us to come into our own power, instead of pushing us down and speaking for us in the same dismissive ways that society has pushed them down for centuries.
I hope you'll take these observations in the sincere and constructive way that they are offered. If we're all going to be able to work together to keep making this world a better, more free, more fun, and happier place ("Love shack, baby!"), we'll need to acknowledge that joy and celebration only get us part of the way. Without also being critical of our own communication styles and of culture as a whole, the powers that be will hang onto those powers indefinitely. That's something nobody in the queer world wants.
Thank you for listening.
Jamie Cooper Holland
UPDATE (12/8) -- Kate Pierson has responded to this blog post on Facebook, reprinted with permission here:
Wow - I read and absorbed your amazing letter - and I hear you! By "trans" I meant to be more universal and not presume to "represent" any particular group. Huffington Post added the "(gender)" to my quote which originally was: "I hope this becomes a trans anthem - "Mister Sister" is inspired by all who are transgender and LGB, multi-dimensional and still transcending, but it's really meant to empower ANYONE who feels 'betrayed by the mirror."
The song is also about the power of transformation and the joy of being accepted as you are, but more importantly the joy of self acceptance. I feel that we are here on this planet to love one another and with love we can transcend gender boundaries and promote greater understanding.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. With my background and involvement in the LGBTQ rights community, I have experienced how important dialogue such as this can be. And it's just as important today than ever before. So thank you again for your letter.