It's been over a week since the release of your new single, "Mister Sister," and the publication of my open letter to you regarding the disappointment and pain that it caused me, a longtime fan, and many in the trans community. What initially began as a few sparks flying about your single has officially turned into a conflagration.
In your response to the criticism, you claimed that dialogue is important. Yet over the past several days, many comments posted to your Facebook page that have been critical of the message in your song (and nonthreatening, despite claims to the contrary) have been quickly and summarily removed. Moreover, how can I or anyone else who shares my concerns find meaning in dialogue when you didn't respond specifically to any of the issues I raised, such as the inclusion of a documented transmisogynist in your video? What does dialogue actually mean to you, and how do we achieve it? Because we're clearly not there now.
You responded, "By 'trans' I meant to be more universal and not presume to 'represent' any particular group. Huffington Post added the '(gender)' to my quote...." The problem here is that I never once called your new single a "transgender anthem." Starting with the headline, I clearly called it your "trans anthem," just like you did, and as I did throughout my letter. In fact, I only used the word "transgender" once, and that was in reference to viciously transmisogynistic commentary by Alyson Palmer, one of your video's two problematic guests.
Then you briefly talked about the "power of transformation," "the joy of self acceptance," "transcend[ing] gender boundaries," and "promot[ing] greater understanding." Finally, you closed by reminding me of your dedication to the fight for LGBTQ rights, and you acknowledged "how important dialogue such as this can be." Dialogue, you say, is "just as important today than ever before."
Since my open letter was published many other wonderful, important, and thoughtful responses to your single by members of the trans community have been published. They range from the personal and heartbreaking to the calmly diplomatic to the plainly frustrated to researched journalism to a succinctly in-your-face reality check to the brilliantly sincere, silly, and satirical. This while you tweet and cheer about a brutally cutting and wordy post by a "gendercrit" blogger who calls those of us who have issues with the single "anti-feminist trans activist league of SJ hashtag hobgoblins." I'm a passionate intersectional feminist, by the way, as opposed to a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). I'm anti-bigot and profoundly pro-feminist, despite the ongoing attempt by some to reclaim an exclusionary, marginalizing, tightly wound twisting of what "feminism" means. In snarky academic prose, this writer makes the poisonous case that trangender people are nothing more than a political movement. She even names Cathy Brennan, one of the most infamous anti-gender activists in circulation, as someone she aspires to call a friend. For goodness' sake, Kate, this is dialogue to you? What planet are you on? Planet Claire?
Those of us who are privileged enough to have public voices at this moment are a collection of individuals with diverse experiences, expressions, ages, and backgrounds. Yet you'll see that we have at least one thing in common: We are saying loudly and unequivocally that often-central aspects of the trans experience in our society that have long been glossed over, stereotyped, mocked, and abused are done being erased and silenced while the names and old photos of our dead are searched for and posted online in separationist judgment and vitriol. We are saying: No more!
As close as I am to feeling that giving up all hope for your understanding may be the only option, Kate, I'm not quite ready to give up completely yet. I'll be the first to say that talking about these issues is never easy. But it's necessary. It's been said for decades by oppressed communities that it's not our job to educate everyone else. When people reach out and try to tell you something about their lives, whether they sound even-keeled or angry or are crying for understanding, you're being given an opportunity.
In the interest of true open dialogue, I'll give you a very recent and personal example. In my first letter to you, I said, "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." I drew a parallel with the fact that, during recent protests over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings and the resulting grand jury decisions, we've heard many members of the black community ask that overeager white folks who are accustomed to being heard first not speak over them or for them. I felt that it was important to draw a parallel with current events so that the point might be better understood. I also realized that if I said that the struggles that the black community and the trans community face are the same, of if I insinuated that I, a white person, truly understand what it's like to be black in this country, I would be called out for it, and very rightly so. While working to draw a conceptual parallel without crossing a line of respect, I ended up producing a paragraph that I felt was a bit awkward, from a technical writing standpoint, but made the point in a way that I felt was important and hoped was respectful. But since taking that risk I've received a couple of personal comments from people of color saying that I should not have made the parallel at all. I've also seen a slightly larger number of defenses of me by people of color who said that my argument was about highlighting power structures, not cultural appropriation. I stand by my piece, but I'm also aware that some people from outside my community feel that I overstepped. I'm listening, listening hard, and will continue working to identify intersectional struggles and solicit advice from people whom I trust when I know that I'm heading out of my area of personal experience. It's not easy. Change rarely is.
The overarching point here is this: It's important to think about the history of other struggles for rights and recognition and observe others that are occurring now. It's imperative that we not dismiss or erase communities or their lived experiences. When we can begin to spot historical patterns of misunderstanding and oppression, we get more efficient at overcoming them as a society.
As Time Magazine noted this year, we are at the "transgender tipping point." The momentum is increasing in speed and mass in a way that shows no sign of slowing. Those who push back and try to reinforce dying systems are relegated to a historical status as unfortunate cultural relics. We've seen it, time and time again.
I'm inviting you to spot the patterns. I'm asking you to listen, think, feel, talk to others you may disagree with, be open to self-examination, and reconsider releasing this song in its current form, because doing so is the right thing to do and will place you back on the right side of history. I'm not asking you to follow orders from the "PC Police." (Shout-out to Guante!). I'm not censoring you. Straw-man arguments have no place here.
A final point from my letter that I'll repeat for posterity is that not everything in life can be transcended with the right party anthem -- or magically transcended at all. There are few things in life, in fact, that can be overcome by what my friend Gail brilliantly calls her "least favorite gender analysis: vague esoteric transcendence." Life is a mix of joy and pain, sincerity and play, hurt and healing, life and death, strength and weakness, transcendence and fierce determination. We live an evolving grey existence, sandwiched between artificial and often limiting black-and-white ideas. You find gender limiting? Fine. Stop pushing the trans people who relate to gender off of the cliff while talking about building a better world.
In the meantime, I'll go back to spending valued time listening to and discovering trans artists and groups with trans members -- bands and artists like RVIVR, Peeple Watchin', Ramshackle Glory, Rosanonymous, and others -- here and here. I listen to them because they hear me without me having to write them letters to try to feel visible and relevant. I feel heard by them because they've lived what I'm living, and it's absolutely unmistakable in their lyrics. They know my struggles and joys, occasionally better than I know them myself. In that capacity they shine a light on my path forward toward an uncertain and guardedly optimistic future. And I'll keep listening to incredible cisgender artists like Fugazi, Tori Amos, and Björk, who speak to me in ways that leave me feeling understood and supported because of their willingness to challenge ideas head-on, learn, and grow. Music and art reflect society at precisely the same time that they push its evolution forward.
The main problem with even a "trans anthem" that's intended to be inclusive of anyone who is not staunchly cisgender is that it is yet again leaving all of us who have been speaking up this week (and many, many more without voices) behind. Now, in 2014, we're running quickly to catch up to a better, safer world for ourselves, even as you let go of the rope again. We are catching up, and we won't be out of breath soon.
Jamie Cooper Holland