May we have this dance? On learning and writing as a trans woman of color

I have a little ritual that I perform whenever I open a new nonfiction book. I go to the index and look up “transgender” “transsexual” and “sex change.” Often I heave a sigh of relief if I don’t find them, but if I do, I flip to the listed pages with newly crossed fingers praying I don’t find something dehumanizing. When I do, I read the passage, then I read it in its full context, then I rebut it in my mind, ring-fence it and walk away like it was a sealed toxic waste site.

But I don’t walk away from the book; I can’t afford to.

Being a minoritized writer or scholar entails little rituals like these. You become quite efficient at it — it becomes second nature and you hardly notice the pinpricks anymore. It’s just one more way you have to be twice as clever. If you are a woman, or a person of color, or a trans person with intellectual aspirations, your road will be lit by many a spiteful lantern. You must engage with texts written by people that hate you, whose ideas may even have been used to proactively harm people like you.

This has been a year for thinking about writing and the way we are all bound up on spidering tightropes of journalism, tastemaking, opinion, and research. The Rolling Stone scandal grinds on, exposing the dangers of trusting in a press that can abandon you on a whim. GamerGate, meanwhile, inadvertently exposed the cowardice of a gaming press that took two months to speak up against a campaign that was viciously harassing women and minorities in the gaming community — including some of their own writers; the tepid condemnations done, many of us still found ourselves woefully unsupported in the face of all this. And then there was Ta-Neishi Coates’ brilliant and singular response to the recent furore over the sudden collapse of The New Republic under the weight of an historic mass resignation from nearly the entire editorial staff.

Coates’ angle was unique among the many eulogy-writers this event has summoned, and he spoke movingly about how writers at this flagship liberal magazine had influenced him and were reckoned with in his early years, but he spends the better part of the essay detailing The New Republic’s stark whiteness and how that manifested in putatively “liberal” editorial lines that criminalized black communities and promoted the ugliest of stereotypes. From publishing excerpts of The Bell Curve, to Richard Cohen opining that D.C. jewelry stores should discriminate against young black men, to a Stephen Glass essay about how blacks lack the work ethic of (non-black) immigrant cab drivers (all of which turned out to be entirely made up, including a robbery perpetrated by a black man that never happened), Coates reminds us that this bastion of the American literati was cranking out copy that forms the foundations of Ferguson’s fires.

What might stun others but felt quite familiar to me was the way Coates glided from fond memories of learning to write from TNR writers to sharp, needful condemnations. As he writes, “all my life I have had to take lessons from people who, in some profound way, cannot see me.” That steel sentence has been my life for the last several years. My bookshelves heave with the works of silent mentors who might have considered me something less than fully human.

Indeed, to be a trans woman who proposes to become an academic feminist is to consciously walk across shards of glass — bits of the canon hither and thither written by people, mostly white cis women, who could not see you as anything other than a ghostly abstraction made up of their nightmares. And I have to learn from them.

This is not because I am forced, exactly, but because my work in this field depends on my being able to both stand in and (one hopes) improve upon their legacy, even as I struggle to bend it to more just ends. Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, no friend of trans women, nevertheless used interesting analytic frameworks and metaphors for the body that inspired my thinking about the internet and online harassment, for instance.

Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx (Image via)

The discipline of sociology, equally, requires one to think through a grand canon replete with origin myths and Promethean male founder-scholars: Marx, Weber, and Durkheim must be mastered in order to earn one’s sociological laurels, after all. One must simply learn to swim in the implicit (and sometimes explicit) exclusions and prejudices their work often entailed. I won’t use harsh metaphors like “grinding one’s teeth” or “swallowing bile.” It becomes much more second nature than that, much more passive. It can be no other when your dream depends on it, after all. You learn not to swallow the gall of bitter bigotries but to dance with it.

Somehow, in the midst of all that, a Puerto Rican trans girl from the Bronx could write a paper about how Wagnerian opera disproved Max Weber’s theory about the “disenchantment of society,” and I get to stick one in the old man’s eye while learning a hell of a lot from his prodigious intellect all at once.

One only wishes his wife Marianne’s works on gender in society were available in English. Oh yes, she was a sociologist too—just not part of the trinity, you see.

And the dance goes on.

For many of us the simple truth is that the “canon” we work with, be it the corpus of print journalism, or the stacks of academic libraries, or the online history of video game criticism, is one we have to learn to specially navigate. You cannot see yourself in the text, thus you must learn to write as you read, finding yourself as you go, often as not against the author’s wishes.

One has to find a way to become a writer good enough for TNR or worthy of Max Weber’s legacy without becoming the kind of writer who, in Audre Lorde’s chilling phrase, leaves her pen lying in other peoples’ blood.

You dance, you learn, you write, you read, you dance some more, and you hope that on the other side, somewhere, you’ve mastered a language that allows you to speak the unspeakable.

Header image credit: Adam Woolfitt/Corbis

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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