Like most people, I was rocked by the election last Tuesday. Weeks ago I'd voted my absentee ballot from here in Southwest Ontario where I live and settled in with a beer on my couch to watch the returns, and awoke from nightmares of, in every sense, a burning world.
I'm a transgender woman and lived in the United States for 15 years. Much of the meager institutional safety net for U.S. trans people is under threat of being rolled back, in addition to the surge of hate violence happening immediately and now.
xoJane asked me to write on my reaction to the election as a transgender woman just as my friend (and trans political/cultural critic) Katherine Cross and I were discussing a public conversation about the devastating impact Trump will have on our community, the country, and the world.
A week after the election results came in, here's what we talked about:
Casey Plett: Well. It's been a week now. How are you feeling and what’s on your mind today?
Katherine Cross: One of my favorite political satires has a rather appropriate quote to describe my mood. "I'm just staring vacantly into space while a distant voice in the back of my head goes, 'Oh, shit!' like a car alarm in the middle of the night."
But I'm on the mend as each day passes; mourning always goes through stages and ultimately ends. At the moment I've been signal boosting positive campaigns to help people — like #TransLawHelp which connects trans people around the country with pro bono lawyers to help with changing documents before the new administration formally comes to power — building community at events like GaymerX, and thinking about how best to predict the actions of an inherently unpredictable president-elect. You?
Casey Plett: Most of my friends and family live in the States, so my prime emotion here has been despair and fear for people I love (with no small amount of personal fear given the threat now posed to the continent and the planet). I'm still stunned and in despair in some ways, but also feeling myself return to how I was living my life last week. Which is, of course, probably what Trump and Co. want right now. I think the human spirit is not always best equipped to separate hope from complacency, so in addition to some other things I've been doing (I've also been spending time connecting and helping trans people change documents), I have been trying to concentrate my mental spirits on two things:
- Ignoring the voices saying "It'll be ok, it won't be that bad, it won't be as horrific as we thought."
- Paying attention to those older than me who have survived mass horror — those who lived in fascist/autocratic nations and our elders who lived through the AIDS Crisis, to name a couple. Those are the people I'm finding it productive and steeling to listen to right now. That and hugging my best friend and roommate a lot.
Katherine Cross: Hugs have definitely been needed; my partner has been an absolute rock through all of this. (Also thank you, alcohol and Xanax!) Complacency must be fought, to be sure, I agree. There are many people — living and dead — with a lot to teach us about the present moment who should be heard. I don't think it's a coincidence that the world is being rocked by fascism again just as the last of the World War II generation passes away. The share of the population for whom Nazism was a living memory has been steadily dwindling to nothing and that's led to everything from rejecting the EU to idolizing smaller but still dangerous totalitarians like Vladimir Putin as strongman problem-solvers.
I do think there's some value in trying to find areas to take hope in, of course, such as the fact that Donald Trump's venality, cronyism, and general incompetence may prevent him from centralizing power à la the Nazis simply because neither he nor his appointees (who will be selected primarily on the basis of loyalty) have the political acumen to do so. But what cold comfort can be taken from that doesn't erase the inevitable harm that will come from the easy things — like repealing pro-LGBTQ executive orders or gutting protections of trans people in the ACA. It just gives us a target as activists, and it still demands we not be complacent. It requires us to gum up the institutional works enough that Trump's incompetence will be fatal, not merely an obstacle.
Casey Plett: *raises wine* Maybe a good way to look at developments in the next 60-some days is to not weigh them as good or bad (or, rather, "fuck" vs "FUUUCK") but just how that news can be incorporated into strategy. Where weaknesses are.
Another genuine thing I've been trying to keep in mind — many of us know Hillary won the popular vote. That fact will not make Trump any less of a President* but when you factor in the other half of the country that couldn't or didn't vote (whether they were non-citizens or young people or barred by the criminal justice system) — well. 60 million Trump voters is still less than 20% of the country. I know there's lots to be afraid of right now, and they have the power in the literal sense, but there still are some numbers on our side. Speaking of which, I hate to ask, and we don't have to include this in the public version if you don't want to, but how are you dealing with your own personal fear in the immediate right now? I am frightened and concerned for you and others.
*Though I admit the bank shot of the Trump University trial and faithless electors is a thing in my prayers...I wish that trial was getting more attention.
Katherine Cross: Indeed. We all rightly fear a rolling back of our rights as LGBTQ people, as women of color (I'm Puerto Rican, and trust me, racists don't care that we're born citizens of the U.S.), but we have to resist the already emerging narrative that this hatred constitutes a majority view that's surging. It isn't; the majority didn’t even vote for Trump. That narrative can be just as dangerous as an actual surge; it's part of what grants moral licence to all the people now committing hate crimes, or all the misogynist troglodytes who've harassed women and said things like "grabbing pussy is legal now!" Not much has materially changed, but the perception of whose views are in the ascendant has, and that needs to be fought with a counternarrative about where we are.
As to how I'm dealing with my fear, I've had fear of going out in public as trans since Day 1. At the height of the Obama administration I've been shouted at on the subway, or had things thrown at me. All I could ever do was what I did when I was attacked; keep my eyes forward and keep moving. Same with when I receive misogynist and racist abuse online for being a political writer and cultural critic. I just write more. I never know whether it's bravery or stupidity, but I do it. This week has been especially hard, just awash with a nameless terror that I feel like I can't run from, but I'm managing by simply doing what I've always done — and that includes things like this political conversation.
Casey Plett: Thank you for the reminder that the narrative of an awashing majority is in some ways dangerous in and of itself. The threat of fascism is dangerous enough without outsizing the numbers behind it.
I'm very grateful you are continuing to write. We are both writers, of course, but you are specifically more of a consistent political and non-fiction writer.
Pivoting to which. Can we talk about the media? There's an endless amount of immediate and horrific things to talk about these days but the actions of large media strike me as a large source of possibility and doom in the next few months. I'm talking about the fact that, say, The Washington Post doggedly pursued some of Trump's effects and lies (specifically, like, David Fahrenthold's reporting on the Trump Foundation and Janell Ross's intersectional writing on The Fix) but they also dealt in the false equivalence of Hillary's e-mails and their current willingness to cover Trump like he's business-as-usual, whether it's out of complacency or self-interest, is something I find deeply troubling.
And in the days since the election, taking, for example, Steve Bannon as Chief of Staff — none of the major media outlets at first were willing to give attention to his being a white supremacist and antisemite. But that changed within that very news cycle — the NYT and WaPo soon included that language on the front of their sites.
You're a very astute critical thinker on how media and the Internet shape our lives. Besides figuring out how we most productively write and speak — how do we react to this?
Katherine Cross: This is one of the reasons I fear that Bernie Sanders would've had just as much of a hard time in this election as Clinton did. Clinton was part of what Naomi Klein aptly called the "Davos class" of elites, and yet the media still overblew the email non-story, and that only threw gas on the fires of Trumpists chanting "lock her up!" or even "kill her!" If that's how they feel about one of the world's most powerful white cis women, imagine how they feel about the rest of us. The press absolutely contributed to that, even as those same crowds were shouting similar abuse and imprecations at the members of media up in the stands.
Fixing this isn't easy, but we who put pen to paper in the world of politics must school ourselves out of false balance narratives. Fairness requires telling the truth, not giving equal weight to a false claim and a true claim. I think for some on the left, the temptation to indulge the anti-Clinton narratives, the better to prosecute a leftist case against her (for her hawkishness, her ties to Wall Street, etc.) had the knockoff effect of normalizing it for a far more powerful right wing narrative directed at her. We have to be more careful than ever about copy-pasting memes from right wing playbooks lest we end up doing their dirty work for them.
But we also have to be more willing than ever to make moral arguments against the nihilism of false equivalence. We need to be unafraid to tell people that it's a dereliction of ethical duty to do so, as it compromises the truth and legitimizes potentially evil ideas. It’s not "just words," as people being beaten up in the streets now can attest.
A prime example from here and now? How the press is treating Steve Bannon. The Huffington Post, despite its gutless decision to remove its editorial note calling Trump a racist, had a blaring headline declaring that a white nationalist was going to be a White House staffer. That's what we need more of. Evil is already in motion, and there needs to be loud, clear criticism of this choice of Trump's and many others to come. We have to call it by its name, point out Bannon's antisemitism and white nationalism without apology. We cannot pretend this is normal.
Casey Plett: This is something I'm already seeing outside of my personal spheres, not just in the media — the "it will be ok, well he's the President now" — narrative is extraordinarily dangerous and it breaks my heart every inkling I see of that. It's not "what he will do," there is literal violence caused by Trump now.
On that note, if I can talk as an aside to Canadian readers: I feel compelled to note that Kellie Leitch, who praises Trump and has espoused some of his racist and Islamophobic views (she announced the "Barbaric Cultural Practices Tipline" to gin up white voters before last year's election) is still treated a bit like a goof in the Canadian press, and she's currently holding her own in the Tory leadership race. That has to be fought against and it can happen here too.
I'm so horrified for the world, for the people I love. On the note of which, you mentioned the hashtag #TransLawHelp on Twitter. I'll corroborate that's a good way for trans folks to get help or funds to change their IDs, and for anybody with legal or financial means to help a trans person do that (which I must reiterate is a really great idea right now).
I have some more serious stuff to say, but, uh: Feel like telling me something nice that happened to you this week? This is also a time I really want to hear about nice things happening to my friends.
Katherine Cross: Seconding your wake up call about Canada, which I've always considered a beloved home-away-from-home. This is a crisis roiling the entirety of the West, and while many countries have made a sport out of favorably comparing themselves to the U.S., this is the absolute worst time to say "it can't happen here." These movements are made up of misogynists and anti-LGBTQ people who will use racism to divide us from one another — just look at what happened in Germany, which gave us the slur "rapefugee" — look, also, to the response of German feminists who vehemently fought the attempt to weaponize anti-rape politics against brown people.
The reports of hate crimes rocking the U.S. are obviously alarming, and so I was very trepidatious when I went out with my partner to pick up my other girlfriend from Port Authority downtown; we were going out on a date at my favorite bar. Would it be the same place? I wondered. People were more subdued on the subway, but the night showed me it was still the same city I loved. We were welcomed with open arms, everyone was lovely to us, we had a smoochy and cuddly evening, took the train home without incident... it's simple, but that normality means the world to me right now. Normality is, dare I say, a luxury commodity right now.
But then I think we as trans people have had to be experts in living in a netherspace of abnormality. This world has been very hostile to us for a long time — especially trans women of color and our sex working sisters. What lessons can we take from our peoples' long history of activism?
Casey Plett: May you take joy and have more moments like that that mean the world. To your point, when I've heard: "I've been around a long time and I'm not going anywhere" this week, it's almost universally been from an older trans person of color.
Trans people have obviously existed and survived for long periods of time in circumstances conducive to hopelessness. Taking strength from that has gotten me through some personal dark times. I don't know if I have anything more insightful to say. What about you?
Katherine Cross: I want to preface this by saying that it in no way is meant to suggest Trump is only merely "as bad" as past presidents. But trans people have lived in terror for a very long time, made to feel like cells that the body politic was violently rejecting. It's a terror. But from that terror came the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and ACT UP. We have had to excel, by necessity, at creating shadow states, infrastructure, and communities. There is institutional memory and wisdom out there, especially from our trans women of color elders, who can help us live through this. One of my fears is that the forthcoming term will be remembered as a collective tragedy akin to the scars of the AIDS crisis; presidencies matter, they can cost lives.
But I take comfort in what we as a trans community have built; now is the time to listen to those who have come before us, whether it's by reading their books or just by talking to them. There is a terrible continuity with the horrors of the past here, the way we've been made to feel like we have nowhere that is safe or accepting. The only difference is that over the last eight years we got a tease of what a better world might look like for us — but just a faint one. Police brutality still ground on, sex workers were still being rounded up, immigrant trans sisters were still being deported. It gets no easier, and so we must simply take inspiration from our foremothers and carry on with the knowledge that survival is possible.
That might have been bleaker than I intended, I admit...
Casey Plett: It's all true, it's why I fear for you and yours, better to say it plainly.
Katherine Cross: Indeed. But I think that the biggest lesson of all is that we can organize without the aid of the state. The most abject populations know this best, by sheer necessity. It's why trans people and sex workers have, I think, understood each other so well (aside from the overlap between the two communities). We are especially loathed by patriarchy, denied the illusion of normality. So we organize our own invisible, informal communities and structures. That comes with its own problems, but it's also something that was designed specifically not to be subject to the whims of a President or a Prime Minister.
Casey Plett: Like how folks are currently getting document changes and hormone supply plans together.
Lastly, a lot of the world is watching. What can folks across oceans and borders keep on their minds for U.S. trans people in the wake of Nov. 8?
Katherine Cross: Be willing to listen and help — providing funds or other resources as needed. Danish kroner spend just as well as U.S. dollars when donated to a nonprofit like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or the Third Wave Fund. And secondly, tangential as this may appear at first blush, as you hinted earlier: be on guard against fascism in your own countries. I've seen many generous and wonderful offers from friends and loved ones regarding crash space, spare rooms, and jobs in other countries. But if you want your nation to be a refuge for those who can flee incipient fascism in America, you have to fight it vigorously on your own shores. To that end, be willing to provide that space for trans people who are lucky enough to be able to emigrate. For those who stay, you should also signal boost their work and political actions whenever possible; the eyes of the world retain their power, and as jingoistic as our country is, global opinion can still have an impact. You, too, have a responsibility to prevent the normalization of what's happened in the U.S.
Casey Plett: Truth all around. Thanks for the reminders and the talk, sister.
Katherine Cross: Always. Connecting with each other as trans women will help so much in the days to come.