Our indoctrination into cis- and hetero-centrism begins before we are even born. From gender reveal parties to color-coded baby showers, society compels our allegiance to strict gender and sexual roles before our first breath. Those who fail to comply with our default assumptions of gender as male or female and sexuality as attraction to the opposite gender are maligned, erased, and, throughout history, killed with little recourse. We have constructed our social, political, and economic systems to value cisgender people—those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—and privilege them in ways that go unnoticed. The reality for a disproportionate number of queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people globally is that of unrelenting body terrorism, with even higher rates for queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of color (QTBIPOC).
Strategy 1: Embrace Shame-Free Inquiry
From a place of curiosity and compassion, explore how you have made cisgender and heterosexual identity the default in your life. Consider the following questions:
- Do I make assumptions about people’s gender based on what they are wearing or look like?
- Do I assume people’s gender without asking them, using he or she pronouns based on only my assessment?
- Do I have transgender people in my personal or professional life?
- When I meet married people, do I assume their partner is of the opposite gender?
- Do I follow, read, or watch content created by LGBTQIAA+ people?
- Do I use gendered terms like “ladies and gentlemen” when speaking?
- Do I equate being a woman or a man to genital or reproductive body parts?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, agender, pansexual, polyamorous, kink, two-spirit … if you read this list and feel overwhelmed, imagine what it might be like to spend most of your life being invisible in film, television, radio, schools, jobs, and so on. When you are represented, it is to provide stereotypical comic relief, sensationalism (see Jerry Springer), or mockery. In fact, there are infinite arrangements for how we experience or don’t experience attraction, desire, and understand our gender. Still we scoff at the rolling out of so many letters, never questioning who we have been erasing and shrinking into a dry binary default. A world free of queerphobic and transphobic body terrorism obligates us to look at our own privilege and investment in only considering the default bodies of cis and straight people.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Strategy 2: Queer Your Life
Black Canadian poet Brandon Wint’s viral quote offers a foundation upon which to begin queering our perspectives with a new radical definition of queer. “Not queer like gay. Queer like, escaping definition. Queer like some sort of fluidity and limitlessness at once. Queer like a freedom too strange to be conquered. Queer like the fearlessness to imagine what love can look like and pursue it.” Brandon’s quote helps us reconceptualize queerness, expanding it beyond the boundaries of sex and desire, moving it into the realm of the uncontainable. If radical self-love is an act of becoming difference celebrating then pursuing a “freedom too strange to be conquered” is right up the radical self-love alley. In order to compost homophobia and transphobia into the rich soil of radical self-love, we must begin to challenge the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it governs our world.
Get intimate with the lives and struggles of queer and trans people. It’s tempting to assume that the visibility of Caitlin Jenner and the achievement of same-sex marriage of cisgender people means we have solved homo- and transphobia. But visibility and the legal right to marry are both privileges afforded those with the most access and other intersecting default identities, such as whiteness or wealth. Media would make it appear that the transgender community sprouted overnight. What the Western world understands as transgender identity has been around throughout history, and the term transgender is a Western conceptualization we have created to make sense of expanded gender identity beyond the constraints of a binary. Other cultures have long had members of their societies who have lived outside the confines of simply male or female, and our efforts to interrupt body terrorism demands we queer our understanding of gender.
Also paramount to queering our lives is learning about the lives of the contemporary trailblazers who forged a path for queer and trans rights, including the names and histories of folks like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two trans women of color who were instrumental in the Stonewall uprisings—the resistance protests that sparked the gay rights movement on Turtle Island (U.S.). Raise attention and awareness to the alarmingly high rate of murders of Black and Latinx trans women and explore the connection between their mortality and society’s discriminatory and violent treatment of trans people. Support, promote, and resource action and acknowledgment days like Transgender Day of Remembrance. But do not stop there. Ask tough questions like, “Would we need a Transgender Day of Remembrance if we practiced vocally celebrating and creating access and resources for trans and gender nonconforming people in the present?” Queering our lives means challenging heterosexuality and cisgender identity as superior or normal ways of being. As we continue to center the lives of queer and trans people, inevitably we do exactly what Brandon proposed: we become co-creators of a “freedom too strange to be conquered.”
Strategy 3: Practice in Public
Social change is not automatically tied to personal change. Nice as it would be, it is not a given that the systems of body terrorism will instantly dematerialize just because we become less harmful to ourselves and those around us. Nope. We must use our newfound power to communally push those systems down with organized, collective action. Some of our efforts will be small and interpersonal, like interrupting queer and transphobic stereotypes we hear from friends, family, or coworkers. And other efforts will need to target structural and systemic issues.
In a system that devalues the lives of queer and trans people and to an even greater extent queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of color, organizations created and led by the QTBIPOC community are often the most underfunded and under-resourced. Using our dollars to help support communities carving out lives of dignity and respect in the face of constant body terrorism is a necessary radical self-love practice and an act of best-interest buying. Following their leadership and guidance and encouraging others to follow suit helps build those organizations’ capacity and further their impact.
Show up and volunteer at an LGBTQIAA+ youth center, and support queer- and trans-led media, music, and content. Support the basic needs of someone in the queer and trans community who is struggling, perhaps by contributing to their crowdsourcing campaigns. These are all personal actions that strengthen the collective, but you can and should also act in advocacy in places where you have privilege. You can disrupt the binary default at work by sharing your gender pronouns and asking your coworkers to share theirs, even if—especially if—you assume everyone is cisgender. Ask your employer about their hiring practices and whether or not they have considered if the workplace is queer and trans inclusive. If it is not, push for equity and inclusion initiatives at your organization. Be sure to do this before you begin inviting queer and trans people into hostile work environments. Challenge queer and transphobic legislation by writing your government representatives and keeping abreast of local and national bills that might affect the lives of the queer and trans people most often left behind. Practice in public asks us to put our individual and collective efforts toward creating a just and generous world for trans and queer people. Until all of us are free, none of us is free.
Reprinted from The Body Is Not an Apology, Second Edition with the permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright 2018, 2021 by Sonya Renee Taylor.