Ask A Trans Woman: We Are Under Attack & This Is How We Win

trans womanLorelei Erisis answers readers' questions for 2018
Photo: David Meehan
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By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

(Note: This was the final reading copy of the speech I gave at the 2019 Boston Dyke March.)

Sisters and siblings, brothers and others, we are under attack.

Yes, we have made incredible gains over the past few years and this is worth celebrating. And yet, we must not forget, this progress has come at great cost.

It took decades, centuries of struggle and many, many lives battered bloody against the rocky shores of oppression. We are here today because of the sacrifice and struggle of those who came before us—to whom we owe a debt we can barely begin to repay.

But there is so much more work to do. We just recently, after a decade long battle, finally secured full, and protected, civil rights for trans people here in Massachusetts. We won this long after same-sex marriage became law in this state,

And in most of the rest of the country, trans people still have few protections or even none at all.

Don’t get me wrong. Marriage is a wonderful thing. I tried it once myself. Of course, I also tried magic mushrooms. Personally, I think I preferred the mushrooms. But I digress …

Marriage is nice, it’s a strong step forward, but marriage alone doesn’t put food on the table, roofs over our heads, doesn’t protect us from casual violence and outright assault.

And, still, we are under attack. Our gains, what they are, can be all too easily erased. Stripped away. All the harder to win back.

Even our bodily autonomy is under attack. If you aren’t white, cis, and male, your right to decide what you do with your own body is actively being legislated away.

And while our allies are distracted, fighting to preserve laws we assumed established and safe just a few short years ago. Trans people, gender nonconforming people, queer people, and people of color are still being murdered and attacked in staggering numbers.

Especially trans women.

Especially trans women of color.

While this continues, we fight among ourselves. And, in doing so, by turning our anger inward, we do the oppressor’s work for them.

We owe it to each other to do the work to examine our own biases, language, and understanding. Acknowledge that we are all flawed and will all make mistakes. Be patient and kind with each other, because the world is neither patient nor kind to any of us.

We must do this so that we can stop fighting each other. And fight our hegemonic, heteronormative, cis, white, patriarchal oppressors instead.

This begins by understanding that though we are all marginalized, some of us have more privilege than others. Among us, and in varying degrees, many of us have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, class privilege, passing privilege. I myself, though when I transitioned I took a high leap off the privilege ladder, still have white privilege and even tall privilege.

And yes, privilege can be complex.

For all that though, I believe those of us who do have privilege are morally obligated to use our privilege to fight for those who have less than we do. At the same time, we must work to dismantle that privilege entirely.

And I’m not just talking about fighting for trans and queer people. I believe we must fight for marginalized people generally, for people of color, for all immigrants to these shores, and for migrants wherever they may be, who are fleeing even worse oppression than many of us ourselves will ever know.

We must stand up for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.

We must fight for sex workers, who lately have suffered from the effects of one of the most damaging pieces of legislation I have ever seen in the passage of SESTA into law last year.

We do this, because our rights, our lives, are inseparable from these others. These others, who so often are also us.

I myself am alive and able to do the work I do and speak to you here today because I have done sex work. And, because when I began my transition—and almost my entire support network disappeared—it was a sex worker who loved me, who was there to stay by my side, and put food on the table, and a roof over our heads.

And I come from people who fled famine and oppression in Ireland to the hot, dark, dangerous mills of New England and signs that read, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” and “No Irish Need Apply.” Proud people, whose greatest shame in my Irish-American eyes was in assimilating as white and distancing ourselves from others who remained oppressed, indeed assisting in, participating in, that oppression.

We must fight for all these people, because so many of our own identities intersect because we are tied together, because we are stronger together.

And so many of us even represent more than one letter in LGBTQ.

I do a lot of queer comedy shows and often find that I’m the “ringer” because, at various points in my own life, I have been all those letters.

I am trans. And have always known, or at least suspected, I was trans.

But in high school, I thought maybe, perhaps, I was actually a gay man. Perhaps that explained my crossdressing, Also, I was super-stylish and was really into musicals. Awkwardly though, I really liked girls and not so much boys. But, I tried. I wore that identity for a while.

And when I finally figured out who I was and began HRT and second puberty kicked in, I began to realize that I also now really liked boys and still girls too—and all kinds of cuties of all sorts of genders! I was undeniably bi!

And then I transitioned and became politicized and came to closely identify as Queer. “Queer, because f–k you!” Because queer for me is not just who I love, it’s how I live in the world.

And when I moved back to Northampton, Mass., for the fourth or fifth time, I realized I’d lived in Lesbianville USA about as long, on and off, as it’s had that nickname. Plus, it makes TERFs really angry when I claim my identity as a lesbian, which is really pretty satisfying in itself. If I hadn’t also discovered that boys are generally more trouble for me than they are worth.

I am LGBTQ.

And though I might make this light for a minute, and I tell you now, it’s important to remember to laugh and love and enjoy the beauty in the world. Because finding joy in our lives is one of the ways we win. Being radically inclusive. Loving each other. Having sex in the many wonderful ways we know how, or, for that matter, not having sex at all, because we have had to learn more about our bodies and ourselves than most straight people ever do.

All of these things, all these ways we uniquely live and love; chip away at the control systems of those who would repress us and deny our existence; profit from our sweat and our suffering. This is valid as well. You are valid.

Please know, I’m not here to tell you not to be angry. In fact, I think we should all be very, very angry.

Anger is useful. It’s a fire that burns our enemies. But it is not sustainable. If left unchecked—not carefully focused and directed—it can just as easily burn our allies and us as well.

Anger is a blunt tool, effective, but difficult to control—all consuming.

And so, I tell you, be angry. Fight as if our lives depend on it. As some wise queers once said, “Bash Back!”

But remember to be kind as well, to each other especially. Kindness is a fine instrument, sustainable and surprisingly effective in supporting lasting change.

The most public argument I ever had with a bigot, I won not by being angry. That was what they wanted, so they could paint me as hysterical and scary.

But I refused to play their game. I won it by being unceasingly polite, and yes, kind. And in so doing, I let my opponent appear to the audience as the monster he was actively being.

And it was very, very effective. The people gave us their support. The law we were fighting for passed. And it earned me an entire page on the website of an ultra-conservative, right-wing organization dedicated to just how very “evil” I am.

Kindness isn’t always Pollyanna and sweet. Sometimes it’s devious and tricky too. It can turn opponents into allies and it can help a girl to make just the right enemies.

So keep fighting; all of us, for all of us, together.

Be angry. But make kindness your center. And, your secret weapon.

And together, we will win.

*Lorelei Erisis is an improviser, storyteller, activist, adventurer, pageant queen and the bane of bigots everywhere. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at askatranswoman@gmail.com.