Theory: Audibility

tl;dr Audibility is partner to visibility which allows us to understand what is heard as opposed to what is perceived. This gives us a framework for understanding the violence of silencing and grants various pathways into artistic creation. 

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Photos by audience members, you can see them all here

 

All right folks, this is the final theory about my installation, Under Construction. I might even shut up about it afterwards! Wouldn’t that be exciting? This is the theory I’m most proud of because it provides a tangible model for understanding invisible identities,  visibility and silencing.

 

 

Visibility/Audibility

 

The interplay between what is seen and what is heard is an important facet of nonbinary performance and identity. Usually, the trans community focuses on visibility: being seen in society as our genders. It not only is a form of validation, it provides the practical benefit of being able to campaign for legal recognition and presents those who know nothing about trans people with sympathetic narratives. However, as it is impossible to perform nonbinary gender, it is impossible for nonbinary gender to be visible.

 

Cis identities are similarly invisible, as they are considered default in society. However, cis invisibility comes from dominance while nonbinary invisibility comes from ignorance. Seeing cis identities happens when we challenge the assumed status quo that privileges cis identities. Seeing nonbinary identities happens when we listen and inform ourselves about what to look for.

 

But, even armed with information, society denies us a framework with which we can communicate nonbinary identities through visual presentation. There’s no real way to completely remove nonbinary invisibility without forming a new society (I’m all for that, but it, sadly, might take some time).

 

In response to this inevitable invisibility, I would like to propose the concept of audibility. A nonbinary person may not be their gender visibly, but they can express their gender through the use of explanations and be their gender audibly. Even if we can’t be seen, we can be heard. That is important. I stopped caring as much about what I looked like when I realized there were other ways I could be perceived and accepted.

 

 

Silencing in terms of audibility

 

 

This then brings us to a major issue that I’ve experienced quite a lot: silencing. In order to maintain hegemony, privileged classes must control the way the oppressed express themselves which means actively stopping a trans person’s audibility.

 

Invisibility is about lack of visibility and erasure is about rendering someone invisible. Similarly, inaudibility occurs when someone is not heard or listened to and silencing is the actively rendering someone inaudible. Some really good examples of this are the numerous documentaries about trans people created by cis people. While trans people are visible in these, their personal words and experiences are often silenced in favor of cis fascination and fetishizing of the trans body. Even with the visibility, this can cause huge harm for trans people, because we are only being seen, not heard. I can’t help but wonder if visibility at the loss of audibility is worth it.

 

For a nonbinary person, silencing can be particularly painful, because we don’t have access to the validation that comes from visibility. When we are silenced, it tells us that only the visible aspects of our identity are important. It tells us that we have less value because we are less visible. And it continues to perpetuate this idea that trans people only need visibility.

 

Fun fact: I kind of think we need both. But, since nonbinary people can’t be visible, it would be super great if we could at least get some audibility!

 

 

Bringing audibility and silencing into art

 

 

In case you’re not a regular follower of my whinings, here’s a brief context for this project I keep going on about: I was studying on a one year dance program and ended up submitting a formal complaint about a transphobic guest speaker. My words were twisted and misrepresented, staff chose to listen to my cis peers more than they chose to listen to me, and my identity was called into question and disrespected at a scope much broader than the actual complaint. Basically, I was silenced from a lot of different directions and this installation was a direct response to that.

 

To increase visibility, I situated the installation in two central, glass-walled rooms in the building. This meant that many people, not just those who entered the rooms, saw and experienced the installation. In an environment and culture that had actively silenced me, I wanted to make my audibility unavoidable. However, the clarity of the installation was distorted for anyone looking at it from above, instead of from inside. The conversation was not always understandable, similar to conversations around trans inclusion in places like my school that are facing a situation like mine for the first time.

 

I worked without audio or speaking to draw attention to silencing. While a room full of people is never going to be completely silent, I still was. My audibility came through written texts. My audience could choose whether or not to read them and whether or not to then allow that information to impact the way they gendered me, thus being in absolute control of my audibility.

 

On the back of my texts, visible only to those outside of the space through the glass, I wrote out generalized versions of phrases that had been used to silence me throughout the year. Out of context, many of these appeared harmless, showing how necessary it is to look beyond the surface to see how words are weaponized to silence trans audibility. It was a direct representation of and challenge to the act of silencing.

 

I also tried to challenge the default invisibility of cis identities. As I knew that the majority of my audience was cis, I ask them to display their responses to the final question to encourage the audibility of my audience’s gender, making their identity more audible as well.

 

 

Moving forward

 

Since delving into audibility as a theory, I have found myself less occupied with struggles around visibility. While I used to believe that visibility was a goal for all trans people, I have come to realize that my personal goal is audibility. This particularly forms my artistic practice because it brings back the age-old English class question of show versus tell. How do you create art, especially something as visual as dance, when you can’t show? I’ve been exploring new ways to make the act of telling more visible and tangible.

 

Another artistic pathway I have been recently following is audibility and silence in percussive dance. My training is in dance that makes noise. For productions such as Stomp!, companies like Barbatuques , dancers like Sandy Silva, and yes, even Riverdance, the sound and visual are interlinked and inseparable. I have struggled to find the relationship between my traditional and percussive dancing and my transness, and I think this may be a direction I start going in.

 

 

Sources/Further Reading

 

Haq, N. (2015, September 16). The invisible and the visible: Identity politics and the

economy of reproduction in art. Retrieved from http://www.internationaleonline.org/

 

 

Mock, J. (2015, February 16). A Note on visibility in the wake of 6 trans women’s murders in

  1. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://janetmock.com/2015/02/16/six-trans-women-killed-this-year/

 

 

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Maybe the boys-only dance class craze isn’t the solution

Tl;dr The craze to get boys and men involved in dance is a product of our society’s confused idea that male involvement increases a “feminine” domain’s value. Instead of obsessing over gender, I’d like to see us engaging with everyone that wants to dance and questioning why being “feminine” causes so much insecurity.

 

 

Everybody’s talking about men and boys in dance these days. If they aren’t, it’s probably because it’s a man creating dance about toxic masculinity and gender identity from a “masculine perspective”.

 

It’s almost as if, in its rush to make feminism more palatable by pointing out that it fought for gender equality, we decided that the best way to challenge misogyny and femmephobia was by only looking at men and masculinity.

 

Or maybe contemporary dance has gotten bored of its feminine roots. Names like Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan usually get an eye roll, a warning about long scarves and a couple of poorly-executed contractions these days. Maybe we’re sick of little girls in pink tutus reading Angelina Ballerina (although, as someone that grew up on Angelina Ballerina, I highly recommend those books to budding dancers). Maybe the devaluation of all domains that are female-dominated and deemed “feminine” by society is starting to grate on underpaid, overworked dancers whose work constantly go unrecognized.

 

That’s all probably true.

 

But what about the fact that the artistic directors of most major ballet companies are still men? What about the fact that the last time I went to see Alvin Ailey American Repertory Theater (a radical, amazing company in its own right), I had to search through both the program and website for a good long while to make sure I went to a show that included work by a female choreographer? What about the clear evidence that most of the decision makers in the field of dance are, despite everything, men?

 

Maybe dance’s new obsession with men and masculinity is less about valuing the amazing women that are the powerhouse of the domain and more about reframing male interests to appear feminist enough to allow the men in power to keep their power.

 

Maybe.

 

I really don’t know.

 

What I do know is that I am completely uninterested in this new surge of dance classes specifically targeted at boys. On one level, yes, I get the logic – our society deems dance “feminine” and so boys  who may very well want to dance may be scared off from it, or their parents/guardians may keep them from it. By creating a space that is specifically for boys, it removes the fear of seeming “girly”, so boys can dance.

 

Reread that logic. Reread it again. Reread it a third time, just in case you missed something.

 

This entire logic, the entire concept of creating boys-only dance classes is completely dependent on society seeing “feminine” as bad and “masculine” as good. It’s completely dependent on the assumption that a female-dominated domain would become better with an increase in men. And it propagates the terrifyingly toxic message that boys should  be afraid of seeming “girly”.

 

I am so not ok with that I don’t think ten blog posts could even begin to describe my distaste.

 

Legitimizing dance by increasing its perceived masculinity is not going to give little boys self-expression or do any good for the multitude of accomplished young female dancers ignored as dance decision makers continue to clamour for BOYS. And this goes right up to a professional career. Overall, professional male dancers start training later and are much less experienced and accomplished when they join a dance company, but the perceived “need” for male dancers means they get positions that they’re not trained enough for. In comparison, highly trained women are competing for positions whose numbers are limited in part because of the positions going to undertrained men. All-male productions of famous dance works lauded as radical while keeping the majority of professional dancers out of work is the horrific result of this system.

 

I teach afterschool programs for elementary school students. Do you know what’s effective for engaging children of all genders in “feminine” (ie. less important) activities? It’s definitely not redesigning an activity specifically for the boys in the class. That just reinforces entitlement in the boys and worthlessness in the girls.

 

Instead, I make it an option to do a “feminine” activity together. When we were learning clothing in French, I brought in a girl paper doll for us to color. There was worry, from the other teachers, that the boys in my class would not want to do the activity. But it was clear to the kids that this was the class for the day and they were doing it because of the new, exciting words they had just learned, so they settled happily into coloring their doll and her “girly” clothing, informing me which colors they were using for which clothing to practice their French.

 

If I had given the same activity to a group of only boys, would it have gone so well? Probably not. Toxic masculinity starts early and a group of boys competing in perceived manliness would never be able to contain themselves with something deemed so “worthless” by society. But because we were all together, there was a clear reason to the activity, and, most importantly, coloring paper dolls is fun, everyone got to take part.

 

Instead of the fear that boys will never want to do something “feminine” unless it’s tailored specifically for them, I would like dance to take on more of this attitude: not everyone is going to want to dance, just like not everyone enjoys paper dolls (definitely not my students, but I’m sure there are people out there), but, for those who do enjoy dance, we need to make it a valued option. In other words, dance doesn’t need fixing by increasing masculinity, dance’s inferiority complex and society’s devaluation of “feminine” activities needs a shift in perspective. And dance really only needs the boys that want to dance in the first place (that said, I am well aware that adults have a habit of keeping boys from dancing and that is a problem that needs fixing and a very strong argument for keeping boys-only dance classes around for a little bit, if just to get boys that want to dance dancing when their adults may not let them do it otherwise).

 

Maybe we’ll have less boys dancing for a while. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it will allow us to properly value the amazingly talented women that make up the domain and support the men that do dance already.

 

 

 

 

 

Some December readings

All right, let’s send out 2017 with some good things I’ve read in the past month!

The theme of my December reading was the police – how they’re violent and unnecessary, and all the amazing alternatives to policing that we can start turning to. Those readings and a few resource links are at the bottom of this page. At the top, we have some good (but unrelated) reflections on asexuality, autism, privilege, and, of course, our word of the year (and one of these articles was written by a lovely acquaintance of mine, which is super awesome!).

 

 

“Enjoy Your Houseful of Cats”: On Being an Asexual Woman

http://the-toast.net/2014/07/01/enjoy-houseful-cats-asexual-woman/

 

“Asexual people are just one group that’s hurt by the Sex = Yay mantra (along with racial, religious, and sexual minorities that are either fetishized or desexualized.) For asexual women, it means they’re erased; their orientation is framed as a side effect of living in a society that hates the female sex drive. Go on, girl! You like sex! You can admit it now! Great, eh? We’ve replaced a world in which a woman couldn’t be sexual with a world in which she must be.”

 

 

Autism and Intense Interests: Why We Love What We Love and Why It Should Matter to You

http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2017/11/autism-and-intense-interests-why-we.html

 

“While some intense interests can lead to satisfying careers, it’s important that our interests not be considered valid or valued according to monetary measures. I see so much emphasis placed on turning intense interests into a career; just last week on Twitter many Autistic adults were debating with a therapist who had said that no Autistic child should be permitted to pursue any intense interest that would not lead to a career.”

 

 

Word of the Year 2017: Complicit

http://www.dictionary.com/e/word-of-the-year-2017/?param=email&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WOTY%202017&utm_term=wordoftheday

 

“Our choice for Word of the Year is as much about what is visible as it is about what is not. It’s a word that reminds us that even inaction is a type of action. The silent acceptance of wrongdoing is how we’ve gotten to this point. We must not let this continue to be the norm. If we do, then we are all complicit.”

 

 

Don’t Get Defensive: 6 Ways to Respond to Being Called Out Despite Your Good Intentions

https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/dont-get-defensive/

“Getting called out involves an instance of systematically problematic behaviour being highlighted and addressed. This behaviour is carried out, often unknowingly, by people in relative positions of privilege, and it is problematic because it harms or demeans marginalised groups. And while you are the person who exhibited the problematic behaviour in this instance, the issue that is being addressed when the call-out happens is the pervasiveness of the problematic behaviour and the trouble it causes. What is most definitely NOT being addressed is the goodness of your character, or the goodness of the privileged group of which you are a part.”

 

 

On the police and finding alternatives because they’re awful:

 

 

A New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Call the Police

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28215-a-new-years-resolution-don-t-call-the-police

 

“If you have not yet made this resolution, consider that not calling the police raises some difficult but important questions. It forces us to consider whom we feel potentially threatened by and why, and how we are defining “safety.” Do we feel unsafe in working-class neighborhoods, or around people with certain styles of dress or colors of skin? What prejudices ground this fear?”

 

 

Big Dreams and Bold Steps Toward a Police-Free Future

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/32813-big-dreams-and-bold-steps-toward-a-police-free-future

 

“This orientation toward police reform imagines that documentation, training or oversight might protect us from the harassment, intimidation, beatings, occupation and death that the state employs to maintain social control under the guise of safety. What is missing from this orientation, however, is the recognition of the function of policing in US society: armed protection of state interests. If one sees policing for what it is – a set of practices empowered by the state to enforce law and maintain social control and cultural hegemony through the use of force – one may more easily recognize that perhaps the goal should not be to improve how policing functions but to reduce its role in our lives.”

 

 

Feeling for the Edge of your Imagination: Finding ways not to call the police

http://imaginealternatives.tumblr.com/post/487334687/feeling-for-the-edge-of-your-imagination-finding

“All of you, but especially those of you who, like myself and the two people mentioned above, are white and/or grew up middle class and/or didn’t grow up in NYC. I’m writing to you, also, if you’ve smiled your way out of a speeding ticket, if you’ve been most afraid of cops at mass protests, or if you generally feel safer when you see police around. If these things are true for you, it’s possible that you are more distanced from the real impact of policing on low-income communities of color. But whether people in your life experience those impacts regularly or not, whether you’ve spent a night in jail, done work to support political prisoners, or haven’t thought much about police brutality since Sean Bell… if you hold a commitment to making the world a better place, I’m writing to you, because there’s work to be done.”

 

 

Ten Lessons for Creating Safety without Police

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/36812-10-lessons-for-creating-safety-without-the-police-a-reflection-on-the-10-year-anniversary-of-the-sos-collective

“Over these last 10 years, we have learned the hard way that building community safety is complex. The experience of collectively creating safety has forever changed us. We still believe that our communities can address violence without the police, and that LGBTSTGNC POC communities have long histories of doing this work. But we still have so much to learn, skills that need to be transferred and supported. Our overall takeaway is that people who work to create community safety need to be willing to grow, change and sometimes be wrong.”

 

 

Additional resources:

 

Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTSide the System https://alp.org/programs/sos

StoryTelling and Organizing Project http://www.stopviolenceeveryday.org/stories/

Cure Violence http://cureviolence.org/

We Charge Genocide (Chicago) http://wechargegenocide.org/

 

 

 

For the days I don’t “feel” trans

Tl;dr Societal narratives around transness means that sometimes I don’t feel trans, this brings up some important things to note concerning how we define transness through pain. Most importantly, I want to remember that the capacity to recognize my own transness can be enough.

 

 

Whether we like it or not, societal expectations, norms, and narratives pressure and impact trans identities.

 

Some days I don’t feel trans. Some days I even feel cis.

 

Even on those days, I am still trans.

 

It’s hard, because I try to be outspoken. I am much more safe to openly discuss my trans identity than many trans people, and I believe that it is my responsibility to talk, to challenge, and to continue to demand respect for trans people. I don’t have a huge platform as an artist or blogger, but I want to use the tiny audience I do have to talk about transness, to give cis people a chance to start shifting their perspectives, to make sure trans voices are heard. Even touching one person is enough to start changing the world.

 

But it’s hard to do that on the days I don’t feel trans. I feel like a fake, like someone that’s fabricated a giant narrative in order to speak over “real” trans people and push an agenda. And it’s hard to talk about this when I know many of the people reading my writing are cis. Even with cis people I trust, it’s hard not to feel like someone will use my writing about this as an excuse to jump out and say “aha! I knew you weren’t really trans, I don’t actually have to listen to what you’re saying”.

 

I’ve alluded to it a lot in my writing – how certain forms of transness are validated and accepted by mainstream society much more than other forms, how invisibility often leads to self-judgement and shame, how narratives around being “trans enough” are so widespread among trans people and yet…we still police each other’s transness and the problem remains…

 

But here’s the thing – It’s not that I stop being trans when I don’t feel trans, it’s that sometimes I start believing the nonsense being thrown at me. I start believing that I should shut up, sit down, and accept that my transness isn’t real.

 

Of course, that’s the moment when I need to be the loudest, because, if nothing else, I have learned that if I am experiencing something, there’s probably at least one other person in the world that has experienced it. And if we both start talking about it, there’s a higher chance that we find each other (I’ve been learning probability and statistics recently, watch out).

 

And here’s a crucial detail: Days I don’t feel trans usually come after a nice stretch of time when I don’t experience dysphoria. A lot of people still believe that gender dysphoria is a condition for being trans and I have internalized that statement. Instead of being happy that something that makes me incredibly uncomfortable is not present, I am disappointed and judge myself for not being in pain.

 

Let’s repeat that: I judge myself for not being in pain

 

I know there is now the term “gender euphoria” in response to defining transness through pain. It defines transness through joy – the euphoric moment when everything aligns properly and a trans person can experience their gender to the fullest. I love the idea in the word, but I have to be honest, I have never experienced gender euphoria. Maybe I will someday. I’m ridiculously happy to know that other trans people do. But, in the meantime, it’s not a useful definition for working through my own feelings.

 

There’s just one thing I have to remember on these days: cis people, unless prompted, do not question their gender to the extent that trans people do. Society does not give them reason to. If I am capable of thinking of myself as trans, if I am capable of seeing myself as nonbinary, I probably am. And, even if I’m not, I’m definitely doing enough thinking on the subject to trust my current decision on the matter.

 

There is no single definition of trans. Every trans person experiences gender differently, even while we share certain experiences. And, if we are capable of conceiving ourselves as such, then it’s a possibility to consider.

 

Transness isn’t contingent on pain, nor is it contingent on joy. It’s not the same thing every day. It’s just an experience of gender that is in contrast to the gender we are assigned at birth. That’s all.

 

And, that is me.

 

So, even on the days I don’t feel trans. I am, most definitely, trans.

 

 

Theory: Ritual and Social Construction

Tl;dr Ritual, or repeated practices that affirm a tradition, is a tool that can be exploited in both artistic performance and processes through repetition and patience, and can lead to a process that involves community-building.

screenshot cover photo

 

Conversations around tradition, ritual, and social construction are very common when we start discussing gender theory and trans identities. I do not want to belabour the point. If you want the very basic ideas of gender as a social construction, what tradition is, etc., I suggest going to your nearest library and cracking open whatever sociology or anthropology textbook is on offer (alternatively, find one online). It’s a good start, some of it I agree with, some of it I don’t, and, to be perfectly honest, it’s mostly not necessary in order to follow the rest here.

 

What I want to talk about is ritual and how that feeds artistic practice while including gender-related conversations in the process.

 

Before that, I’d like to make a side note that I really don’t like to say that gender is a social construct. In some circumstances, it might be, but gender is so many things and I find making such a large, general statement de-emphasizes the importance of the other definitions of gender. For clarity, I usually use the term “gender role” when discussing gender construction because societies and cultures build gender roles that are not always related to assigned gender or gender identity, but have a huge impact on how members of that society/culture views gender.

 

Ritual is a repeated pattern which reaffirms a tradition within a given group of people. So, if a given culture has ten different gender roles, different repeated habits, ranging from daily habits to once-a-decade ceremonies will include these ten gender roles. By repeatedly practicing a ritual, the “norm” of those roles is established, affirmed, and strengthened. Our culture only has two gender roles, but we have numerous rituals to affirm these roles – weddings, roles in social dances, daily dressing, hair, make-up, greetings, language use…from small to large to small, these repeated practices are gendered and strengthen the establishment of binary gender roles in our culture.

 

But, ritual is also a tool, and, once we understand what it is and what it does, we can use it.

 

I like to approach art with patience. I believe that stretching time creates more space for complexity, and this naturally leads to the use of repetition. I first started working with repetition when I was struggling with a recorded text. I wanted to make my audience focus on the words, without having to illustrate it through my movement, and resolved to create a kind of “screensaver” movement to accompany the text. But, I discovered there’s a lot more to repetition than simply making my audience notice a text. At first, it emphasises the movement, ensures that the audience catches it and recognizes it every time it is repeated. Over time though, a repeated movement becomes a ritual which builds and affirms the world built in the work.

 

This opens opportunity for performances to build intricate, deep worlds that an audience can go into quite easily by recognizing the ritual and building the world for themselves as they watch. In my piece How Dare You. , I was working specifically with the concept of anger and how, when we are angry, we often start doing the same thing over and over again in an attempt to relieve the anger, without a result. My dancer used only three main movements which built and changed as the piece progressed, which allowed us to build a world of anger and frustration without having to explicitly say “this is about anger”. It also meant that every slight change carried more meaning. Rituals are altered as they progress, and each change in a repetition is significant. By the time we got to a text, the audience already understood the world. They had a context for understanding the text that followed.

 

Ritual is useful in performance, but also in process. For my installation, Construction Zone , I abstracted the ritual process through the act of chaining wool to look specifically at gender construction. The chaining, or finger knitting, allowed for a ritual process outside of the final work presented, from the point of rolling the skein of wool into a ball to unrolling the chained yarn from its ball to string it up in the room.

 

Chained wool is useful for representing social constructions because the audience has to look closely to realize that it is not simply thick yarn, just as social constructions of gender are so subtle that we will not see them unless we look for them. I included a film of the chain collecting in a jar as I make it, directing my audience to look more closely and to emphasize the point that we usually do not see how the construction happens, only the consequences, just as my audience was not able to see the amount of work that went into chaining enough yarn when experiencing the final piece.

 

I had originally intended to do all of the chaining myself in order to experience the ritual and to show that nonbinary trans people like me are also involved in gender construction. Due to time constraints, I ended up involving others, both cis and trans to make sure I would have enough chained yarn. The result was that I was able to build a small community around the project, even though it was technically a “solo” work. From an artistic and theoretical perspective, my process involved building a new micro society around a communal abstract yarn-chaining ritual.

 

That said, from a personal perspective, the project was a chance to connect with a whole bunch of people that I loved in a new way. My favorite element of that installation is the signs that thank the people that helped in chaining the yarn, because it is a list of people I care about and who put significant time and energy into something that mattered to me. That’s the other beautiful thing about involving ritual and community in an artistic process – it’s a chance to be together.

 

Currently, I am starting to work on a new solo piece which includes yarn chaining alongside traditional Irish hornpipes. I am hoping to expand my installation work to build new process-based art communities, although, as an artist, I have a long way to go before I have the ability to do it the way I want to. However, repetition, ritual, and the subsequent community building are concepts I keep coming back to and leaning on as I continue to create work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between two names

Tl;dr Having two names is different from the mainstream trans narrative about names, but the most important thing it has shown me over and over again is that polite, considerate asking is always the best option when you’re confused about a name.

 

I have two names.

 

This is a bizarrely controversial statement for a trans person to make, which is why I want to say it before cis people get too married to the predominant narrative about trans names.

 

There are, of course, many trans people with one name. Trans people with dead names that need to be burnt and then buried underground. Trans people that wish to legally change their name, but don’t have the money yet, but we’re sure as heck never going to call them by that terrible, awful legal name (side note: if you want to help a trans person change their name, here’s a great New England-based project to donate to!)

 

I’m not one of those people.

 

I live between and with two names and I love both of my names. And, even though I technically have defined uses for each name, it’s always still ambiguous, it’s always fluid, and I’m not always sure which name belongs where.

 

Sometimes, it’s just my damn ornery nature that means I’ll demand someone use one name over another. I admit it quite willingly. I did that when someone decided to submit some of my written work without my consent and I wanted to make their life a little difficult because of that.

 

Sometimes, I choose to ask people to use a different name for me because I know it’s a learning experience for them – the name they’re using is fine, but I know they need to get better at respecting people and calling them the name they want to be called and I can give them some low-stakes practice. I have done that with many of my classmates and my teachers over the years, especially ones I wasn’t explicitly out to.

 

Sometimes, a name is a way to call someone out. If someone is being transphobic, asking them to call me a different name makes their stumbles more visible, to me, and to others, who may need more blatant proof that someone is transphobic. I had a teacher last year who was still calling me the name on the register halfway through the year. By clarifying that as transphobic behavior, there was a tangible, clear line drawn concerning her unacceptable actions, as opposed to my vague, unprovable awareness that she was transphobic.

 

Sometimes, a name is about my personal autonomy. My mother once asked my grandparents (and the rest of my family) to start calling me “Jo” without checking with me first. Asking my family to call me my legal name was as much about taking back the power of choice she had taken from me as it was about my name.

 

Sometimes, my name is about anonymity and personal protection. There’s something nice about not always going by my legal name. There’s something comforting about knowing that my legal documents (especially my passport) may not immediately lead to all of me. I know it’s not hard for anyone to make the connections, but the ability to have disconnections in my presentation of self (the person, the artist, the employee, the writer, the academic, the friend, the family member…) and delineate that with a name is both useful and reassuring. I can be both, or I can be one, and that flexibility makes me feel safe (it probably doesn’t make me actually safe, but feeling safe is important too).

 

I purposefully organize my presentation of self to make people ask what name to call me. I prefer to be able to make that choice than to allow someone else to make that choice for me.

 

This has led to moments of other trans people looking at me in confusion going “you know, we can just remove this name and call you what you want, if you like” and having to explain “no, I am both, I want you to ask”. And I have met so many well-meaning cis people fumbling and being too embarrassed to ask. And, of course, there are the ignorant cis people refusing to call me the name I’ve asked them to because it doesn’t fit their worldview and understanding of me.

 

Every trans person is different. We all have unique relationships with our names. But, if there’s one thing that I’d like someone to take away from this it’s that asking is good. If you are confused, ask. If you think you know what someone wants to be called, but are not completely sure, ask. Ask politely, without drawing public attention to the person, and then go with that answer. The biggest harm you can do is to act as if you know more about a trans person’s name than they do, either through ignorance, uncaringness, discomfort, or unwillingness to ask.

 

And, most importantly, no single narrative about a trans person will ever act as your blueprint for every other trans person you meet.

 

Women-only spaces welcoming nonbinary people, a personal dilemma

Tl;dr When women-only spaces open themselves up to nonbinary people, it puts a lot of responsibility onto women and forces nonbinary people to misgender themselves to access necessary resources offered by the space. While it can be helpful now, I would like to see us start to find a new system.

 

There’s this new trend I’ve been noticing in which spaces that are “women-only” have started specifying that to include nonbinary folks.

 

It makes me think of something that happened a long time ago at uni, when someone had a go at making the scope of the women’s forum more trans inclusive and made a huge mess of it. In their enthusiasm, they basically said that anyone that wasn’t a cis man (including trans men) belonged in a space that was specifically about supporting women. As you can imagine, that was super uncomfortable for everyone involved, people that didn’t identify as a woman who were suddenly thrown into the woman box and women that actually kind of needed their women-only space.

 

Here’s the thing: I have spent my life running away from the identity of “woman”. Every nonbinary person’s experience is different, but I have never been and never will be a woman. Except, I am perceived as one during the majority of my public life. The violence, discrimination, and insecurity I face in my day-to-day life is not because of my transness or because I’m nonbinary, it’s because others perceive me as a woman. That means that conversations about sexism and misogyny, things like the wage gap, rape culture, patriarchy…that affects me daily. And on a political level, we’re still working in a society and with a government that recognizes two genders. I can’t fight the fucking nonbinary wage gap because it doesn’t exist (trans unemployment and employment discrimination does, but that’s not what I face).

 

I need to be part of conversations about these things. I belong there.

 

So, it is important that women-only spaces are opening their doors up for people like me – people that aren’t women, but experience life as if they were one.

 

But, every time I walk into a women-only space, I feel sickened. I feel like I am misgendering myself. I have to adopt the one identity that I never ever want to touch. And I have to do that in order to enter dialogues about my life. It’s this vicious back and forth between honoring my gender and recognizing the practicalities of my life. And it becomes more upsetting when I consider how often trans women are unwelcome in women’s spaces. It’s sickening to consider that I would be more welcome in a women’s space than a trans woman (ok seriously, who belongs in a women’s space? The nonbinary person or the woman? Do we actually have to talk about this?).

 

For me, it is hugely important not to enter women-only spaces. I never went to the women’s forum at uni. I do not involve myself in events for women in the arts (although I will happily support such things), unless it explicitly includes nonbinary folks (and, even then, I might not, because I know most cis women there will welcome me as a woman, not a nonbinary person). I do not go to women’s discussion events or workshops. It’s as much about telling myself “yes, you’re not a woman” as it is about giving space to actual women.

 

Because, yes, women do need women-only spaces.

 

We talk a lot about privileged women, but the fact is that we live in a world where catcalling still hasn’t stopped. And yes, there are experiences I share with women because of how I am perceived, but I experience it differently because I am not a woman. How can I expect people dealing with this crap to take my crap into account, just because it’s similar? I worry that, in opening up women’s spaces for nonbinary people, it’s putting too much of a burden on women, people that are already struggling and fighting their own battles.

 

There’s a time and a place for us to share and find solidarity and a time and a place for us to separate and be with people like us.

 

But, at this moment in time, there’s not enough resources specifically for nonbinary people to make separation feasible. For loads of nonbinary folks, feminist and women’s spaces are how we get access to services, support systems, community, and respect. I know that I tend not to go towards a trans organization or support system when it comes to things that have to do with being perceived as a woman, it doesn’t even occur to me because these things are not caused by my transness. And, if it does occur to me, I choose the women’s space because I know a trans spaces’ resources are already stretched much thinner and are much more necessary for people who can’t enter women’s spaces.

 

It might not be possible now, but I would like to see more nonbinary-exclusive spaces. Instead of expecting women to carry our weight, I’d like to see new opportunities specifically aimed at nonbinary people. And I would like to see women-only spaces recognizing that people they may consider as women are not actually women and don’t belong in those spaces. And, most importantly, I would like to see the end of grouping nonbinary people into binary gendered categories because there’s no other option. I want there to be more options. Yes, maybe there’s not a lot of us. Yes, we still belong in women’s and feminist conversations. But it’s time to start really recognizing nonbinary genders and their accompanying specific needs as distinct from other genders.

 

This is something that takes time and is, happily, already in process. In the meantime, I am happy to know I have support from so many women’s organizations and spaces and am not without a safety net. But, the more we start recognizing these distinctions and trying to manage the nuance in how we create spaces and support systems, the better we can support nonbinary trans people to their (our) fullest.