The Politics of Visibility

Last week’s Trans Day of Visibility saw a surge of critiques of the phrase’s dubious politics on my Facebook wall. Created in 2010 by the transgender Michigan activist Rachel Crandall, Trans Day of Visibility was meant to be a positive twin to the Trans Day of Remembrance. A celebration of the living, as a counterpart to the remembrance of the dead. However, the articles on my Facebook newsfeed also reminded me that visibility often puts trans people in harm’s way. One’s visible trans status, especially in the case of trans women and trans women of colour, often leaves trans people vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence.

In this article, I’m not trying to restate what others have so eloquently said. I want to ask a question about the origins of the politics behind TDOV’s name.

When I reposted a picture (below) celebrating TDOV, I paused at the word ‘visibility.’ It seemed an odd choice of word to me. For me, it seemed a word that might be more commonly used, or useful, in the case of celebrating lesbian, gay or bisexual identities, than trans identities.

trans day of visibility
Trans Day of Visibility

Identity politics requires the coherence of the group in question. When the identity of the group might not be visible, as is potentially in the case of some sexual minorities, members need to ‘come out’ as belonging to that group. To come out is to claim belonging. For kickass academic theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, this “epistemology of the closet” has come to structure gay identity as we know it today. It is by coming out that lesbian, gay and bisexual subjects come into being.

When I was studying at McGill University, I was a member of a group called Allies Montreal. We would visit local high schools in groups of three and facilitate workshops on homophobia at school. Our workshops would always start the same way: with our coming-out story. By telling our coming-out story we were situating ourselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual subjects. The story told the students we were the ‘real gays,’ come to educate them on gay stuff. We were legitimized as authorities on gay things. It allowed us, in a way, to speak.

Transgender Day of Visibility relies on a similar language of visibility politics. This may reflect trans’ status as an addendum to the pre-existing LGB. Although now commonplace, T was only a recent addition. And for many trans activists, piggybacking on gay acceptance isn’t that beneficial to trans rights. After all, does a group who advocates for sexual minorities and a group who advocates for gender minorities have much in common? This joining of causes may have been encouraged by the prevalence of trans people in many lesbian and gay communities and our political unification under the umbrella ‘queer.’

We are bound to talk about our identities in certain ways. LGBT activism has asked for identity recognition as access to power. In this sense, TDOV is asking that trans people be recognized as trans in order to access the language of equal rights that identity politics provides. Identity politics necessitates engaging in visibility politics –if one’s identity gives one access to power, then you need to be seen as that identity, you need to be recognized, in order to access power.

All this is to say, perhaps visibility isn’t the terms on which trans people should be fighting for their rights. It looks like we need to develop new languages and new ways of acknowledging trans people’s rights. I’m sure many others are far ahead of me.

On being 32, queer, and not pregnant

Why being a grown-up is hard, being an older queer is harder, and my feelings on discovering my brother is pregnant

Happy Family Day Canadians in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan! Happy Viola Desmond day in Nova Scotia and also Louis Riel day in Manitoba! Phew. Why can’t all of Canada agree on the same bloody holiday? That’s what this girl from a island that fits into your country, like, 40 times over (I calculated it) wants to know. What better way to celebrate the (I feel, rather patriarchal sounding holiday) by oversharing my conflicted feelings about aging, babies, careers and being a queer lady who is not pregnant, nor has easy access to sperm.

My little brother, who used to be small enough for me to pick up in my arms before he grew into an oversized human, is going to be a Dad. He FaceTimes me on the way to a dinner party with the ‘Amy is pregnant and we’re engaged!’ bombshell. Cue slightly maniacal laughter from both of us about the prospect of him being a Dad, my predictable outburst “I’m going to be the coolest feminist auntie ever” and my also predictable sinking feeling that he will now definitely be my parents’ favourite child.

I immediately call my partner and discuss where we can get some gay sperm to knock me up. I can get very competitive.

Fuck that biological clock
Fuck that biological clock

I spent the whole of yesterday in a weird daze, having given myself some kind of half concussion by dropping a glass pot lid on my nose, and having found out that I am going to be an auntie. Within a couple of hours of my brother’s we’re-having-a-baby-and-we’re-getting-married,-surprise! bombshell, I found out a dear friend of mine is engaged. This follows on the heels of finding out my best friend is pregnant a couple of weeks ago and a literal baby explosion among my straight friends in the UK.

It seems like all of my friends are having babies and getting married.

I, on the other hand, had spent a good part of last week trying to convince my partner that we should move to the prairies for my PhD program and had finally resorted to the manipulative outburst “I’ll marry you if you do.” Well done, Laura, you win romantic proposal of the year award. No thoroughly planned replica of our original date for me, oh no, just a desperate attempt to have my cake and eat it too.

Apparently, now we’re pre-engaged, or whatever that is. I prefer betrothed, as it sounds more Jane Austen-y and less nineties romcom or whatever.

So, all this is to say, that I’m feeling a lot of pressure when it comes to the aging, queerness and career front. Having vacillated a lot on the babies question in my twenties, not least because it’s not so straightforward when you’re unlikely to be partnered with a cisgender dude, I am coming to the conclusion that I probably do want the babies. Problem is, I also want the career, am starting a PhD this year, have no money and, according to received opinion, my eggs will start drying up in a couple of years if they haven’t already started to do so.

Argh! I know, #middleclassproblems, right? I am also aware that getting to do a PhD is a huge privilege, I know that my parents will always bail me out financially if necessary and I can probably get the sperm from somewhere. As I get older, I realize more and more that a) time passes and b) there is no perfect time to do anything anyway.

Plus, I’m a feminist and sceptical of the ‘have babies now now now woman it is your job and your time is running out!’ patriarchal narrative, because, you know, the patriarchy has an agenda.

I’ve also been following queer femme Michelle Tea’s blog on getting pregnant and found it upsetting to read about her fertility problems as a 40-something-year-old. Luckily, those fertility problems were not insurmountable as she now has a cute gayby called Atticus.

So, I think I’m probably going to try to do babies and PhD at the same time. This will be a couple of years after getting my dog next year, because, I’m not completely crazy or anything!

Anyway, that’s my opinion on gaybys. Happy Family Day everyone! (Barf.)

Coming out when you’re single

In this, my last of three posts on coming out, I examine the shorthands we use to come out and ask what kind of pitfalls they have

There’s no doubt — being closeted is bad for your health. It places you in the position of feeling like you are doing something wrong. You feel guilty because you’re hiding the truth about yourself. In this, my last post on coming out, I want to explore ways we can come out in order to ease this burden.

Two weeks ago, I asked how different work cultures affect our ability to come out. I also argued that being trans, genderqueer, or anything other than a straight [ha!] gay or lesbian can leave you open to misunderstanding and feeling less able to come out. However, if you are in a workplace where coming out is a possibility for you, the question remains — how do you do it? This week, I want to look at how we come out. What are the shorthands we use for declaring our queerness and what kind of pitfalls do they have?

One of the easiest ways to out yourself is to refer to your same-sex partner. You can casually drop a reference to them into the conversation to signal your queerness to your colleagues. This has the benefit of feeling like a very natural way of coming out. It’s not obvious that your intention is to come out (thereby feeling natural), and because it feels very casual, you are probably less likely to experience a negative reaction from others.

However, this strategy isn’t available to everyone. After reading my first post on coming out at work, a friend commented she’s not sure how she should come out to her employers, because she’s single.

Source: adventuresingay.tumblr.com
Source: adventuresingay.tumblr.com

As someone who’s been single for most of her adult life, I understand this dilemma.  There is a huge difference between casually referring to your same-sex partner in front of new acquaintances and coming out as a single person. The first is an easy go-to phrase that allows you to test the potentially homophobic waters when meeting people for the first time. The second feels awkward. It feels way more legitimate to refer to your same-sex partner than to find another way to casually drop the gay bomb into conversation.

When I was single, I felt frustrated with this situation. Having a partner provides you with an easier way to out yourself. It feels awkward to say, by the way, I’m gay! Like you’re pointing out your difference. Of course, this feeling of awkwardness is probably internalized homophobia. It just doesn’t apply to a straight person talking about their sexuality.

The world — even the queer world — is set up to privilege couples. Being in a relationship facilitates every aspect of your life from cheaper rent, to vacations to work and family events. I’ve often felt that the pressure to be coupled is such that it’s considered better to be in any relationship at all even if it’s unhappy, than to be single.

However, before the revolution happens, we need to find ways to come out that feel less awkward to us. (After the feminist socialist queer revolution, this won’t be necessary.)

So, how do you come out when you don’t have a partner? One alternative way to come out is by dropping a super gay activity that you do into conversation. You can mention that you’re going to that gay curling or queer tango class this evening. Like referring to your partner, this has the benefit of feeling natural as it fits into the kinds of conversations colleagues have at work.

This is just one idea and I am sure there are many more. So, now I turn it over to you. How do you come out, especially when you don’t have a partner?