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  • Julia Schiwal

VACANT MEMORY

Updated: Nov 2


Transgender things are extremely tiring to write about. Thank god this piece isn't about that. It's about cisgender people, gay people, and the great depression.


I was once hit. This is not the worst thing that could happen to a transgender person or the worst thing that has happened to anyone that I know. This is not the worst thing that has happened to me. The worst thing that has happened to me is that after I got hit, no one cared, because I am trans.

I was walking to class one day in Washington D.C. That day, on my way to George Washington University, I wore sunshine-yellow heels. I felt pretty. The walk was short as my house was near the metro. While I was entering the metro, two men were exiting. We would pass one another. One of them looked me up and down. He checked me out. Then he yelled “That’s a man!” and swung his bag as hard as he could at me. I moved out of the way, but the backpack still hit me. There was not too much pain, but I was on the ground.

From the ground, I looked into the second man’s eyes and he looked away. He neither said anything nor did he help me, and he did not attack me. He simply walked by and looked away.

People will do nothing if you are attacked. People do not care about you. You are a freak. A “fucking tranny”. A man in a brown turtleneck, white plaid pants, and ugly, yellow heels.


For the first year of transition, this was my life. I was weird, ugly, I did not pass as a cisgender woman.

I was a man in ugly yellow heels. I was to be avoided, hurt, and ostracized. Hit and then ignored. I was laughed at, called slurs, and treated poorly in every conceivable way. More than once strangers would try to pay for sex with me. One day I sat waiting for an uber and a man came by twice with the same idea.

Nine months later I started to become attractive. Not just passing, but a little hot. I loved this at first. Being a pretty girl is nice—people bought me drinks. People would move out of my way to let me pass by. Somehow across these months, I had transitioned from a tranny man to a pretty woman.

This warm feeling passed quickly and soon gave way to resentment and so much anger. The men who called me slurs in October catcalled me in May. They would not stare at my body, and fantasize, if they knew what I was. They would hit me if they knew. The joy I felt turned to ash in my mouth, the burning dust seemed to choke me. I became quieter. I felt that behind every compliment and smile from strangers there were giggles, daggers, and slurs, waiting.

I was raped or assaulted or whatever. People did things to me I did not want done during this period because I was both pretty and trans and because I was trans I was vulnerable. What was I supposed to do, go to the MPD, when they raped a trans woman a few miles from my house?

I was mad that at one point I was an inhumane freak and was hit for this, and then shortly after I was a pretty woman, and was rewarded and raped for this but the whole time I was me. My pride in my new body felt like so much shit. I felt as if I was only as human as I was fuckable, or passable, or cis. The experience of transition had hurt me so much that I felt nothing but anger at the kindness of cis people because I know that many of them would walk by if they were in the metro tunnel with me that day when I wore ugly yellow heels.

The only person who ever protected me was an older gay black man. I knew he was gay because he was wearing lip gloss and a red bowtie. One day, before I was hit going into the metro, I was sitting next to this older gay man waiting for my stop to come. The metro car was crowded. Across from me, there was a large burly man laughing at me, giggling to himself. He stared at me and kept shaking his head. When the car stopped, I stood up to leave and the man across from me did too, he moved towards me and I thought I would be hit. The gay man next to me stood up too and he was taller than either me or the man across from me, and that stopped the man across from me from hitting me. That gay man protected me. We never spoke. We were similar and that meant we would protect each other.

Monkey Paw

There is a popular myth that the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender liberation began with a heroic riot at stonewall.

That is a lie. Cis people and gay people believe this silly idea. Gay men I know will tell me “I have my rights because of you” with the implication trans women fought and won the rights of gay people because of riots like stonewall.

The roots of the gay rights movement were not trans women at stonewall, the real origin was the Great Depression. The birth of gay culture in the 30’s and 40’s was rooted in political economy. After the depression gender segregation increased. This is because marriage was harder because the economy was bad. As fewer men and women got married and jobs were harder to find. These men and women were put into places like the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was modeled after the military and so was gender-segregated. The consequence of this was simple: Gay people, who never had the chance to experience close, day-long proximity to only men or women without the other gender around, had an opportunity experiment thanks to such work programs. Previously, rich men often could experience and act on homosexual desires, because of the extreme gender segregation of the upper class, especially in European society. Yet, because the response to these programs enforced gender segregation, gay life was brought to the masses. Many of the men who were in these programs later joined the army, another gender-segregated space, and many of the women joined the nursing corp—which was mostly women—for the same exact reason. Eventually, the U.S. nursing corp would be abolished precisely because it was too gay. Gender segregation attracted gay people and straight men separated from women for years made do. Straight soldiers didn’t change their sexuality but learned to be flexible about what satisfied their desires.

Nearly two decades of—ironically puritan—gender segregation led to gay culture being born. This led to the formation of gay organizations in the 50’s that began to advocate for their rights, the aggregation of gay people in gender-segregated communities, facilitated the formation of gay identity—which led to these people beginning to confront questions of rights, liberties, and inclusion. Stonewall started nothing and trans women throwing bricks, historically, were a small, even minor, element of the movement for gay and lesbian rights. Gay people were the leaders of gay liberation. They have gay rights because they fought and won. The more that people say that transgender women are heroes the more they demand us to be heroic, but when I was hit I was not a hero, and neither was the stranger passing by. Most trans women are not heroes.

Cisgender people fetishize transgender people and especially fetishize black transgender women. I will not touch on the racial element of this fetishization here because other people can do this better elsewhere. That said, the vast amount of support that is given to transgender people is largely nothing more than evidence of this fetishization, for the reason that the policies that could help transgender people—Medicare for all and a serious response to the homelessness crisis—will never be supported by most liberals, whose investment in capitalism limits their political vision. While there is much support socially and culturally for transgender people, this support is sweet doting on a strange thing at best and fetishism at worst.

In the United States gay identity was born from a crisis of political economy and so was transgender identity. The story about the Depression, which roots these identities in political and economic transformation, is both simpler and more compelling than the “black trans women at stonewall threw bricks” “YAAS queen” myth. The myth is far more popular because, for people invested in culture and capitalism, this allows abstract thoughts of liberty without concrete economic change. Simply put, cis people, and especially cisgender liberals, may like trans people—but Kaiser Permanente’s profits will always be more important. They are strangers to transgender things and that strangeness makes transness appealing, interesting, like a nature documentary about cuttlefish and deep-sea life. Yet, when you are hit, strangers will not help you because you are strange.


I hate theories of transgender identity. This is because theories are hard to understand. No one should have to read Judith Butler to understand transgender people. Yet nowadays there is pressure to. That is why trans people only have the solid support of college-educated people. Every statistical study demonstrates this.

Yet, this is strange, as historically trans people have been accepted in most societies, even countries that are thought to be “less developed” than the United States. Seventy years ago, Louis Dupree, the famed historian of Afghanistan, observed the existence of marangs across Afghanistan. These genderbending shamans were uncommon but widespread, including in the southeast of the country—in the territory now controlled by the Taliban. These shamans were treated as strange but supernatural healers. The nomadic shamans went from village to village, selling trinkets, amulets, and charms. This was simply a part of the fabric of Afghan nomadic communities.

Similarly, other countries considered conservative by the Washington consensus, such as Iran, recognize trans people and even provide financial support for transition. Ayatollah Khomeini chose to support transgender people after a trans woman broke into his compound and explained her predicament. Transition in Iran is not easy, but for trans women, it is as possible as it is for some rural Americans. For Iran, as long as one did not challenge the heterosexual binary one could transition. There was no Judith Butler needed, a sense of humanity—albeit with constraints—sufficed.

In Thailand for hundreds of years trans people or kathoey, have lived relatively peacefully in Thai society. Without theories of the social construction of gender, Thai people came to accept transition. There is still violence and shame, but the preservation of a pre-modern gender-bent identity is still an accomplishment that speaks volumes. They believed and many do still now, that being kathoey was reincarnation as punishment. If one were a man, and committed sins in the past life, they would be reincarnated as a woman as punishment. Through being identified as sinners performing salvation, the identity was stabilized.

These examples are not supposed to indicate that Iran, Afghanistan, or Thailand have figured everything out, but rather, “Transgender”, and the associated theories of the social construction of gender, are extremely contemporary and modern forms of something eternally human and ancient. For as long as people have been around, some have had genders they are happy with and some have not and tried to change it. This has been called transsexuality, kathoey, marang, two-spirit, and many other things, but these are all simply manifestations of one phenomenon of gender transformation across time.

I view “transgender” as merely another iteration of ways that cisgender people conceptualize people like me. While these earlier descriptions of the eternal “transness” had their issues, they had one advantage that “transgender” lacks today—these earlier explanations were popular across society, even the peasantry; while today, trans people generally only have support among the educated. Like French peasant food transformed into upscale and elite dining experiences, lay people’s sexual openness and gender expression has been taken and alienated from them. Transgender is, at least in this moment, a word for the upper-middle class because Judith butler is a writer for the upper-middle class.

That can and should be changed for the reason that our allies now, upper middle-class liberals, cannot give us what we need. This is because trans people are an extremely small minority. While this is especially true in the U.S., this is also true in other contexts.

In the United States, most estimates place the trans population at around 1.5 million. However, these surveys have not accounted for nonbinary versus transgender identity and may overstate the trans population by conflating trans entirely with nonbinary. The consequence of this is that the trans population, which is a population with specific legal, medical, and social needs, is conflated with a population that often does not have the same social, legal, or medical needs. While there is overlap, in terms of gender confirmation technologies, these are different identities with different consequences. Furthermore, these surveys ignore who has and who has not actually transitioned. For these reasons, trans people—who have transitioned and so have specific medical, social, and legal needs—may be conflated with a larger pool of gender diverse people without these specific, medical, social, and legal needs.

Thus, because the trans population is too small, targeted government policies cannot help us. We are too few and far between, generally too poor and hard to reach. Moreover, designing government programs to help transgender people generally relies on trans people to have the time and resources to look for and find help, though many are engaging in survival sex or too busy working. Targeted programs have to sift through the population, but during this sifting we are sifted out too.

Universal programs work for trans people because they do not require sifting or straining. They help everyone. Though in the current moment, ironically, our allies believe in targeted programs and tiny policy fixes and are opposed to simple universal programs. As long as understanding transgender identity means understanding Judith Butler, we will lose, and die, and be hit and raped; this is because the people that like Butler are the people that hate socialism, or even something simpler, like Medicare for All.

The situation is not hopeless, however. Like our ancestors before us, the marangs, kathoey, and the Roman Empress Elagabalus, we can find ways to gain allies among the people that will actually help us and historically have resisted the rigid gender roles of the elite: the American peasantry of our day, the working class. Yet currently the primary tactic of trans inclusion, which is a strategy that depends on specialized literature only acceptable to a small number of people, alienates this group. Most Americans dislike the idea that reading is the answer to the mysteries of human sexuality but do enjoy the range of experiences that sexual openness offers. Gay things are fun and being transgender is cool. Somehow, the crazy joy of pride and nearly transhumanist, even cyborg, experience of being transgender has been transformed into a discourse based around theory rather than social and sexual euphoria. Perhaps it is too late for any kind of shift to happen, as support for transgender people has already become associated with the same ghouls who have promised their donors that “nothing will fundamentally change”. Who knows, I have hope though, for the reason that Medicare for All would do more for women and trans people than a Kamala Harris vice presidency, and more and more people seem to be becoming aware of that fact.


Babygirl

Anyway. Being trans is cool. One reason is that I used to look at my hands and think I could never pass as a woman and now I look at my hands and cannot fathom how these are not a woman’s hands. I saw my hands change from the hands of a man—rough, large blood vessels—to soft and careful things that nevertheless can do the painting, welding, and writing that my old hands could do. My skin is soft now, but I am the same. Ancient codes of biology, considered immutable, have been hijacked for human joy. This freedom from biology is freedom for society. This freedom means that you can love who you want, be a wife or a husband or whatever you want. This lets you access pleasures you thought were unachievable, by the law of birth. The lesson for cisgender people is that the mutability of our transgender, shows in real terms, that we can change gender and for the better. Not in terms of getting rid of the popular but obscure idea of “toxic masculinity”—which has a different meaning to everyone who talks about it—but in terms of actually dealing with gender with a more open mind in our day to day lives.

This has nothing to do with the academic gender construction of Butler and nothing to do with words like “disciplinary apparatus”. This has everything to do with simple things, like liberty and happiness.

Transgender issues that matter, like how to relate to your family, past life, how to accept losing friends, and how to teach cis people to accept your people are forgotten in the current academic discourse around transgender rights. Questions about family and friends, not labor rights or healthcare or representation, are the real and primary ways that cis people, who are our masters at this moment in the gender struggle, relate to us and will relate to us. These are the important places to work, raise awareness, organize, and advocate. Many trans people post seriously about politics on Twitter and this is pretty much useless.

There is little work that has been done in this space and this is a tragic thing. For example, it is common for grandmothers to accept trans grandchildren even as mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers reject them. This is not because Nana is from an older and more humane time, rather, this is because first-kin relationships are simply more gendered than second-kin relationships. It’s more important to your dad that you’re a boy than it is to your grandma that you’re her grandson. Even a little work raising awareness on this, for trans people and cis people, would be helpful. It’s also important for parents and expecting parents to consider that their child might transition. This is one of the few issues where raising awareness might actually make a difference, for it may facilitate acceptance.

This is just one example. There are many more I could give.



While on the metro one Tuesday afternoon, coming home from my partner’s place, I sat down and moved my bag from next to me to below my metro seat. A man, who was going to sit on the chair left of me, thought I was moving my bag for him and sat down next to me and started making small talk. For the next eight stops, he got closer and closer, finally leaning into me and touching me with his arm and feet. His arm was resting on my thigh and his feet were next to mine. He pressed himself onto me more as the metro ride went on. Buildings went by and his hot breath got closer.

After I blamed myself for wearing a crop top on a sunny day. I was terrified because as a trans woman, the discovery that I am transgender would nearly ensure physical assault. Men get mad when women are not cis. I learned another time on the metro that when men are mad they hit you. Sometimes they rape you.

I hate writing about trans things. But this article was not about trans things, this article was really about cis people, especially cis men, and how they relate to us. This article was not just for men, but the audience will probably mostly be men. Boys, you should understand trans things, but not the social construction of gender. Maybe understand that some people want to be a wife someday or think that being a boy would make them happy. Consider someday that if you have a kid they might transition. Think about this as a story of searching for happiness and nothing more. The why of transgender things is not as important as the how of living while trans, and right now, that how is very hard.

You though can help. You don’t need pronouns in your Twitter bio or to think that the people that brought us the drone war in Yemen are LGBTQ allies. What you can do, is learn that you do not have to look away. You don’t have to be the man in the metro tunnel who let me get hit and said nothing, while cameras limply recorded a crouching woman, quite afraid, in pretty yellow heels.

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