Hey, everybody. This post has taken me way longer to write than I ever wanted it to, because I just can’t figure out how to say it. I’ve thought about it for months, but I can’t find any answers. So instead of trying to frame it for you nicely all figured out in a little package, I’m going to lay it out, confusion and loose ends and all.
So, a few months ago Upworthy featured one of my poems, “Boobs.” You can see it here if you’re unfamiliar. Besides from a few transphobes and the regular haters-gonna-hate, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve gotten tons of awesome messages from people telling me how much it’s meant to them and how it makes them (a lot of whom are non-binary (and quite a few binary) trans people) not feel so alone in a world where non-binary (and trans, in general) erasure reigns. For this, I am truly thankful. The fact that something I said could help anyone at all (let alone be seen by hundreds of thousands of people) astounds and humbles me.
But I’m not the kind of person who is okay with potentially shitting on someone else, even if it will help people like me. Soon after Upworthy posted my video, an old friend messaged me, and I asked her if I could share some of her words while trying to explain this to people. She said yes, and so I’m going to let you into the conversation. It’s important to know for this conversation that she’s a trans woman, so she has the authority to speak to her own experiences. It’s also important to know that I drafted this poem about 10 times, and she kindly agreed to check it over to try to detect any transmisogyny (hatred of trans women) I may have missed BEFORE I ever performed this poem for a large audience. Since I’m not a trans woman, my privilege sometimes gets in the way of me recognizing transmisogyny when it’s present, and since it’s part of her survival to detect it, she has a much better understanding of subtler things that reinforce transmisogyny. At the time of the initial reading (sometime in March), she didn’t find any lines or ideas that stood out to her as transmisogynistic. But I think since then, both of our understandings grew as to how subtle transmisogyny can be, and I’m grateful she felt comfortable enough with me to bring up the newly-noticed issues.
The point is, sometimes you do your best to avoid saying things that might further someone’s oppression. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you don’t. But you’ve always got to take responsibility for yourself and listen to the people you may be hurting.
Enough pretext; here’s the conversation:
Her: “”I almost believed in God because I don’t trust nature to make anything this good.” — This line only applies to dfab people and definitely excludes any dmab trans person who’s had top surgery or packs their bra. In other words, trans women are going to get the brunt of this, because this line reinforces the idea that trans women are artificial and fake and unnatural. For me, it says that boobs are so amazing that either God (a concept I’m thinking you find asinine in how you deliver the line) or nature (which automatically excludes dmab people) made them, and anything else is not a thing. It subjects our womanhood to the whim of cis norms, which are also being reinforced by this line.
The penis on the elbow thing, it feels mocking of dmab trans people. For some of us, yes, our penis does feel like a foreign appendage that shouldn’t be there. I get that you’re trying to say “Hey there’s a part that doesn’t really belong here,” but the way it’s conveyed is rooted in transmisogyny. I mean, why’s it gotta be a penis? I don’t see why it would have to be a penis rather than anything else, like a can of air dust, a cutting board, a plate, a chair, or maybe something like wisdom teeth and how they can actually cause bacterial infections and other things if not removed.
That’s all I really wanted to address in the poem. Those are the two lines that really stand out. The rest is up to you now. The damage has already been done, and your influence on the queer + trans community is most likely working as a major player in spaces dominated by dfab trans people, which is pretty much all of them. I hope you’re up to the task of reconciliation. If not, it won’t do anything but benefit you.
Oh, and just thought of this, the penis part of the poem also seems to mock people with physical disfigurements, so it’s also ableist.”
Me: “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about these things. I want to give a thorough response and hear your feedback if you have any suggestions for how to address these things to the broader public.
#1. I’m sorry I put transmisogynistic things in this poem.
#2.I can definitely see how transmisogyny would play into this in the nuances of the line. If I can ask a question (because when I wrote this, I did write it so that it wouldn’t specify gender). The overarching message of the poem is to allow people to have freedom over their bodies and not have gender assumed based off of bodies. I personally would consider any sort of surgery and/or packing under the “nature” category because nature is equated with the real world/ humankind, which I try to make clear with my clear atheistic viewpoint. I have also met trans women who refer to their chest as breasts before hormones/surgery/ etc., so I would include them. Does this make a difference, or is my interpretation of the line irrelevant? Because, obviously, as much as I would love the world to follow my train of logic, 95% of people will picture a dfab body based off of those lines.
#3. I don’t know if you actually expect an answer to this, but honestly, it’s a penis just because it’s an external sex organ that people would notice. It creates an image because there aren’t really any other external sex organs. Also, it’s something I heard someone use to talk about their dysphoria once. If I had thought of the possible implications of this earlier, I would have changed the specification of “sex organ” and used a neutral object.
#4. I am always open to reconciling with people when I’ve hurt them. It’s not my job (or realistic) for me to be perfect. But it is my obligation to learn, get better, and try to undo harm that I’ve done. Even though it is crucial to me to get any type of non-binary representation into the world (since there is pretty much zero), I don’t want to do that by stepping on the backs of other people.
#5. I have another question, if you want to engage in conversation. If not, totally fine. I can definitely see ableism at work; however, the critique of the line following that is that society limits people too much by their bodies and refuses to let people transcend the normative ideas associated with those. Those few lines to me are more about critiquing a society that doesn’t accept bodily variance than mocking the physical abnormality, since the blame is placed on society and not the abnormality. But, once again maybe my logic doesn’t matter, and my inclusion of the physical abnormality is exploitative.
Once again, thanks for your feedback. Do I have permission to use your observations and/or phrasing in conversations with people in the future when I try to talk about this?”
Her: “#2 — I think in this case you’ve gotta be honest with yourself about who the majority of your audience is: white cis queers (who are dfab most likely) and dfab trans people. I don’t think your interpretation is irrelevant, but you also have to think about how this audience is going to receive it, internalize it, and then communicate that message to others. It’s important to be super clear, and I don’t think your definition of ‘nature’ is clear enough within the poem, and in a poem like this, especially about trans identity, it might benefit from being stated explicitly.
#3 — I don’t doubt you heard someone use it to talk about their dysphoria. My assumption is this person is dfab, because I really doubt any dmab trans person would talk about it that way for a number of reasons.
#5 — I’d say that in those lines, it’s using physical abnormality in an exploitative way to make a point about trans identity and policing of bodies, which is a bit ironic because it somewhat employs body policing to make a point about body policing.
Mhm, you have my permission to use my observations + phrasing.”
You can read some of the conclusions that I drew in the conversation, and here are just a few more that I think are important to emphasize:
#1. Clarity and specificity are extremely important. Transmisogyny is taught to us in the ways in which we think about almost everything. Even though I didn’t even mean it as exclusive to trans women, the fact is that most people will receive it that way. Keeping my audience in mind and the biases they bring with them is extremely important.
#2. I’m able-bodied, and so is the woman I was talking to, so I might not have all this figured out, and I don’t want to speak for communities I’m not a part of. Obviously, my goal was not to enforce ableism by using disfigurement in a mocking way. I think we’ve all got that my point was to say that the world is shitty and shouldn’t police our bodies (including disabled people/ differently abled people). I don’t know how to say it better in the poem yet, but I will keep revising and keep trying to make it less potentially harmful.
Overall, you best believe that I am still learning, and there are revisions of this poem to come. If any of you have suggestions and/or comments, I welcome them! I’m all about having conversations to fight transmisogyny and ableism. Once again, thank you to the woman that took the time to have a conversation with me, and thank you all for reading this. I apologize again for any harm I may have caused to communities I’m not a part of, and let’s all try to be the most non-oppressive people we can be.
Sending love and thanks,