Description: a faded, black feminine silouette standing with hands up pressing up against the screen. This silouette is against what looks like a white screen or background, like it’s some kind of barrier between the presumably woman and the viewer.]
This piece is in response to a moment that occurred the other week (I wrote part of this, cooled off, came back to it, and finished it). I was at a really cool talk on trans necropolitics. But as I looked around the room, I noticed I was the only trans woman in the room listening to a lecture by a trans man of colour interviewed by an tenured white trans man professor. (Both of whose work I appreciate).
Hearing about brutally murdered trans women of colour and being in the room where no one else was a trans woman of colour was so distressing for me that I ran out of the room.
After reflecting on my reaction, I realized it was rash for me to leave, but at the same time, I’d like to stand with my choice even if it wasn’t the nicest thing I’ve ever done. By me leaving a talk as a trans woman of colour, it begs a few questions. Where are the other trans women and trans femme folks? Where were the white trans women when there were white trans men present? Why aren’t there any trans women of colour in the room when they’re the focus of the talk? Why does it feel so uncomfortable when I speak about trans women of colour when I’m white passing?
The talk was haunted by the spectre of trans women of colour.
I was reminded of a common sentiment in my transfeminine communities: trans men become leaders, movers, changers and we’re stuck on welfare or end up dead.
I was reminded of the constant frustration towards white people in my racialized communities. How especially black and Indigenous folks have to deal with so much more violence, lack of quality jobs, and mistreatment in all the institutions than I do as a white passing eurasian.
And then there’s the intersections which I later found out were a large part of the talk after I slipped out of the room: how at the margins trans folks of colour are.
Trans women, especially trans women of colour get to be subjects of study to bolster the careers of predominantly white trans men, AFAB genderqueers, and cis queers. But how often do we see trans women becoming a professor? Especially those of us who transition prior to tenure? The only ones I know are Trish Salah and Vivek Shraya. (Both stellar excellent trans women of colour, look them up).
I’ve worked really hard to get where I am right now. I’ve been working to try and follow my passions to make a better world for marginalized folks. I’m working towards having a career working with my communities.
September 2019, I finally began a PhD program. Everything I’ve been working and striving for finally paid off and I could get out of my bare life living on $10k a year no benefits. I had access to benefits so I could access dental, mental healthcare, have my meds covered, get new glasses in the correct prescription, and have access to luxuries such as medically necessary pelvic physio, massage, voice therapy, and electrolysis/laser hair removal covered by the union. And best of all, my income jumped from $10k to $22k a year.
After my first paycheque at the end of September, I felt rich. I felt my quality of life increase because I could actually afford to take care of myself and take care of myself properly.
Even though for the past ~6 months, I’ve had to deal with extraordinary levels of anxiety, stress, sleepness nights, and feeling like I’m barely keeping afloat, I’m the happiest I’ve been in years. I feel privileged. Yet in the grander scheme, making $22k a year with a few thousand more in benefits is barely anything. Consider the number of administrators at my university (not even heads of departments!) that make over $100k a year and are on Sunshine List. I may be able to pay rent and have a couple hundred of disposable income a month, it doesn’t mean that I’m actually wealthy. I’m just above the poverty line for the first time in my life.
I don’t know anyone like me in my program. I’ve met very few trans women PhD students and they were mostly white. The only trans woman of colour grad student I knew was the one who coerced me into non-consensual sex work and to my knowledge, she dropped out of her MA. On my campus, I don’t know any trans women profs, but I do know one trans woman employed in the administration. But I know a number of tenured trans male profs.
This is anecdotal evidence at best, but transmisogyny is very real. Observations like my own have been voiced by other trans women. There are a lot more trans men who are profs and PhD students than trans women. I know a lot of trans women, and the vast majority of them live well below the poverty line. Many are on OW or ODSP. I see them mostly at social services that I’ve accessed, not so much at the art programs, activist campaigns, volunteer opportunities, or as leaders in my communities. And the ones that I do see in positions of power are likely white and less disabled.
Yet the trans woman of colour is often invoked like a ghost to validate that the speaker in question has good politics. Where are the trans women of colour? Where are we in academia?
The world of academia is my safe place. It’s a place where my voice is heard and my abilities are rewarded. I love my program and I don’t feel irritated at anyone so far. I have mentors and so much untapped knowledge that I want to get into but never have enough hours in the day to pick at. Grad school breathed life into the husk of my bare life. But I’m always painfully aware of being different. People like me don’t survive university. People like me don’t become professors. I’m scared to dream again of being powerful of being a big shot academic. This could all be taken away from me at any moment.
Even though I’m white passing, I’m still a trans woman of colour (who’s also fat and disabled). And I don’t want to become a ghost that people invoke on the Trans Day of Remembrance.
I’d like to ask academics: what are you doing to break down barriers for trans women, especially trans women of colour, disabled trans women, disabled trans women of colour, and a ton of other intersections? I know a bunch of brilliant, talented writers, activists, and theorists who are trans women of colour. Can they be co-researchers? Not just to be trotted out to tell their story of suffering and woe for an audience hungering for it please! Academics do this enough with disabled folks! Can these trans women of colour be guest speakers paid at least $100 for their expertise to lecture to classes? Can they be recruited into bridging programs?
What can you do to give life to the ghost of trans women of colour?