As a queer and a trans person, I spend a noticeable portion of my life in social spaces created for and maintained by other queer and trans people. Trans-centric and queer-centric spaces, if you will. These are spaces where the voices, desires, needs, experiences, and concerns of queers and trans people are given top priority without argument. These are often spaces that are called “trans-friendly” or “queer-friendly”, and are sometimes referred to as “safe spaces” for trans and queer people. These are important spaces for people like me, because outside of these spaces, the voices, desires, needs, experiences, and concerns of people like me are considered distinctively unimportant or are even called “offensive” or “hate speech” by loud-mouthed extremists who radicalize around their own perceived need to trample people like me into the ground if we aren’t aggravated into suicide or murdered in a hate crime first. These so-called safe spaces are important, primarily because people just like me experience some of the highest rates of aggravated suicide, hate crimes, murders, and other forms of violence, but especially relative to our gay and lesbian allies (and foes). We definitely need these safe spaces, and we have to actively work as a community at creating and maintaining them, because they aren’t just being handed to us.
So what are we doing in these safe spaces, exactly? Well, speaking from personal experience, sometimes we’re getting acupuncture or massage therapy to help us move about the world after we’ve sustained physical trauma, injury, or just an incredibly enormous load of emotional tension from being who we are in a world that frequently despises us if we are acknowledged at all. Sometimes we are getting prescription hormones or medical check-ups and referrals for more invasive physical examinations by medical professionals who are being informed in advance that we are trans people when we arrive. Sometimes we are exchanging recipes and sharing a meal together. Sometimes we are exchanging art while we gather to celebrate an occasion together like we were a great big family, as many of us unfortunately sacrifice our relationships with our biological families at some point in our transition. Sometimes we are organizing around an event that is set to take place, during which a loud-mouthed extremist will be given a platform to intentionally and deliberately propagate the kind of ideology that puts so many of us at a wildly increased risk just for being alive and radically honest about who we are. Sometimes we are gathering for ceremony. Sometimes we are gathering for gossip (which can at times play a critical role in our survival, the way sex workers informing each other about bad dates can and does save lives). Sometimes we are gathering to share skills with each other. And sometimes we are just taking a load off to go soak in a hot tub among people who won’t gawk at us and whisper at each other while we’re there.
Scandalous. Positively scandalous, I tell you.
One afternoon, I was in one of these safe spaces for the express purpose of accessing services that fulfill my individual needs as a trans person, when I observed a particular person walk in. This person is a cisgendered woman who I have been observing for quite some time, as she rails against her experience of being non-consensually gendered a cis woman, while doing fundamentally nothing to embody a different way of being and nothing beyond lip service to be functionally trans-inclusive. I was suprised to see her walk into this space, but I suspended my shock to give her a friendly nod and a smile. Maybe she has come into this space today to be of service to some of the trans and queer people who need it, I thought. Maybe she has entered this space to support her sibling’s gender-variant partner, I thought (at which point, two thoughts crossed my mind—one, that it isn’t my business if this is the case; and two, that this is highly improbable, specifically because it isn’t her business to be there for him, given the nature of her relationship to him and the confidential nature of the particular setting in question). But my optimism faded when she then sat on her haunches near the entrance instead of either making her way over to make even the most superficial small talk despite the half-smile she made at me when she saw me, or making her way over to where all the volunteers were working at making everyone else’s job just a little easier that day. I did my best to just put this event out of my mind until I had a recent dream about her.
In the dream, this woman had given birth to a child whose gender was ambiguous. I remembered as soon as I saw her that she had at one time before the birth of her child, insisted that no one attribute motherhood to her in any way (this actually happened in real life, and I recalled it in the dream). She and I began talking (in the dream), very briefly, and I soon realized that she was unable to breastfeed her own child despite wanting to. I offered to sacrifice my hormonal transition — to stop injecting testosterone and suspend my very gradual masculinization process — in order to be of service to her and to breastfeed her child. I began lactating and she guided me, holding her child in my loving arms, to a secret location. Once I arrived there and its purpose was revealed to me, I observed six other queer and trans people who had all offered her similar sacrifices to help rear her child; leaving a core part of themselves behind in order to be of service to her. All I could think when I woke up was, “why trans people?”
Obviously the events in this dream are highly irrational and are never going to take place in reality. Clearly, the people and events in this dream are metaphors for something else. And it didn’t take long for my groggy brain to wake up to a spontaneous flood of insight about safe spaces for queer and trans people, and a deeply troubling trend of gender-congruent and heterosexual people exploiting them like tourists.
The events in the dream, which happened just like I was waving a magic wand, represent the actual cost to queer and trans people for allowing gender-congruent and hetero-normative persons into spaces that are carved out of the side of a whole world designed for and by gender-congruent and hetero-normative people, to serve the queer and trans people who live in exile from the mainstream. When a gender-congruent person tries to access health services in a clinic that operates for the express purpose of serving the needs of gender-incongruous people (or enters some other aspect of the community for the fulfilment of their own needs) every one of us sacrifices a small part of ourselves to allow that gender-congruent person to be there. Every. Single. One of us. It might be a small sacrifice for some (e.g., a moment of divided attention, or an awkward struggle to overcome brief but sudden silence, as spontaneous as if someone had just waved a magic wand). But for others, the sacrifice is unquestionably huge—such as not being offered the chance to be present in that space at all that day, week, or month, because that appointment or seat was offered instead to someone who could have gone literally anywhere else.
I have a fair amount of contempt for what I see as the completely unethical behaviour of this particular person, who identifies herself as an ally to trans and queer people as if it were a merit badge she earned by virtue of birth lottery alone (being born a sibling of someone who would one day fall in love with a gender-incongruous person), and that contempt is mine alone to deal with. But as I experience more and more gender-congruent and heteronormative tourism of queer and trans spaces, I cannot deny that the number of people who are represented in my dream by that one person is a steadily growing population; that every single one of those people is adding to my existing well of contempt (which was once deep yet nearly empty); and that the day may very well come that the well finally spills over.
Long before that day arrives, I’ve published this blog entry as an imperative for self-identifying allies of queer and trans people: know your place and stay out of ours unless you are there to serve our needs without regard for your own. This is part of the work of being an ally to any socially marginalized community—to not only learn but embody the difference between pushing back against your privilege and pushing back against marginalized people with your privilege. Stop trying to treat our lives like a tourist retreat, and start approaching our communities with respect. Realize that when you walk into our spaces, and you aren’t there in service to us, the fact that you aren’t automatically seen as trustworthy is well-earned and the least problematic behaviour taking place in your presence. Realize that even if you are there in service to us, we likely won’t and don’t have to trust that you aren’t going to turn around outside of that space — as many people just like you will — and exploit this experience as a form of social currency among your communities of privilege.
We know we need allies. But we also know we don’t need allies suffocating us within and right out of our own spaces.