Trans women, eye to eye

“What other human being absorbs so much virulent hostility and still functions?”

Audre Lorde was writing about Black women in the US, in 1983. My own internalised transphobia resists saying Trans women: surely it is not as bad as racism? Surely autistic people, condemned as freaks for what gives autistic joy, or a hundred other groups faced with relentless demands to be “normal” and told they don’t measure up, or called less than normal and rendered invisible, suffer equally with trans women? Do I distinguish trans men, who write in amazement of gaining male privilege?

There are wonderful talented trans women who become invisible when we transition, who retreat to isolation, especially from each other. In “Eye to Eye”, Audre anatomised that isolation, the hatred of us which women internalise so we think it is our own, and then direct against each other. When cis women anti-trans campaigners say it is right for a “woman” to feel anger, fear, disgust and resentment at the thought of a trans woman in women’s space, they may be directing some similar anger at us, punching down as the Patriarchy demands, but our anger at ourselves immiserates me, and Audre may offer an escape.

Each time I quote Audre in this essay, I claim her words to state my truth because I have no better ones. When she uses the word “Black” I change it to “Trans”. I quiver at my audacity. I fear the righteous indignation and anger surely the whole world will unleash at me for this perversion. Admitting the depth of my self-directed anger and hurt is a step towards curing it. I have lived with Eye to Eye for two years, hardly able to read it, afraid of its echoes in me, then increasingly seeing its truth for me, and claiming its empowerment.

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“I was not meant to be alone and without you who understand.” Could there be a trans sisterhood? First we have to bring into consciousness our anger and hatred, for ourselves and each other. People really do “see oursels as ithers see us”. When there is a Normal to which you don’t measure up, and you are despised for it, when others see us as Less Than, we accept it.

Audre knows how that process works. She tells of the contempt for her as Black, and how later she learned how she was a lump of flesh men could use to scratch an itch. “You better run!” the boys cried. “That anger lay like a pool of acid deep inside me and whenever I felt I felt it, attaching… [to] those as powerless as I.” To other Black girls, in her case. To boys as “effeminate” as me, in mine. I was a virulent homophobe.

“My mother taught me to survive… [by] isolation, fury, mistrust, self-rejection, and sadness… And survival is the greatest gift of love.” Audre says that, and I say it for myself. A trans woman wrote of her father beating her, and later, after transition, telling her he did it to “whip the sissy” out of her- and they agreed it had been done as a mistaken act of love.

We take the hatred into ourselves, and it becomes Normal. We are “effeminate,” and that is Bad. Consider Debbie Hayton, trans woman and anti-trans campaigner. She has written that she “traumatised” her wife, and said she had genital surgery because it was easier to explain a trans woman than a feminine man to her physics classes. She gets dragged out by “Woman’s Place UK” and The Spectator to abase herself, periodically, cheered by audiences for saying trans women are bad, and [cis] women should fear them.

No. You are not like that, and neither am I. But it is hard work. There is society, saying what is Normal, and Conservatives whipping it up, saying this is a matter of free speech, and trans is dangerous, and the liberal elites are pushing transgenderism, and decent folk must stand against it, for their disgust is righteous. The Conservatives command everyone to punch down. To them, The Free Market [neoliberalism] is just how the world is and ought to be. While there are many “woke” issues, “transgender” is the metonymy, the shorthand people use to refer to all the “wokeness” they abhor.

Audre: “Children know only themselves as reasons for the happenings in their lives”. “I had no tools to dissect it, no language to name it.” Me, too. Audre tells of her experiences, and of other Black women. I excavate mine, and can only share them in common phrases: “Big boys don’t cry”. You know, if you can hardly bear to tell, the moments when you were marked as Lesser. Naomi Hersi was murdered. In the street, a man shouted at me “I’ll kill you, you fucking poof. You need killing.” When I did not get out of his way, a cyclist on the pavement shouted at me, “Slut! Slut,” and I was relieved, because he abused me as a woman not as a trans woman.

“Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me, to diminish me.” And everything I do not accept about myself can. Excavating that, coming to self-acceptance, is the way to freedom. We see ourselves as others see us, and despise it, and then see it reflected in other trans women, and hate them for it. Our anger and hatred is against ourselves, and it feels like energy, feels like fuel. But anger “cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past.” I loathe your internalised transphobia, and hate you for it. I loathe your failure to conform to a physical ideal of femininity, and hate you for it, because I hate these things in myself. We are set against each other. We fear each other’s anger and self-hatred directed outwards.

“We cannot settle for the pretences of connection, or for parodies of self-love. We cannot continue to evade each other on the deepest levels because we fear each other’s angers, nor continue to believe that respect means never looking directly nor with openness into another Trans woman’s eyes.”

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At one time, we could come together, in The Royal Foundation of St Katherine’s, or Yahoo Groups. We shared with each other how terrifying, yet irresistible, we found transition. In the hotel in Thailand a close, bosom sister said “I used to pray every night to wake up as a girl,” and I replied, “And this morning, you did!” We returned to the UK and never contacted each other again.

I loved Pride, walking in my wedding-dress in a mock wedding party, and after going full time at work did not go to Pride again for eighteen years. I had to be normal, now. The journey was over. It is better to travel hopefully, because I never arrived at that feminine perfection, though Going Full Time, and then the Operation, was supposed to be the end of the journey.

“It is easier to be angry than to hurt. Anger is what I do best.” So I am angry, with all the other trans women. If I cannot yet confide the pain of my own experiences with those demanding my manliness, and mocking my lack of it, how can I share my misery at seeing someone equally unfeminine, and resenting how she reflected me? Like Audre I express anger, though quietly, for signs of anger in me might bring on me the rage of the Normal people, defending the innocent against me, for my anger is Bad. You see my anger in the way my face becomes a mask.

“That anger that masks my pain that we are so separate who should most be together- my pain- that she could perhaps not need me as much as I need her, or see me through the blunted eye of the haters, that eye I know so well from my own distorted images of her. Erase or be erased!”

I fear you will not admit it. “Trans women are not like that,” you will tell me- and you should know, because you are a trans woman. “Only you.” I am not the only one isolated at home, long before Covid! You must have seen trans women like this! Listen to Audre! Please!

Trans women in my Quaker meeting. I, righteous against the other- “Of course it is not because she is trans,” I say. Then another righteous against me, condemning me as the straights did, because plainly the straights were not transphobic, accepting her, and I could not believe she would say that. Then in another Quaker meeting I am open to everyone, hoping for real Friendship, except the other trans woman, who looks ridiculous, and has a distant, unfriendly manner, so I am distant, not expecting friendship with her.

“Why don’t we meet each other’s eyes? Do we expect betrayal in each other’s gaze, or recognition?”

We survive lifetimes of hatred, and hatred becomes normal for us, our defences like armour welded on, unremovable without tearing our flesh. Trust is naivety. Surviving with the Straights, “The price of increasing power is increasing opposition”. We resist. It is our way. Always rejected, our armour seems to protect us from rejection, but it does not, not really. Instead it stores it up, into a growing ball of lead we must drag behind us, or a deepening pool of misery threatening to drown us.

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“Once I can absorb the particulars of my life as a trans woman,” and those of all trans women, “Is it any wonder that my voice is harsh?” How to ensure I do not unleash that harshness where it is least deserved, at my trans sisters? The cruelty and harshness between us comes from the transphobia of society, from the people who would drive us out or kill us, or those who find us weird or pitiable. To survive, I had to “become stone”- how may I soften so that I do not hurt others?

I may be annihilated if I express anger with those better than me, the real women, the cis people, the straights. The only safe place for my anger is at myself or trans women. After the anger builds for a week, I might be surprised how it comes out at hardly any provocation at all, just the failure to be perfect. “How do I free myself from this poison I was force-fed like a Strasbourg goose”? Audre begins by asking the right questions. She wrote to a Black woman psychotherapist, “I doubt that your training can have prepared you to explore the tangle of need, fear, distrust, despair, and hope which operates between us, and certainly not to the depth necessary.” She cannot order her perceptions, they are like Chaos. But “It is out of Chaos that new worlds are born. I look forward to our meeting eye to eye.”

“Through threading this tangle new visions of self and possibility between Trans women emerge.” “We need to confront and wade through the transphobic constructs underlying our deprivation of each other.”

Perhaps I have to accept myself first, all the things I have been taught to despise as unmanly, or insufficiently perfect as a trans woman. Is that a superhuman task? We find truth through what others believe, see the world as others see it. If every cis person despises or pities me how can I value myself? If I despise or pity myself and my reflection in you, and am harsh to you, I still demand acceptance of my Trans-womanhood from you. And yet with you I have my mask on, that attempt at what Cis-dom might accept, always tantalisingly out of reach. How can we be together when we have to pretend?

Do I need to be cruel to be tough, or is there another way? My anger is not toughness. I try to hide it. I do not express it straight out at those who are better than me because they are not trans women. I guard it. Yet they see it, and it is a reason, for them, why I am bad so that they can reassure themselves they are Not Transphobic.

Accept the beauty of the trans woman as she is. It is the best she can be. There is no Perfection greater, in real life. Let go of the fantasy and accept the contradictions. We need to cherish each other as we are. We still cling to the myth of perfection, and it stops us from valuing what is. “Self-empowerment is the most deeply political work there is, and the most difficult.”

There is transphobia, and if I admitted the depth of my hurt at it, I feel I may die. That is the path I am on now, to process that hurt, which is the same as my feeling of inadequacy. Audre has been there before me. She reminds herself “I have lived through it all already, and survived”.

Indeed. All that I could ever fear has come to pass, and I’m still here.

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I am coming to the end of my response to “Eye to Eye” by Audre Lorde, my attempt to excavate the Black woman’s experience that I might flourish as a Trans woman. Here she writes about where I have not yet gone, though I see the possibility of it, so all I can do is quote.

Like her, I “must establish authority over my own definition,” and expect my healing and wholeness. “I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in myself and in the self of other Trans women”- for you and I are the same. “As I learn my worth and genuine possibility, I refuse to settle for anything less than a rigorous pursuit of the possible in myself,” not the illusory “perfect”.

“It means being able to recognise my successes, and be tender with myself even when I fail.”

“We will begin to see each other as we dare to begin to see ourselves. We will begin to see ourselves as we begin to see each other, without aggrandisement or dismissal or recriminations,” not “masculine” or “feminine” in essence or presentation, just Human. “We learn to mother ourselves”.

I don’t think Audre got there. She is still demanding perfection: “Mothering ourselves… means learning how to be both kind and demanding in the teeth of failure as well as in the face of success”. Yes I want to “change the things I can change and accept the things I can’t change”, but I need to allow myself the time to work out which is which.

“As we fear each other less and value each other more, we will come to value recognition in each other’s eyes.” We have to learn to love ourselves, to be kind to ourselves and each other, and this is difficult because we have so few examples of others being kind or valuing us as we truly are. Audre ends with the difficulty, and yet, “It is suicidal to believe this process is not possible.”

“Let us begin to speak the impossible.”

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