excerpt from an email about how to tell our stories

this is an excerpt from an email i wrote to a friend who contacted me when she or he read a story i posted on this website about an interaction we had had in which i was disturbed by what i perceived as some problematic trans politics. the friend's email was provocative, bringing up important questions about how activists use anecdotes to make points, and about how activist culture engages in processes of labelling and exclusion. i tried to write a response that captures some of the reasons i use anecdotes the way i do on this website, and i thought it might be interesting for other readers here.

. . . first, i guess, i want to talk about the initial concern you had over me telling the story of the conversation we had. from what i understand, you are concerned that 1) i used an "indirect" method of communicating with you about what my feelings were by writing an essay rather than contacting you and 2) that i didn't contact you to let you know or ask your permission before posting my experience on my website. i am wondering if these two concerns come from one fundamental misunderstanding: when i post my experiences of complicated trans moments in my life on the website, i am not doing that as a method of communicating with the people who have shared those moments with me. i am doing it in order to use anecdotes and my personal experience to examine the complicated ways that trans issues play out in conversations between activists and friends. the underlying concept of, i think, most of the website and our zines, is that we are all deeply seeped in the oppressive structures that constitute us as subjects, and that we all constantly reproduce those structures unintentionally, and that only through constant dialogue and careful searching can we develop strategies as individuals and communities to stop reproducing this hurt. so, when i have weird moments with various friends and activist collegues about pronouns, trans identity, and other issues, and i think those interactions represent some broader dynamic that keeps coming up, i write about them to offer language to that dynamic and get us all thinking about how we participate and what the effects are. i feel it is definitely within my authority to tell the stories of my life that way, and to try to use them to spark thoughts and conversations. i don't feel that i have an obligation to ask the permission of the various people who may have been involved in a conversation i'm writing about, in which they appear totally anonymously, for me to write my experience. in particular, i feel that such an obligation would put an undue burden on me as a transperson who, in many of these dynamics, is experiencing an upsetting moment of oppression or erasure, that frequently the other people involved are unconcious of. most of the time, i can manage in the moment of conversation to give some interrupting feedback to a speaker who i feel is saying something that engages a problematic dynamic or set of assumptions, and i feel that this already is a responsibility that i shouldn't have to have. to additionally have to ask permission to use my experiences, many of which are painful and upsetting as i am sure you can imagine, in my own writing on my own website is not something i am willing to see as my responsibility.

i would never, ever use a person's name on my website without asking their permission, and i would never ever post anyone's private writing without their permission. the only exception i have ever made to this is when i posted some text from a letter my foster mother wrote me, but i think the difference there is clear in that she is not at all in any community with me, nor will this ever reach her, nor would anyone in her world ever find this writing or attribute it to her.

in any case, i want you to know that i am very familiar with the 'judgemental activist' problem to which you refer, and i understand why the presence of that in our activist culture could make you feel very upset by seeing yourself represented in this story. however, i want to explain why i think that the work i'm doing on makezine.org is actually the opposite of that dynamic. we live in an activist culture that often mimics the problematic dynamics of the greater dominating culture. one such dynamic that concerns me is the "perpetrator perspective." as you know well, dominant legal and social theory ascribe racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist behavior and oppression to individual perpetrators, rather than seeing these forces as systemic and all of us as caught inside, bound up, and constituted by them. this conveniently allows for the dismantling of systemic reforms like affirmative action in favor of individualist approaches like putting people in prison. i think that activists mimic this approach to oppression when we label someone "fucked up" or ostracize someone because they are a "racist" or "transphobic" based on one interaction they've had. i believe that we are all constantly reproducing oppressive structures, and that rather than labelling and ostracizing individuals, we need to track how these things work, how we can account for our own behaviors, and allow each other and ourselves to constantly learn and change. makezine.org is about, in many ways, "preaching to the choir"-talking with other people who share our principled commitments to anti-racism, wealth redistribution, gender self-determination, etc., about how to make our activist work and our personal lives represent our political principles more fully. we use writing that draws on anecdotes from our lives because we think that it provides an accessible way to think about how we are all still constantly hurting each other, and how we can trace how that works and figure out ways of disrupting it. using these anecdotes is not at all, for me, about labelling the people who appear in them anonymously as "transphobes"-certainly all of my closest friends and allies probably appear in some essay on the site somewhere because everyone i know, including myself, has a lot to learn about not participating in gender oppression and has moments of participation that have been painful to another. instead, using these anecdotes is about showing how all of us, even gender activists, even transpeople, are engaging oppressive dynamics unintentionally, and if we take those moments apart we can learn something about how to not do it the same way next time.

so, i try to approach this writing with those principles in mind. this doesn't mean that i don't experience anger and disappointment and hurt when i have a moment where i feel fucked over by something someone is saying to me about transpeople, and i think its important to express that anger and disappointment and hurt. that doesn't mean that i always want to call up everyone i've had a moment like that with, since they literally happen every day that i leave my house, and hash out what went on. you can imagine how exhausting this is, even without those additional conversations. mostly, people want to defend themselves if i try to bring up why a moment was difficult, because they are afraid that if they made one 'mistake' they will be labelled a transphobe, and it seems like it will be a while before people trust each other enough to be confronted in a moment like that and not fear ostracization and labelling. i hope that the work i do to expose and analyze the everydayness of gender oppression in all of our minds and lives will help us all get to a point where we can see that its okay to be accountable for a moment like that, that its safe to learn something and change, and that its a kindness and a favor when a person confronts us on our privilege in any way. . . .

i hope this letter has clarified for you some of my intentions and strategies. i like you, and think you are really smart and interesting, and i've really enjoyed the times we've spent talking. the moment in s____ was a hard one for me, but in no way made me want to stop knowing you or relating with you. i did feel like i needed to take time to digest it, and wanted to write about it because it represented a dynamic that i've noticed recurring in certain conversations i've had. however, to me that moment, or any individual moment, are not a reason to write someone off or label them or stop relating to them. if it was, i would have absolutely no friends left, because i have struggled with everyone in my life over being trans in one way or another.

i thought your email was very interesting, and provided a good opportunity to elaborate on some of these strategies. i will probably post some or all of my email on my website, preserving your anonymity, so people can think about what strategies i'm employing and whether they agree or disagree with the underlying principles and the application, and i invite you to write something to post on the website about this too. you are always welcome to put stuff up, and i think it would probably be really helpful to me and others. if you want to put any of the email you wrote me into a format to put up, or anything else about this or other topics, i'd be into it. the whole point of this work for me is to hammer out issues like this one, and to create activist culture that is sustainable and productive. i think this is part of that. i hope you do too. i'm sorry that you felt that what i wrote was not "beautiful." i think that maybe living the past two years in this body and identity, i've had to do a lot of work to come to see a lot of things that are incredibly painful as beautiful, sometimes because for months at a time i had nothing but extremely painful interactions with people that gave me something to think about and walk away with. i hope that this email helps you to feel like you're coming away with something worth keeping from this interaction, and that that has some kind of beauty or value for you. sometimes its just valueable to articulate your thoughts, if nothing else. i hope for us it will be more than that-some kind of dialogue that involves trust and friendship.

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