BY JEN RICHARDS
“Hurt people hurt people.”
Laverne Cox quoted the line in her keynote address at the 2014 Trans 100 Live Event as she spoke to the need for healing in the community.
For groups defined, at least in part, by shared experiences of oppression, there is an unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, belief in freedom from such oppression in spaces created or dominated by the community itself. When hurt occurs there it has an extra layer of betrayal and violation.
Likewise, when someone is accused of such hurt it is a shock to their very identity. How can I, as an oppressed person, oppress another? Disbelief is often followed by emboldened conviction. The only way out is through education, empathy, and forgiveness, none of which are easy or typically afforded those focusing on survival, or whose identity is built upon marginalization.
These common dynamics have been playing out publicly in a corner of the transgender community right now. As trans issues increasingly become a focus of media attention and social justice efforts, internal tensions are intensified. Populations that either would have had no interaction previously, or whose differences would have been superseded by their relative similarity in the eyes of a hating public, now jockey for rhetorical power online. Complex identities are reduced to singular factors as younger and older, earlier and later transitioners, showgirls and activists, straight and queer, compete for control of discourse. It feels like the small gay clubs I used to frequent accommodated more difference than the limitless space of online media does today.
It began with a series of escalating op-eds in the Huffington Post and the Advocate.
Calpernia Addams, a well known trans advocate and performer who has advised on several films featuring trans character, was critiqued by other trans women for her defense of Jared Leto, whom she worked with for Dallas Buyers Club. She dismissed these critiques in an essay, to which Parker Molloy, a widely published writer on trans issues, responded. Addams then published a response to this essay, accusing Molloy of homophobia and transphobia, unleashing a firestorm on social media. This then led to a gleefully inflammatory piece by Addams's friend, Andrea James, which dismisses “newly minted queers” like Molloy as “oversensitive precious snowflakes raised on smugfuckery.” This was polite compared to the Twitter feed of James and her allies.
An open letter condemning both Addams and James for their treatment of Molloy and accusing the two of elitism, ageism, traditionalism, etc., has now been signed by nearly 400 trans women. In the latest volley, a parody video posted by Alaska Thunderfuck, a contestant on season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, depicts the murder of someone widely believed to serve as a stand in for Molloy was later shared by the Huffington Post, with editor James Nichols calling it “hilarious.”
How has the original issue of on-screen depictions of trans characters grown to include questions about drag culture, RuPaul's use of words that many consider slurs, language policing, ageism, and "hashtag activism"? Why did a spat that should have been worthy of little more than gossip grow to such proportions?
Before looking at these issues closely, it should first be noted that this is possibly the whitest "controversy" to achieve such a scale of attention. The three main players, Addams, James and Molloy, and nearly every other trans woman involved, are white, and the debates have had virtually no input from trans people of color. It is an internal fight for power among people with both privilege and myopia.
Perhaps the first step in de-escalating the fight is to acknowledge just how irrelevant it is to much of the community, particularly those most likely to face overt prejudice and danger in public daily. And while engagement in this issue does not preclude sincere engagement in others, it’s troubling that a war of words between white trans women with substantial media access elicited far more attention and consensus within the community than any other issue in recent memory. As only one example during this same time period, Monica Jones, a trans woman and sex worker rights activist in Phoenix, was found guilty of “manifesting prostitution” for accepting a ride home; her battle garnered comparatively little attention.
So why do so many people care? Such public participation can only be reflective of a larger underlying tension between the respective positions symbolized by Addams and Molloy, a tension that every person involved is personally invested in.
Molloy's original point, lost in the exchange, is that there is real damage done by portrayals of trans people that traffic in stereotype and cliche. For an uninformed wider public, drag queens (who are typically gay men) often serve as a misleading stand in for trans women.
Unfortunately, Molloy had consistently expressed, at best, ambivalence towards drag culture and trans women who came up through it, and outright antipathy to RuPaul. She wrote in a tweet, since deleted: “I fucking hate RuPaul. Like… there are really very few people I truly hate. He is one of them.” While her ire was supported by many other trans women, her attitude revealed a disconnection from and misunderstanding of both a large segment of the community and shared history.
Addams's essential point is that discussions of trans issues, particularly online, are often dominated by people with little to no sense of the wider context of the movement or direct involvement with the community, and that such disconnect is often evinced by hyper-sensitivity and lack of humor. Whether unfortunate or revealing, this argument is drowned out by personal vitriol and exhibits Addams’s own disconnect from the way culture, media, attitudes, and even transition trajectories have shifted.
For Molloy and some of her supporters, Addams's defense of Jared Leto, along with her own participation in gay culture and history as a showgirl, is emblematic of a view of trans women that excludes them. Some lesbian or queer identified individuals have had little to no involvement in LGBT culture prior to transition, at least not in ways familiar to those who came before, and many are of a generation whose social networks and advocacy exist largely online. Just as some trans men remain involved with lesbian communities, some straight trans women retain a strong sense of belonging to gay community, a natural result of existing relationships, shared attractions, and the bonds of experienced otherness, none of which is afforded to some people like Molloy. It can be an isolating experience to go from being seen as occupying a default norm to being regarded as an outsider in both straight and gay communities.
Further, Addams's world is seen as the dominant one, so it can stand in as the role of an oppressor. She is regarded as famous and powerful, someone with access in Hollywood, and part of the establishment, one that embraces RuPaul and a made-for-TV view of drag. I suspect Addams would find such a perception inconceivable. And it’s here that context is useful.
Addams, like many other trans women, found her first opportunity for authentic expression through what most think of as drag. The world had told her she was a gay man, and she struggled with self-hatred and anxiety. It was only upon seeing a nightclub show and subsequently performing as a woman that she found herself.
Her show caught the eye of a soldier who would become her boyfriend, and because of his relationship to Addams, he was brutally murdered. Though she was living as a woman, Addams was pressured into describing herself as a man and a cross-dresser so that her boyfriend could be seen as a victim of gay bashing and an example for the failure of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy. Despite all this, Addams has continued to write and speak on trans issues for nearly two decades, has been a major factor in the informed and sensitive portrayals of trans women in movies, and still performs in the one milieu which originally embraced her.
Her story is not an unusual one for trans women, particularly those of us who came of age before the dominance of social media. The clubs I first went to were gay ones, and the lines between fag, queen, tranny and crossdresser were not always apparent, certainly not to anyone on the outside. In those contexts, differences within the group mattered less than the shared safe space.
For Addams and her followers, Molloy's criticisms of Jared Leto and RuPaul, her fixation on language and general focus on victimhood, is emblematic of a view of trans women that is, if not inaccessible, at least not understandable. Many of these trans women have carved out unique paths through transition, often outside of a community context, and some young straight trans women may not have ever identified as gay men. Others bend gender and sexuality in ways that exist comfortably outside of the binary and heteronormative view that Addams represents.
This generation finds its community online, and each social media platform becomes a culture with its own idiom and social rules, often hard to penetrate, but also increasingly influential in determining who has power in discourse. One generation dismisses Facebook, while a slightly younger one ignores Twitter, or uses it begrudgingly, while a yet younger group sneers at Tumblr. Yet it is those who master the idiom of any one these platforms that finds an audience, which is ultimately what conventional monological media sources recognize and seek to co-opt. She isn’t trans, but a good example is Suey Park, who launched the #CancelColbert campaign on Twitter. She can only be dismissed by those ignorant of both the media and the message she’s deftly working with a facility that threatens the structure of conventional access points.
These online spaces are dismissed as “academic” or “politically correct” from the outside but are structured from the inside to be politically nuanced and intentionally inclusive of marginalized identities. The effort to achieve such inclusivity does rely heavily on language. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re at best irrelevant—and at worst a pariah and subject to the kind of hate only possible online. I’ve seen well-meaning friends post well-intended support only to be eviscerated because a particular word choice was deemed as erasing of an experience or regarded as “triggering.” Such policing is sometimes dominated by queer white voices, many of whom aren’t engaged with community offline.
For those of us on the inside, participation requires an ongoing effort to discern between genuinely constructive approaches to intersectional issues and perspectives that subtly push privileged perspectives in the name of doing the opposite. For those who either can’t or don’t wish to access such conversations, it’s far too easy to simply dismiss the entire discourse.
RuPaul serves as an apt example of how this also collides with a generational gap.
For Molloy's generation of millennials, RuPaul is an icon with more power and media presence than any trans person has ever achieved. Functionally, he is no different than any other oppressor, which makes his refusal to abandon usage of "shemale" and "tranny" particularly egregious.
To Addams' and those of her generation, RuPaul is a tough, hard-working underdog who has finally achieved success, someone who came out of a time when gender and sexual minorities were lumped together and often worked side by side, equally misunderstood, hated, and subject to violence. To survive such a time and then be told you can't use a word that was in common usage because it's "triggering" to someone online must seem especially absurd, especially if that person appears to have previously enjoyed the privileges of being seen as straight, white, and male.
Make no mistake, all the trans women involved agree that RuPaul's usage of those words is inappropriate. Addams, however, gives RuPaul the benefit of the doubt because of shared history. Molloy's experience can't accommodate such difference, and for legitimate reasons. As a gay black man often in drag, RuPaul has undoubtedly encountered a great deal of hatred, and so perhaps has difficulty accepting the reality that he is now capable of inflicting exactly such hurt. But he can and does. And if he fails to recognize the criticism from someone like Molloy because of her seeming difference, he should be open to it from women like Carmen Carrera and Monica Beverly Hillz.
Molloy and Addams also, no matter how much they see themselves as marginalized, isolated, or having earned their place, are also capable of hurting others.
A reader here hoping for an answer as to whom is right will have to be disappointed.
Molloy’s initial description of Addams as “a showgirl, a drag queen...a ‘transsexual’” was wrong, and her later apologies and retractions don't negate the negative attitude towards people she has little experience with. Some trans women appear so anxious not to be seen as men that they distance themselves from any depiction of gender nonconformity that could be read as such, a move that often has unavoidable racial, homophobic, and classist aspects.
More broadly, online activists’ insistence on policing of language is much more difficult when navigating complicated offline spaces filled with wildly varying people clumsily working together for a greater purpose. The fights of some white queer trans women on social media come off as toxic and their inability to acknowledge the other side of issues reveals insufficient engagement with identities other than their own. Many white queer trans women appear to focus intensely or exclusively on their own individual victimhood, which in the eyes of many others betrays the newness of their experience with marginalization and a lack of resilience. The women I know who have survived the most horrors consistently have the greatest senses of humor.
While Molloy certainly doesn’t deserve the hatred and death threats aimed at her, she has become a lightning rod for divisions and confrontation in the community in part because she has herself been so divisive and confrontational. We shouldn’t neglect the complicated middle ground between the more common extremes of victim blaming and absolving people of any responsibility for their actions.
Nonetheless, Addams's treatment of Molloy in her op-ed was ugly, petty, and a disservice to all of us. Addams has the capacity to use her experience, wisdom, and platform to educate and contextualize. She has a legitimate point about the perspective of specifically white, queer activists, but we won't have the hard and desperately needed conversations about privilege if we simply dismiss each other out of hand and ignore the complex identities of those participating. Addams has little to lose and much to gain by listening to and working with the next generation.
Addams's BFF Andrea James’s doubling down, though perhaps motivated by care for a friend she saw as under attack, was so dismissive that it nearly reads as parody. Her conflation of social justice efforts with heckling is remarkably tone deaf. James is a very smart woman, of that there is no doubt, and some of her broader points are ones I’m eager to see discussed. Hopefully she’s wise enough to recognize how readily she is courting obsolescence if she stays in the echo chamber of her own circle and writes off current activist efforts with such arrogance. If efforts like #girlslikeus are among the hashtags inducing her eye rolls, then she may be surprised to find herself on the wrong side of history. I'd love to see her intelligence and wit in service of actual dialogue rather than cruelty masquerading as irreverence.
It’s particularly ironic that Addams and James are defending the gender subverting role of drag given they they themselves have historically represented the assimilationist school of trans womanhood. That two women who spent years teaching others how to live “deep stealth” are allied with “subversive” drag queens lays bare the essential point underlying all of this: what’s truly being policed here is womanhood. Gay men celebrate men who mess with gender and women who occupy comfortably feminine and heterosexual roles. Based on the frenzied reactions of the gay male defenders or RuPaul, Addams and James, it appears that what’s truly most subversive to the status quo is a non-passing, queer trans woman.
I’m just shy of 40, dated both men and women both before and after transition, and have had the privilege of spending time and working in a variety of off- and online communities. My close friends include showgirls and former drag queens, queer trans women, people who have transitioned early and late, and those who subvert the whole idea of transition. There is no wrong way to be trans, and with so much of the world still against us, some basic mutual respect and dignity seems as important as broadening the conversation.
I hope that rather than ignoring people because they are young, queer, or recent transitioners, Addams uses her maturity to bring nuance to the issues a new generation is raising, I hope that rather than defending her own privilege or social media reach, she fights even harder for greater access to roles and platforms for trans people. I hope that she sees that the solution to engaging people who may also feel isolated isn’t to isolate them further, but to bring them in, even if they’re lashing out in their own hurt. That’s what survivors can do best.
I hope that rather than ever again writing the word “hate” or focusing on what others are doing wrong, Molloy brings her passion to lifting others up. I hope that rather than seeing herself as a victim, she seeks to understand why others are sometimes on the other side of issues. I hope that, as she has done with the promising shift of tone in her recent posts, she feels less isolated and experiences the humility that comes with being part of a much larger community. That’s what the young can do best.
Molloy is right that we need more depictions of trans women, of all types, and that RuPaul and his defenders should be challenged. Addams is right that activists, particularly younger, white, queer trans women, need to better understand the lived context and history of their wider community.
What drives so much of this is hurt. Molloy's hurt over seeing Addams defend what she saw as a hurtful portrayal of a trans woman and siding against trans women fighting for change. Addams is hurt over being made a target by trans women, her own attempts to help being vilified, and feeling misgendered. Supporters on all sides reacted to the hurt of their own isolation, having their legitimacy as trans women being questioned, of being confronted with their own capacity to hurt others.
All those who have jumped into the debate since, from the nearly 400 women who signed the open letter, to the editors at Huffington Post, are echoing the same essential points. While the two sides can be reduced to "Words hurt" and "Lighten up," the intensity is largely rooted in the blindness of hurt people not realizing that they, too, are hurting people. One side probably should take themselves a little less seriously, particularly given that they are not the trans women most at risk, and the other side should probably take themselves a little more seriously, particularly given that their arguments they’re making would be used against them in other contexts.
To be transgender is to experience trauma. I don't like seeing myself as a victim, and I believe my friends are I are better defined by what we do rather than what's been done to us, but this fact can’t be ignored. We are first betrayed by our bodies and then remain vulnerable in a society that fears and often hates gender variance. The trauma manifests very differently depending on race, class, age, profession, sexual orientation, gender expression, etc., but the differences in our trauma shouldn't separate us as much as the near universal fact of it should unite us.
Any further discussion of these issues should, at the least, include earnest attempts to understand each other. More importantly, differences should be addressed not in a context of who is right, but rather how to make things better for all those who come after us. Anything less is nothing more than self-aggrandizing. We can do better.
Yes, it's unrealistic to assume that any community of human beings will avoid gossip and infighting, but trans people are unique. We are a small community and are coming into our own as a social movement in a time when we have unprecedented access to each other. We could become a new model for how people can work together, support each other, and lift each other up. If we are so often the victims of hate and ignorance, how much more powerful if we chose to love and understand each other in the face of it?
If hurt people hurt people, maybe healed people can help heal each other. And show the world how it's done.
Photo via Broadbean Media/Flickr (CC 2.0)