UofT’s Positive Space Committee

Draft of an anonymous letter sent to PSC in spring 2009

Diabolos Coffee at the University College JCR, March 2009

Diabolos Coffee at the University College JCR, March 2009

Dear Positive Space Committee,

Earlier today, I walked into one of the many rooms around the St. George campus. It was decorated with the familiar “Positive Space” poster. Someone there noticed how I was frowning, and they weren’t sure why. I paused to reflect on my visceral feelings — the same emotions which creep up each and every time I see one. Until now, I was unable to articulate how and why the poster (or the PSC sticker) has always bothered me and why I’ve never felt to support the campaign.

It isn’t important who I am. It’s irrelevant, except to say that this term concludes my UofT studies. In retrospect, I feel the Positive Space campaign, in its present condition, advocates harm (if not failure of awareness) for some of the very people the Positive Space Committee have probably intended to support. Positive Space’s spirit and execution present a cognitive dissonance. While the Positive Space web site spells out a litany of politically correct letters from the “queer alphabet”, this cornucopia approach is harmful. It flattens very different intersections of people, privileging some experiences over others. This approach is cissexist and exclusionary of people who don’t have cissexual bodies.

Cissexism is liable to evolve as an emerging talking point in sexual diversity discourses, but for now I sense this scholarly awareness still remains a few years off. As a non-cis UofT student — a trans woman — it makes the UofT an isolating place. Ham-handed efforts to “reach out” to people like me through initiatives like Positive Space or LGBTOUT feel more like a patronizing by cis people to mollify non-cis people.

Owing to how few visible trans people there are around our campus, it may not be worthwhile for the Positive Space Committee to invest in enhancing positive space for students or faculty whose bodies are not cissexual. On first face, this effort would require a better grasp of how a cis-trans paradigm actually exists, what the implications are, and why this is discrete from paradigms of sexual attraction or gender performativity (or “identity”). I find it is also essential to grasp a concept before setting about to advocate for it.

In the past four years here on campus, I’ve run into a total of one other person with a transsexual body. Like me, they felt they needed to stay quiet about it, doing whatever was necessary to avoid being singled out by an overabundance of oblivious cis people. There are signs which trans people can often see between one another, even as they are invisible to most cis people. I know of another trans person, but I’ve not seen them in years. By contrast, cis queer people on campus are highly visible and plenty.

I understand why. In my own history, I learnt the craft of silence because of political and social problems with cis queer people speaking on behalf of (and for) people with trans bodies — some even arguing arrogantly how trans people co-exist as equals with cis people underneath some kind of cissexist “umbrella.” What’s striking about this hubris is how no transsexual person I’ve ever known has ever been asked whether we subscribe to this world view or how we actually feel about being spoken for by cis people who assert their identity on some arbitrary basis of gender performativity. Tyranny of the majority? It often feels like it.

Among several cis people, I’ve also heard another example of obliviousness which cis people have for trans people: the idea that all trans people are queer. Many are not. Many are heterosexual. To be trans is not the same intersectional experience as being a sexual minority is. This means cis people can be heterosexual or queer, and trans people can be heterosexual or queer. It’s less common now, but some cis queer people still resist the idea of trans people because they honestly believe trans people are trying to destabilize their cis queerness. It’s astoundingly wrongheaded and even flagrantly transphobic.

Some people with transsexual bodies don’t “change” gender. Rather, gender is better grasped as a language with articulations of dialect — something unintentional, unconscious, incidental and, like a vernacular dialect, capable of betraying one’s formative roots at a very young age. For trans people, there may not be a “change” of gender. This is why people with transsexual bodies unnervingly share similar personal experiences of being singled out from very early ages by cis people who notice something “off” about them. Before coming out as trans, our articulation of gender may expose who we are, leaving us prone to sexual abuse, physical violence, and untoward sexual advances. This experiential knowledge is woefully misunderstood by cis adults who believe that violence or abuse toward a trans person was because a trans boy is “really” a tomboy, or a trans girl is “really” a gay boy. Such cissexist assumptions are harmful to trans people — acutely so to people with transsexual bodies.

At the risk of this spiralling into a lecture, I’d like to return to why I’m reaching out to your committee even as there are final papers I must write in the face of these fast-approaching deadlines.

Some time ago, I volunteered for a university activity which invited prospective students to ask UofT students questions about the university and to explore some of the programmes offered. What caught my attention was one prospective girl who reminded me so, so much of myself at that age, but with a pleasant twist: her mother was with her. She was probably seventeen, maybe eighteen. Like me, she was trans. It was striking because I came out at eighteen (after first trying when I was thirteen, then sixteen, both to no avail). Unlike her mother, my own parents had divorced themselves from putting much faith for my well-being or future.

To see her walking alongside her mother, it gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, things were incrementally getting better for people like us. When I thought about what she was liable to face if she joined the UofT as an undergrad, my heart sank. Would she find herself being spoken for by cis people at the LGBT groups? Would she be tokenized? Would she have to censor herself around others for fear that her being a non-cis woman could be held against her? Would she ever feel safe enough to avoid censoring herself as a precondition for her undergrad study? Would she have to crush her dignity and personhood by grovelling to an entity like CAMH as a condition to permit her to take ownership over her body and over the rest of her life? Into what transmisogynist mould would the CAMH people cram her?

I could not answer these, but based on my own experiences, I felt a discomfiture for her long-term future.

So whether or not this resonates with Positive Space members, I feel the need to say something to someone. I see signs of cissexism throughout campus, and it has over time worn me down, making me feel a little less human each time. Whether it means:

  • walking into Diabolo’s Coffee and seeing that denigrating “TRANSSEXUALS ROCK!” sign with anatomically essentialist signifiers stuck “inversely” atop gendered iconography (ouch, east Asian slit-eye caricature much?);
  • seeing speaking events which cater to “transgender and transsexual people” without mentioning cis people by name;
  • Positive Space signs which don’t mention trans people’s needs; or
  • turning a blind eye to the continued funding linkages between the UofT and CAMH “sexologist researchers” who have dehumanized more Ontario trans people (and provoked several more trans people to suicide) — institutionally, psychologically, and emotionally — than a hundred thugs on a smear-the-queer rampage ever could,

it also means that an inhospitable environment continues for trans people on campus. It means that silence and self-censorship has been my only safe option here. In turn, this coercively imposed silence deepens my own invisibility and silences my life experiences. It limits how much I can safely share with others. It limits the quality of relationships started on campus. It impoverishes cis people from having a broader understanding of experiential knowledge known uniquely to trans people.

Also, it is not my place or responsibility to become a “crusader” (a loaded word in its own right) and quote-unquote “fight the good fight.” This has been tossed my way: “Say, if you have an issue with X, then why not take it up as a cause?” Please remember that a lack of understanding by cis people does not oblige trans people to volunteer themselves to counteract cis ignorance. The knowledge is out there for anyone willing to look for it, and it can be done without having to place a trans person on the spot each time.

If I always “fought the good fight”, then there’d be little energy or time to doing much of anything else. I’d also fail to be remembered for what I know but never forgotten for what my life experiences are and what that signifier means to a cisnormative society. That’s not really equitable, is it? So while it might be a renaissance age for LGB cis people, what does it mean for LGB trans people or heterosexual trans people? In cis queer terms, it’s been 1973 for us for a very long time. 1973 was the very last year when being a sexual minority (like being lesbian, gay, or bi — and cis) was diagnosable as a “mental illness.”

Thank you. May this help others have an easier time at UofT. Best of luck to your campaign’s future.

One Anonymous Graduate

p.s., A parting thought: I run into “progressive politics” folks around campus constantly, and some are fairly radical with their approaches for taking action. These actions are sometimes problematic even when their heart’s in the right place — that is, to eliminate social injustices or to improve troublesome human conditions by protesting, rallying, or engaging in acts of civil disobedience.

I find it mildly ironic that while they advocate for human rights causes elsewhere, this is one such human rights challenge sitting right under their nose, and they’re completely oblivious to it. Then they tell me I support “the Oppressor” because I refuse to take action. What I want to say to them: “Really? Where are you guys, and why don’t you have the back of people like me? You say you’re my ally? Then start supporting and advocating for people like me!”