Debate My Life: On Being A Political Issue
An interesting part of being marginalized on the basis of your social location is finding yourself the subject of public debate. Plenty of people have noticed this before and have expressed frustration with this. When you are in some way the other to the socially dominant group, you get used to being talked about in ways that many people will never understand. You begin to experience yourself not quite as a person but as a topic, a controversy, something to be endlessly brought up in argument.
A friend of mine, a fellow trans woman, owns a shirt which simply reads “I am a divisive political issue.” Its a funny joke, but its also not a joke. On any given day, I will interact with many people who don’t know me as an individual or as a person, but who already have a whole set of presuppositions about me. They don’t know my name, but they do know a whole set of talking points about whether or not I ought to have access to healthcare, whether or not I deserve to be called by my correct name and pronouns, whether or not I should be able to just simply use the restroom in peace.
To my frustration, I am nearly constantly aware of this. Being not-quite-a-person, being an issue colors every part of my life. When I turn on the news I see debates about women like me, when I go on to facebook I see the same thing. When I write something public on the internet I am immediately met by a chorus of strangers who want to tell me exactly what they think of me. Well, not quite what they think of me, per se, but what they think I represent. These people don’t know me as a person but they think they know me as a stand in for something bigger, for a debate, a culture war, a division.
I often think that it must be nice to get to debate about trans issues when you’re not trans. I try to imagine what it feels like to be able to decide which side of the debate you are on. See, for me, I still have to be part of the debate. I still have to argue everyday about my own life and whether or not it is an aberration. I don’t get to pick a side, that has been chosen for me by factors far beyond my control.
I suppose, that in the end, I choose to engage in these debates. I could sit back and let them rage on without intervening or interjecting my own opinions. I could allow others to define my life and its social meaning for me. I always have the option of just trying to tun it all out. But we both know that is not going to work. Because ever since the so called “trans tipping point” it seems that culture is so obsessed with the issue that I am a part of that I can’t escape hearing these debates.
Even if I could manage to isolate myself well enough to not hear the constant chatter of talking heads, experts, politicians, academics, doctors, and family, I would still have to confront this debate. As someone formally pursuing academic philosophy, I by necessity have to engage in this questions. My choice to write feminist philosophy means that I am in a constant situation of having to first defend my write to exist within the field of feminist philosophy at all.
Those who have read any of my writing before might to surprised to hear that I really am not interested in writing about trans issues. The philosophical questions I am interested in are mostly grounded in abstract epistemology and ontology. I would much rather be writing about those things. But when you’re a political issue, you don’t get to choose what you write about. There are countless people in this field who think I have no right to be writing about epistemology or ontology from a feminist perspective. There are philosophers who’s work has deeply impacted my interest who would prefer I not be allowed in feminist philosophy at all. So before I can write what I want, I have to write about the political issue that I am.
To say that I am frustrated by this would be an understatement. Not only am I constantly exposed to discourses which reduce me to a hypothetical or rhetorical political issue, I am forced to intervene into these discourses in order to be able to pursue the work that interests me.
A frequent accusation that I receive, and have received recently, is that I spend all my time writing about trans women and not any other women. On several occasions I have been bluntly asked, “If you are so concerned with having a place within feminist theory, why do you never write about the problems cis women face?” Every time, it takes quite a bit of self control to not simply yell “because you wont let me.” I am forced, by my social location, to constantly be on the defensive regarding my own life and the lives of women like me, and as a result I do not have time to write about the broader feminist issues that I deeply care about.
On top of that, its getting harder to write and put my ideas into the public sphere at all. Every time I post something like this, its with the full knowledge that there will be backlash. But that is just part of life when you are up for debate.
Ultimately, I choose to continue to write, to continue to produce feminist theory and criticism, to continue to throw out my thoughts for anyone who will listen because I know that if I were to quite, I would be letting the people who want my life to be up for debate to win. The beauty of making some women's lives contestable, subjects for discussion, hypothetical abstracts to be argued about over drinks or at philosophy conferences, is that eventually the women with skin in the game, who have no choice but to defend themselves, will burn out. The debate is a lot more exhausting when its about you, which means that those who want to see us shut up can simply wait us out. And so, I refuse to burn out if for no other reason than spite.
You might be reading this and thinking, “Well that all does sound very frustrating but what do you want from me?” And honestly, that is a hard question to answer. Your intervention into these debates will possibly only continue to fuel them. And yet, your absence from them, your silence in the face of those who attack us, is painful to bear witness to. In the end, I would rather hear your voice in defense of trans women, then to feel your silence.
At the end of the day, I just want you to realize, that when you debate these issues, you are debating about real people, with real emotions and lives and families and friends. Some of us who put ourselves out there to defend ourselves are exposed to constant mistreatment by people who forget this, who only see us as a political issue. I guess I’m just asking that you see me as something more.