Monday, July 26, 2010

White like me, but not trans like me

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.


As I was reading Renee’s follow-up post on white people versus whiteness, I saw that she referred to an author whose work I like very much – Tim Wise. And she gave me something to think about that had not occurred to me before – that some people of color resent the fact that Wise, a white man, has made a living in anti-racism work when people of color have been writing about and speaking about the same things for centuries, from firsthand experience, and their work has not been read or deemed important by white people, let alone provided a living for these writers.

Oh. Wow. Light bulb.

I can’t say that I understand the kick in the gut that these authors must experience when they see the success of Wise’s work. I can only relate it to the kick-in-the-gut feeling that I, as an author, have felt under very different, but relatable, circumstances. I am aware that what I am about to describe is not the same thing – it is simply the closest that I can come in my own experience.

There is an author who has taken it upon herself in the past to publish some very harsh criticism of trans men, questioning our authenticity, our manhood, and so on. A few years later, she dresses up like a man for a few months, goes out into the world and experiences how the genders are treated differently, then writes a mainstream bestselling book about it, while there are quite a few excellent books about the actual experience of female-to-male transition available, written by those who have actually experienced it.

As one of those trans authors, when I saw her book (and then her second one), I felt that kick in the gut. I was furious that mainstream, non-trans America was learning about the experience of gender from both the female and male perspectives from someone whose male persona washed off every night. It was, of course, made worse by the fact that this individual had so cruelly criticized trans men on so many different occasions, but was now making money and getting mainstream praise and attention at the expense of the very people she found so disgusting.

But regardless, as trans men, we live this every day. This is not a game. This is not a pretense. This is not an experiment. We don’t do it so that we can write a book about it. But some of us do write books (really good ones) so that other people can learn. And they don’t make the bestseller list, even though some of us are very good writers. They don’t get mainstream praise or mainstream book advances, and they don’t get offered up in mainstream book clubs and on the “Featured” shelves in mainstream bookstores.

Why? Why do people pick up a book about an “experiment” when there are guys living this reality every single day of their life who can talk with absolute credibility about exactly what it’s like?

Because we’re real. We’re scary. Many non-trans people don’t know who or what we are, and they would prefer not to know. It’s far less scary to read a book by someone who “tried it,” but who goes back to “normal” in the end – someone they can “relate to.”

And because we’re so real and scary, our books are relegated to the small, invisible “Gender Studies” or “LGBT” sections of mainstream bookstores, and then, within those sections, given an even smaller category.

I have heard black authors complain that their books, no matter how widely relevant, are shelved in the “Black Studies” or “African American” sections of bookstores, which are not on the main thoroughfare and perhaps not visited as often by white (or black) patrons. And if you’re a white reader wanting to learn about racism, isn’t it far less scary to pick up a book by a white author – someone you can “relate to”?


I think Tim Wise’s work reaches some white people who otherwise would not be reached at all and who need to hear the message. But I’m troubled that it took this long for me to be able to see a relationship between what I felt about my own kick-in-the-gut author and what people of color might feel about some types of anti-racism work done by white people.

And although it’s not the same thing, I’m also troubled that my feelings might differ between the two because one affects me directly – it’s happening to me and those who I consider to be “my people” in a particular way – and the other does not.

I’m finding myself in the uncomfortable but necessary space of having to rethink my position.