Levels of Ignorance & other transphobic activities
The act of being Ignorant does not arise out of thin air but when a person from any enclave latches onto the words of a drunk and uses those words as an excuse for his or her agenda their integrity becomes questionable no matter what the person’s personal status happens to be. In pandering to the lowest common denominator such a person has absolved themselves of all responsibility.
A down and out drunk even though there was a chill in the air he chose to sit as usual in his seemingly drunken stupor when three Diasporaic African lesbians walked by on their way back to their respective homes after a night out together. The difference on that occasion was the level of ignorance certain lesbians can display faced with a question of definition with regard transgenderism or was that simply the level of ignorance of a particular black lesbian?
I remembered Ris, a fellow Nigerian, telling me how transphobic she thought Black Pride was. “Margaret’s friend,” she said, “epitomised the insensitive nature of it all for me when she referred to you as a transsexual without any recourse to your femaleness,” she said sounding sincerely livid at how deeply ignorant members of the LGBT ourselves (not to forget the African LGBT) can sometimes be. It was as if the statement was made only a moment ago but it happened a couple of nights ago.
I was not particularly crestfallen by Margaret’s immaturity. I felt I knew of it even before it was alluded Ris mentioned it. I remembered Audre Lorde’s claim that, “If we don‘t name ourselves, we are nothing… As a Black woman I have to deal with identity or I don’t exist at all. I can’t depend on the world to name me kindly, because it will never… So either I’m going to be defined by myself or not at all. In that sense it becomes a survival situation.” (Many times, I have done just that until I found silence too can be about survival with regard to self sacrifice.) I was not going to be defined by Ris’s silence not her many asides in the company of friends or other women, yet again. My awareness of Ris’s moments of slippage which I saw as, “unconscious transphobia” to use her words was important to identify for myself. It meant I did not have any false hopes at least. I had come to expect it of conditioned desires and the swift need to constantly reaffirm them as if lives depended on it.
My survival, in fact, depended on this discovery. When I was silent I used it as a form of survival instinct at times while remaining fully eloquent in my physical appearance. I could not be quiet physically if I tried. So when I even heard you ask, where’s the problem then? I was ready to respond without experiencing a nervous breakdown. I was able to ask the question, were Ris’s loyalties flawed? Or was I just experiencing Margaret’s obvious sharing of her friend’s transphobic disposition towards transsexual people generally or this black transsexual person in particular?
The problem sometimes was simply one of absent emotional support confronted by the opinion of a drunk – a different type of silence… Complicity with a drunk, transphobia, homophobia and sexism was tantamount to deriving amusement from the wrong quarters. I cannot dessert myself because of the narrow mindedness that surrounds me. For me, the drunk that night represented one of what Audre Lorde referred to as, “the Master’s tools.”
Meanwhile, that night, as we walked from the South Bank Complex towards Waterloo Station Margaret was in a fit of her own transphobia which emerged from the throw away words of a drunk settling or settled down for the long icy night. Watching all three of us as we approached he called out… “Oi, which one of those two is yours? Are you, the one in pink, the husband of those two?” We continued walking but Margaret could not contain herself.
“Did you hear what that man said?” came the unwelcome remark like a very public slap across the face.
“I did but it was not meant for me!” I said in a damage reduction response to her.
Ris kept quiet as usual. No surprise there but Margaret babbled on demanding some direct response to the drunk verbal jibe. When none came she asked what colour my top was. When I told her that it was orange. She merely grumbled. That’s why I said “he could not possibly be speaking to us!” but she was not having it. She went on digging.
“He wasn’t speaking to me. I know that much based on the colour thing you seemed to be hooked on. However if we were all dressed in black he could easily have been taking about any of us bearing in mind none of us was wearing pink.”
Strangely, I found myself thinking about Semenya’s plight during an international athletic competition where her gender was questioned and wondered how that would play out if she were a transsexual woman? Would Margaret have found that funny too? Precisely my experience when I was asked in a packed bar at the BFI when I was put on the spot on Leslie Feinberg’s behalf. However I rose to the occasion by responding, “She’s a transgenderist which is not like female or males transsexuals. Nor is it about the person’s sex as female or male either. Rather it is about the individual’s gender expression. In Leslie Feinberg’s case, she is a woman to woman transgender person who feels more comfortable in a male gender expression (i.e. looking male in appearance).” One thing that stood out was how little the LGB know about the transgender community. I hoped my explanation would help. The silence that arouse as a result seemed to make the point in a predominantly straight space.
The very fact that Margaret took a drunk word as the foundation for her ill-placed merriment said a lot about her cognitive immaturity (and about people that react to floating opinions in the same vicarious manner for the sake of ill placed amusement.) While she did not understand transsexuality or transgenderism for that matter, a simple direct question could have settled things as the clear response had done in the bar earlier. Everything went quiet but she sounded like she was having to much fun to allow matters to end there.
Peculiarly, although Margaret noticed my silence in the face of such overt exclusion the fact that she picked it up as something to talk about made her just as bad as the inquiring tramp. To think all this took place before we even seriously talked about the film, “In the realm of the Senses” was telling; it screamed of the multiplicity of proclivities unwilling to coexist.
One question cropped up in my mind just then, are we saying then as Africans, or as Africans in the Diaspora, that it is alright to mock identities we do not understand or poke fun at them for our own selfish ends? If so, what are we saying about ourselves as human beings, Africans, Americans, Asians or Europeans, whatever their proclivities?
1. “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.” 1979. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 81-109. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing, 1984.
2. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Ru Paul. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
Mia Nikasimo © September 2009.