Trans people have rights because we’re human—not because we’re special. So why does having those rights recognized require a flood of trans tears?
New York Times
Do you need me to spell it out?
New York Times
It’s understandable, then, that some trans people attempt to prove the cost of transphobia with personal pain, as in this tweet from a nonbinary person that recently showed up on my timeline: “It’s trans day of remembrance / Go hug a trans person today / They probably need it.”
Whether or not trans people need hugs, this strategy is flawed. A constant assertion of pain supports the narrative that trans people “deserve” rights in compensation for suffering. But rights are innate. Trans people have them because we’re human—not because we’re special. So why does having those rights recognized require a flood of trans tears?
Several years ago, I attended a writer’s conference in Eastern Europe. Jet lag, culture shock, and the insecurity of being around more accomplished writers turned me into my most embarrassing self: a nervous monologuer, liable to blurt my life story to anyone fool enough to join me for borscht.
Toward the end of the conference, I attached myself to a woman I’ll call Carol. Carol, a lesbian, was friendly, warm, and around fifteen years older—eons in queer time. When Carol was a teen, newspapers called AIDS “the gay cancer.” Her generation made mine possible.
I don’t remember the exact words I used to come out to Carol. I was going through a long-haired, skirt-wearing phase which had been preceded by a manual labor, testosterone-taking phase. As a result, I was often read as a trans woman, and felt compelled to clear things up. Probably I explained that I had started on the girl team, transitioned, didn’t like men, got interested in girl clothes.
I did not, I clarified, “identify as a woman.” I remember using those words, because Carol was confused. “I’m not a woman,” I told her. “I don’t think of myself as anything, really. I’m androgynous, I guess.”
This was no great confession—necessity forces me to “come out” a few times a month—but it seemed to mean a lot to Carol. She beamed and thanked me, told me how meaningful our conversation had been.
A few days later, I was welcomed home by a Facebook message from Carol: “What a lovely brunch,” she wrote. “Thank you, smart woman, lovely woman.”
It’s the repetition that really got me. One “woman” would be egregious enough, but two? It’s as if, after I had told her about a recent abortion, she’d mailed over burp cloths and booties with a note declaring me a smart mother, a lovely mother.
Perhaps Carol was a bad listener. Perhaps she thought I was a trans woman and was welcoming me to the Woman Club. Or she’d listened through a second-wave feminist subtext and figured I was a self-hating woman who needed love. In either case, she offered reassurance for a trauma—a trans rejection, a trans fear—I did not possess.
According to my unscientific Facebook search results, Hug a Trans Person Day first appeared in 2009. By 2014, the dubious holiday had almost given up the ghost. But nothing really dies online, and “Hug a trans person” continued life as a meme. It’s almost a command: Where transdom is trending, that phrase shall follow.
Its use has become almost a one-size-fits-all response to any injustice. As in the wake of the New York Times article, when the hugging of trans people is invoked as civic duty. “Call out ignorance, hug a trans* person, and for goodness sake, VOTE!” tweets one person. Another writes, “Vote. Speak out against transphobia. Just fucking hug a trans person if you can’t do anything else.”
Or take these examples from beyond American borders in the past few years: “I just want to take every trans person in the UK right now and give them hugs and hot chocolate and a pep talk”; “i saw a trans person in the female toilets today and I wanted to hug them bc they looked a little uncomfy and people were looking at them.”
This is how we talk to and about small children, or those who have come to us for shelter and support. But is it a normal way to speak about grown adult strangers? How does an interest in social equality become “Come on, people, let’s get out there and hug!”
Maybe, reader, you are quoting suicide rates at your screen. Maybe you are peeing while trans and thinking, Well, I could use a cuddle. You are not alone. In fact, the first two tweets above come from trans people. So does this one: “If you know a trans person or a gender non-conforming person please be nice to them. We are basically watching our country erase us. It’s scary! All we want is a hug.”
I don’t begrudge anyone wanting a hug, but the endless recycling of the phrase makes me wonder: Why does the argument for trans rights, or against the daily grind of microaggressions, keeps circling back to our collective vulnerability? To me, it has the ring of a cultural script—language unconsciously absorbed and repeated according to preassigned roles and power dynamics. Who does this language empower? And who does it weaken?
Historically speaking, small children are more popular than trans people. We build hospitals for children, pass laws against their perceived neglect, spend trillions to conceive, deliver, and educate them. Anything even tangentially associated with human children gains an extra shot at preservation: finger paintings, jars of baby teeth, abandoned pit bulls. If benevolent infantilization works for rescue French bulldogs (“My name is Carly! I am looking for an active mommy or daddy who likes to snuggle!”), why not for the Great American Transsexual?
The strategy of salvation-through-infantilization is at least as old as the Spanish conquest of Latin America. In the sixteenth century, the friar and social reformer Bartolomé de las Casas (official title: “Protector of the Indians”) wrote extensively about the brutal abuse and violence inflicted on the Indigenous peoples by colonizers. Despite his influential advocacy for the Atlantic slave trade (which he’d later come to disavow), de las Casas tends to be remembered as a clear-eyed moral hero.
But de las Casas’ morals are undermined by a sense of Euro-Christian superiority that made him unable to see those he “protected” as equals. (The corollary to this “compassionate” inequality was his cold estimation of enslaved Africans as hardy workers who would bring in more gold than their Indigenous counterparts.)
Take his description of the Taíno islanders: “ . . . these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful . . . These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. And because they are so weak and complaisant, they are less able to endure heavy labor and soon die of no matter what malady . . . As to their dress, they are generally naked, with only their pudenda covered somewhat . . . ”
The more pathetic one’s object of pity, the more normal empathy swells into saintlike compassion.
De las Casas paints the Taíno as überchildren: dewy-eyed Precious Moments dolls, hiking up their sagging underpants with one hand and stifling a consumptive cough with the other. This way of viewing the “unfortunate”—that is, those made unfortunate by design—flatters the viewer. The more pathetic one’s object of pity, the more normal empathy swells into saintlike compassion. In the end, the unfortunate may get protection, but at the cost of full agency. In the eyes of their parent-saviors, they can be “docile” children or errant ones, but they can never grow up.
Ostensibly, I moved to New York for college. I hated school, but I hated living at home more. Besides, New York had testosterone. In my eighteen-year-old imagination, testosterone cypionate rained from the New York skies and my RA would welcome me to my dorm with a bouquet of intramuscular needles. The reality was more bureaucratic.
At the LGBT clinic, there were many more hoops for a teen to jump through than for an adult. First, I would have to undergo months of therapy. Then, I’d be prescribed a dose of hormones too low to even stop my period. It would be years before I’d pass as a guy. I had survived high school in baggy clothes, muttering to hide my high voice, ignoring the pain of my tightly bound chest. I had endured being read as a little boy, a baby, promising myself that it would be over soon. Soon, I could shed my girl skin and start real adulthood. Now, soon retreated further. I wrapped the Ace bandage tighter and waited.
Eventually, I was assigned to a therapist: David, a gay guy with an acrylic sweater in shades of mustard and ketchup and the kind of hungry smile that seems innate to young men in social work. “Tell me about yourself!” David greeted me. I said I was just there for the prescription, but he waved it off. “Why don’t you tell me about your support system? Do you have people you can talk to?”
Although I could not have articulated it, I was indeed in crisis. I wasn’t going to class. I roamed Manhattan through the night, often barefoot. I already felt exiled from my family, and by New Year’s, I wouldn’t be speaking to my queer friends either. It was the most alone I have ever been. Then, as now, I perceived David’s interest as facile, condescending, borne of formula rather than insight. To allow myself to be seen by him, I would have had to adopt his view of me: a damaged trans child. I couldn’t afford to do that.
I asked David how long he’d been working with trans clients.
“One day,” he chirped. “You’re my first!”
Through a trans guy at work, I learned about a doctor on Columbus Circle who gave injections at fifty bucks a pop. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. It looked like a suite of laundry rooms or a place you’d get your shoe soles hammered back on. The doctor leaned across his desk. In a thick, Hungarian accent, he asked, “When you were small, did you play with the toys of the boy or the toys of the girl?”
I thought of the Castle Grayskull stalactites I’d worn on my fingers like hideous, long nails. “I played with the toys of the boy?” Thus was I pronounced transsexual.
Maybe transness, in its popular conception, is what treats us like children. Subtly and not, the associations pervade any discussion of trans people, like a condescending Greek chorus: “Isn’t gender play the province of toddlers? Who but a preschooler fixates on bathrooms? New names are for babies, new driver’s licenses for teenagers. A medical transition—that’s just really expensive puberty.”
In her essay “On Liking Women,” Andrea Long Chu compares gender dysphoria to unrequited love—the desire for a body, a self that perpetually evades. Perhaps this “romance of disappointment” freights transness with adolescent angst, fixing us, in the public imagination, in a kind of existential #throwbackthursday, an awkward phase without exit. Relegated to the realm of becoming, trans people can never simply be.
But sharing concerns with a preschooler doesn’t mean you are one. Besides, most trans people remain trans long after coming out, when the tropes of transition, if they ever applied, have faded like so much acne.
I was once invited to teach a workshop for a famous literary organization on “writing the trans experience.” I wanted to teach for them, and since being trans was my sole area of expertise, I agreed.
Except, I didn’t know what “the trans experience” was. Should I teach coming-out memoirs, a cliché-loaded genre that most trans people I know regard more as educational material for cis people than as literature? I could focus on writing trans characters, but what exactly are trans people supposed to have in common beyond marginalization? A hypersensitive awareness of one’s body in space? It would be like teaching people to write characters with peanut allergies, or tall characters.
I imagined a class on writing the tall experience: lyrical descriptions of heads bumping rafters; the problems of airline travel as a plot device; similes: “as tall as an overgrown sunflower,” “legs as long as two alpine skis”; a redemptive arc in which self-hating tall people learn to love platform shoes.
The truth: Being trans is boring. Don’t get me wrong. The actual process of transition is almost too interesting. The name brainstorms, the TMI Facebook posts, the sweaty shopping trips, the extreme hairstyles, the lying awake conjuring a new sexual self, the microaggressions, the excessive mirror-gazing. For a while, it can be hard to look at anything else besides your changing self.
But then you do. You think less and less about your gender and its incarnations. At least that happened to me and the trans friends I had back in the early 2000s. We drifted from that necessary obsession and from each other’s lives, into jobs, relationships, identities that shared little in common with our once-prolonged adolescence.
Talking about “the trans experience” is like talking about “the female experience.” You immediately have to modify with race, income, geography, interest, political affiliation. You have to distinguish between those who want to get pregnant and those who can’t, those who like to feel attractive and those who don’t care how they look, those who pass and those who never tried and those for whom there is no such thing.
Arguably, every trans person is, on some level, affected by government policy. But you can’t predict how we’ll feel about that, any more than you can say that all women respond identically to the fact of rape. And it doesn’t matter. To focus on emotions in matters of justice is to be the bull running at the red cape, the sleuth grabbing the red herring.
I finally write back to Leigh’s email:
It is true that the world is a dark place right now and that that news is one more ugly layer. I imagine you sent this email because you read it and felt afraid. It is frightening that those in power seek to divide and categorize human beings between good and bad, legitimate and fake. It is frightening that a president and his staff look out from their fortress and see difference and want to hurt it, and see this hurting as a means to unite their followers. It is frightening that scapegoating has worked before and continues to work. It is frightening, it is sad, it is not easy to live in such a world, not if one is awake.
And yet: here we are.
The day of the New York Times article, a friend tweets, “Don’t hug me. Fight for me!”
I would add a small edit: Fight for everyone. When gender gets constrained, when bodies get further regulated, we are all fucked. Not equally but thoroughly. No one, I think, wants to live like that.
Originally from Michigan, Luke Dani Blue holds an MFA from San Francisco State University, where they were honored with a Distinguished Achievement award. Luke's short fiction has won prizes from Colorado Review and Crab Orchard Review, and a note of distinction from Best American Short Stories 2016. Luke has taught creative writing at universities, public libraries, rural high schools, and major urban writing centers and was recently a Tin House Scholar and member of the Tin House Summer Workshop scholarship committee. Their debut short story collection, Pretend It's My Body, is coming in September 2022 from Feminist Press.