The enemy within

I’m no stranger to transphobia. Or homophobia. Or queerphobia. I mean, you can call it what you will, but at the end of the day, there are a whole bunch of people out there who harbour prejudice towards other people, simply on the basis of those folks’ identities.

As an activist – as a human rights defender – I’d be out of a job if those people didn’t exist. I’d be delighted, of course, because that’s a great reason to become unemployed – the ultimate defeat of prejudice. But the fact remains, the reason that myself and my colleagues have to defend human rights is because there are elements out there intent on attacking those human rights.

Since I am unquestionably a millenial, I live my life simultaneously in a digital space, and in the old-fashioned, analogue world. Both of them are home to (more than) their fair share of douchebags but, as you can maybe imagine, the internet is probably the worse of the two. Now, I have mixed feelings about this, because although the internet leaves me vulnerable to greater degrees of harassment, it also acts as a platform for me, and a means to communicate the ideas and the message that I strive to represent.

All of this is a little irrelevant though; the point that I really want to make is that, both on the internet and outside of it, I have encountered the -phobias. I have been the personal target of some of these vitriolic remarks and damaging behaviours, and I have borne witness when they have been directed at others. It upsets me, of course. How could it not? Because even though I know that these behaviors are the product of prejudice and small minds, it’s still difficult not to take them personally.

The other effect of being exposed to this sort of venom on a regular basis is that you quickly learn the arguments that people make. And how to answer them. Whether it’s those who simply repeat the nauseatingly transphobic, masquerading-as-medical-science rhetoric of Paul McHugh, or the second-wave trans-exclusionary masquerading-as-modern-feminism diatribe of Germaine Greer and her ilk, I’m at a stage where I feel like I’ve heard just about all the arguments, been upset by them, and reasoned my way through why they are BS in the first instance.

It’s a pattern that has gone on for years. The targets change, of course – or at least, the order of priority does. Right now, trans issues are big, and people are trying to keep us from accessing care, they’re trying to throw us out of bathrooms, and they’re generally trying to exclude us from society. Before that, lesbian and gay rights were the talking points. That’s not to say that they aren’t still on the agenda, nor is it to suggest that there was a time when people used to be okay with trans folk, of course. Just that now, trans people seem to be the prime target for a lot of hate. It’s become less socially acceptable to be openly homophobic in the things people say or do, but being transphobic isn’t subject to the same sort of restrictions, at least not yet.

Of course, I’m at the intersection of a bunch of different identities, so I can get hated on for being trans, for being lesbian, for being feminist, for being asexual, for being Jewish, for being a bunch of different things.

I’m not okay with it, and it still hurts, but my skin has been getting thicker. It’s had to, after all.

One thing that I still struggle with, though, is when that hatred and prejudice comes from my own community.

I talk sometimes about our internalised -phobias. That idea that, just because I’m trans, there’s something broken or wrong with me. That idea that being queer makes me lesser. That idea that because I’m a woman, I’ll never be good enough. All of these insecurities that stem from the conditioning that I (and, I believe, all of us) was subjected to throughout my life. It was in the newspapers, it was at school, it was at the dinner-table conversation. In the books I read and the TV shows I watched. No-one ever really sat me down and told me plainly that “queer is wrong”. At least, not that I recall. But I received that message quite clearly nonetheless.

I have those internalised phobias. I have a bunch of them. I’ve always had them. And yeah, they rear their ugly heads at inopportune times. Even when I’m in a really good space, those latent insecurities can be triggered, and send me spiraling into a cycle of depression and dysphoria. They can make me feel like I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll never be acceptable, that my achievements are worthless, that I’m repulsive, that I’m unlovable – all kinds of awful things. Things that outside observers would try to convince me are plainly false, but to me feel like immutable and inescapable truths.

I’ve put a lot of time and effort and thought into breaking those patterns. Or at least, getting a better handle on recognising them and dealing with them appropriately. There was a time when I truly hoped and believed that I’d be able to overcome them completely; I think now, I have come to understand that there is a good chance that I will continue to face these issues for the rest of my life, but that is part of my ongoing challenge and journey.

Disclosure time, though (I mean, admit it – that’s why you keep coming back here week after week, it’s to read all the embarrassing truths that I admit to).

It doesn’t just affect my ideas about myself. It affects my perspectives on other queer and trans folk.

Yeah, I said it. I also make judgments about people, based on arbitrary bullshit factors. I also shoebox people by instinct. I also have toxic ideas about the right way to be trans, and I’m often pretty darned superficial and cisnormative about it too.

It was a lot worse back when I’d just come out. When I still carried so much of the baggage of pretending to be cis and straight and male. The camouflage, once you’ve worn it for so long, well… I don’t know, maybe the lines start to blur.

There are two things that I will say, though. I may have thought some things that I wasn’t proud of (and sometimes, I still do) – but I never acted on them. I never said anything out loud, I never passed any comment, I never threw any shade.

The other thing that I want to say is, I recognised that those patterns were destructive. I recognised that they were a product of pathology and conditioning. Not to say that I shifted responsibility for any of it – they were my thoughts, and I own and acknowledge that. But I dug a little bit deeper to try to figure out where they came from, so that I could learn how to break that cycle.

I’m not saying that I’m better than anyone else – all I’m saying is that I did a bit of introspection, and I took some time and care to interrogate what I was thinking, instead of just acting on it.

Now I have a lot of factors acting in my favour. I’m (relatively) young, I have access to the internet, and specifically some safe and progressive spaces to learn from, and I have the capacity to grow even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable.

So although there was baggage there, if we’re going to compare, well… maybe I had less of it than some other people. Or some better means to deal with it.

But either way, I made a decision to recognise it and to try to deal with it.

A lot of us haven’t. And that’s what I struggle to deal with.

Sometimes it happens on a really impersonal level – when Caitlyn makes remarks about how trans people should try harder to pass, or when a medical doctor, herself a trans woman, suggests that trans identity in people assigned male at birth is a manifestation of sexual deviance (I’m not even going to link to her stuff, because of how disturbing it is).

People who are seen as representative of our community (and I’m not suggesting that they are representative, but the fact of the matter is that they are often seen as such) do so much damage through comments like these. They undermine us, they invalidate us. They set us back.

And it stings.

Unsplash / Pixabay

I feel it on a number of levels. Of course, it’s difficult not to feel betrayed. When “one of our own” stands up and compares us to cross-dressers, or to perverts, or suggests that we should be conforming to standards that have only ever been used to oppress us? That’s like a knife in the back.

But I also feel so much sorrow. Knowing that these ideas and perspectives must be informed by so much guilt and so much shame. That they are insecurities and self-loathing made tangible and directed outward.

Sometimes, though, it’s much more personal. There are a lot of situations I could point to. Times I’ve been criticised about my appearance or my behaviour or my demeanour, or times I’ve been told how to be more “girly” (whatever-the-fuck that means? Probably it involves swearing less, which is not gonna happen).

The last time I was in a relationship, I was rejected because I’m trans. By another trans person.

I wish that we weren’t put in a position where we have to start off with so much self-loathing already on board. I wish we didn’t start off believing that there’s something wrong with us. I wish we were better taught how to love ourselves.

I wrestle with my own self worth. I wrestle with it a lot. And much of it is tied in to my feelings over being trans. But I will do my utmost to never, ever, EVER suggest that any other trans person is sick, or inadequate because of that.

That self worth is a constant battle for me. I know how hard it is to build it up. And I’ve had mine torn down. And I know how much harder it is still to rebuild it after that kind of catastrophic fall. If anything, I want to support other people in their own battles; not make it more difficult for them.

Hatred that comes from a random stranger, someone who probably isn’t even aware of LGBTQIA issues… well, that’s one thing. I can engage, if I choose to. Or I can write it off, managing with enough effort not to take it to heart. It cuts still, sure it does. But nowhere near as deep as when it comes from one of our own.

So when I meet these people, who seem to me to be so broken and so worn down, and so damaged by the world that we live in… I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to navigate that conflict between betrayal and empathy. I don’t know how to reconcile the damage done to people with the damage done by people. I don’t know where the lines are drawn between anger and sorrow. I just don’t know.

I suppose all I can do, really, is keep trying to grow. To take responsibility for my own ideas and thoughts and actions and words. To support those that I can. And to dream of, and hope for, a time when things will be better.


IMG_20160512_235529My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here. 

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