A peculiar confession for a trans woman to make: I have never watched Pose. I’ve been putting it off for a while, suspecting it might not be an easy watch. I’ve heard good things though, and seen a lot of snippets. Perhaps it’s no surprise that my favourite clip is this one. It begins with a confrontation initiated by an entitled White woman who demands that the three Black trans women leave:
I’m no dummy: I work in the city. I know a man pretending to be a woman when I see one, and I see three right in front of me. This is not that kind of establishment.
The response from Elektra, rising gracefully from her chair to tower over the other woman, is just stunning:
God may have blessed you with barbies, a backyard with a pony in it, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things makes you a woman.
On first viewing it’s this first part of her response that stands out and demands attention. The utter contempt with which Elektra dismisses the other woman’s presumption of superiority is captured so perfectly in the “None of these things makes you a woman” line. There is an embittered part of my soul that wishfully imagines her staring down the so-called “gender critical” feminist contingent in academia with a self assurance that I can only dream of and aspire to. The size of the gametes that one’s body naturally produces is worthless as a basis for social classification. It plays an important role in biomedical science, but it is not a meaningful concept around which to structure human society. To Elektra the implicit biological essentialism is absurd on its face, no less ridiculous than the implied social constructionist claim that the other woman’s personal history entitles her to a superior status or a stronger claim to womanhood. She does not consider these ideas to be worthy of her time.
On rewatch though, that line isn’t the part that resonates with me. It’s her follow up:
Your uniform of ill-fitting J.Crew culottes, fake pearls, and fifty cent scrunchies cannot conceal the fact that you do not know who you are. I know our presence threatens you. We fought for our place at this table. And that has made us stronger than you will ever be. Now pick your jaw up off the floor and go back to your clam chowder and shallow conversations. My girlfriends and I aren’t going anywhere.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my “place at the table”, and I come back to this quote a lot. Unlike the transgender women in the room, the cisgender woman demanding that they leave has never been forced into the kind of self-examination that gender transition requires. She has assumed her status is her birthright, inalienable and unquestionable. This is a luxury that no transgender woman has ever been afforded. Our bodies, our identity documentation, our access to services, these are all tightly regulated and legislatively controlled in a way that few cisgender people can imagine. Cisgender women understand deeply the abusiveness and the coercive control involved when their reproductive rights are curtailed. For transgender people this legislative regime is expanded to cover the right to legal documents, the right to modify our bodies, our right to choose how to dress, and our right to choose our names. Forced sterilisation laws, mandatory surgery laws, forced divorce laws, these are all still on the books for transgender women in some jurisdictions. Laws against homosexual acts and crossdressing still exist. To transition is to surrender your bodily and legal autonomy in all these respects. Transitioning even forces you to surrender epistemic agency, the right to understand yourself on your own terms: Cisgender people in their arrogance presume that our sense of self is delusional. Academics presume they have some right to study us, to theorise amateurishly about us, to reduce us to a topic of debate. They have no such right.
Nevertheless, such is the nature of the world we inhabit. Because cisgender people treat us as something less than fully human it is nigh impossible for us to transition without a ruthless examination of the things one has assumed about oneself. It’s unavoidable. Even if we try to avoid it, the existence of transgender women is threatening to the worldview of so many people: they will force confrontation upon us whether we seek it or not. Elektra’s words are etched deep in the psyche of every trans woman. We know that our presence is perceived as a threat. We know that you think your identities, your bodies, and your lives are more worthy than ours. We know that you see us as an affront to the natural order of things. The thing is though, we don’t care what you think.
I know perfectly well what I am. I know who I am. I fought tooth and nail to be here, to be her. In order to become this person I have survived rape, violence both literal and figurative, and humiliations of countless variety. Women treat me as mere copy or caricature, men treat me as fuck toy or freak show. As I come to accept myself more completely, though, I find that I am becoming indifferent to both. Think what you want of me. Your opinions do not change who or what I am. Audre Lorde put it best:
To search for power within myself means I must be willing to move through being afraid to whatever lies beyond. If I look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain from my enemies' arsenals. My history cannot be used to feather my enemies' arrows then, and that lessens their power over me. Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me. I am who I am, doing what I came to do
Whether you like it or not, whether you believe we deserve it or not, transgender women have earned a seat at the table. We fought for a place in society, as equal participants. We have earned the right to live on our terms and not merely on your sufferance.
My girlfriends and I aren’t going anywhere