A major focus of my activism has been challenging the way in which trans women are often excluded from, or made to feel irrelevant within, queer women’s spaces. Because I have been so vocal about the subject, people sometimes ask me for advice on how they can make their space or organization more welcoming to trans women. Sometimes I’d offer suggestions that would pretty much apply to being a good ally to any marginalized group: educate yourself about trans women’s issues, call out transphobic and trans-misogynistic attitudes in your community, allow trans women to have more than just a token voice in the space, don’t project your assumptions onto us, and so on. While these are all helpful suggestions, they don’t quite get to the root of the problem. So lately I’ve tried to boil down my “how to be a trans woman ally” spiel into one simple sound-bite: destroy the insider/outsider myth.
The myth is simple: it assumes that cisgender women are perpetually on the inside of queer women’s communities while transgender women are perpetually on the outside trying to get in. This is why cis women who take issue with trans women in their communities tend to portray us as infiltrators, interlopers or impersonators—essentially, entitled “men” who have the audacity to want to take part in a women’s community that we supposedly don’t understand. This ignores the fact that trans women have been a part of queer women’s communities since at least the 1960’s, and we’re not going away any time soon. More importantly, the insider/outsider myth ignores the fact that virtually all of us—whether cis or trans—begin our lives outside of the queer community. Most of us grew up in straight families. Our formative years were spent navigating our way through predominantly straight schools and communities where we were made to feel shame and stigma about our gender and sexual desires.
Like many queer women, I spent my teenage years closeted, feeling isolated and scared. I didn’t dare tell anyone about my earliest fantasies, which invariably involved me (as a girl) making out with some girl I was crushed out on from my junior high or high school. As a young adult, I experimented a bit with men, but the lion’s share of my relationships were with queer-identified women. Eventually, I came out to everyone in my life as a woman who loves other women. These days, when I move through the world, people generally perceive and treat me as a queer woman either because I openly identify as queer and/or I’m with a female partner. In other words, my story isn’t really that much different from that of the average queer woman, except for the fact that I (unlike her) had been forced against my will into boyhood. But like all self-empowered queer women, I did not meekly accept the future that others had laid out for me. Instead, I followed my own desires, created my own path, just like my cis queer sisters. And I believe that we share a vital, mutual goal: to find a support network outside of the hetero-male-centric mainstream where we can finally feel empowered and affirmed as women who love other women.
Unfortunately, the insider/outsider myth creates differences in how cis and trans women are treated within queer women’s communities. I remember asking a cis queer friend about how she felt the first time she ventured into a queer women’s space, and her response was similar to what most of us would probably say: she said she was both excited and nervous. Excited about the possibilities the space held, but nervous because, up until that point, she had been a complete outsider. She was worried that she might say the wrong thing, come off as clueless, that she might not be accepted or taken seriously. But she found that over time she was warmly embraced. Older dykes saw her as a younger version of themselves and took her under their wing. They called her a “baby dyke”—a pejorative admittedly, but one that implied that it was inevitable that she would eventually grow into her queer womanhood. The more established dykes were patient with her and gave her the benefit of doubt.