The cost of justice, the wages of privilege

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The following is a speech that I delivered on November 20th, 2019 at Douglass Blvd Christian Church in Louisville, KY for Transgender Day of Remembrance.

I was so honored when Dawn Wilson invited me to speak tonight alongside such eloquent voices and powerful forces of change in our community. 

But then I started thinking about what I would actually say. And I realized I didn’t know how, as a white trans man, I could do justice to the lives, or deaths, of the 22 trans people, disproportionately trans women of color, who’ve been murdered in the US this year. 

It’s a curious turn of phrase— “to do justice to.” We use it in a lot of contexts. We say, “The movie doesn’t do the book justice.” “The picture doesn’t do her beauty justice.” “The speech was powerful, and really did justice to the difficult subject matter.” 

Can one do justice to an injustice? What about an injustice so violent and ubiquitous that it’s been deemed an “epidemic” by the American Medical Association? 

If “one” can, that “one” isn’t me. 

What I can do, in honor of those we have lost, is remind the living of our privilege, and remind them (as well as myself) to serve and uplift those who are still here. 

Most of us have some degree of privilege. Privilege translates as power. The more privilege you have, the more power.  

Power is not a stable currency. Rather, it increases or decreases depending on context, time, place, audience, and an infinite number of other factors.

My whiteness has translated as power since birth, since the moment the doctor assigned me the wrong gender.

When I came out as trans and started hormone therapy, my gender became ambiguous, visibly trans; my body morphed into an object of morbid curiosity and repulsion, a target for hateful speech and gestures. I lost my cis-passing privilege; my power decreased.

After a while of the testosterone working its magic, I started passing as male more and more consistently. I started steadily accumulating power, little by little, day by day, with each new change brought on by the testosterone.

Four years later, I have cis-passing privilege again, and also male privilege. 

Still, my power is not a stable currency. I lose power when I come out as trans to a cis person, or when I walk into a room full of cis people who know that I’m trans. I gain power when I leave that room, and walk back out into the world where I pass as cis. I gain power when I present masculinely. I lose power when my expression is more feminine, or more visibly queer.

Yet, always, I have some degree of power, some degree of privilege. 

But if power and privilege are linked, so are privilege and responsibility. It’s my responsibility, no, my privilege, to do what I can with what power I have — in any and every given context. 

It is not our responsibility, as trans people, to put our health or safety or livelihood at risk to educate cis people or advocate for other trans people. But it is our responsibility, as men and masculine people, to stand up for women and femmes, as white folks to stand up for black and brown folks, and as binary people to stand up for our nonbinary siblings.

Sometimes this looks like disclosing my trans status to another trans person, in solidarity, or to a cis person, to educate. Sometimes it’s giving another trans person a warm smile when everyone else is either gawking or averting their eyes. Sometimes it’s explaining to a white trans friend what racial bias is, or calling out racial bias when I see it. Or donating to someone else’s surgery fund, or showing up at their door with a home-cooked meal. Or actively seeking out and including the perspectives of nonbinary people, transfeminine people, and trans people of color.

Power is not a stable currency, but if each of us uses what power we have to build up others in our community, we will all be powerful together. Or to paraphrase Marx: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. 

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