I was shocked when I heard that non-binary gender was legal here in Oregon. The overwhelming hatred against our community by the government, the “criminal” “justice” system, and individual and communal violence in the past few years has damaged my ability to hope for meaningful change. In fact, shortly after hearing this news, the shooting in Orlando happened. It seems that no matter what policy changes we gain, the violence persists.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too hopeful after I processed the news that Jamie Shupe was the first legally genderless person in the United States. As a non-binary activist, my mind went straight to what this would look like in terms of policy – and I started to worry.
How will the government apply this ruling? What will the requirements be to change sex/gender on legal documents? Will we be able to remove gender markers from our documents, or will they add a third option? How will this process include refugee new arrivals and asylum seekers? How will it include our indigenous and undocumented siblings? Who will this ruling be accessible to?
Most importantly, whose voices will be at the forefront? Over the past few decades, the “LGBT Movement” has largely been a legal and policy reform battle funded by those with the money to effect change. Our revolutionary history has faded, and our community has become increasingly divided by privilege and power.
While the most vulnerable members of our community are being denied housing and healthcare, fired from their jobs, and even killed, the affluent members of our community are seeking reform instead of redistribution. They have mainstream society celebrating (monogamous) marriage as a solution to our exclusion from government benefits and strengthening the police state through hate crime legislation.
Are the people who have been funding these liberal reformist goals going to raise up the voices who endorse “gay-friendly” corporations and see the police apparatus as favorable instead of destructive? Or can we transform gay philanthropy into a community-based, trans and queer movement?
The following are reflections that I want to share with trans and queer Oregonians (especially white non-binary people like me) who are engaged in trans and queer advocacy – everything from existing, to dinner conversations, to street protests. I’m writing this with one major question in mind: How can we resist the violence that comes from legal sex/gender categorization?
- We Must Return to Community-Based Activism
If you haven’t done so already, read JamesMichael Nichols piece on why we need to “ACT UP Once Again.” Nichols poignantly articulates the need for our community to “think about issues with an intersectional perspective while taking tangible action.”
While many of us are involved in meaningful work for the trans and queer communities, we often fall short. The underlying problem is this: our advocacy is geared toward helping WHITE, middle class, monogamous, Christian/Agnostic/Atheist, neurotypical, non disabled people. In other words, our funding, resources, and mobilization is focused on meeting the needs of normative members of our community, not those who experience the compounded oppression that comes from multiple non-normative identities.
When this is the norm, our activism inherently lacks intersectionality because it does not come from a bottom-up model that centers the voices and experiences of the most marginalized members of our communities.
Queer, Trans, Immigrant, Refugee (QTIR) activists at organizations like Unite Oregon (formerly known as Center for Intercultural Organizing) are demonstrating how to engage in community-based activism by lifting up those people often left out or disregarded by top-down nonprofits and funding organizations. Their intersectional approach teaches all of us, inside and out of the white trans and queer community, how a community-based activism can address problems conveniently disregarded by the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC).
While a discussion of what community-based activism can look like is a different discussion altogether, there are two points I want to highlight about our work here in Oregon. First and foremost, we need a firm, intersectional framework for our activism. Too often, nonprofits and activists (myself included) organize from the experiences of the normative members of our community I discussed above. Second, we need mass mobilization in order to effectively resist and transform the institutions that are hurting the masses.
A mass movement of queer and trans people – and those that stand in solidarity with us – starts with recognizing that we cannot pay a handful of people to organize on our behalf. Our lived experiences are crucial to addressing the countless injustices faced by our community. We have to build a grassroots movement where the goals, strategies, and tactics are decided by the people affected – not just the people with the money. If we can’t recognize that our community is made up of people of all backgrounds, we are doomed to exclude those with whom we do not identify.
- We Must Advocate to Remove Gender Markers Altogether
Realizing that we must engage in movement building from an intersectional framework, we need to question what our goals are. In the case of legal, non-binary gender, an intersectional framework recognizes that the process of categorization is inherently harmful. Instead of advocating for another way of categorizing trans people by adding a third gender marker, let’s come together and advocate for the removal of gender markers altogether.
Eli Erlick, Co-Founder and Director of Trans Student Educational Resources, discusses the creation of a third gender marker by referencing the ways in which categorization is a problem in itself.
“The U.S. government has little investment in trans people’s wellbeing and more interest in how to confine our bodies to a single documented letter in which they can visually authenticate our existence through passing as a specific gender. Instead of arguing that we need to include nonbinary identities in documentation, we should instead be questioning the rationale behind IDs altogether. We should not see ourselves assimilated into a fundamentally anti-Black, binarist, colonialist system of state or national documentation, but rather begin the long-term objective of ending documentation.”
We need to push back against the use of gender as a form of control and categorization. The truth is, gender categories do not work for anyone; so why do we assume that they would work for us? We’ve seen the violence on our trans siblings in North Carolina in the wake of gender categorization via bathrooms. This happened because the state’s categories of “male” and “female” come along with expectations of what a “male” and “female” body look like from the time of birth, as well as the presentation of those genders to the rest of society.
Rather than removing that violence, adding a third gender marker would increase the norms around gender categories. The categories of “male” and “female” would become narrower, and “non-binary” would take on new expectations as well. The problem is that there is no one way of being non-binary. This system of categorization that the state wants us to buy into is, at its core, about the assimilation of people considered “deviant” into systems considered “normal.” Bolstering what is considered a “normal” identity or way of existing will only increase marginalization of people who are considered “deviant.”
Instead of further dividing our community according to normality, we must remove the power it has. The recent case of marriage equality demonstrated the problems with seeking normality. With “same-sex” monogamy now sanctioned by the state, our society now expects us to marry in order to receive the benefits that heterosexual couples do. What about people who do not want to marry, but are still partnered? What about polyamorous partnerships? Why must the state tell us that our relationship is legitimate for us to do things such as visit our loved ones in the hospital? Instead, why aren’t we fighting against policies that intentionally exclude families not modeled after the traditional (heterosexual and monogamous) family?
Advocating for a third gender marker lacks an intersectional framework. In advocating for more categorization, we don’t consider how members of our community are constantly categorized to their detriment by the state and society. Instead of asking, “Will you add my correct gender to my documents so that I experience less violence,” let’s ask “Why do you require that I have documents to live free from violence?”
- We Must Control the Narrative Ourselves
While the question of how the recent ruling about non-binary gender should be applied may not seem important, it is crucial to the well-being of all trans and queer Oregonians, as well as helping us to build a shared political consciousness. If we don’t recognize, as Eli Erlick states, that “Equality is Toxic to the Transgender Movement,” then we won’t be able to effectively advocate for those in our community who are suffering injustices the most.
We need to return to community-based activism so that we can gain justice. That means organizing, having discussions amongst ourselves, and listening to non-binary people. That means listening not only to white voices like mine, but to the voices of people of color, of refugee, immigrant, and indigenous members of our community.
Óscar Guerra-Vera, a doble espíritu Tepehuan (O’dami) organizer with Unite Oregon, reveals how much we can learn from the lived experiences of Oregonians not raised in white and/or middle-class homes where English was the first or only language. In universalizing the experiences and imaginations of white people in Oregon, we necessarily exclude the wisdom of these communities, in addition to reproducing the colonialism of our white ancestors. While shaping the narrative ourselves means we ALL have our voices included, we need to recognize that the voices of people who have been colonized and oppressed for centuries in Oregon have more to teach us than we can even comprehend.
Here are Óscar’s words:
“Gloria Anzaldúa, chicana lesbian scholar and activist, demanded we understand that gender and queer indigenous liberation is very much intertwined with the land. Since the 1960’s she has posed the following question for us: How will our lands be free when our bodies are not?
“We hear similarities in the storytelling of two spirit people of the Warm Springs Nation; Muxes from southeast indigenous lands of Mexico; Farsi speaking trans womyn relieved their language is not gendered as in western cultures. It has been so fascinating and exciting to mobilize with multilingual refugee, immigrant, and local first nation individuals.
“These are communities whose wisdom may enlighten our collective transcendence, if we listen and pay attention. Culturally, we are tied directly to the land. Colonization abroad, mostly funded by US global militarization, has displaced us here. Two-spirit and queer indigenous individuals from these lands were not meant to survive genocide, yet we continue overcoming contemporary forms of it. Our resiliency speaks volumes about how being out of the gender binary is very much a part of the natural world. White Oregonian queers must transcend the reality that your privilege and power helps maintain state violence on our bodies. We must act directly from this honest truth so we may all experience a collective evolution.
“Liberation for trans people means we have to articulate a decolonial perspective, by uplifting the voices of indigenous leaders all over the world, including refugee and immigrants. Oregon was established with manifest destiny efforts, using genocidal tactics. Policy and legislation that disregards colonial rule over confederated tribes of the state and the many indigenous communities not recognized by federal government are reproducing colonial rule.”
Óscar’s wisdom about the colonialism of policy and legislation here in Oregon calls us to challenge even more the creation of a third gender marker. Before any decisions are made about how this ruling will be applied, we must come together and tell our politicians and allies that our community will not benefit from more categorizations. We don’t want more classifications, more boxes, more control. We want to be free from the tyranny and violence of the gender binary, not make it seem acceptable.
It’s our time to control the narrative. It’s our time to organize for the policies that benefit everyone in our community. It’s our time to lead the fight against institutions, policies, and values that put help some people in our community while making life worse for others.
In the words of JamesMichael Nichols, “Queers – it is time for us to ACT UP again.”