If there is one thing that transgender history shows us definitively, it is that transgender people rarely agree with each other. When I read through archival sources produced by transgender people, I find debate after debate over what it means to be trans, about who counts as trans, and about how we should respond to trans oppression. Many of those debates are really painful to read today. We’ve not always treated each other well. But if we knew transgender history, we would know that we rarely agree with each other…and that’s our strength.
Here’s why I believe this to be true. One of the people who popularized the term “transgender” was Leslie Feinberg. Leslie Feinberg used the pronouns zie and hir and had a gender that exceeded and challenged the categories of man and woman. Today, we might call Leslie non-binary, but I think even that label is reductive. Leslie had a vision for a world that treated gender very differently than we do today.
[Image: On the left, a picture of Leslie Feinberg, a white trans person. Zie’s head is bald and zie smiles slightly. Zie is standing on a busy New York City street. On the right, a drawing of a blue, pink, and white umbrella.]
Leslie helped to introduce the idea of transgender as an umbrella term, but zie used that term somewhat differently than we do today. Leslie wanted everyone who experienced oppression because of their gender, everyone who fell outside gender norms, to come together in solidarity and organize against the gender binary. Zie wanted trans men and women, non-binary people, intersex people, butch lesbians, effeminate men, people of color who are treated as though their gender and sexuality are somehow fake or pathological, and anyone else harmed by the gender binary to unite. Leslie wanted us to develop solidarity and collectively challenge the systems of oppression that harm us. That’s part of our history as transgender people.
We haven’t always been successful in living up to Leslie’s vision of transgender activism. However, in our attempts to do so, in our arguments and our failures, we’re practicing an incredibly important skill. We’re learning how to come together based on both our commonalities and our differences.
I believe our collective survival on this planet depends on our ability to develop relationships that take into account both our similarities and differences. Black queer poet and thinker Audre Lorde wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
We as transgender people have lots of practice recognizing, accepting, and celebrating our differences. We need to keep asking each other what we need to be in relationship with each other. If we can get better at practicing reciprocal solidarity, we’ll be ready to fight for justice.