“As long as I lived, I would have to make my own way. Perhaps it was at that moment I realized that mine is a war with no end in view; I might as well fight it cheerfully or I would spend my life waiting for some distant victory in order to be happy.” —Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
One night a few weeks ago, my dear friend and soul sister Kama La Mackerel and I decided to take selfies atop the ruby-red stairs of the TKTS booth in Times Square. We were in New York City for the weekend to perform at a benefit fundraiser for the Audre Lorde Project, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ people of color.
Hanging in Times Square isn’t my exactly my idea of a good time — I like to think that I am a Sophisticated Lady who is above all that tourist cliché nonsense. But Kama, whose social media game is fierce beyond measure, was determined to get a photo of us on those stairs (#TWOCsistas #transgirlsinnyc #femme4femme #whathappensinnewyork). And what La Mackerel wants, La Mackerel gets.
Engulfed in the throng of tourists and street performers, we disappeared — just two more girls amid the crowd. This is unusual for us, because as trans women of color, we are used to standing out wherever we go. To being pointed at, laughed at, cursed at. Threatened. Touched, grabbed, groped without our consent. To being both crudely and subtly degraded in the streets, on the subway, at work, in the bedrooms of our supposed lovers.
Sitting on that glowing red staircase under the artificial lights of the Times Square billboards, though, I felt totally and unexpectedly at peace with the universe. There, in the center of the Western world, Kama and I (apparently not so sophisticated after all) clung to each other and shrieked and giggled and gawked like the small-town girls we are at heart.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked me, after we had both calmed down somewhat. I opened my mouth to answer, but a lump caught in my throat. Tears prickled at the back of my eyes.
“I’m thinking about how far we’ve come,” I said finally. “I’m thinking about how just a few years ago, I never thought I would be here. Or even alive. I never believed I could be this happy.”
When you are a young trans girl of color, you grow up knowing that you are marked for violence and death. Your classmates make jokes about hunting down and shooting people like you. It seems like almost every news item, book, movie, and TV show featuring a trans person ends with that person being rejected by their family, sexually assaulted, dying, or all three. Even the sympathetic portrayals seem to make us out to be victims to be pitied rather than heroes to root for.
No one teaches you that you can be happy. No one shows you a vision of the future that you can see yourself in.
Even with the so-called “transgender tipping point” spurring a surge of media attention on trans women, the stories that are emerging remain painfully, terrifyingly limited: Dozens of articles about the trans body count of 2015. Stories about trans women coming out to enormous social backlash and violence, about trans women trapped in survival sex work, about trans women arrested and incarcerated for no reason other than being out in public.
It is vitally important to shed light on the oppression and suffering of trans women (I’ve written my fair share about it). I am glad that it is happening after generations of silence. But I also want to know: Where are the comics about trans lady robber barons? The magazine profiles about trans women making breakthroughs in STEM professions (and yes, they do exist)? The Pulitzer Prize–winning novels portraying communities of trans women of color living together and loving each other, despite the terrible odds?
More than ever, trans women of color need be able to dream about ourselves as vibrant and powerful. As leading lives worth living.
For most of my life, I didn’t know any trans people. The only trans folks I saw in the media were white and lived in worlds vastly different from my own existence as a Chinese kid growing up in an immigrant neighborhood in Vancouver. I looked to the future and saw only fear, isolation, hardship.
When I told my parents that I was trans, they were even more afraid than I was. They grew up in a time when anti-Asian racism in North America was virulent and far less subtle than it is today. They knew what it meant to struggle endlessly to survive in a hostile world. They had spent their whole lives working to make sure that I would not have to live through the same — and now, it seemed to them, I was throwing all that away.
Shortly after that less-than-ideal coming-out experience, I undertook my first suicide attempt. As he drove me home from the hospital, my father told me that “all of this” — my mental health, my gender identity — had to be kept a secret from our neighbors. Gossip spreads fast in the Chinese community, and he was worried about my mother’s business being affected by my “reputation.”
So not only was I fated to live a nasty, short, and brutish life, I would also bring ruin and shame upon my family. This, I learned, was what it means to be trans and of color, a lesson that it would take me years to unlearn.
Like my parents before me, I used to believe that the only way I could escape oppression and discrimination was by rising above it. If I could finish university, get a high-paying middle-class job, medically alter my body to look like a “normal” woman’s, and find myself a nice white boyfriend, then I could be happy.
In other words, I thought that my salvation lay in making myself as non-trans as possible. I was a trans woman, but I did not want to be one of “those” trans women, as the media portrayed them: pitiful, ridiculous, unattractive creatures at the mercy of an unrelenting world.
Little by little, I came to one of the most important and powerful realizations of my entire life: Trans women’s happiness lies in loving other trans women.
When you are a young trans woman of color, everyone tells you that the best you can hope for is to spend your life endlessly trying to win the grudging approval of others. They tell you that at most, you may define yourself as a failed man, an artificial woman, an aberration of a human being. They tell you that if someone loves you, it is only in spite of your difference.
What they do not tell you is that you are far from alone. That there is a community of beautiful, brave, shade-throwing women just like (or at least, very much like) you.
Among your trans sisters, you are not the only one. You are not a freak to be pitied, a victim to be exploited, or a damsel in distress waiting to be saved. You are part of a fierce, fabulous family, a secret network of gender-bending woman warriors helping each other to survive.
Everything changes when you know other trans women — when you have mentors, mothers, sisters, role models, guides. (And also, at times, frenemies. I think of them as role models of ways I do not want to be.)
It was a trans woman who gave me my first dress, taught me to apply makeup, how to walk in heels. It was a trans woman who slipped me my first hormone pills, who brought me to the doctor now overseeing my medical transition. It was possibility models like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock who made me believe that I could be a writer.
My life is full of stories of incredible women, complicated women, ferocious women, tender women, all of us transgender and crackling with life. I know a trans girl who can make the most exquisite dresses. I know a trans woman who dances like a goddess of war. I know trans women who are models, actresses, activists, artists, scholars, and sex workers. Each of them teaches me how to laugh, how be brave, knowing that someday I might be killed the same way that Gwen Araujo or Kiesha Jenkins was.
“Brave” is such a strange and loaded word. Trans women hear it all the time these days. Well-meaning liberals call us brave all the time, because they are terrified by the thought of having to live like we do. They think that brave means always being alone, always needing to fight for a place anywhere we go. Never knowing what tomorrow will bring.
A lot of the time, they are right. Too many trans people live and die alone.
But brave can also mean finding strength in numbers, finding your place among outcasts — solidarity and sisterhood. It can mean knowing that you may have to fight for the rest of your life, but you are never fighting alone.
In my practice as a social worker, I often meet young trans women who want to transition but are well-acquainted with the possible consequences of doing so. One of them once asked me how I am able to live in my chosen gender presentation — if I am happy, and if I have any regrets.
For trans women, I think, and perhaps for violently oppressed people in general, happiness has a different meaning from the one that is sold to us by Disney movies and the American Dream. “Happily ever after” is a concept that applies, in this day and age, only to the wealthy and privileged.
When people like you are being murdered all the time, when gendered and racialized laws and social norms dictate almost every aspect of society, it is not possible to experience happiness as a state of permanent security. It is not possible to seek happiness in the approval of the majority of people around you, because no matter what you do, there will always be someone who perceives you as less than.
We are forced to redefine happiness as loving ourselves on our own terms. We have to believe in happiness as something we can achieve not in some distant future where we are always safe and validated, but in each moment that we continue to survive.
This is the kind of happiness that is earned through acceptance of the ongoing battle. The kind of happiness that is only found at the center of a whirlwind, in the arms of your community. And while I am not always able to find that feeling inside myself, the days that I can are more than enough to ensure that I have no regrets about my transition whatsoever.
When it comes to trans folks, people are always talking about gender dysphoria — dislike or hatred of the body or self. I want to talk about gender euphoria: the state of joy or delight in one’s being, one’s gender presentation.
For trans people, gender euphoria isn’t a feeling that one can just force oneself to have. It must be fought for, discovered despite all the barriers in our way. It is something that is passed on, from one trans sister to another.
At some point along the way in the past few years of my life, I found gender euphoria. I can’t say exactly when or where. All I know is, these days, when I think about the future, I am so, so eager to find out what’s next.
On the luminescent steps of the TKTS booth in Times Square, under the lights of billboards advertising Broadway shows and endless products, Kama and I traded stories: about her life growing up in Mauritius, learning to be queer in ways both similar to and totally different from my own path; about good and bad boyfriends; about navigating bureaucracy and health care as trans women.
We told each other, for the millionth time, how grateful we are to be in each other’s lives.
And just as we fell silent, brimming with love, the crowd around us erupted in thunderous cheers and applause. For one crazy second, I thought that they were applauding us, that the world had tilted off its axis and become a cheesy musical starring me and my friends.
Then I realized that a white straight couple were the true center of attention. The man was on one knee, a velvet box open in his outstretched palm to reveal the tiny star of a diamond ring. The women’s hands flew to her mouth as tears trickled down her face.
“Yes,” she sobbed, replete with the kind of happiness that girls like Kama and I might never know. “Yes.” And the man stood up and swept her off her feet as the tourists roared their approval and took a thousand photos to mark the occasion.
Standing among them, Kama and I were just two more girls amid the crowd. And though the bride- and groom-to-be did not know it, did not even see us, we were laughing and crying along with them, for reasons both similar and radically different to theirs.
My sister and I stood on those glowing stairs to heaven in the center of the world, and we held each other for dear, dear life.