Trans Rights Are Not Up For Debate
I was watching Paris Is Burning, about ballroom subculture in 1980s New York. It’s a documentary, but moreso a fairy tale. It’s a Cinderella story about young people that just want to be beautiful for a night, while the world wants them to sleep in the ashes.
The people in Paris Is Burning are so beautiful and so damned. They are so alive and yet died so young. On screen they are Cinderella, but in life they were literally called ‘faggots’. Yet at the ball they were Queens.
Of the many legendary characters in the film, Venus Xtravaganza stands out. She is a beautiful, achingly delicate young girl with such fragile young dreams. Then she was strangled to death in a hotel room.
It was heartbreaking.
Whenever I think of the ‘debate’ about trans people I think of this. Trans people are so regularly raped and killed. When we debate their existence, this is what we debate. There is so much violence behind our idle words. We are not debating something academic. We are debating whether we should stand by, while Venus Xtravaganza dies.
Life in the ashes
The gay men and trans women in Paris Is Burning, most of them Black, live a marginal existence. Often rejected by their families or living on the street, they make their own families. They hold balls — grand competitions, an entire subculture reflecting the ‘straight’ culture with as many facets as a diamond.
Like Cinderella, for that one night, they dance. They are who they want to be. They can dress as Marilyn Monroe, or pose like a supermodel. They can dress like a girl next door, or a CEO. All worlds that would be closed to them during the day, open for that night (with the help of a fairy Godmother). But when the night ends, everything turns to pumpkins and rats.
The clothes are often shoplifted, money is often dangerous sex work. Their families often reject them, and society is uniformly hostile. Voguing and ball culture takes the everyday life of pretending as a gay or trans person and makes it an art form. In the light of day, it’s just survival.
It’s heartbreaking because these people, these young people, they just want to be beautiful. And we crush them for this. We murder them. We break their hearts. At the sharp end are the johns who throw them out of moving cars. Or the cops who ignore or rape them. Or the serial killers and rapists who hunt them as prey. Or the simple fact that, by society at large, they won’t be missed.
That’s the sharp end of the knife. The handle, the part that turns it, that’s us. At a far distant remove, academic even, we are the structure of violence. We put the existence of trans people up for debate. They have to prove themselves to us, biologically, socially, legally. We hold no one else to these standards.
Do you check anyone’s genitals before you call them he or she? Or do we just treat each other with respect and get on with it? Even the fact that I — a straight cis man — am writing this is obscene. What does my opinion have to do with their rights? And yet trans rights are up for debate, so I write. To say that the whole debate is obscene.
I will not engage in this as a ‘debate’ because I think it is frankly genocidal. We do not debate the right of people to live. I will not legitimize a debate that is, in itself, structural violence. I will not glorify the handle that twists the knife. Trans rights are right and denying them is wrong.
The fact that — to this day — rich and powerful people use their platforms to pick on the weakest among us is galling. It’s appalling that they whinge about being cancelled while trans people are regularly strangled to death. Free speech? These people are highly paid to speak. Their greatest loss would be some marginal royalties, whereas marginalized people lose their lives. Rich and powerful people are punching down on the homeless and poor. It’s disgusting.
The objections are all hypotheticals. What if ‘men’ end up in ‘safe’ female spaces. Bitch, what safe space? Men are already everywhere. You can’t oppress an entire people because of hypotheticals. Deal with problems as they come up, and focus on the real problem, which is cis men. Leave the vulnerable people alone. More to the point, help them.
It is the height of genocidal thought to take a deeply oppressed minority and make them the danger. We are not in danger from trans people. We are the ones killing them. Not just the violent people that do it. The ambivalent people who make their existence up for debate. How do you think an existential debate is settled? It’s with hands around their neck.
I am part of this violence. I grew up in it. I laughed.
As a 12-year old I sat in a theatre and laughed at Ace Ventura until I cried. Do you know what the final punchline was? Transphobia. A woman actually had a penis. Ha ha ha. People on screen threw up. The whole audience laughed. I laughed. How fucking horrible.
No I think back, in horror. What if I had been a trans person in that audience, how would I feel with everyone laughing at me? I though the movie was about a pet detective. I would go home worried that my parents wouldn’t love me. I’d go to bed fearing I would never be loved. I would fear for my life. And I would be right.
What if I had been a young violent man, sitting there laughing with my friends? What if I was making out with a girl and she turned out to have a penis. What if I got so angry that I choked her? No one would care, we laugh at freaks like this. And I would be right.
It’s not right.
Paris Is Burning
There is no debate about trans rights. You cannot debate other people’s existence. Transphobia is hate speech, and trans people deserve nothing but love. These are the most vulnerable people on Earth, rejected by a society with frankly colonial norms that wants to obliterate the great diversity of human life that has always existed. You can see it in Paris Is Burning. They are so creative, out of their rejection by an entire culture, they create a vibrant subculture of their own. Which has now fed back to us.
Trans people have so much to give and frankly, they don’t owe us shit. Like anybody else they’re allowed to name themselves, to use the bathroom, and just exist. Trans rights are human rights. I’m so sorry that it’s even up for debate. It shouldn’t be.
Venus Xtravaganza, Rest In Peace.