If one were to take to the Clutch comments section to the reporting of a young transwoman being discriminated against as an accurate representation of black women thought, we would learn that American black women only understand their own oppression. Whether or not that would be an accurate assessment I do not know. My optimism and experience with enlightened women of all races tells me that it is not true. What I know is how I felt after reading of Andraya Williams’s story of being humiliated on her college campus due to being a transgender woman. I felt sadness, because that could have been me and has been me. Then, I felt this overwhelming sorrow for the lack of empathy and abundance of willful ignorance displayed by most of the faceless women commenting on the story.
A 22 year-old student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, Williams was stopped by campus security upon exiting the female’s restroom, asked to present her student ID and to state whether she is a male or female. She was subsequently suspended. Having been on the receiving end of such interrogation as a transgender person, I know how embarrassing of an experience it is. I never experienced it at Brown University where I did my undergraduate nor at New York University where I completed my first Masters. I did however experience a similar kind of invasion at California Institute of the Arts where I completed my MFA in acting. To this day, I do not know which member of the CalArts community reported a discomfort to my presence in a female’s restroom. I had already been at the institute for two years. I felt hurt that someone would think I was there to hurt them while all I was thinking about was relieving myself. I was embarrassed by having to define my gender to institute administrators while knowing everyone’s focus was on what’s between my legs.
The handful of Clutch commenters who stood up for the right of this college-aged transgender woman got little support, showing more dislikes than likes. Many of the detractors commented on the safety issues and condemned transwomen for raising their collective voice to have the right to use the restroom appropriate to their gender presentation. Apparently, we transgender people are all assumed guilty of perpetuating rape culture if we are not the rapist ourselves. We are even compared to white women putting their two cents into black women concerns. Well, it is a good thing restrooms are no longer permitted to be segregated by race in this country.
So many told us to shut up and use the gender neutral restroom. First, where are these gender neutral restrooms? When they do exist, particularly on college campuses, they are usually far and inconvenient to get to. I will not be late for my class because I have to run across campus to pee in a toilet. In the larger society, gender neutral restrooms are pretty much non-existent. I have yet to find gender-neutral restrooms at airports. So, when nature calls where do we relieve ourselves? If one is going to demand that we use some other restroom that does not even exist, at least offer to fund their creation. I mean, that is what the boss women depicted in The Help did for their lesser black ladies. For every male and female restroom, let there be a gender-neutral restroom.
I must say that I do try my best to be, for lack of a better word, “respectful” of the safe space the restroom is for women. My “genetic” women friends know that I do not speak in the restroom out of fear that I will make anyone uncomfortable. I silence myself because I am aware of some perceived threat I am to some women. But, when nature calls, one must answer. For the most part, I do go to women restrooms without much reprisal. I am able to physically blend in because many times I am “passable” as a woman. We transgender people are a minority, but there are transgender people, transwomen and transmen, who use the restroom appropriate to their gender expression and go undetected. Is it ok for those “passable” transgender people to use the restroom appropriate to their gender presentation? If not, how would you know? Unless you know that person and take it upon yourself to out that person who is merely trying to pee, pass bowel movements or reapply makeup, what is the arm done to you?
Some tried really hard to say that transgender women do not stand up for black women issues or that transgender women shut down conversations around such things as period and abortion since those issues only pertain to “genetic” women. I must say that at the age of 20 I chose to identify as a gender-nonconformist as opposed to transition to a transgender woman. I did so because I was uncomfortable with the idea of proclaiming myself one gender over the other. The characteristics of either gender is thought to be set in stone, when they are anything but set. In response to transwomen shutting down certain conversations and dominating the space, I have observed and continue to observe occasions when transgender women take over spaces with their voice and presence. This was/is done in women’s spaces and transgender spaces. I have often wondered if male-to-female transgender people’s propensity to take over these spaces stem from us being raised in the custom of asserting male aggression?
Whatever the answer to that question, I find it ridiculous for any one oppressed group to silence another marginalized group. What I am is a feminist. And no one can take that from me. I do care about black and women issues. I knew my concern for the safety of women at a very young age due to the the treatment of my mother at the hands of the man who contributed the sperm that provided one half my DNA. At the age of 7 was when I first witnessed him beating my mother and took some of the blows myself. As a boy, while dealing with my internal issues of being gay and wishing I was born in the body of a girl, I internalized my mother’s own abuse. With this came huge empathy for the treatment of women in our society. I know the cycle of abuse that led my mother into an abusive relationship and the financial circumstances that kept her there. Feeling powerless as a little boy, I vowed to save her from that and not to see any woman treated that way.
Transgender women are people forced to assert our humanity in a world full of conjured reasons to hate us. The debate on whether transgender women care about black women’s issues is one worth having if it is about reaching understanding across differences. But, that debate should not be allowed to shift focus away from defending the humanity of every single human-being, particularly those most oppressed and misunderstood. Transgender women I know are vocal and like I, are committed to women issues. We care about women’s safety in addition to our own. Femmephobia and transphobia are branches of the same tree.
If anything, a college campus should be a safe haven for someone like Andraya Williams. It should be an outrage that university and administrators do not have enough sensitivity training in better handling these situations. I recently experienced this egregious act of being ask by security what my gender was as I entered a female restroom. I had on a beautiful black and gold gown on and looked flawless. From five feet away this security guard asked me to state my gender. I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. As it turns out, while they cruise lines touts a LGBT acceptance, it had no transgender policy and no sensitivity training for its officers. This ship, the largest in the waters did not have gender-neutral restrooms and I was not going to walk to the full length of the ship to my cabin to use a toilet. When nature calls, I must leave all debate aside and answer.
André St. Clair is America’s Gender NonConFormist interdisciplinary artist, actor, speaker, producer and activist. St. Clair’s work is framed by the experience of being in the black, gay, of working class upbringing, and a new American citizen from Jamaica.
The essay, “Many Rivers to Cross” captures St. Clair’s coming of age and coming out in the award-winning anthology “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough,” edited by CNBC contributor Keith Boykin. Other writings can be found at The Huffington Post, NBC Universal’s The Grio and BK Nation.org
St. Clair holds an Honors B.A. in Sexuality and Society from Brown University, an M.A. in Performance Studies and an M.F.A in Acting, respectively from New York Univeristy/Tisch School of the Arts and from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
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