March 31st, 2014

Commentary | February 24th, 2014
Just ordinary girls
Toward the end of exceptionality
Written by | Visual by Alice Shen | The McGill Daily

To: Janet Mock (Ms.)
New York, NY
United States of America
Re: gratitude, solidarity, and the danger of being special

So what if we are really insignificant like the dot on the map from freshman year? 
Why does it matter? What if we are nothing? What if that is beautiful?” –Alok Vaid-Menon, “We Are Nothing (And That is Beautiful)

Dear Janet,

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but the day your autobiography, Redefining Realness, was released I ran – literally ran, I slipped on the ice – to the first store in Montreal that had a copy in stock. Yours is the first book I’ve bought in years, but I knew I was going to put down money for this one. I had February 4 marked in my mental calendar, had been counting down the days till I could get your story in my fan-girlish hands. I took Redefining Realness home that afternoon and finished the first of several readings in the evening.

I have followed your career ever since you exploded onto the mainstream media and social justice scene, arguably as America’s most prominent transgender advocate, icon, and spokesperson. That’s probably a funny thing to read; it’s certainly strange to admit. I didn’t want you to be my transgender role model, my heroine – and you probably didn’t set out to be one. Yet here we stand in this twisted world full of invisible walls and violence, and you burn like a star leading the way to a different possibility for people like me. When I watch your interviews, when I read your story, I am flooded with complicated, conflicting emotions: gratitude, jealousy, cynicism, hope. I am so grateful for your existence; I am in awe of your accomplishment and strength.

But I am angry and sad that we exist in a time where trans women of colour who ‘make it’ personally and professionally, who live to adulthood, are exceptional.

But I am angry and sad that we exist in a time where trans women of colour who ‘make it’ personally and professionally, who live to adulthood, are exceptional. I wish that, instead of being a celebrity to me, you were someone who, given opportunity and time, could be a mentor and friend. I wish that the act of living as transfeminine people didn’t make us special, or even revolutionary. I wish we could be just ‘ordinary’ girls – who occasionally do special, revolutionary things.

In the author’s note to Redefining Realness, you write: “Being exceptional isn’t revolutionary. It’s lonely. It separates you from your community. Who are you, really, without community?” Reading these words, I started to cry. Alone in my room, I rocked and cried, threw your book at the wall, picked it up and smoothed the jacket, and cried some more. My whole life, I have been exceptional, had to be to survive. I don’t know how much longer I can be.

I grew up an ocean away from your own hometown of Honolulu, in Vancouver. Like you, I grew up in a racialized community, where race and class oppression were rarely spoken of, yet constantly felt. In my working class, East Asian family, exceptional achievement was the expectation. High academic performance was our holy grail, our golden ticket to class ascension, cultural assimilation, and living the model minority dream – a dream conceived and carried out over four generations of struggle and sacrifice. My older sister and I carried the hope of all our impoverished, migratory ancestors. Our assigned gender roles were unquestionable and rigidly enforced by our parents, peers, teachers, and elders. It was in this pressure cooker of social forces that my fledgling feminine identity was born – and, like you, I (barely) got through it all to become a university-educated writer, activist, and community worker.

I have made a living out of tokenism, of being the kind of queer person of colour who is palatable to powerful, liberal cis white people.

I have told and sold my story of by-the-bootstraps accomplishment more times than I can count. To friends and coworkers. To queer and racialized youth to whom I am trying to offer hope when there is none. To paying audiences. To lovers. To professors, philanthropists, community councils, and grant providers. I have made a living out of tokenism, of being the kind of queer person of colour who is palatable to powerful, liberal cis white people.

When I was 17, I was put on a plane to Toronto, where I told my story and was awarded a life-changing scholarship for “young leaders” that lifted me out of my racialized, working-class community of origin, out of my chosen community of streetwise, suicidal, resilient, incredible queer youth of colour, and into an elite Canadian university full of middle-class, cis white people. I have told my story of exceptionality so many times, so strategically, that it is no longer mine. Janet, I am so far from where I started that sometimes I don’t know who I am anymore. How do you remember who you are?

This year, I started a Masters degree in social work. You are one of perhaps three trans women of colour I know of who have a university degree (let alone two), and I am struck by how formal education is complex terrain for marginalized people, at once a privilege and a site of oppressive violence. I know so many trans women for whom post-secondary education is far from a possibility. I know of too many trans women who did not make it past high school, who did not live past high school. I think about all the trans women who are not in class beside me, because they were blocked or died before they could get here. I am haunted by Islan Nettles, and all the girls who die of transphobic violence, may they rest in peace. You write about survivor’s guilt in Redefining Realness, and I am right there with you.

I don’t want you to be exceptional, a transgender heroine, my icon by default as the only role model available to me, because I am terrified that I am not strong enough to follow in your footsteps.

And to be honest, I am not always so certain about survival. I want what you seem to have: beauty, family, a career, a loving partner, a body that I am comfortable with. Yet sometimes, getting there seems impossible – as you often acknowledge, to set your life as the standard for all trans women is unrealistic and inaccessible. Even with the privilege and gifts I have been given thus far, as I contemplate hormone therapy and surgery and breaking into a field notorious for its conservative politics, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the myth of my exceptionality, by the impossibility of going any farther than I have already come. I have made a lifetime of being calm and articulate in the face of systemic oppression. Janet, sometimes I am so, so scared.

I don’t want to be exceptional, a path-breaker, or a revolutionary leader, because that means that what I am doing – living as an out, vocal trans* person of colour – is near impossible. I am too tired to do the impossible anymore. I don’t want you to be exceptional, a transgender heroine, my icon by default as the only role model available to me, because I am terrified that I am not strong enough to follow in your footsteps. I don’t want us to have to be exceptional because exceptionality is the only option. I want us – all trans women – to be just ordinary girls, capable of extraordinary things.

Yet here we stand, in this twisted world. And if I must follow stars, then it is my honour to follow you, Ms. Janet Mock. The truth your book tells, that I am struggling to realize, is that the night sky is full of stars; that the trans* community is one in which each of us demonstrates exceptional resilience, resourcefulness, and strength. Maybe someday, they’ll see us all. Thank you so much for giving me your realness. Someday, I’ll find my own.

In solidarity, in sisterhood, in love,
Kai Cheng Thom


From Gaysia With Love is an epistolary exploration of intersectionality by Kai Cheng Thom. They can be reached at fromgaysia@mcgilldaily.com.

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