Commentary | The stories that will free us

An open letter to coloured trans girls who like to write

To Coloured Trans Girls Who Like to Write
Everywhere, the World
Re: Stories worth telling

To my daughter I will say,
‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’” – Warsan Shire, “In Love and In War”

Dear Coloured Trans Girls Who Like to Write,

The first stories we told were the ones we needed to survive. We told them silently, without words, as we hid under battered kitchen tables and threadbare couches while pounding feet and hungry fists went by. We told them secretly, in the darkened corners of our minds, and no one listened but our shadows. We pressed those stories inside ourselves as though planting seeds, and watered them with the moonlight that filtered through bedroom windows that overlooked alleyways where street youth came to gather, and fight, and make out, and shoot up. We let the stories grow in closets where we huddled, cocooned, waiting for a safe moment to emerge. We let them overtake us when hiding failed, sweeping our minds away to a distant place as our bodies surrendered to the hands of men who should have protected us. All of our stories began like this: someday, someday, someday.

As coloured trans girls who would be writers, myth-makers, artists, or poets, we begin from a place of story without language. The same systems of oppression that render our bodies and desires illegible and loathsome to mainstream society also make our voices either inaudible or inchoate to the ears of those in power. We are given no examples, no archetypes, no reflection. We do not speak to an experience that whites, cisgender bisexuals/gays/lesbians, or straight people of colour find easy to understand.

As coloured trans girls who would be writers, myth-makers, artists, or poets, we begin from a place of story without language.

We exist in the grey zone, the untranslatable place that exists between. To them, the geography of our stories is alien terrain, a terrifying zone. It is the roar of a river that threatens to overrun its banks. Do not write, white men tell us, we do not understand. Do not tell, white feminists say, we do not believe. Do not speak, we are so often told by our own Chinese, Vietnamese, South Asian, Indigenous, and Black communities, we do not want to hear.

You may occasionally be offered an opportunity to sell certain parts of our stories, in the same way that we are invited to sell certain parts of our bodies. We are a novelty flavour, an exotic animal in the zoo of minority literature, just as our bodies are fetishized commodities in the sexual market. If we smile for a photo op with the white gay and lesbian movement, we might be interviewed for a 50-word soundbite printed in a newspaper article. If you bleach the anger from your tongue and the brown from your face, if you wash the smell of ‘ethnic food’ from your hair and the scent of the street from your skin, you might publish a paper in a feminist journal. If you tone down the unsavoury details, if you avoid making white people cry, if you agree to teach people how not to be violent to you, step by painstaking step, if you don’t make the government look too bad, you might get a book deal or an arts grant.

Be a good, token, tame transsexual. Carve the ancestors out of your body, shave the fat off your belly, sever the fold between your eyelids. Cut out the dick from between your legs. Fit. Fit. Fit. Fit.

We are told to smile, to be nice, professional, reasonable, polite, even as the white gay editor slides his hand up our thighs. To wait our turn. To answer all questions, even the clueless and racist ones. To be an ambassador for your community, a credit to our races. To not challenge ‘progressives’ who tell you to wait in line for your turn at the human rights discussion table while trans girls all across the country live in a state of emergency without healthcare or social services. They are still settling the matter of gay marriage. Market yourself, they say. Make a Facebook page, a blog, a Twitter, a Tumblr. Somewhere last night, another Islan Nettles was beaten to death for the thousandth time. Pray that the next girl will not be you.

Accept advice from your editor that you should not be too melodramatic, that you should not alienate your readers by speaking in terms specific to trans girls of colour. You don’t want to be too ‘niche.’ Fit yourself to the marketable mold: be an inspiration, a feel-good after-school special, a rags-to-riches Cinderella in drag. Don’t be like those other trannies: the dirty ones, the sex workers, the ungrateful, unsellable, inedible Others. The ones who were too rough for publication, too angry for academia, too weird even for literary voyeurism. Be a good, token, tame transsexual. Carve the ancestors out of your body, shave the fat off your belly, sever the fold between your eyelids. Cut out the dick from between your legs. Fit. Fit. Fit. Fit.

I want to stop being that storyteller whose stories spell the death of our people. I want to dig up those bones that we have buried and scream until I am hoarse.

Dear coloured trans girls who like to write, I am writing this to you – to us – because I think we can do something different with our voices. I want to remember our ancestors, our courage, our power – to break through the censor of the misogynist literary world, to resist the co-option of the neoliberal white gay movement, to stand strong in the face of rejection from white feminists and conservative communities of colour. We do not have to choose the survival of one identity by sacrificing another, and we are no less valuable for being less visible. I want to stop being that storyteller whose stories spell the death of our people. I want to dig up those bones that we have buried and scream until I am hoarse. No more academic papers. No more television specials. No more racist, transphobic, exploitative porn. No more street violence. No more employment discrimination. No more political lip service to ‘social justice’ that saves no trans* people’s lives.

Coloured trans girls who like to write, I am sorry. Sometimes I spend so much time trying to tell the story I thought I was supposed to tell, the one that would make me rich and popular and famous, the one that fits the standards of academic and literary institutions, that I have nearly forgotten the stories that matter. The stories we told when there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The story you told you when your father hit you for the first time. The story you told the first time you took money for sex, were arrested, attempted suicide, were chased by men not sure whether they wanted to rape or beat you. The story about someday. Someday, things will change. Someday, we will find the right words. Someday, we will be strong enough to set ourselves free.


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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