BY DANNY GLENWRIGHT - When I first read the name of Andrea Houston’s sex worker source a lump formed in my throat.
As her editor, I had been hounding her to find a sex worker for her story about violence against sex workers — ahead of the Dec 17 International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I was not prepared to run such a story if it didn’t include the voice of someone who is affected by the issue.
That’s the type of journalism I practise; that’s the type of activist I am.
Nevertheless, I was also more affected than I was prepared to be when I learned Lexi Tronic was that source.
In another place, at another time, Tronic was responsible for some of the worst bullying I ever received as a young, awkward (not yet happily) gay kid in Winnipeg. I recently wrote about my experiences in the pages of Xtra in the wake of Jamie Hubley’s suicide. This week I remembered writing that piece and thinking specifically about Tronic, who was the perpetrator of much of the taunting I recalled in it.
That pain came back when I read Andrea’s sex-work piece, just as it does every time Facebook suggests I befriend Tronic, with whom I share many friends from days we both spent together in Winnipeg’s gay bars and rave scene. I had never found the courage to befriend Tronic on Facebook — she is someone who unearths memories I’d rather suppress or forget.
But I also believe in second chances and fresh starts; I’ve had many. So I happily edited, published and shared the sex-work story on Xtra’s website, in the pages of Xtra, on Xtra’s Facebook page and on Xtra’s Twitter account. I also shared it on my personal Facebook page, with many friends who know us both (as the people we were all those years ago in Winnipeg).
I noted that it was a “wonderful small world” connection that our paths had once again crossed years later, stating (rather than mention our negative past) my best memory of Tronic, which was attending my first rave with her at age 14. I also said (no secret to any of our old friends) Tronic’s birth name so those friends we both share would pause to read the story. I won’t apologize for that. It was the only way to tell that story.
I was proud of the story and there was a part of me also proud of Tronic, who has gone from being a sex worker in Winnipeg’s dangerous north end to become a strong advocate of safe sex work in Toronto. I was happy to see her speaking openly on behalf of a marginalized community we have tried to champion during my short time at Xtra, out there doing good things, a person I remember as deeply troubled and unhappy.
But the tenor of the discussion quickly changed and, in fact, any helpful, informative dialogue that could have come from this story turned into bad activism and knee-jerk bandwagon jumping.
I was once again being bullied, asked to apologize for being transphobic. “Activists” told me if I failed to apologize on behalf of Xtra for my transphobia, they would boycott this newspaper. The trans community would boycott a newspaper that is a lone voice for trans issues; and yes, these people deigned to speak on behalf of the entire trans community.
From the very beginning I was sorry if I had been hurtful to Tronic, and I have always said this. I did not know that using a trans person’s birth name could be so distressing — especially because several trans friends (and others I have seen interviewed) are more than happy to discuss their former lives and use their former names. It was a learning point. I am thankful I have now been allowed to have it.
I understand the pain that must accompany many trans people on their personal journeys. I would never want to contribute to that pain and I hope I never have. I am not a person who wants my actions to hurt people at any time. I said this yesterday on the phone to Tronic, and she also apologized to me for what happened between us more than 20 years ago, something I’d long forgiven.
We commiserated about how we’d both been bullied, how we’d both also been bullies. Lexi told me how she, too, has often mistakenly referred to some of her trans friends by the wrong name (does that make her transphobic?).
We also celebrated the successes we’ve had that brought us to a place where we can have an adult discussion about these important issues — issues that are significant to both of us, and the work we now do.
But as a journalist I also question the idea that it would be considered transphobic to refer to a person’s known history in an effort to best tell their story. Many of us have painful pasts, whether we have changed our names or not; do we all then have the right to accuse others of discrimination against us if they refer to something from our past we’d rather forget?
Should all Xtra staff members (and there are dozens of us) have to make formal, public apologies in the pages of the newspaper every time they say something provocative, hurtful or divisive in their private lives, or on personal social media pages? I think not. If that were the case, we would have no room in Xtra to report on the important stories that have helped liberate our community for more than 40 years.
In my short four months at Xtra we have published several stories about the dangers faced by trans sex workers in many parts of Canada; we have doggedly chased after politicians and rightwing media for distributing transphobic ads; we have reported on how police and the trans community in Ottawa came together to raise a flag for this year’s Trans Day of Remembrance; we have reported on the federal trans rights bill.
I am ashamed for members of the community who toss around words like transphobic and homophobic as weapons, people who use these words quickly and with abandon rather than trying to impart lessons, change minds and educate. These words will soon lose meaning if they continue to be used in this way.
People I have never met, people who have no idea what goes on in my head or what has happened in my past, called me such names yesterday. These people decided I was wrong and Xtra was wrong before they actually knew anything. We were all painted with one giant transphobic brush and dismissed. The very type of reactionary response the queer community has been fighting for years.
I ask these people how this is helpful in our shared struggle against very real, very active, very organized transphobia and homophobia in our society?
If only we could summon half the energy certain elements put forward in a bandwagon boycott yesterday to fight these real enemies, we might actually be getting somewhere. Let’s stop fighting each other and instead learn from each other, educate one another about things we might not know, and speak in reasonable ways before reacting in hurtful, destructive ways.
I hope to continue to contribute to this discourse in a peaceful, respectful, positive way. I invite Lexi and others to do the same. Let’s sit down and discuss some of these painful stories; let’s have open, frank discussions about what bothers us; let’s stop fighting each other and calling each other names. Let’s keep talking.