“Hello, my name is Ariel, and I use feminine pronouns.” That’s how I introduced myself to a circle of more than 100 people, at my first community meeting deep in the woods of Hart, Michigan in August. I had just arrived at Camp Trans, the activist gathering set up a few paces down a gravel road from the Michigan Women’s Festival. The camp was originally created in 1991, after an out trans woman was evicted from the festival for violating its “women-born-women” policy.
Within a few years, legendary activists including Leslie Feinberg and Riki Wilchins helped turn it into an annual pilgrimage for trans people and their allies to organize, socialize, and for a few days each year, create a space where a plethora of pronouns and gender identities are respected and celebrated.
I attended Camp Trans as an ally. I wanted to learn more about how to incorporate trans issues into my queer activism. I prepared myself for the experience of feeling like “the other.” I imagined that as a non-trans women, I would somehow feel out of place. I was wrong. What I discovered was a gender- and body-accepting utopia, where I felt more comfortable expressing my identity as a femme dyke than anywhere else I’ve been.
The diversity of gender expression at Camp Trans was as vast as any gay pride march, nightclub, or supermarket in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood. If your only image of trans people comes from films like Transamerica and Boys Don’t Cry, you would have been in for a shock. I met one woman who preferred female pronouns, but insisted on masculine forms of address. Another person identified as a “femme-identified trans boy.” Others preferred gender-neutral or plural pronouns.
It made for a bit of a linguistic mud pile, but it was actually more difficult for me to adjust to living without running water, than it was to respect people’s gender identities. I screwed up a few times, tripped over terminology and pronouns. Thankfully, there was no language policing at Camp Trans.
But like any ally, I had a few things to learn. While I still pine for the sun-dappled woods, I have tried to carry the spirit of the place with me in the last few weeks by applying some of the lessons I learned.
Lesson one: Don’t try to “read” people’s genders. Accept people the way they introduce themselves. In many cases, it’s queer-savvy people who seem the most intent on pegging people as trans. If a trans person would like to be defined as such, they will let you know. Otherwise, it’s not your job or your business to out them.
Lesson two: Acknowledge cisgender privilege. I know, “cisgender” is an awkward and unfamiliar word. Simply put, cisgender means “not trans.” Cisgender is to transgender as heterosexual is to homosexual. And for those of us who were lucky enough to have been born into bodies we’re more-or-less comfortable with, the use of the word goes a long way in acknowledging that there are many kinds of men and women. No person’s gender is any more valid or natural than any other.
Lesson three: Listen to trans voices. There are droves of academics out there who are studying trans people, capitalizing on their experiences to make bold statements about gender and sexuality. The mass media has declared trans to be “the new gay,” and television shows and movies are starting to incorporate trans characters. While this does go a long way to raise the visibility of trans issues, be wary of people who seek to speak for a community that is not their own. There are lots of trans academics and writers out there. Look them up, and listen to what they have to say.
Lesson four: Fight exclusionary policies that discriminate against trans people. I grew up in a feminist household, understanding from an early age that my physical sex was no barrier to the amazing things I could accomplish. I still don’t understand why so many radical feminists — especially the ones involved in the Michigan Women’s Festival — don’t understand that entrance policies based on specific body parts are not only transphobic. They’re sexist. They discriminate against a specific group of women based on the presumption that their physical characteristics are the only things that define them.
When I was getting ready to attend to attend Camp Trans, I prepared myself for how different I would feel in an environment dominated by trans people. I was wrong. As I packed up the car to head home, all I could think of is how very much we all have in common.