"Trans Activism with Julia Serano"

Alice Costas

Art and activism: two things that GirlSpeak is all about. So, we decided to talk to the amazing spoken word artist, musician, biologist and activist Julia Serano, to get some more insight into the trans activist movement (more on exactly what that is in a second).

Julia has a lot going on between her band Bite Size, her poetry, and the release of her first book Whipping Girl, an excellent set of personal essays that thoroughly discuss sexism, femininity, and how they relate to transsexual women's experiences. We caught her on the phone one night and chatted about art, art as activism, and Audre Lorde.

GS: How do you define trans activism?

J: Transgender is a big umbrella word that includes all sorts of people who in one way or another defy other people's expectations regarding gender. It not only includes transsexuals, but also people who are gender queer that is who don't identify exclusively as either male of female. In its broadest definition it includes people who are feminine men and masculine women.

There's a lot of transsexual specific activism which is working to get peoples identified sex legally respected. There's work in order to reduce different types of harassment and violence against transgender people or anyone who doesn't behave in a way that is considered appropriate for their sex.

There's a certain amount of dispute amongst people who are transgender activists just like feminists; they agree on the main point, that sexism is bad, but the ways they go about changing the world are different.

GS: What are some ways our readers could start allying themselves with trans-activist causes?

J: The first thing is to recognize that although many people have a stereotype in their mind of who a trans person is, but there are lots of different types of transgender people. The second way would be to educate yourself on transgender issues. That could be done by just reading up on transgender identities, activism and history. If you're at a school that has transgender groups you could try talking to them. You can try to find common ground between your activism and trans activism.

GS: How do you see your activism reflecting itself in your everyday life?

J: Part of it is being someone who's open about being transgender in my day-to-day life. The fact that I've transitioned from male to female, also plays a big part. I feel that the discrimination transsexual women face isn't simply trans phobia. There's also a lot of misogyny in there. A quick example would be if you're watching TV people make jokes about a man that wears a dress but you don't hear the reciprocal joke about people who transition from female to male.

GS: Do you consider yourself a feminist and how do you define your brand of feminism?

J: The way I look at it is that feminism is the best word that we have right now to describe any kind of movement towards trying to change the double standards and prejudices regarding people's genders and sexualities. There are lots of different types of sexism. Femaleness and femininity are seen as inferior to men and masculinity. Boys and men are supposed to act one way and girls and women are supposed to act another. I think it's important to look to counteract all of those, so the type of feminism I subscribe to also includes transgender and LGBT issues.

Another important part of my view as a feminist is that I believe human beings are very diverse. I don't subscribe to types of feminism that tell people how they should behave. Instead of criticizing how people do their own genders, we should criticize the way that people interpret other people's genders and how they treat people based on their genders.

GS: If you were able to completely eliminate one typical act of ignorance from the world, what would it be and why?

J: If I could change one act of ignorance it would be gender entitlement, which is a phrase I use to describe any time we believe that our own opinions about other's genders and sexualities are more valid than their own. If you have an employer who says you're not cut out for the job because you're a woman, essentially he's trying to tell you who you are. I've experienced a lot of people who insist that I'm not really a woman. How would they know? They're not me. I find that most forms of sexism are wrapped up in this idea that we should be the ultimate arbiters of who gets to be what.

GS: How do you feel about media depictions of transgender individuals?

J: It's definitely getting better, but there are a number of problematic ways which transgender people tend to be shown. One of the classic ways trans people are depicted are as fake women. Frequently the media goes out of its way to show trans people putting on clothing or taking off clothing, but our clothing is topical. The idea that trans people are deceivers t appears all the time in the media. The fact is that we don't deceive anybody. Our genders aren't fake. These stereotypes have provoked a lot of violence against transgender people.

GS: And do you have any good popular media and books that you would like our readers to read or watch?

J: One of my favorite movies is La Vie en Rose which is a French film about a young child who is physically male but who sees herself as a girl. Boys Don't Cry is another very good movie that is honest about depicting some of the negative things that trans people go through. I could put my book, Whipping Girl, out there. I tried to write the book in a way that anyone who isn't familiar with transgender issues could read. Pat Califia wrote a book that's called Sex Changes that basically goes through the history of transgender activism. There are a lot of different books about different trans people out there. There's a real diversity in our viewpoints and how we see ourselves as. One more book from an activist perspective is Read My Lips by Riki Wilchins. It's essays that came out of her activism during the 1990s. She's really witty and funny, but gets to the point as a writer.

GS: How do you see art and activism connecting?

J: With any group who's marginalized, being able to talk about it and voice your opinions is important, especially in the case of transgender people because we're relatively rare and our voices were silenced until recently. I know that when I was a kid I would have killed to listen to a band that had a transgender artist in it or to read a book by someone who is transgender. I know from doing spoken word that poets can resonate with audiences and make them experience emotions and situations they never have in real life. Art is a wonderful medium in order to meet people who aren't trans and hopefully to lead them to be allies.

GS: Do you see connections between your work as a biologist and your work as an artist and writer?

J: I find myself in this weird situation where in the general mainstream there's the idea that men and women are naturally different, that women are naturally feminine and men naturally masculine, and they're naturally attracted to the opposite sex. Feminist and a lot of queer activists over the years have fought to try to counter that, to frame gender as this totally social issue as if it's all about social constructs. I find both of those views to be very incomplete.

When feminists and queer activism only talk about the social realm, we're ignoring the fact that biology, contrary to a lot of people's assumptions, is this huge potential for diversity. We're all naturally different from one another, and there are lot of variations in our sex genders and sexualities. While social conditioning and socialization do shape who we are, a lot of us grow up finding that socialization isn't enough to contain who we are.

Even though I was socialized as a boy, that wasn't able to stop me from knowing that I should be female. If you're gay, all of the social conditioning in the world isn't going to make you be attracted to the opposite sex. I think it's a mixture of biology and socialization and in that respect my biology background helps me recognize that biology isn't necessarily a horrible thing that's going to keep us locked up; it's actually a potential to recognize the diversity that exists among people's genders.

GS: Our theme this year is Private Bodies, Public Spaces. Can you think of any steps to take to stop street harassment?

J: It's really difficult because I know that if you're a man in this society you're often seen as a predator until you prove yourself not guilty and that makes life difficult for a lot of men. When I was read as a man I would be in supermarkets and if a young child in the cart ahead of me started interacting with me, the mothers would get worried and look upset. At the same time, if one out of every 100 guys is a jerk and harasses people on the street, women feel like they can't trust random guys. I know in a lot feminist circles there's an attitude that says guys should essentially police other guys and while that's nice in theory, the reality is a lot of the times the people that are most likely to say something are also the people who could face potential harassment and violence themselves. I was a very small feminine guy and I always had to manage my own safety in all male situations. If some of the guys in the situation were to start speaking really awful misogynistic stuff I generally made it clear that I was bothered by what was going on. But for me to stop it I would have to get into that person's. It's a really difficult issue that I don't think has one single quick answer. A lot of smaller changes have to happen to create an environment where that's just not tolerated before people stop harassing people on the street.

GS: If you could throw a dinner party for anyone in the world, which would you invite and what would you talk about?

J: I was thinking about having it be Audre Lorde. I've always loved her writing. It's really passionate and I also identify with the fact that she does poetry and amazing essays. I appreciate her work talking about the intersections of different types of prejudice. But, I'm even more moved by her because last December I found out that I had skin cancer. I'm ok now, but I had to have a couple of operations. Shortly after that I read two books of hers. One is her cancer journal from when she first had breast cancer. The other is Burst of Light, which is a really difficult set of writings to read. They're journals from the last couple years of her life with cancer. They're moving, heart wrenching and intense. I would love to talk with her about activism, art, and gender, about fighting different types of prejudice and about cancer. I know the cancer part doesn't fit in.

GS: I think the cancer is totally relevant. Her work is all about treating people like people, right, so what could be more human than illness or sharing that experience?

J: Definitely. One of the things that she talks about in the cancer journals is about invisibility. When people who are cancer survivors move through the world people are assume they're not cancer survivors. And she was applying a lot of her own experiences with race, gender, and being a lesbian and the invisibility that prevents any positive change from taking place. I found that really moving because for me cancer was kind of like when I first came out as trans. All people could say was "wow, you're brave." Which doesn't help if you're the person involved; I didn't feel brave, I felt scared to death. People wanted to be supportive but they didn't know how, bringing home the fact that all different types of issues are often related on some level or another. I think Audre Lorde addresses that connectedness.

Julia Serano is a trans activist, spoken word poet, and the author of the new book Whipping Girl, available at your local independent bookstore. If you want to know more about Julia, see her reading tour dates, or find out more about Whipping Girl, visit www.juliaserano.com

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