Sunday, November 22, 2015

Guest Post: Phillipe Cunningham on Cisgender Privilege, Mansplaining & Trans Tokenizing

Was on a great panel with some brilliant trans leaders yesterday. Unfortunately, there was a lot of mansplaining during the Q&A portion with the audience. A cis gay man congratulated himself on the mic for his city having a "trans advisory committee" (that has no real power over anything) and recommended other electeds create one for their cities. I pushed back because advisory councils representing marginalized communities are often just tokenizing with no real voice. I recommended to skip the intermediary... Just recruit and appoint trans folks and folks from other marginalized communities directly onto the city's boards and commissions, duh.

He actually had the audacity to come up to me afterwards, step between Lane (my husband) and me, and push back on my pushback saying that his city's boards and commissions' application pools were already too competitive to prioritize trans/gender nonconforming people's inclusion, implying trans applicants inherently aren't as qualified or competitive. When I asked him what their advisory committee has accomplished as a body, he firmly said, "The trans flag waves 365 days out of the year," as if I was expected to fall out on the floor in awe and gratitude.

So you mean to tell me THAT feels like an actual, real-life accomplishment -a trans flag- when trans people directly affected by issues like public safety, homelessness, the school-to-prison pipeline, and lack of economic opportunities aren't considered "competitive" enough to have voice on those issues?

Even with two elected officials, one appointed official, an academic researcher, and an executive director of a nonprofit on the panel or facilitating it (all trans and gender nonconforming), we were not asked stimulating, challenging questions about how to engage trans and gender nonconforming folks in political participation and why that's important, but instead we were forced to hold space for condescending "advice" about systems, processes and cultures many of us are very knowledgeable about. Mansplaining at its finest. Even with our titles and credentials announced, people still erroneously assumed we didn't know as much as them.

PSA- Please don't waste trans/GNC people's time if you just want to be affirmed that you already have the right answers despite the folks clearly saying, "No, this is how to do it right."


  1. I always find it insulting when self-professed "allies" can't stand to be called out [publicly] on their failure to be real allies, but purveyors of window dressing.

  2. I am trans (nonbinary/genderqueer) and I also don't like the idea of trans advisory committees, or advisory committees on most political issues. I think that electing trans people onto the boards directly is a great idea, but even if that doesn't happen, I think there are much more direct and effective ways to influence legislation.

    Also I don't think it matters as much to elect a trans person to a board, as it does to elect someone who has close ties to the trans community and who is knowledgeable about trans issues. Just like trans people can have internalized transphobia (this is something I struggle with), I think cis people can at times be farther down that road towards rooting out that transphobia. For example, some of my cis friends nowadays, are actually way ahead of me, when it comes to their transphobia, and I would trust them as least as well as me, for being aware of trans issues. I think what matters more for a politician, is their views and knowledge, their willingness to learn, and their connections to the communities we want them to represent.

    My experience with advisory committees (I haven't worked with trans ones but I have worked with environmental ones) is that they often end up discussing issues primarily amongst themselves but having little influence on elected officials or decisions. A lot of advisory committees commonly meet once a month or less, whereas there are other groups for trans people in many communities that meet much more often, and are hashing out more issues and doing more in the makes sense to like, cut out any intermediary and have these organizations just start working directly to influence policy.

    I think that directly contacting council members or legislators, as well as working directly with the public to publicize issues (which can include things like letters to the editor, working to create features in major news media, grassroots activism and education), and organized petitions, directly writing / drafting legislation and then recruiting sponsors from city boards or state / federal legislatures, are things I tend to feel more favorably about than advisory boards. One reason is that an advisory board sometimes achieves "momentum" of like, just saying things that don't get enacted...whereas if a legislator is continually receiving organic feedback from their constituents, and there is ongoing buzz or discussion in the community of trans issues, it seems to create more momentum for progress. Also, if you directly create legislation, and then work with legislators to address possible objections, modify it, and build a broad consensus around it, you can make it very easy for legislators to get on board with the changes you want.

    I think a problem with an advisory board is that they typically have no authority to pass binding resolutions, create or vote on legislation, or directly influence policy. Yet they're also often expected to be "impartial", so you rarely see them engage in the sort of systematic efforts to advance particular issues that is needed to actually get stuff done.