The Importance of Finding Spaces For Trans Joy
The reality is that trans people have been creating spaces since people existed, simply by being together.
Welcome to Gender Euphoria, Junkee’s monthly column about trans and gender diverse issues and community, written by Liz Duck-Chong.
I’m tired of constantly learning where I am not welcome.
If you’d asked me a decade and a half ago what the most frustrating parts of being a trans woman were, I would probably tell you it was that no one knew what trans even was, that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come out at all, and finding a bra that fits properly. While that last one is still the case, the world has changed a great deal in the thirty-odd years I’ve been on this rock.
It seems like both yesterday and a lifetime ago that Rolling Stone declared we had reached the “trans tipping point”, bringing trans people — in particular, trans women — to the forefront of cultural consciousness, and unknowingly launching us from the frying pan and into the hellfire.
A population that previously had lived lives cloaked for their safety and cis comfort was now both pushed into the limelight spotlight — and attacked for being there.
Spaces we’d been happily accessing for years came out divided either in support of our inclusion, or antagonistic to us and our presence — as if their enemy is a few trans people using the loo, and not far more systemic and structural.
Debates over our existence, validity, and very nature are not in any way modern. Feminism’s broad church has fought through many different waves, undergoing reformations all the while, but the anti-trans strain is not a new mutation. As was the way of the time, in the 70s a battle waged over a lesbian folk music production collective, which resulted in their engineer, a trans woman, stepping down against the wishes of her sisters to avoid further furore.
While not the first act of transphobic hysterics over women’s spaces, it was sadly also not the last. What seems simple and obvious to me: adding the five words “All trans women are welcome” to a website, seems beyond the capabilities of groups of women who, in living memory, defended themselves from exactly the same attacks due to their sexuality.
Even so, memory fades and pain survives. I wrote for The Guardian a week or so ago that I understand why people would be protective of what you believe is important about a space, even if you lose sight of the real importance (eg. sharing in common experiences of womanhood despite our differences) for what you assume the important part is (eg. being for women who were presumed to be girls at birth).
When you look past those misguided feelings however, we can get to the good stuff. There’s so much joy to be found in trans lives and experiences, and the spaces we share and are welcome.
Whenever I talk about spaces that feel good, the first that comes to mind is Queerstories, Maeve Marsden’s superbly curated anthologic events of queer mire and mirth. I’ve been lucky to host and perform several times, but it’s the stories of other queer and trans people that I love the most. Some absolutely favourites are Emily Wilkinson, Claire G. Coleman, Nayuka Gorrie, Kaya Wilson, and Mama Alto, but the whole podcast is worth crying and laughing your way through.
So too are community groups around the country, like Trans Pride Australia’s pages and events, the trans social groups found in many cities, the many queer parties I’ve had the privilege of attending in warehouses, pubs, and parks, as well as readings, festivals, zine fairs, rallies, and gigs, many of which go out of their way to show me that I’m welcome not just in words, but in ways that run deep in their ethos.
These feel important because trans people often spend so much of our lives in spaces that feel unsafe. We are a community that suffers extreme rates of violence, from strangers, family and loved ones, and unacceptably high rates of poor mental health, suicidality, housing insecurity and homelessness, with trans women of colour often experiencing the worst of all of these factors.
Those trans people in living memory who ‘went stealth’, disappearing entirely from their old life and starting afresh as their affirmed gender, often did so out of fear that to be visible was inevitably to be dead. To create spaces that feel safe is to create and allow a new way of existing, one where we can find and make community, share in our differences and similarities, and fight for each other.
In some ways it feels a bit odd to be talking about how we make space safer right now, when the thought of sharing literal space with others is itself riddled with anxiety and caution. However, seeing the ways and speed in which public life in this country has adapted to the pandemic shows that society has no reason and spaces have no excuse to not shift in support of their trans attendees.
For example, while a space is making adjustments for distancing requirements, it’s simple in comparison to replace the gendered signs on bathrooms with all gendered ones, or while you add that paragraph about COVID safety to your Facebook event or newsletter, it’s simple to also add a sentence that states you explicitly welcome trans people, and provide a way to be contacted in the event that someone in your space is transphobic (this is also great practice for other forms of discrimination).
Whatever you do, do it clearly. Trans people can’t assume that a space is for them unless we have evidence in the affirmative. I’ve found myself over the years being unwelcome in spaces that claim they are for “women”, “queer people”, and even “discussions about gender”, and I’m not alone.
Especially if you’re hosting a gendered space (ie. a women’s book club, a men’s shed), be descriptive! Say “This space is for all women/men, trans and cis”, and if you like, “and for all people who identify with an experience of womanhood”.
Whether you operate or attend a party, performance, cabaret, Q&A, reading room or roller disco, you can play a part in making it feel safer for trans people.
As I reflect on what owning space means, and the many things that safe space has meant over the years (shoutout to my OG safe space: outer space), I’m brought back to asking who creates and owns space in the first place, and the supremacist notions of controlling access to places, especially geographical locations, based on colonial categories like gender.
These categories have value and meaning to many of us today, but they’re not without questioning, or beyond reproach. The reality is that trans people have been creating spaces since people existed, simply by being together. This isn’t to say there isn’t work to be done, and care to be taken, but that trans people aren’t going anywhere, and that the categories of identity we use and believe in today are always stronger and more beautiful when they include trans people.
When I was first asked to write this column, I was simultaneously worried and overjoyed. So much of the news about trans people and our lives is negative, to the point of feeling almost Sisyphean to consider carving out a space for gender euphoria, but here we are, doing it regardless. Thumbing our nose to a world that struggles to make space for us, we start as always by making it for ourselves: I believe it might just be possible.
Come with me?
Liz Duck-Chong is a freelance writer, health researcher, filmmaker and peer worker, whose essays and non-fiction have been published widely. You can find her online at @lizduckchong.
Gender Euphoria will be published monthly. If you come across any positive or beautiful trans news we can feature in this column, Liz would love to hear about it and her DMs are open.