Ivan Coyote’s (trans person and performer) piece in The Guardian comes at a time when the issue of trans people who have a huge platform and following not speaking out about injustices in the larger community has come to a head with the uproar in the trans community about Benson Davis/Ben Johnson’s bigotry (owner of Stand to Pee Packers/STP Packers, a company that sells prosthetics to trans men and masculine nonbinary folx). (Here is the first screenshot from him that initiated a call from many trans folx to boycott and shut down his business. More detail can be found here). ALL the trigger warnings!
A trans sibling, friend and fellow artist and activist/educator alerted me to Coyote’s piece and asked me for my thoughts. I’m so glad they did, because since the STP Packer uproar I’ve been giving the topic of activism, especially as it relates to people in marginalised communities, much thought.
In response to Coyote:
Ok, I, as an artist and writer myself, totally hear and understand Coyote’s point. The reluctant activist.
BUT, putting Coyote’s personal needs and rights as a creative human being aside:
- First of all, the positionality of a trans person passing as cis comes with SO much responsibility towards both the trans and cis community i.t.o education. Coyote is in a great position to educate both, from the INSIDE of both. And we all know that subversion happens best from the inside, not the outside.
- I’m SO glad Coyote is privileged enough to feel the need to enter into trans politics only when it directly affects them (bathroom bill). (Tone: sarcasm). While everyone would want nothing more for their lives than living their best life (which is everyone’s human right), not everyone has that choice, and while so many trans people are being violated and brutalised on a daily basis, many of us who are in privileged positions in the community are ethically unable to ignore those without that privilege and for us, activism/education is not a choice, but a responsibility.
- Platform = responsibility to make a difference. And art is one of the most powerful, if not THE most powerful platform, as it creates a captive audience of people who are not aware of the politics Coyote has who, if they were, would not follow Coyote.
- Celebrity comes with the media ignoring your art and focusing on your controversy. Get used to it. And as such, we can redefine our activism so that it is not “angry” activism. Getting to a place where you can do both, at the same time and separately, is the goal. Not all art needs to be about activism, and not all activism needs to be art.
- “This really struck me – this whole idea of, what if? What if one day we all just got to answer intelligent and well-thought-out questions about our creative ideas, our art dreams, our new projects? What would I be free to write and talk about if I wasn’t always expected to change the world? What if I was just allowed to live and create in it?” No one lives in a bubble. And that smacks of the worst privilege. Name one person who is seen only for their talent.
Many of the trans community have been having a conversation on Instagram about the Benson Davis (STP Packers / FTM Connection / FTM Life) debacle and the response (or lack thereof) from the trans celebrities, specifically the FTM celebrities.
Their silence on the discrimination of and violence against trans people of colour and trans and nonbinary people who do not, cannot and don’t want to “pass” as cisgender, specifically trans women and femmes of colour, smacks of white, heterocis privilege. They are completely silent about marginalised trans voices and preach “equality” and “let’s not divide the community by calling each other out” bs.
Should they use their HUGE platforms to speak out? Yes!!! But are some of these celebrities actually capable, woke enough and passionate enough? Probably not. When some trans celebrities do speak out about anything political, their ignorance born of privilege just damages the trans community more and paints the trans community in a very monolithic light to cis people.
Also, feminism demands that we respect the trans coverboys and covergirls, even if we disagree with their lack of politics. They’re creating trans awareness, albeit a narrow view.
So, while I personally find Coyote’s position problematic, the idea that all minorities should be activists is problematic and untenable.
One can only be an effective activist if one has the emotional and situational energy to speak out, free from a lack of privilege that disempowers one to the point of being able to focus only on surviving.
One can also only be an effective activist if one has no choice but to be an activist – has that compulsive, unavoidable, mostly self-sacrificing need to make the world better.
And we can’t call people who don’t have that need selfish, lazy or ignorant.
We can, and must, however, highlight, not call out, their privilege, in order to continue highlighting systemic discrimination and systemic privilege.
Activism is also less about a few recognised people’s voices. It’s more about the number of people that speak out and protest.
The attitude that that one person or that one government or that one organisation should change things is naive. The more people speak in unison, the more power we as a society have over governments, institutions and systems that disempower minorities.And there are SO many people with powerful voices; we don’t have to rely on powerful people with complacent voices.