I hope this doesn’t come off as catty or self-absorbed. Okay. So I probably am both. I kind of hate calls to signal amplify. My intersectionalism card is sitting on the table, and I’ll give you the scissors, and you decide if you want to cut it up or not.
A little background from my particular perspective. I’ve survived a few decades of this rather awkward drag show in which I’ve been pretending to be a man, and feeling ridiculous, like when those women in bad comedy movies paint goatees on with makeup. But this experience is different for each of us. For me, although I knew really well the extent to which I was supposed to hide my feelings and particularly my fear or suffering, I just didn’t really have the heart to do it. I’ve been outright bullied, with non-metaphorical bruises to show for it, but much moreso, my childhood is littered with experiences where I tried to feel, publicly, even maybe complain or whine a little bit (not a lot, I’ve never needed to complain a lot), and this was met essentially with responses that boil down to, “Oh, your problems matter, but mine are worse. You should stop talking and listen to me, and when I don’t have any problems that are worse than yours, then it will be your turn.” Of course, my turn never seems to come up, and my friends and loved ones seemed to be blessed/cursed in such a way that it was always their day to suffer.
I feel that calls to signal amplify are very similar. There’s a phenomenon in our community that, as soon as some of us (and I believe this is often/usually directed against feminine people in the advocacy world) want to tell our own stories, we are hastily interrupted, a few words in, to “signal amplify,” because people who have it worse by virtue of their poverty, being in an oppressed ethnic minority, or being in another category targeted by the patriarchy for oppression. My experience is things like being pretty & stylish, and also smart or talented, seem to very quickly elicit calls to stop talking and start signal amplifying.
A couple of my own experiences. One person in the community, within a day or two of knowing me, comfortably told me, in essence, that I should empty my retirement accounts and give all my money to a loose acquaintance who feels that their transition is held up by lack of access to facial feminization surgery (if you’re not transfeminine, and you want to experience myocardial infarction, look up what that costs). Amazingly, this was the very first thing they suggested when I whined (no, emoted – I’m allowed to emote) that I didn’t know how to help this particular friend at this particular part of her struggle, because at the time, she was very negativistic and brushed off my attempts to empathize, listen, or even engage her in fun. Another person (I’m still friends with both the struggling person and this next person, for what it’s worth, and I have largely gotten over myself and found ways to connect and relate with them both) once came to my book club because we were reading Jenny Boylan’s book, and she felt Jenny’s voice should be silenced and replaced with voices of trans women who struggle more, because the fact that she is happy is unhelpful. Au contraire, ma sœur, these stories of happy trans women are what gave me the courage to finally start transitioning, what allowed me to survive. They mattered to me.
It may surprise you to note only one of these is designed
to amplify people’s voices. No, it’s not the muzzle
And here’s where it gets sticky, and you’ll have to decide if you’re going to out me as a faux intersectionalist. I do believe in the intersecting lines of oppression. I am cognizant of the fact that I am well educated and affluent, and that, while I am not white (later, I’ll take on the tricky question, “Am I a trans woman of color?” but let me work my way up to that), I am not very much racially oppressed either. I am aware that when these advantages are added to others, it’s likely that it will be far easier for me to survive transition than it will be for many of my sisters. I’m aware that I go to TDOR and mourn and grieve and advocate and call for justice, but it’s not people quite like me who end up in those shallow graves. And I do experience some “survivor guilt” over all of this. But (no, BUT) the path to empowering all of us is not to arbitrarily select a group of people who are “privileged enough” and isolate them and invalidate or silence their stories. And the people who self-select as arbiters, who have somehow given themselves the right to switch on and off other people’s right to be considered oppressed enough to have a story, are not helping the cause.
And then finally, here’s the part where I valiantly try to snatch my intersectionalism card back before you cut it up. I don’t hate signal amplification as a broad concept. These stories of (more) oppressed people (than me) are so important. It’s a major problem that there are now a solid number of stories of people like me – affluent, educated, professional trans women, who have a route to being fairly readily acceptable in society – and there is still hardly any visibility of transmasculine stories, of genderqueer stories, of stories of people who are discriminated against because they will never be “pretty” enough to be socially acceptable. It’s a major problem that the victors write history, and in the small way that women like me “win,” you hear our stories and not the story of the woman who spent months or years trying to find a basic job as a trans person and finally had to de-transition (or maybe even tried to kill herself), or the story of the person sent to live on the streets, and certainly not enough of the story of how those poor women and men we celebrate on TDOR suffered.
Rather, I celebrate these stories when I hear them. I’ve learned to listen when I hear them and know that they are absent (for which I am ever thankful to our sister-in-arms, Gloria Steinem, she taught me how to listen), and I do seek them out. So I think this is different than the longstanding battle in feminism between ethnic minority and majority voices. There, the problem is active silencing of black and Latina women’s voices, over which affluent middle-class white woman views are shouted. I’m not shouting over anyone. I’m the one being silenced. And silencing me is not the way to add visibility to these stories. Invalidating me is not the way to validate them. And ultimately, we need to support these brothers and sisters to be brave and tell their own stories, listen and celebrate with them, and get their backs when trouble comes. Not stop telling our own stories and insert theirs in our places – because there’s no story I will ever be able to tell like I can tell my story. So the kind of “signal amplifying” that involves invalidating other people, it’s got to go. And all our stories, all our experience, the house of love and hurt that makes us a community, they all have to matter.