Our Defense of Our Lives: On the Embodied Impact of Transphobic Rhetoric

On the day President Trump sent out a series of tweets announcing his plans to ban trans individuals from enlisting in the military, I called out sick from work and barely left my bed. At the time, I found myself unable to explain exactly why these tweets hit me as hard as they did-- the sentiment wasn’t surprising. But in retrospect, I found that the particular phrasing he decided to use, that trans folks are “expensive” and a “burden”, pulled directly from my darkest fears about myself. To have the person who is supposedly calling the shots in this country validate the feelings that kept me up at night sent me spinning.

The news back in October regarding the leaked White House memo was no different. I found myself grappling with the tension between the reality that trans and gender non-conforming individuals are under attack every day in this country, and the utter gut punch I felt as I read the headlines. As a trans individual in 2019, a good deal of my emotional energy is spent convincing myself that I deserve to exist, and though I know intellectually that this is true, reading that the administration in power feels differently is dizzying.

I spent the day scrolling through a sea of pastel blue and pink on my Instagram, feeling skeptical of cis allies pledging their support and resentful of those who were silent, then guilty for even having such thoughts. I ping-ponged between defiance towards the memo-- sending messages of love and support to my trans and non-binary friends, reminding them that we have always been stronger than this and we will always persevere-- and then succumbing to the voice inside that told me otherwise. It’s a familiar exchange, a chatter that rages on in the back of my head just as constantly as the violence that occurs outwardly towards trans folks on a daily basis. It tells me that I am disgusting and unworthy of love, that I did not deserve to live this long.

And to be clear: I love my transness. I like myself today more than I ever have. I think of my identity as a superpower, a kind of x-ray vision that allows me to see beyond the layers of socially constructed muck that most people accept as reality. I am grateful every day that I am trans, and every day I struggle with years and years of internalized transphobia.

For me, this tension is at the heart of everything that came to light on a frigid morning in October as a memo was released by the New York Times, announcing the Trump administration’s plan to legally define sex as biological. That night, I attended the rally in Washington Square Park, and completely accidentally stood next to many of the speakers. I found myself within inches of many of my heroes, and yet my heart hung heavy in my chest. While those around me chanted and cheered, I couldn’t help but feel the dissonance of the moment. Here was the evidence of our right to exist: each individual in attendance was themselves the proof of our vibrance and our brilliance and our heart. Yet somehow, concurrently, rumblings of those who would object make headlines, and I feel their reverberations in the pit of my stomach.

Personally, I had come so far in the year and three months since the military ban tweets. I am proud that I got myself out of bed in the face of headlines that made my skin crawl. I am grateful that I could surround myself with my trans siblings even under bitter circumstances. I am hopeful that someday I will understand myself outside of the confines of the lies I am told about my body. But right now, I don’t know how to talk about that day without talking about the aftershocks that rattled me internally. I can vote in elections and I can continue to donate to organizations working to enhance the lived and legal equality of my trans siblings, but I need cis allies to understand the physical limits of my ability to put myself on the line. Our defenses of our lives happen in perpetuity and from the inside out, not just on days when we make headlines.

Henry Waletzko is a Program and Development Coordinator for the Sam & Devorah Foundation for Trans Youth, as well as an educator and activist.