I recently had a less-than-amicable exchange on social media with trans-masculine, ex-porn star Buck Angel. Buck posted a screen grab from a Change.org petition I made asking St. John’s Well Child & Family Center to rescind an award to Caitlyn Jenner at its Eleganza Gala. While the petition was a victory — with nearly 2,300 signatures in under three days — Buck took to social media to reprimand me for creating the campaign.
As I read the comment section from his Instagram post — an array of criticisms from Swastika barbies, alt-right Kens and misogynistic and anti-black rants — I couldn’t help but chuckle. How could Buck’s cognitive dissonance be that strong and wrong? I couldn’t understand how he could justify calling me out for calling out Caitlyn Jenner through a callout. It was the highest form of hypocrisy.
After engaging in a dialogue with Angel both in the comment section and in his messenger, I unfastened his wig with one hand and snatched it forward. My response to him was, “You’re doing the exact same thing you’re criticizing me for. What’s the difference between me and you that makes it acceptable for you to do so and not me?”
While he refused to answer the question and continued lip-syncing and deflecting for his life; we both knew the answer to that: He was able to do so because he’s white and male identified.
This is just one scenario of many in which speaking truth to power as a black femme yields microaggressive resistance. I’ve been attacked and demonized, and even labeled the “queen of callout culture.” However, as Janet Mock ever-so-eloquently articulated when asked on a panel about my confrontation with Caitlyn Jenner, “I didn’t see that as call-out culture; I saw that as labor. She [Caitlyn Jenner] got something for free.” Truth-telling is a labor of love. It doesn’t pay my bills, nor does it increase my chances of becoming prom queen.
In the wilderness, one might fear being eaten alive by wildlife or starved of food. In the societal realm, many of us fear being eaten alive by criticism and starved of acceptance. As a black trans woman living in America, I’m already prone to criticism and rejection simply for existing. Therefore, I have nothing to lose in challenging systems of oppression. I’d rather speak truth to power and blaze a trail that future generations can tread safely than be eaten alive by my own conscience.
Many of us learn at an early age to abandon sound logic while subscribing to the pack mentality. We’re constantly receiving social cues that instruct us on how to think and feel about our life experiences. Many are okay with this because it spares them the spiritual labor of having to exercise judgement, take full ownership of their decisions or sit in the accountability of their miscalculations. Instead of taking that risk, we often wait for others to take the first plunge, placing greater trust in their judgement than our own.
But when it comes to witnessing injustices, we must make it our social responsibility to say something. If we choose to remain silent, we’ve become complicit by default. We often speak of “truth-telling” with such high regard, but there’s an unspoken burden that comes with that. When you carry light, every time you walk into a dark room people will fear you, because your presence exposes who they are, forcing them to see themselves.
Telling the truth means you’ll often be seen as a threat rather than a treasure. While public callouts may receive virality and public endorsement via social media, the ramifications of this are the less glamorous, often unseen aspect: the lack of acknowledgment of the risk associated with speaking truth to power.
We often highlight the illustrious contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, but rarely acknowledge his 28% approval rate for opposing the Vietnam War and advocating controversial union policies at the time of his assassination. Even within the trans community, we draw strength from the activism of Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, but rarely acknowledge how Sylvia was booed off stage in Washington Square Park by the same LGBTQ community she helped liberate at Stonewall.
Though our efforts won’t always be welcomed with opened arms, we must never stop striving to achieve it. While I’ve received pushback for my uncensored sentiments around the abuse and misuse of power and privilege, so many others have been inspired to speak out. The lesson here: We can’t let pushback prevent us from pushing forward.
Some have expressed their disapproval of my approach despite the massive support I’ve received for my audaciously, unapologetic head-on confrontation of public figures such as Caitlyn Jenner, Tomi Lahren, Charlamagne Tha God and Scottie Nell Hughes.
I often remind them that unless they are a cisgender, heterosexual wealthy white man in America, they have benefitted from radical activism. No oppressed group of people have ever been liberated by asking “kindly.” I refuse to model my activism after respectability politics established by those with no respect for my existence or humanity.
No one gets to tell me or any other vulnerable group of people how to fight for our lives. What many fail to realize is that “change” isn’t always going to be standing at the front door readily waiting to greet us. Sometimes we’re gonna have to force our way in through the chimney, the side windows, the back door or dig our way up from the basement. In the words of Malcom X, “By any means necessary.”
What I find most interesting is contrasting my actions against the efforts of those who’ve taken more radical actions than me. I’m much more tame than you might think. Much of the criticism I’ve received is nothing more than the propagation of transmisogyny and anti-blackness.
When white, cisgender people discuss sexism, racism and transphobia, they’re often seen as heroes and agents of change. When women, trans or black people advocate for our own causes, we’re often demonized, put in our place and ultimately shut down. We aren’t allowed to liberate ourselves — no liberation for us at all, unless it’s at the hands of a cisgender white savior.
Honesty can be messy, uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it’s necessary in order to make real progress. The main people challenging my activism are those benefitting from systems of oppression. I’d rather be respected by those living on the margins of society than applauded by those responsible for their disenfranchisement.
My activism isn’t about anyone other than those who are directly impacted by the systems of oppression we’re working toward dismantling. It’s always interesting to watch others center themselves in our methods of liberating ourselves. Typically the very people who critique my messaging or approach are those who are complicit in the sustainability of white supremacy, transphobia, and anti-blackness.
Why would I take pointers on activism from the beneficiaries of genocide and slavery? That’s like a lion offering a gazelle lessons on how to survive. I understand that my brand of honesty isn’t for everyone, and I’m okay with that. I believe that if you don’t make enemies along the way, you’re not fully speaking the truth.
This is the dawn of a new era in which we are breaking the culture of silence in America. Silence propagates rape culture, racism, sexism, physical violence and the many egregious occurrences that hold our souls captive. We can’t heal what we don’t reveal. By speaking our truths, we not only free ourselves; we also liberate others.