Author Archives: stefshuster

To people I embrace, but who take up All the space…

A few weeks ago I had the wonderful pleasure of building community with folks from around Eastern Iowa, facilitated through the equally wonderful and fabulous Trans* Oral History Project. This event was organized by TransCollaborations and we had many joyful new partnerships with the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the Digital Studio for Public Humanities, and continuing ones with the Women’s Resource & Action Center, and LGBT Resource Center.

More and more our little rascally group of trans* folk and cis allies are reaching out further to seemingly unlikely partnerships that make for holistic and beautiful programming that builds reciprocity into the core values of the events.

In opening up events to the public we always do so with some hesitation. It has been a frequent enough experience that someone will derail conversations and spiral us back to a 100-level dialogue when the event is scoped as specifically moving beyond that. Or there was that one time when that person stormed to the front of the room during a panel and everyone jumped back because they thought the person was going to physically assault them (she didn’t).

These past few weeks I have been reflecting on really big questions about power dynamics, bringing folk from different social positionings into common community spaces, and notions of privilege, voice, and space.

I think that sometimes unintentional but harmful practices can ensue, when some people enter into collaborative community spaces. For the most part, in my experience, most people are really respectful and intentional of their positioning within space. But I wonder if it would feel better for everyone if we all continued working on being mindful of what we as individuals bring into community spaces. For those folk in particular, who take up buckets of space, this is particularly difficult for the rest of the group to negotiate. There is a certain tension between wanting to invite everyone into a space and meeting folks’ needs, and leaning into one person’s way of being in the world and putting all of the energy towards them.

One of the (many) joys that I have as a trans* person is finding some amazing people with giant hearts, ridiculous senses of humor, a playfulness to everyday life, and at the same time also extremely serious about social justice work, equity, and developing rich relationships with others.

I have learned an incredibly great deal being within trans* communities and people who are fierce about safe space, leaning into community building, and taking people as they come.

So it becomes difficult to navigate situations where in a community space there are some folks who embrace these values, and others who simply wander in and have no awareness of, or willing to own, the amount of space they are taking up.

I’m not writing here about folks who need communities of support to embrace them because they are isolated or uncertain about where they fit in the world, in a new self-understanding place around their identities or trying to gain a greater awareness, or want to work on being better allies to trans* communities. That feels different. I think this is more specifically in the instance where someone somewhat parasitically takes from communities but never offers anything in return in a reciprocal way – whether that is an idea, sharing a story, creating an affirming feeling for others, helping to organize events, etc.

I think that mindfulness around what we bring to spaces, and instilling reciprocity into daily practices are two extremely important areas to continue working on – particularly in social justice communities. I am certain that this is not a trans-specific issue but that perhaps these are giant questions that folks working within other social justice communities have to navigate as well.

To me it seems like a basic etiquette and social justice principle: in any space it is really important to be intentional in how you are in that space – the power dynamics that operate and the privileges that you may carry into that place. This seems key to being either a community member or working within processes of being an ally. And if you are a member of a community that is organizing something, owning that that doesn’t give you a ‘free pass’ for taking up all the space. Because otherwise, you are perpetuating power dynamics that continue to oppress people and undermine the very space that you enter into.


drag kinging cissexism

This evening I went to a drag show. I have found myself going to drag shows quite a bit (for me) over the last few months. There is something about the ridiculous, extravagant, and bold nature of drag shows that brings me lots of ambivalent feelings: joyful feelings of celebrating other people’s genders, the potential for political subversion in fucking with gender, and also discomfort in usually feeling like the only trans* person in the audience. I want to move away from a worn discussion of whether or not drag is for entertainment or political purposes as I believe it can be either or neither, depending on the drag performer. However, I do know that as a trans* person that is often read as masculine, in my body it feels like a mindfuck to be in an audience of some portions of queer (as catch-all) community that has tensions with trans* communities but simultaneously and so exuberantly applauds masculinity vis–à–vis drag kinging.

Tonite’s particular performance was intended to help raise money for a local organization that serves as a shelter for (cis)women and children who are survivors of domestic violence. It didn’t escape my attention, nor my friend’s, when the emcee consistently used binary language in the interludes in describing the services the shelter provides for “women, men, and children in Iowa.” In addition to a performance, the drag kings also did a short panel after the show to open up space for audience members to ask questions.

During the panel the kings were asked to share with us how they came up with their persona. It was within these responses from the kings that I find interstices for dialogue. I am continuing to unpack the various layers of complicated politics of the tensions between drag and trans* communities and larger questions of do we all really fit within similar communities and how can we build solidarity around expanding the parameters of gender for all folks.

One of the more playful kings responded to the question by describing drag as a way to access and extend childhood playfulness of dancing and singing. This king described how being in the troupe is fun, and also has a politics of performance in the intricate ways in which audience members respond to kings in that some ‘forget’ that kings are performing gender. I believe it is in those moments when (some) audience members are going through a translation process of making intelligible a king’s gender that makes me celebrate the particularities of drag shows. But the panelist then spiraled into a discourse of reminding us that he is really female, a woman performing in drag, and that he attempts to play with hyper-masculinity in an effort to bring the possibility of more fluidity in all people’s gender identities, but that he wasn’t a ‘real’ man.  That is, he didn’t have balls.

I find this cissexist discourse of “real” any gender or sex extremely disappointing. That our genders and bodies are suddenly reduced to genitals is not new. It operates in a systemic manner that oppresses trans* and cis people alike in our genders and ways of relating to our bodies. The irony of the notion of tolerance for diversity within gender, spoken in the same sentence as real men having balls was not missed. The only response, in that particular moment, was to turn to my friend and say, “I think it’s time to go.”

But I am stuck with these questions, these broader questions, of how we can create space within our collective communities for all of us to fuck with or lean into or embrace gender in any way it manifests and feels good in the ways in which we want to be in the world, and simultaneously not regard “authentic” genders as being marked by having bodies that conform to assignments made at birth, and that relies on cissexism.

**Trigger Warning**: Violence in our Neighborhoods

Dear internet: I’m sorry this is my first real post. I don’t know how to do blogs but feel like this trans* group needs some postings up here on the lived experiences of trans* folk in Iowa City and I have got to get this shit out of my head and heart because if I don’t, well, I imagine not falling asleep until about 4am or so and as a graduate student who relishes sleep – when it comes – that isn’t acceptable.

I had a lovely day with friends – catching up with folks I haven’t seen in several years, leaning into their painful stories of loss, checking my own stories of the summer, and connecting with new folks as well. A perfect convergence of good coffee, conversations, stories, laughing, crying, heartache. joy

I came home later this evening and my heart was full and singing with all kinds of warm fuzzies. I cracked open a celebratory beer (yay for building community!) and lit a cigarette (yes, I am a shameful smoker and won’t smoke around folks that I know are non-smokers for those who don’t know my dirty secret). My peace was interrupted around 11:30pm as I witnessed, on my porch, a man screaming at his girlfriend that he hated her “stupid bitch fat face” and spitting at her. Then he started hitting her……..

I hesitated. No, strike that. I froze.

For all of the feminist philosophy that has been ingrained in me for 15 years this was the moment where it seemed to count.

She was weeping, and then laughing, and then demanding that he call his friends to let her in the house. She seemed to fear for her safety. I feared for her safety.

And then…something happened in my body where I felt like I was reliving some (recent) past experiences and reached my threshold. I called the cops. I don’t often like institutionalized criminal punishment. In fact, as a trans* person I fucking despise it. I have been bullied (read: emotionally abused) by the very forces that I called upon. But as a small person who appears to most as a sissy faggot guy, I wouldn’t dare put my body in the line of their argument.

So I called 911 for the first time ever, in my entire existence and made a very sociological report: A white man in his early 20s named {X} is yelling at, spitting on, and hitting his girlfriend named {C}. I live at (fill in address} and if you are standing in front of it, it is to the left. There was silence on the phone and then the woman asked me if I said he was hitting her. Violence is one of those things that different cultures interpret differently. I almost said, “maybe” but then I remembered the sobbing of girlfriend {C} and her sob-talking “You hit me.” And in that moment I was caught between the consequences of this call and the politics of institutionalized racismsexismtransphobiaheternormativityablesimandonandsoforth So I mustered up energy, for {C} and myself and said that yes, I was sitting on my porch and watching this happen and I couldn’t be a passive bystander any longer.

What works in my favor, as a bystander, is that I assume most other dudes assume that a “fellow-bro” would never call the cops, never report this kind of “thing” that has been so thoroughly ingrained in our collective culture and particularly for men (it seems) that both {X} and {C} were thoroughly shocked when the cops arrived.

But his behavior triggered something in me. I imagined being {C} and screaming I love you, as my boyfriend assaulted me emotionally, physically, verbally.

The cops came within 5 minutes (sometimes, perhaps the system works). And then a giant screaming match ensued with {X} screaming about his fucking lawyers and disheartingly, {C} pleading for {X} to calm down and put his hands above his head and reassuring him that she loved him. The cops have him in the car, right now, at this moment that I am typing. And I can still hear him screaming and crying and yelling about lawyers and the fucking cops and goddamn neighbors and please god fucking arrest me, I love you, I need you, FUCK you.

And while I fear for my life, if {X} ever found out who called the cops (and as a sissyfaggotqueertrans person), I feel content that I did something important for {C} even if she doesn’t realize that until years later.

“Even if” he was fall-over-his-feet drunk. I don’t believe that is an excuse. And “even if” they both deny that he physically assaulted her, he is assaulting our community by his emotional and spiritual violence – “even if” our definitions of such are different. For the verbal onslaught that has happened since he has been sitting in the cop car (and yes, thirty minutes later they are still sitting outside of my house and my dog is cowering in the closet because she is sensitive to yelling and loud voices) and the violence he is enacting now not only upon his girlfriend but this neighborhood…is simply unacceptable. For {X} is an abusive fucker that needs to be reminded that as a community, we simply won’t stand for this shit.

Next Meeting: Discussion on Mistakes, Compassion, & Tokenization

The next transcollaborations meeting is THIS Sunday August 26th at noon  @ WRAC.

A personal note: I have been reflecting a lot on this particular topic (see prompt below) over the last few years. As folks embedded in social justice work, it seems self-evident that we are all working towards greater awareness, compassion, and more holistic ways of thinking about oppression and privilege and the many ways that our constellations of identities intersect at different points in our lives, social landscapes, historical moments, etc. However, as folks working within social justice communities, we don’t always set aside space to talk about these issues. I am looking forward to a really fantastic (and important) discussion.

Discussion Prompt: As folks working in trans* communities (and other social justice spaces) how do we “know” when those who have made mistakes in the past have grown and realized their mistakes that are harmful to our communities and antithetical to commitments towards social justice across oppression? Who gets to decide (who is forgiven) and what does that say about power relations that operate in our society and the various points of intersection of identities? How do we know when to be compassionate (or not) towards those who are actively working towards not causing harm to others but still make mistakes?

On a similar but separate note, an unfortunate consequence of being in such a small community in Iowa City is that one trans* person’s perspective is often perceived by others in dominant groups as “the” perspective of trans* communities. In spite of this tokenization, how do we within the trans* community work together and speak from our own experience, challenge the tokenization process, and co-construct community responses when there is disagreement within our group about those public responses to situations, issues, etc.