Arts·Point of View

I'm a trans artist, so don't assume I'm queer

What will it take for trans voices to be heard as distinct? Poet Gwen Benaway shares why she stopped taking offers to write about queer issues.

Poet Gwen Benaway on why she stopped taking offers to write about queer issues

Trans artists are often grouped into queer arts programming and organizations, but as poet Gwen Benaway writes, "for trans voices to be heard and understood within our distinct lived experiences, it's time that changed." (CBC)

I started turning down queer-specific opportunities in the last two months — invitations to speak or write on queer topics, for example — partly because of the assumptions people made about my sexual identity because I'm trans. It's common for trans artists and writers to be grouped into queer arts spaces and festivals, but when I'm at these events, I am the only trans girl in the room. In queer spaces, I have been mistaken for a drag queen. I've been told I'm only there to tell the "trans story." At these functions, I quietly listen to material that doesn't connect to my experience — and that's the other reason behind my decision not to identify as queer. I don't feel comfortable speaking for a community which I'm no longer directly part of.

We're all fighting for human rights, but our struggles are different.

Does trans equal queer? It's a question I often struggle with. People don't ask me how I identify, but usually just assume I'm part of the queer umbrella. The truth is that no, trans does not equal queer. They are unique identities and struggles. Trans artists are often grouped within queer culture, arts programming and organizations. For trans voices to be heard and understood within our distinct lived experiences, it's time that changed.

Trans is included in the LGBTQ2S bracket — and trans women of colour were at the forefront of the fight for queer rights in the '60s and '70s. (Remember the Compton and Stonewall riots.) But since the beginning, trans people — especially trans women — were marginalized within the queer community, and the dynamic hasn't changed much since. Ultimately, it comes down to this: we're all fighting for human rights, but our struggles are different. The rest of the LGBYQ2S spectrum wants freedom of sexual expression. Trans people, generally speaking, are fighting for recognition of our genders (or our disavowal of any fixed gender).

The only way you could interpret my work as being queer is if you still believe that I'm really a man.

I am a heterosexual trans woman who usually ends up in relationships with straight-identified men. Stop making assumptions that my genitals (which are none of your business) define my queerness. My partners and I engage with each other and the world as a straight couple. This is part of my discomfort with automatically being grouped into the queer arts box. I don't fundamentally experience my sexuality or gender as queer, so why is it assumed that I am? Just like cisgender people, trans people have a range of sexualities. Some of us are bisexual and asexual as well as polyamorous. We come in all forms of the human experiences, including from cultures which have very different understandings of sexuality. Our art and writing reflects that diversity.

The subject matter of my writing, for example, is often focused on Indigenous identity or my heterosexual relationships. I do centre the experience of being a trans woman in my work, but that's not about queerness as much as it is about cisgender expectations. The only way you could interpret my work as being queer is if you still believe that I'm really a man. This is an underlying transphobia I face over and over again in my professional and personal life. My writing, often focused on my intimate relationships and sexuality, is not queer unless you erase me as a woman.

"Art is a space where we are able, as trans creators, to challenge assumptions and prejudices — but not if our identities are erased under the queer art banner." 

There is a long history of political and artistic alliance between trans and queer communities because we both struggle to have recognition in mainstream organizations and spaces. We shouldn't let go of that history, but we can't equate being trans to being queer. We have different experiences and barriers in society. While queer communities have moved forward in their legal and social acceptance, the trans community is still struggling to have our basic human rights acknowledged.

Art is a space where we are able, as trans creators, to challenge assumptions and prejudices — but not if our identities are erased under the queer art banner. Collapsing our unique lived realities won't help us change mindsets. Trans is not the same as queer.  

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