On the importance of trans joy — even if it's just finding comfort in watching Schitt's Creek
As the world gets more difficult for trans folks, Gwen Benaway believes that joy is essential to survival
As a trans woman, I spend a lot of my everyday life navigating transphobia.
I experience discrimination in healthcare, employment, education, dating and in hundreds of small interactions throughout my life. I'm not unique in this experience, as most trans women I know live with the same reality, even if they visually "pass" as a cisgender woman. Our experiences of transphobia are individual, influenced by our specific communities and intersections with other oppressions, but it's a constant burden in our lives.
I've been told by cisgender people that transphobia is simply a part of life that I should reasonably accept and "get over." To them, I've made the choice to be trans and have to live with the consequences of my "decision": pervasive oppression. Some folks even suggest that it's regrettable but that through my living, I will educate others and eventually create a better more tolerant world for the trans women who come after me. Maybe that's true, but just like homophobia or racism, I refuse to accept that transphobia is a natural part of society that I simply need to get less "sensitive" to.
The most dangerous part of living with transphobia is not just its potential to kill me — either from violent attack or less direct forms such as homelessness, unemployment or a lack of access to healthcare — but its ability to limit my joy. I believe in joy as a fundamental part of what it means to be human. In our pleasures and happiness, we find freedom from the everyday oppressions of our lives. Perhaps placing joy as a right sounds too naive, but I think joy is more essential to our survival and wellbeing in the world than is often recognized.
For me, trans joy comes in unexpected ways. It happens when my trans sisters and I get together, our gossip and conversations overlapping into one collective experience. It finds me as I walk to work through rain, snow and the constant beauty of the land around me. It swells in my skin whenever I hear a song I like or discover that a new season of Schitt's Creek is now streaming online. It is in the exhilaration of writing a new essay or poem. Joy is there, underneath every moment of connection and community, filling in the spaces of me that transphobia threatens to take away.
Recently, I've encountered mainstream discussions of trans women which seem to believe that we're dangerous, delusional or trying to steal space from cisgender women. The folks who participate in this conversations often claim that they are merely using common sense, looking at the "science" or counter-balancing the "toxic" political correctness of society. These people are rarely concerned with joy, but seem to thrive on its opposites: fear, anger and shame.
We live in a political and social moment where joy is often misplaced in favour of fear. Certainly, as climate change rushes us forward and populism propels us deeper into conflict, there is much to be afraid of. As a trans woman, I likely have more to fear than most and often, I find myself living in a constant state of reaction, defensiveness and self-protection. Joy offers a rare and powerful antidote to the world I live in — a valuable escape into moments where I feel almost entirely human and free to exist in my body as I need to.
I brought up my love of Schitt's Creek earlier and I want to return to it. It's a strange show, thoroughly Canadian in its pacing and humour, but I appreciate its escapism into a small town where forces like racism, homophobia, classism and sexism don't seem to exist. It's a utopia — and there are reasons to be wary of utopias, but I want to wholeheartedly embrace its call to joy.
One of my favourite moments in the last season (spoiler alert!) involves the romance between David and Patrick. They are two queer men in love. Despite the smallness of their town, no one seems to care very much about their genders. They build their relationship after several comedic plot twists, including a small break in their relationship when David discovers that Patrick has an ex-fiancée. When they finally reconcile from their mini fight, David lip-syncs to Patrick while Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" blasts throughout their shared store.
It's a moment of pure joy. As David gyrates and sways to the music, Patrick's smile beams through the camera. It's impossible to watch that scene and not feel joyous alongside with them, reveling in the admitted ridiculousness of their love. Focusing on the love affair of two Canadian television characters might seem out of place in an essay on trans joy, particularly because neither David nor Patrick are trans, but I want to celebrate the myriad of ways that joy finds us in life.
Like David's willingness to embarrass himself before Patrick in order to profess his love, trans joy arises from our fearless embrace of who we are. We live in a world that often fails to imagine our worth as trans women. We are thought as objects of pity or scorn, but are rarely seen as community members who offer tremendous gifts to society through our lives. I want to remind everyone that trans women are incredibly valuable to the people who love us: our friends, partners and the communities we belong to. Our joy comes from the willingness to live as authentically as we can, regardless of the cost.
As the world turns darker and folks try to make trans lives even more difficult, I want to hold onto my joy. Whether it comes vicariously through queer love on Canadian television or from my intimate connections, my joy is what keeps me alive. The possibility for trans joy is at the centre of my activism, scholarship and writing. If I have to live with transphobia and all the other forms of oppression which constrain our joy in the world, I want to have hope in the ability of joy to make everything a little more bearable. After all, Schitt's Creek may not be a real town, but it's possible that somewhere in the world, we can find space to embrace all of us as we are.
And my joy — my trans joy — is believing in that possibility, no matter how difficult the road to getting there seems.