Performative Nuance

The Chat

This was originally published autum 2018-

As a trans woman, every (cis) womens space you enter, every group you organise with, every friendship circle, will have the The Chat.
The Chat is not always a chat, or even delineated. Occasionally, it exists without a word being spoken, in glances and nods and eyebrow raises, in the implicit assumption that it could collapse into a formal, delineated space, a chat in an elevator, or a group dm, at any moment. Even in these implicit existences, the chat always exists as an exclusionary device. A common space that’s there the moment it’s needed and descends back into illegibility the moment it’s existence is noted, and subject to power analysis.

The Chat is a critical concept, a tool for understanding how cis women’s solidarity is turned against trans women instead of being extended to us.

A space you’re not allowed, so they can work out how to handle you- the reasons, from “she’s violent” to “how can I be a better ally to her” are an aside- the space is always created, and it’s always because trans women are scary.
Being called out is scary. Being afraid to mess things up is scary. Penises are scary. Whatever. There’s something of the monstrous, the queer, about all oppressed groups and when in a cis (white, straight, abled) womens space, this is found in the trans woman(and in the black woman, the queer woman, the disabled woman- different monstrosities all, all intersecting, and with different complexities I am not focusing on here).

Monstrosity is not uniform. Even in spaces where the monstrous is embraced, and encouraged, as it is in feminist and witchy circles, for example, it is a cis womens monstrosity, a monstrosity created of the action of being not a man, from the rejection of masculinity and the embracing of nature, chaos, sexuality. Trans womens monstrosity, the monstrosity of our voices and bodies and lives, comes from the failures in our performance of cis womanhood. It can be embraced, weaponized, as all queer concepts in this vein can(and the embracing of chaos and sexuality remain monstrous- after all, the figure of the cis woman is rational, chaste, and pure, when taken against the trans woman), but it is antithetical to cis womens monstrosity- failure to perform cis womanhood becomes , to cis eyes, the action of _being a man_, and as such, a normative action compared to theirs, built on the opposite.

And in fear of the monstrous, a space is constructed that’s safe. This effort is a transmisoginistic in it’s effect, but not in it’s intent. After all, womens solidarity means forming a shell, protecting each other, carving out safe spaces, front rooms, and reading groups. We’ve done it since forever, and when faced with the scary it’s a learnt and powerful reaction to exclude the scary and make space to deal with it, even if in an absently helpful manner- we don’t want to trigger you with these discussions, or take your labor, so we made a space where you didn’t have to deal with it. We’re doing you a favor. Intent is pure(and feminist).

But the effect is not- it recreates “us” and “them”, replete with a power dynamic inherited from broader society. The Chat can never exist without denying the trans womens womanhood, and it denies us social spaces, experiences, information, and, ultimately, a sense of inclusion and respect.

Of course, there are times when The Chat must exist- the only way to deal with real abusers are Chats that exclude them, give the oppressed space, and allow mutual aid and the victims to process and name their violence. And surely, there are trans women abusers in cis womens spaces who need resisting, and the chat is a tool which can be turned against them. However, The Chat exists in every cis womens space a trans woman enters, and so we must ask the question- within the group of women, is every trans woman an abuser, or dangerous? While you may find the odd throwback to the 70s in our activist groups, academic or artistic spaces, most people would find it patently absurd to suggest that all members of an oppressed subset of women are abusive or violent.

However, The Chat is always created, and the action of creating it not only others the individual trans woman, but by deploying a tactic that’s developed for dangerous people, re-creates the idea that all trans women are dangerous and violent.

*the violence is, of course far more likely to be perceived than enacted- trans women do not hold power in these spaces and the act of existing in them, especially if you fail to perform a traditional gender role, is perceived as (male) violence.