The Language Of The Oppressed And Unheard
Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
My community is on the receiving end of societal oppression, and anger is a logical and healthy response to that oppression. And, transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming people both react and respond to that oppression.
The Huffington Post, LGBT Weekly, and Towleroad are among those who reported on a viral video — a viral video that’s since been taken down by YouTube for violating their policy on “shocking or disgusting content.” The video, entitled Tossed Like A Rag Doll For Trying It, showed a trans woman pursuing, and then kicking and beating a man after he yelled out about the trans woman “That’s a man!” He apparently meant his statement to be disparaging.
The person who loaded up the video, according to the Huffington Post, wrote this in the video description:
Morning after xmas on the nyc subway train, me and my girlfriends was walking to the train, dude shouted out ‘thats a man’ to my home girl and this is what happens when u disrespect a [transgender person] in public.
I get the sentiment: violence in reaction to violence of the spirit directed against a member of a minority population sometimes is the language of the oppressed and unheard.
In mid-November, I wrote a column for LGBT Weekly which my editor entitled “I’ve Got Coffee; And I’m Not Afraid To Use It.” The column included two stories about throwing my coffee at people while taking my daily walks. One of the stories was from a Friday in September of 2011 in which I threw two-thirds full cup of an iced, decaffeinated hammerhead at someone at a young man who called me “thing.” The term, in context, was clearly meant as an antitransgender slur.
I regretted throwing my coffee almost immediately, writing in my column about the incident:
[More below the fold.]
I have no idea whether this young man “read” me as trans, or recognized me from my being publicly visible as trans in the local media; and it didn’t really matter which of the two it was. What mattered to me is the very fact that he used an anti-transgender pejorative toward me that’s on par with the anti-gay f-word pejorative.
At the moment I heard and felt the sting of those words, I flashed red. I took the lid off my iced coffee and threw it in his face. While doing that, I said, “That’s for calling me thing.” Then I walked past – having noticed the young man had a stunned look on his face as I turned my back on him. I guess he expected me to lower my head in shame, obviously not knowing that I identify myself as being “Trans and Proud.”
I felt good about my behavior until I realized I’d given into aggression and retaliation. I did the man no real harm, and I didn’t engage in behavior that the young man didn’t on some level deserve … but that’s not the way I want to behave when confronted with hate.
…In each of those two situations, I saw that I’m not always the moral person I see myself as being, but instead am someone who, in flashes of anger, doesn’t live up to her own standards of tolerance, patience, love and understanding.
For me, I need to stop weaponizing my coffee and start thinking before I act in anger. Darkness can’t drive out darkness – only light can do that. I want to be a light.
So, in other words, I very much get the sentiment behind violence in reaction to violence of the spirit, whether that reactive violence be minor assault or not so minor battery.
Thinking through how I’ll respond when I’m intentionally misgendered or called a pejorative in the future — as I’m absolutely sure I’ll be intentionally misgendered or called a pejorative in the future — I’ve decided that I’ll turn to person who engages in violence of the spirit and say “May God bless you, and may your days be filled with peace.”
That response is in line with non-violent principles, and in line with New Testament scripture I studied as a youth in church:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men… “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I know I’m not a saint; it’s not as if I don’t know that we who are oppressed for belonging to a minority population often react to violence and violence of the spirit directed at us with violence and violence of the spirit of our own. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about this tendency in terms of oppression of African-Americans:
It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.
And Cesar Chavez wrote this in the same vein about how human being respond to oppression:
You know, if people are not pacifists, it’s not their fault. It’s because society puts them in that spot.
And in observing this tendency towards violence, King and Chavez both were well known for advocating nonviolence by those in minority populations who were on the receiving end of hate. They both recognized that violence and violence of the spirit is often an instinctive response to oppression, but it often doesn’t obtain ordinary equality for that minority population.
With those thoughts in mind, I want to highlight what two trans commentators have written about this video. The first is blogger Monica Roberts of Transgriot:
How many times have I warned you cispeople not to frack with transpeople? It’s not a good idea to get someone pissed off at you who not only has a little more strength than the average cis female, but is an estrogen based lifeform to boot.
You also don’t know how much bull feces that transperson may have gone through just trying to get through her day.
Your attempt to make fun of them or disrespect them to prop up your own flagging self esteem may be the last straw that sets the transperson off and the next thing you know they’re either reading you like a cheap novel, pulling out a can of whoop ass with your name on it or are doing both at the same time…
The second is from Brittney Novotny, an attorney who is also trans:
…I have gone through points in my life where I felt bullied and degraded by the world, so I can fully understand the sentiment that would make one feel justified in lashing out like this woman in NYC. However, it is neither legally nor morally justifiable to react to someone’s words with violence.
What if she had called the man a name and he physically attacked her? Would you say that he had a right to attack her because she hurt his feelings? I bet our community would be calling for a stiff sentence, and maybe even call it a hate crime.
…While I get why it might feel good to see a bully get his due, please do not follow that woman’s example. I would hate to see any transwoman (or transman for that matter) wind up in jail because they thought it was okay to follow this example.
Novotny then quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Both Roberts and Novotny recognize that tendency towards violent reaction to oppression and violence of the spirit…in reaction to vocalized antitrans sentiments.
When I was recently confronted with antitrans sentiments couched in terms of a pejorative, I didn’t reject revenge, aggression and retaliation — I instead embraced it. I consider my behavior his past September to be irresponsible and unproductive, and because of that I’ve come up with a plan of how not to repeat that behavior. How I behave — how our community behaves — in times of adversity will no doubt impact future generations. If transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming people join together to nonviolently confront hate and oppression to change what future world us and our next generations trans and gender nonconforming people arrive into, we can have powerful impact…
Because anger turned to nonviolent passion to change the world for the betterment of us and our next generations is powerful. Anger turned to revenge, retaliation, and aggressive violence may bring us momentary satisfaction, but it doesn’t help us in our struggle for ordinary equality. If our obligation to the next generations of our transgender, transsexual, and gender nonconforming population is to see them living in a better world than the world we were born into, then what we do with our anger at our societal oppression matters. Violence returned for violence; violence returned for violence of the spirit — these don’t propel our struggle for ordinary equality forward; these won’t change the world for us and the next generations that follow us.
I’ll leave you with two last thoughts from Martin Luther King Jr.:
That old law about “an eye for an eye” leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.
Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.
To which I say “Amen, Dr. King.”
Now for me, the hard part is going to be following through with doing right and peaceful things in the face of violence of the spirit.