Trans Reality: Jen Richards on Trans Activism, Community, and Sex Work

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TransEthics: What inspired you to come up with the Trans 100?

Jen Richards: The seed of the original idea began with co-founder Toni D’Orsay. She had wondered aloud on her Facebook who would be in a Forbes style top 100 trans people. She asked for people to suggest names in the comments. I put in a few, then tried to go to sleep. But as is my issue, my brain did not comply, and I began thinking about all the possibilities of a list of 100 trans people. I got back up and called Toni (we had met through We Happy Trans, my earlier project) and we began discussing ideas. 

It was important to me, and she agreed, that it not be a “top 100”, but just a representative sampled, and that we focus on advocates who were trying to have a positive impact in the community. I then looped in my designer, who was also sleepless, and we had the basic outline up online by 2:00 a.m. The point was always to show a bit of just how diverse and incredible trans advocates were. And that’s largely been accomplished in the last three years. Not due to us, but we were certainly a small part of a larger cultural shift that is truly staggering in its momentum and impact.

TE: What would you say to people who criticize such events as the Trans 100 and the Transgender Erotica Awards as being divisive to the trans community?

JR: I’d first listen to exactly what they mean. I’ve learned over the years that most critics are people just looking to be heard. There’s an incredible amount of hurt in the trans community. I’ve come around to the belief that we’re all survivors of trauma. Many of our loudest and most vicious critics were simply people who were hurt because they weren’t on the list. I get that, and I’m empathetic. I wish they would just say that rather than couch their feelings in a vicious attack, but I understand.

That being said, there’s been plenty of legitimate, helpful, and constructive criticism. Some is based on misunderstanding, I’ve been astounded at completely fabricated some of the stories about the Trans 100 are, just no basis in reality, but some has been spot on. We grew each and every year by staying open to feedback. And in time, I grew to have my own doubts as well. I know, after having talked to so many people who were positively impacted by the project, that it’s a net good. I mainly feel gratitude and pride for what we did, but there are aspects that continue to trouble me. It was naive to not realize that no matter how insistent we were that it wasn’t a top 100, that it was meant to be a representation, a sample, a resource, that people would treat is as such.

I was disheartened by how ugly people could get… the campaigning. I was troubled by the fact that in our limited capacity there was no way we could thoroughly vet every honoree, so every year I would hear stories from people who had been hurt in some way by someone on the list, and their hurt was furthered by seeing that person honored. Again, I know –truly know, that the net was a positive impact. But as a person, as a member of the community, having to accept that I was causing anyone pain was hard for me to handle. That and the politics of it, the no-win of social justice, simply exhausted me.

98% of all the hate I’ve received over the years has been from other trans people, and in response to the work that I was doing, all of which was designed to lift others up, and for which I’ve never received a dime. Knowing that no matter what you’ll do, your own community will try to bring you down, wears you out. I was struggling with my health, so I decided to let go of my projects and turn my focus elsewhere. I was blessed in that I had Crispin Carmona and Rebecca Kling, both of whom had been huge parts of the Trans 100 behind the scenes in previous years, to step in and take over. They delivered remarkably and did a far better job than I ever could have.

TE: Recently, one follower of mine tweeted: “You know what scares me? Getting involved and accidentally slipping up. [The trans] community has a bad habit of not forgiving mistakes.” Do you think this is truism?

JR: It’s THE truth. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I had a big Twitter rant about this the other day. I know so many people who have simply giving up speaking because of the inevitability of being attacked. We are losing people, important voices, because of this. It’s hurting us all.

Race is a good example. I know very, very few white people who are willing to speak up on race. One slip up and they’re branded a racist and everything else is immediately discounted, they’re publicly shamed, and removed from the conversation. How do we actually have a conversation if you have to master a flawless analysis before even opening your mouth? There’s no room for context, nuance, or mistakes.

I talk about race a lot, but it’s because my Black and Latina girlfriends pushed me to, and after I made a public mistake, my friend said, “You’re white, of course you’re going to mess up, but better to speak up and learn than not to speak up at all.” I took that to heart and I’ve been speaking up ever since. And of course I continue to make mistakes. My roommate, Angelica Ross, is a black trans woman, and as much as we love and support each other, we still struggle.

To be clear, I’m not faulting people of color for shaming white people when they fuck up. I’m telling other white people that it’s more important to take a risk, to learn to deal with uncomfortable feedback, than it is to remain safely immune from critique. But frankly, I don’t as much as the kind of attacks we’re talking about coming from that direction. What I generally see is a small group of very sophisticated thinkers –mostly independent women of color on Twitter– who develop powerful tools to address inequities and then have those tools used as weapons, clumsily, by other people online as ways of tearing others down and feeling better about themselves. Then of course there’s an inevitable backlash that’s absurdly aimed at the people who developed the tools, while those largely anonymous people who misused those tools are left unaccountable.

I’m rambling, but generally I see a tremendous amount of anxiety in people. Oddly, it seems rooted in wanting to be “good”. But rather than the long, hard, uncomfortable work of actually being good, which requires failing and learning, (it’s humbling), they want to look “good”. They do that by mastering this invisible checklist of things you are allowed to say or not, and ding others for when they fail. I sometimes think that the binary that’s really most dangerous, to trans people especially, is not Male/Female, but good/bad.

TE: How do you think we, the trans community, can change this “one strike, you’re out” attitude?

JR: Honestly, I don’t know. My friends and I mostly master the dance steps to minimize the attacks, complain a lot to each other, and trust in our small circle of people we trust. It works, but it’s not sustainable, not a model for everyone. There has to be a better way.

I suppose we need to do the hard work of accepting ourselves, of removing the internal pressure we feel to be perfect. We’re all wonderful little disasters, beautifully broken, cracked so the light can shine through. Poetry, art, spiritual practice, laughter, sex, love, music, friendship…this is what heals, and in being compassionate to others, we heal ourselves. Janet [Mock] once said that we mirror each other, trans women especially, and if we hate what we see of ourselves in others, we hurt them and ourselves. We need to love what we see of ourself in the other.

TE: There seems to be a growing number of trans voices that say it’s time to break away from the LGB community. Do you think this is a good idea?

JR: That’s pain speaking. I get it, and there are intellectually compelling arguments for seeing gender identity as fundamentally divergent from issues of sexual orientation. But the fact is that our history, our material needs, our community, is inseparable. As a bisexual trans woman, I’ve been seen as a gay man and a lesbian woman. My gender identity and sexual orientation are in bed together. My friendships are rooted in LGBT community. And the idea of a separate movement dangerously ignores the most vulnerable. The needs of young queer people of color, of elderly, should be prioritized. If we start saying, “well, these trans people, these trans issues, are what matter,” we’d be erasing the lived intersectional reality of those we should be centering.

That being said, I love the idea of “for us, by us”. We Happy Trans and the Trans 100 focused on trans people. And it was beautiful. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be a the Trans 100 live event. Being in a room with hundreds of trans people, in an event designed and run by them, the whole point of which is to celebrate trans people… it’s transformative.

TE: There are a lot of trans people (trans women in particular) who have had to resort to sex work, not because they enjoy it, but because they were unable to locate employment outside the sex industry due to misconceptions about trans people. What would you say to those who discriminate against us in this manner?

JR: Trans women are vastly overrepresented in sex work. To me, this is the great untold story. I mean, the underlying reality, it’s complexity, the economic and psychological factors that lead to this overrepresentation. We all know the “tranny hooker” trope, but media rarely explores the whole story. I don’t know what I’d say to people who actively discriminate against trans people. I’m more interested in looking at and addressing the systemic factors creating this situation.

It’s complicated, but not inaccessible. We need to address the barriers to education, housing, health care, safety, and employment for all people, but especially to young trans women of color who face the greatest risks due to being at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sex. And we need to address the stigmatization of male desire for trans bodies.

It’s the shame men feel that drive that desire underground and often leads to violence. And we need to create better conditions for those who do go into sex work. Decriminalization is the right next step and should be a priority in our agenda. This is a much longer conversation, and one we should all be having.

TE: True! Would you say sex work is unethical?

JR: I would say that the conditions that coerce people into sex work are unethical. The work itself is ethically neutral. Almost all trans women I know, and many trans men, are engaged in, or have at some point been involved, in sex work. Whether it’s escorting, porn, or camming. Some are open about it, some prefer to keep it private. One of my best friends is Bailey Jay, a world-famous porn star. I know that in a real way she humanizes trans people, she legitimizes desire, through her sex work. It can have a positive impact. More importantly, there are real people doing sex work, and it’s their safety that I care about. That trumps any kind of ethical determination. Any approach that doesn’t center the needs of those engaging in sex work, regardless of what brought them there, is misguided.

TE: Just one last question: Do you have any plans to get back into trans activism in the future?

JR: Honestly, no. At least not in any formal, exclusive way. I’m more interested in addressing wider issues of race, gender, and class, which all collide in trans issues. And I’d like to do it through writing, and maybe occasional speaking.

I’m in L.A. right now, to shoot a web series I wrote. Two of the lead characters are trans women, and both will be played by trans women. This gives me an opportunity to humanize the issues I would otherwise address through argument or policy, and I’m excited to see where it leads and what kind of impact it can have. I love the trans community, deeply. Most of my friends are trans, both men and women. I’m in awe of their resilience and unending creativity. I’ll never stop working in some way to repay what others have done to make the world a better place for me, the love and trust others have invested in me.

TE: What’s the web series called, and when do you anticipate it being completed?

JRHer Story. We start shooting soon and hope to have it online this fall.

TE: Thank you Jen!

JR: I’m glad you’re doing this. It’s important to have more platforms to talk about trans sex work.

Follow Jen on Twitter and visit her website.

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One comment on “Trans Reality: Jen Richards on Trans Activism, Community, and Sex Work

  1. Pingback: Trans Mission: Kate Adair on HB2, and Changing Media & Society | TransEthics

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