A line stretched around the small space outside of the Multicultural Community Center as students and community members alike buzzed with anticipation. Within minutes of the doors opening, the space reached capacity as folks who weren’t able to get seats took to sitting on the floor. This eager crowd was gathered for the chance to hear Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and CeCe McDonald speak — two women who have been titans of activism for the trans community.
The event, “Trap Door,” was born from the production of the anthology “Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility” with which the event shares its name. The moderators oscillated between asking questions catered specifically to each woman’s experiences while also asking broader questions that put their experiences in direct opposition. What resulted was a rich exploration of both transness and resilience.
Ranging anywhere from the topics of mothering to the violence of visibility to fashion, both women offered distinct wisdom regarding their own experiences. On visibility, Major stated that “visibility is getting us killed.” She explained that the people that need to be made visible are the straight men that have been content to love trans women in the shadows, but turn around and persecute them everywhere else.
In this part of the event, the pair proved to be perfect foils for each other. Miss Major was quiet and contemplative, often taking a pause to gather her thoughts before offering an answer. The result was that everything she said felt precious and wise.
McDonald was purposefully loud where Major was soft, and was intuitively aware of her audience. She was endlessly engaging and more than once proved to be all too aware of how powerful words are, particularly her own.
Though I am a member of the queer community, I am cisgender. But based off of the audience reactions and the conversations that took place during the Q&A, Major’s and McDonald’s insights on the transgender experience was greatly valued.
During the Q&A, the array of questions ranged from thought-provoking to self-serving. One audience member used their question time to boast their own qualifications and background on LGBTQ+ studies. In opposition, a different audience member asked the profound question: Where do Miss Major and McDonald find joy in their transness? This was a question that brought levity to the tales these two women had to impart while also highlighting the often grim reality of being transgender.
Though many found this event uplifting, others were excluded from the conversation. One audience member, an Asian trans woman, stood to ask where Asian trans women fit into the narrative and into the movement. What followed was a lesson in and of itself.
Both Major and McDonald shared similar responses. McDonald responded first, offering a conflation between the experiences of Asian trans women and white trans women. Whether or not it was their intention, the message of their response resonated as saying that transgender Asian women experience the same amount of privilege as white trans women.
McDonald also praised the audience member for the bravery in her question, but went on to say that she should use this opportunity to “interrogate” her privilege as a means to understand that space needs to be reserved for trans women who are more disadvantaged. Miss Major followed by advising the audience member to support the movement by educating herself on the stories of others.
It’s true that Black and brown trans women face a disproportionate amount of discrimination than trans women of other races. But stating that Asian trans women and white trans women have the same amount of privilege is problematic, damaging and incorrect. It feeds into the harmful stereotype and myth of the model minority. And though uplifting the voices of Black and brown trans women is personally important to McDonald and Major, this moment proved to be detrimentally exclusionary.
For all the good that McDonald’s and Major’s insights may have done, the tears running down the face of the woman who asked that question seemed to punctuate the event in a way that undercut their powerful lessons. Major and McDonald’s words, and the visible and immediate harm they caused, served as a cautionary tale of the responsibility we have to mutually respect one another and our unique experiences.