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Interviewing Tracee Ellis Ross
On My Book Redefining Realness
Throughout my life, I’ve felt the pressure of having to define my multiple identities for myself and for others. I love words, yet I know that words often fail us. At times, words are unable to fully encompass who we know ourselves to be. Knowing this, I felt immense empathy for B. Scott when I heard him [B. welcomes the following preferred gender pronouns (PGPs): he/him, she/her, they/their] announce after several years in the media spotlight that he is transgender.
B.’s personal announcement arose in the midst of his “gender identity discrimination” lawsuit against BET. According to B.’s open letter to fans, the network hired him as a red carpet style correspondent at the 2013 BET Awards in June, forced him to change into more masculine attire and ultimately replaced him with Adrienne Bailon, a cis Latina woman (cis is a term used to describe those whose assigned sex at birth aligns with their gender identity). He wrote that the day’s events “made me feel less than and that something was wrong with who I am as a person.”
Though BET released a statement citing “miscommunications from both parties” and stating they “regret any unintentional offense to B. Scott and anyone within the LGBT community and we seek to continue embracing all gender expressions,” B. pushed the network for a “true public apology” and “fair remuneration.” The lawsuit has spawned many headlines, but what struck me is the discourse B.’s transgender revelation has sparked.
“As a society we’ve been conditioned to believe that a person has to be ‘exactly’ this or ‘exactly’ that,” B. wrote, before adding, “My spirit truly lies somewhere in between [male and female]. It is that same spirit that has allowed me to become so comfortable in my skin, choose how I express myself, and contributes to how I live my day-to-day life.” B. cited GLAAD’s definition of transgender, an umbrella term that clusters diverse groups of people (transsexuals, like myself, cross-dressers, gender-variant and genderqueer people and many more) whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth due to the appearance of their genitals, as a catalyst for his announcement.
“It is by that definition that I accept and welcome the ‘transgender’ label with open arms,” B. wrote, igniting discourse, debate and discussion among B.’s adoring fans (whom he calls “Love Muffins”), his detractors and general bystanders within and outside of the trans, queer, wider LGBT community and of course within the overlapping people of color, specifically black community, we both belong to.
I found much of the conversation on both sides to be misguided: Many people seemed reluctant and skeptical about B.’s transgender identity; many trans people questioned whether B. was trans enough or whether his embracing of the transgender label was a ploy for a stronger gender identity case (NOTE: I answer some of this skepticism via my Tumblr blog); many fans seemed to be confused by the idea that a previously gay-identified feminine person was now identifying as transgender yet wasn’t seeking to become a woman; and many trans women knew B.’s announcement would further muddy the waters for transsexual women who often combat widely popular images of drag queens, cross-dressers and other male-bodied folks who express femininity.
As a multiracial trans woman of color (I self-identify as a trans woman, though specifically I am a transsexual woman, which is part of the transgender umbrella label), I immediately embraced B. because I understand the journey of self-revelation. His announcement resonated with me on many levels: the idea of gender and trans-ness, the idea of race and blackness, the need to announce who you are to the world, and when that definition collides with others’ perceptions of you then you must defend yourself, your identity and your existence.
It is this very personal journey that framed my conversation with B. about his road towards self-revelation, about what brought him to announce that he is a transgender person, about the conflation of gender and sexuality, about embracing labels, pronouncing self and seeking definitions. Ultimately, I wanted to share space, stories and experiences with B. to show the ways in which our experiences as trans people of color intersect, diverge yet neither of our experiences or identities negate the other.
I hope the transcript of our phone conversation provides clarity on the lived experiences of two openly trans people of color, one a transsexual woman, the other a transgender person whose “spirit truly lies somewhere in between.”
Janet: I assume it must’ve taken you a long time to come to this place of definition, where you’re announcing that you’ve “welcomed the ‘transgender’ label.” What led you to embrace transgender as part of your identity?
B. Scott: I feel my spirit is somewhere in between, so I thought that that in between-ness didn’t fit the term transgender. I thought that because I didn’t want to become a woman that I wasn’t transgender but just a feminine gay man. It was hard to pin down, label and classify myself. I had a lot to learn but when I finally read that transgender also meant “neither or both,” I was like, “Wow, that’s me!” For the first time, I found something I was included in.
J: I definitely resonate with this process of discovery. When I was a tween, I spent a year or so identifying as gay because that was the only label that was available to me. I had no idea that trans, transsexual or transgender existed to describe my experience, so I grasped at the only definition or label available, which described my attraction to boys. My misunderstanding was also reflective of society’s conflation of sexual orientation (your attraction to certain bodies and people) and gender identity (your self-conception, embodiment and expression of gender regardless of assigned sex at birth). How were you able to unpack this?
B: Me being transgender is more about my expression of who I am, and that manifests itself in how I act, how I present myself in terms of hair, makeup, clothing, and my overall essence. My sexuality relates more to what makes my heart flutter. Transgender actually defines me more than my sexuality does. It encompasses my whole essence. It’s how my spirit is presenting itself.
J: After I heard your announcement, I embraced you because I understood your journey of self-revelation. At the same time, I was also cognizant of the vast diversity of the transgender umbrella term, and knew that people would make all kinds of assumptions, like “I thought B. was gay, now he wants to become a woman?”
B: So many people have asked me when am I transitioning and have called me slurs over the years. People have been labeling me as transgender for years. So many transgender girls, some of my Love Muffins, have come up to me and said that they love me and that me being me actually helped them. I believe they saw my gradual self-perception through my videos and saw themselves in me and my journey of discovery. They are my sisters, and so are you, long before I even identified as transgender. It’s funny how God works because over time I was gradually embracing a group of people that in fact included me.
J: I think that many people assume that transgender only means those of us who are transsexual, folks who medically transition. It’s necessary for us to state and embrace the fact that trans people have various relationships with gender. Some people are men, some are women and others refuse to be either and self-determination should be embraced.
B: Exactly! I had a reluctance to label myself period. People have yet to truly accept transgender people, and I am so aware of that. There is just so much work that needs to be done. For a while it’s like I wanted to just be gay because I wanted to be part of the acceptance of gays in America. I asked myself so many times, “Do I really want to make my journey harder?” I feel like Sophia in The Color Purple: “All my life I had to fight!” Because of my experience with BET, it led me to the realization that I am transgender because of my gender identity and expression. It was specifically because of my gender – not my sexuality – that made me a target and I realized that I am not alone in this discrimination and treatment as a trangender person.
J: I want to check my own assumptions and perceptions really quick: I embrace you as a trans feminine person, meaning someone who was assigned male at birth yet expresses and embodies femininity, but don’t let me further label you.
B: I had never heard that term before but I think you’re right. I lean more towards the feminine spectrum, but I do ovulate [oscillate] between masculine and feminine. It just depends on the day, girl!
J: Speaking of femininity, I think it’s necessary for us to have a discussion around the kind of harassment thrown your way. When I walk in the world, I’m often perceived as a mix black cis girl, meaning that my trans-ness is often not leading the way for me but I’m still subject to sexist and racist objectification and harassment. Yet when I was teenager still on my path to womanhood, I was somewhere in the middle, as this femme teen who was called a “sissy,” a “tranny” or a “shim” daily, and that level of violence was equally scary. What has your experience been with others’ perceptions and judgments?
B: People can tell that I am a man and my femininity makes me a target. I’ve heard people say things like, “You’re never gonna be a woman! Look at that jaw line and those hands!” Though the comments hurt me, I also think about my followers who are trans women and how their sense of self is questioned and targeted. For me, I just feel like a man and woman came together and made a hybrid that was me. I know that I am a target because I challenge people’s perceptions. There’s power in that yet there’s also a lot that’s thrown at me too.
J: It’s interesting how much our society devalues people who express femininity. And I can imagine as one who is often read as a gender-nonconforming black man that that must come with its own set of pressures.
B: I never thought I would grow up to be a person that would represent all these identities that would make me part of a very marginalized group of people. But this is part of embracing my truth. This lawsuit will come and go, but my identity will stay and so will the marginalization and ostracizing.
J: I hear people say this often that communities of color, specifically black folks, are more anti-gay, more anti-trans than other communities. I always say that it is not a safe world period to be a trans woman or a gender non-conforming person. I have not witnessed one community that has embraced trans folks, specifically trans feminine folks, as people, so I don’t know where these comparisons come from. Please point out the community where we can all be safe in.
B: Right? It’s like please show me that place so I can go there because even in the gay community there tends to be transphobia, and I witnessed this from some people after I said I am transgender. It hurt that some in the community were judgmental when I thought they’d be more accepting. I expected these people among all to say, “Yes, be who you are!”
J: I’ve noticed similar judgments within the trans community, and I criticized much of the discourse around your statement as misguided on Twitter. I was so conflicted when my dear sister Monica Roberts stated that she won’t “consider” you “part of Team Trans” until you medically transition. It perplexed me as to why she and many others immediately assumed that trans-ness equated to trans womanhood. It was the erasure of genderqueer, non-binary identified folks, gender diverse folks, like yourself, from our community that sparked my need for this conversation. I feel this discussion is the same kind of gender policing that is done to trans people everywhere by folks who don’t believe our identities.
B: I’m surprised by the skepticism about my identity because it took a long gradual process for me to get here, for me to get over the negative imagery associated with the transgender community and own my identity and place and get past it all. I wouldn’t embrace being transgender unless it was my truth. I believe I’m challenging the term and people’s beliefs, but I feel I can only do what’s true for me. I know that I will continue to raise awareness, and I hope that over time that who I am will serve a greater purpose for the community.
J: I myself deal with this daily from all sides, from black folks who say that being trans is “a white thing” or trans folks who say that I’m too “passable” therefore not trans enough to cis folks who say that I will never be a “real” woman. This discussion around authenticity and living your truth is what led me to tell my own story and title my book “Redefining Realness.” Only we can say what is real and what is most authentic to us. We must all learn to trust one another’s experience.
B: I’m just trying to live my best life walking in my truth. I’m used to never fitting in. People have always said something about me. I do love that we’re in the same family on so many levels, Janet, but also different and also understanding one another. I just think that we should all try to love each other a little bit more.