A few months ago, I participated in a focus group at the Hetrick-Martin Institute with eight other trans women. We gathered to offer insight into resources available for young trans women, and more importantly what we would have wanted (in resources, support, spaces) growing up to make our adolescence a bit easier.
An amazing discussion was sparked among the women, the kind of intimate conversation that can only happen with people who have shared such a unique experience. We may have grown up in different times, with different resources, and different challenges, but we were all trans women who ultimately chose to live visibly and were looking for ways to make it better for girls who were coming of age behind us.
The key takeaway didn’t happen in our adult group. It happened in a separate focus group, where younger trans women offered their perspectives on what they wanted, what was available for them and more importantly how they saw themselves.
When I asked the facilitator how younger trans women identified, she said, “They don’t call themselves trans, transsexual or transgender.”
Then how do they define themselves?
“When I asked them who they were,” the facilitator said, “One girl simply stated: ‘We’re just girls…with something extra.'”
And did they all agree to that?
“Yes, some said they were ‘just girls’ – point blank,” she said, “And others agreed that the ‘something extra’ was necessary.”
I found it exhilarating that these young women were naming themselves, that they were identifying how they wanted and that they exerted themselves in a world that rarely, if ever made room for them. I found myself uplifted by the “girls…with something extra” because it wasn’t coming from a place of want or lack. It didn’t fall prey to the tired, simplistic, limiting media sound bite of “girl trapped in boy’s body.” Instead it celebrated who we were as trans women: We have something extra. You can take that literally or figuratively, which is how I choose to read it: We are extra, we are more, we are special, we are everything.
I grew up just like these girls: ballsy, sassy, so sure of where I was going and how I was getting there. No one could tell me otherwise. I was a girl, with something extra: extra going beyond my genitals; extra as in sass, extra as in a killer volleyball approach, extra as in the bounce of my curls, extra as in my refusal to be a victim just because people chose not to get me, extra in the sense that I had a dream and sacrificed a lot to ensure I made those dreams my reality.
When I think of the girl I was growing up, I also think of my blind spots as well, and how I learned nearly everything I knew regarding hormones, dating, doctors, presentation, self-esteem, document changes, etc. from older women who grew up as a girl like myself. I grew up with women who knew the way—to a certain point. They could help me navigate the physical transition process, but they weren’t as keen on where to go from there. No one talked to me about life after my teenage transition because education usually wasn’t an integral part of the trans woman way where I grew up. Though they weren’t able to help me get to college, most did wish me well when I moved to New York. And these same women supported me when I told my story nearly a decade later.
But when I came out, I was suddenly urged to identify myself: Are you transgender or transsexual? And frankly, I thought this to be one of the silliest things to be confronted with upon my sharing such a personal story with the world.
As a young woman, I only used those terms a few times, mostly because I didn’t attach my sense of self to those political and medical terms. They didn’t sing to my inner sense of being, they were mere labels meant to organize me and put me in my place. So how did I identify? I was a girl automatically reared as a boy who rebelled against my family’s expectations to be the woman I knew myself to be.
But I’m a writer and I know the power of words, so I’m not going to feign naivety to get out of this often contentious matter in our community. As soon as I came out I was labeled as transgender. Marie Claire proclaimed, “I was born a boy.” Transsexual activists argued that the LGBT establishment was misgendering me by calling me transgender.
In the end, I embraced it all because none of them could easily define who I inherently am. But it wasn’t until I began speaking to other girls who grew up like I did in my post-coming out life during speaking engagements and fundraisers, on Twitter and Facebook, over coffees and dinner and on subways, that I began using phrases like, “You know how girls like us do.” “You know girls like us are doing big things.” “Girls like us know how to make it work, honey.”
Girls like us rolled off my tongue. The root of girls like us started in private conversations with young women looking for role models, becoming role models, wanting to be heard and hoping to make a difference.
And then in March, Jenna Talackova was told because she was not a “real woman” that she could not go after her dream. And as I was writing about her, I realized that despite the fact that we look different, had different backgrounds and experiences, I knew her. I knew her on a level that only a girl who walked a similar path that we did could know.
And because of this, I cried over a beauty pageant, and I don’t even watch beauty pageants. But sashaying across a stage in a gorgeous gown was Jenna’s dream; it’s the equivalent of me seeing my name on the glossy hardcover book boasting words I wrote to convey my truth. We all have different dreams, and this was Jenna’s and in a sense it was mine. So I shared Jenna’s petition on Twitter, and said:
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) March 27, 2012
And that was the online birth of #girlslikeus. I didn’t think it over, it wasn’t a major push, but #girlslikeus felt right. Remarkably a few more women—some well-known, others not—shared the petition and began sharing their stories of being deemed un-real, being called out, working it, fighting for what’s right, wanting to transition, dreaming to do this, accomplishing that…. #girlslikeus soon grew beyond me, and I continued to feed it: I shared quotes that touched me, articles that celebrated trans women, essays written by trans women, #FF women who inspired me, and took pictures with #girlslikeus who I call my friends and dear sisters. Then, I gave a speech at the University of Southern California which was a way for me to express the anger and frustration and hope that fueled my efforts over the past year of my living visibly. I got the chance to tell bits of the injustice CeCe McDonald faced. I got to talk about how Paige Clay’s end could’ve easily been—and can still be—mine. I rallied the strength to hold back tears as I read over words that were written just the night before. I shared that speech on YouTube and spoke out against the New York Times‘ sexist and transphobic depiction of Lorena Escalera, and then, remarkably a few outlets used their platform to amplify the collective voices of #girlslikeus (Bitch Media, Feministing, Fuck Yeah Feminists, GLAAD, TransGriot, WildGender), and my dream came true: #girlslikeus was used on its own without my @janetmock handle in it. It had a life of its own. Intimate, frivolous, deep and vain conversations were being had, women were connecting to one another, finding sisterhood and friendship, yet I also noticed something brewing as well. A piece by QWOC Media (Queer Women of Color) touted #girlslikeus as an online campaign meant to empower trans women of color. Yes, this was true, but it was not the whole truth, as #girlslikeus began as a means to connect all willing trans women across colors, generations, sexual identities and class. That sound bite from the QWOC piece unknowingly created a rift in the community of sisters I aimed to build, and made some white trans women feel as if they were “intruding” on #girlslikeus because it was touted as an empowerment tool for trans women of color, not just trans women. So I made it clear in a series of Tweets that #girlslikeus is for ALL trans women, and ultimately that just because a brown woman establishes a mini-movement does not mean that white women can’t contribute.
That tweet was RTed by more than 40 followers, and served as my answer to any confusion about who I created this space for. Still, I knew I needed to create a definition, so, on the advice of @Arizona_Abby, I created the following to define #girlslikeus:
A space created by and for trans* women with the purpose of connecting, upLIFTing one another, and sharing resources and stories. It reaches across generations and color, location and socioeconomic standing, established by @janetmock in March 2012 to empower trans women to live visibly and connect in sisterhood and solidarity.
I also created a growing list of trans women on Twitter who’ve contributed Tweets to #girlslikeus (please Tweet #girlslikeus or “I stand with #girlslikeus” if you’d like to be added to this list). And I also noticed that trans women were including #girlslikeus in their profiles, as if it were a badge of honor. And to me, it is.
I want #girlslikeus to be an encouraging space, for debate, for love, for hope, for struggles. I want younger girls to have the space to be frivolous, to talk about transition, to talk about genitals if they want, to ask after the types of procedures people had, etc. It’s your choice to answer or not. I also want it to be a space where women can discuss hot topics, debate about issues, point out privilege blind spots, and share new articles, policies and essays regarding issues facing trans women and women in general. But it will not be a space where we smack one another down, where we judge each other. We’re judged enough in the world.
I want us to be fully ourselves, and hopefully in the process of sharing our most authentic selves, we’ll find like-minded sisters whom we can embrace and love and connect with because it’s only in our connecting that we will be more powerful and ensure that our voices and our lives and our struggles and joys matter.
Lastly, #girlslikeus is not a mandate for all trans women, and does not aim to speak for all trans women. One hashtag, label, group or person cannot be everything for everyone. But it can be something for some. And we must learn to support one another and let people live and tweet without judgment or a need to criticize. The mere existence of a new hashtag where some trans women find solace and sisterhood should not threaten anyone to the point that they are attacking it. It’s frankly not that deep.
When I created #girlslikeus, people wanted me to define exactly what it meant – and I was still discovering that. All I had was a phrase that resonated with me, and luckily it resonated with a few other women. And despite the passing hostility, I pulled the conversation toward a direction of love. It sounds sappy, but I must say that what I’ve come to realize with oppressed, misunderstood communities like ours is that hurt people tend to hurt people. We live in a world where we are so fearful of being excluded and told we don’t belong that when something is created – even in good intent – we receive it with skepticism, hostility and anger.
And I don’t react to hostility with hostility. It’s not my style. Instead, I shut my ego up and aimed to see each Tweet for what it truly is: Another woman wanting to be heard and yearning to know that she matters. That’s why I created #girlslikeus in the first place: To let trans women know that their lives matter, and no one will be dismissed. So in that spirit, I present:
5 FAQs I’ve Been Asked About #girlslikeus:
1. Why call yourself #girlslikeus when it seems you’re distinguishing yourself from the general population of women?
There’s not one way to be a woman. Trans women share issues with non-trans women yet also face unique issues that only other trans women will understand on an intimate level. Yet #girlslikeus is not a monolith, and we don’t all equally face the same kind of discrimination and struggles. While I wholeheartedly welcome all allies to contribute links and Tweet their support, it was important to me that there was a space for us, created by us, especially in a world where our mere presence causes such hostility.
2. Why is it #girlslikeus and not #womenlikeus? I’m not a girl.
I wanted this space to be intergenerational and wanted to encourage young women online to connect with women who’ve been where they’ve been, and to reach across age and nationality and ethnicity and truly connect. If you’re a woman and feel “girls” is just too immature for you, know that it was created to support younger women who need to know that women like you exist, and hopefully the depth of that potential connection will outweigh the semantics regarding women vs. girls. Your wisdom as a woman is needed to uplift, inspire and encourage girls growing up to be women.
3. #girlslikeus seems like it’s only for well-known, attractive trans women. It should be #girlslikethem.
The roots of #girlslikeus began with conversations with young women and launched in support of a beauty queen. So I understand the miscommunication, but #girlslikeus has always been about all trans women, regardless of looks, celebrity or gender expression. I know that there is not one way to be trans as there is not one way to be a woman or a human being. I welcome all women, from those who are thinking of transitioning to those who are way past transitioning and don’t even feel the need to bring it up. I welcome women who don’t and do identify as advocates, activists, academics, political or feminists. I want this to be a space where so-called everyday trans women just living their lives in their towns can dip in and connect without feeling as if they need to fight or educate or be activists. I welcome women who identify as lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, heterosexual, trans-attracted, the whole gamut. I’m also grateful to the well-known trans women who used their platform to spread the word about #girlslikeus when I established it, but it’s lesser known, so-called everyday trans women who have fed #girlslikeus and kept the conversation lively. I am in love with all of these women, regardless of their color, location, level of so-called attractiveness, and how they fall on the gender spectrum.
4. What about #guyslikeus?
I encourage my trans brothers to create such a space for themselves, but will not be arrogant enough to believe that not such a space doesn’t already exist for them or that they’re not already organized via other platforms. I will leave the creation of space for trans men to trans men, and will continue to support the idea that we all occupy more spaces on Twitter as seen in #girlslikeus, #transfeminism, #transchat, #wehappytrans, #fourthwave.
5. What’s your plans with #girlslikeus?
It’s still very new, but I do hope to expand it to its own website, outside of Twitter and my own site. I want it to be a space where trans women can tell their own stories, offer wisdom and guidance to younger women, share articles and links and most importantly uplift one another. It’ll also be great to create physical spaces where we can get together in person and connect as well.