In late 2016, when the shock of the election was still fresh, I tried to start drafting a blog post entitled "Art and All of This”. I thought a lot about what I would want to say, to unpack the relationship between my life and my art, and how I couldn’t avoid the ways the goings-on of the world were going to affect my artwork. There’s an oft-expressed idea that art and entertainment shouldn’t get political. That it exists to entertain and provide a positive escape.
I assume this comes from people who have a choice as to whether they are affected by politics or not— many people do not get that choice.
I do not get that choice.
The people my paintings are primarily about do not get that choice.
But I never finished that post— I meant to, for months, but I only ever got a few sentences in. How could I possibly express everything I wanted to in a way people would understand? I would just be preaching to the choir, right? Did we really need another rallying cry of ‘Fuck Trump’ in a huge sea of that existing already? What did I have to contribute?
In any case, I fell into the demanding flow of my career and hoped that would be enough. I worked commissions, continued to drive all over the country to sell my art at conventions, trying to get my work out there and also make ends meet. I continued to have deeply meaningful experiences with people who I got to speak with at conventions. At least on an individual level, I’ve had the privilege to make a difference in at least a few peoples’ lives. To have people connect to my work so deeply that it can bring comfort to someone who lost a partner, or to help a suicidal child convey complex feelings to their parents— these are the things that matter more than selling art. I sell my work so that I can continue to have these experiences.
But things are changing in the world, and I don’t know if my old standards for doing my best are enough any more. I can feel that they aren’t. I’ve put off writing this post for a week because it’s been so hard to start it, and every day it hurt me more to not be writing it.
It’s been messing me up for days, actually. My mind has felt more cluttered and my mood feels out of sorts. I think it’s the friction of going against something I know I should do.
The world is so scary right now. The deluge of anti-trans legislation from the week before is having it’s intended effect: I feel like I’m drowning.
It’s hard to keep up with. The infamous New York Times article was preceded by three-pronged anti-trans legislation in my hometown of Austin, and soon followed by the Justice Department validating businesses’ ability to discriminate against transgender employees. These are all within a few day period.
There was a trickle over the past two years; the Trump administration banning the CDC from using the word ‘transgender’ and working to push through a ban on trans people serving in the military, to name a couple. But I guess I had hoped those would be blows we could sustain; that we just had to hold on until this administration ended. Then we could fix those things, and push progress forward again. And that’s just specifically relating to trans issues; even more than I worry about my people, I worry about the earth itself. I don’t know if this is a world I’ll want to live in when I’m old, if the environmental crisis continues on the trajectory that it is now.
If you haven’t followed the logical chain of how things will proceed if the Trump administration succeeds with this legal definition of gender, here it is: Trans people who have had their documents legally changed (not at all an easy or affordable process most of the time) will have their documents reverted to their birth sex, and new applications for those changes will not be permitted. This means I’ll go back to having an F on my driver’s license, heath insurance, and possibly even my passport. (Currently, the State Department says it has no plans to change how they do things— but the Secretary of State is appointed by the President, so that can change, too.) Think of every time you use some form of identification that carries a gender marker— from buying alcohol to voting to housing to transit. Whether or not trans people get to do any of those things could come down to the discernment of the individual checking that ID and determining the identification— and thus the person attached to it— as legitimate or illegitimate.
For myself, this could mean my partner and I investing our time, work and funds into attending an international convention as an important part of our careers, and finding out at the TSA check that I’m not allowed to fly. For trans people living in more conservative areas, this could mean the threat of violence or police brutality if they spend any time in public life at all. For all of us, this is a pre-Nuremberg situation. And it will be easy to implement, since sex already exists as a category on most forms of ID. All you need to make trans people obvious is to force them to have a gender marker that is incongruous with their appearance.
This new development is much darker than the ones of the past two years, and it leaves me reflecting on what my personal responsibility is in all of this. On what changes I need to make in my own life to ensure I’m doing the most I can to affect change in this world.
And even though I do vote, it doesn’t feel like it matters— I don’t think we’re that far off from it legitimately not mattering, from the results being whatever the current administration can get away with, which seems to be a lot. Things are getting worse. It feels like few things we do matter.
But as hard and hopeless as it is to feel that our efforts don’t matter in the big picture, there is a feeling out there that is worse, once you find it. It’s the realization that you do have something within you that could help, and that you might not be doing that thing. That there are other ways you could be affecting change, but it’s going to take a lot out of you, and it’s up to you whether you choose to pursue that or not. Even more frightening is the idea that there is probably a window of time in which your voice might make a bigger difference now than later— and that if you don’t do things now, there are some lives that might be worse off.
I know that my voice matters because people keep telling me that it does. They’ll comment on how much they appreciate my words after I’ve spoken up online or in person, or sometimes I’ll receive a message from them after years of quiet listening. A lot of the time, it’s just from my existing visibly, from friends of my family who had no prior exposure to trans people. People who got to see me go through transition and evolve from an awkward hermit to a driven, independent person who others look to for advice.
So, knowing all of this, what can I do to make a bigger difference? What is the responsibility that I have in all of this?
Two years on from when I first tried to write a post like this, I have experienced a lot more life and learned a lot more. I think about communication every day, as part of my personal relationships, my work, and on a much larger societal scale. The first two levels of that (business and personal) are easy, because I can set the standard for communication and expect a certain level of understanding. But beyond that, things become chaotic and terrifying. Browsing Twitter, it’s easy to come across someone I respect giving their thoughts on the problems inherent in a pre-existing thread— but reading the vitrol in that original thread can shove me so harshly out of my usual bubble that it feels like being a fish on dry land, exposed, in a strange world where the air burns your lungs.
I’m not just talking about seeing the opinions of people who disagree with you. Certainly I’ve been exposed to the idea that not everyone holds the same world views. But to be thrown directly into the depths of people agreeing with and building off of one another as to why your existence is some sort of a perverted indoctrination agenda which is ‘stealing’ their children— it hurts. It hurts to know the other side of that story, having seen my friends survive being abandoned by their families, to know how much it hurts them to no longer have a mother who shows them any humanity. But that, at least, is a familiar story— I think these threads hurt even more because it forces me to reckon with what the world must look like in their bubble.
And if I’m to fully embrace my own responsibility in this world, then I have to know what it looks like in their bubble. If I’m to do my job— as I’ve decided to define it— then I have to be able to empathize radically. I have to be able to understand the most immediate fears and concerns of the people who hate me without even knowing me. People might not always have good reasons for what they think, but they do have some reason— and knowing what those reasons are are essential to being able to make any headway at all.
And I have to do that while also taking care not to over-expose myself to how much it hurts to try and really understand them.
This is the knife’s edge that such an approach presents: being so radically empathetic that you can understand someone so opposed to you means you’re also more easily hurt. You’re feeling on a higher frequency, and sometimes that’s just too much. If you’re taking it upon yourself to treat everyone you interact with online as another thinking, feeling human being, then eventually you will find yourself hurting even for the people that you hate.
As such, it’s crucial to set specific limits for yourself. I know there’s a certain point beyond which it will cause me too much pain for too little effect. My own limit that I hold is that I will not give my time or energy to someone who isn’t already at the point of respecting me as a fellow human being. I’ll be there to talk to someone who perhaps has some hesitancy and concerns, but who is willing to listen and learn from my experiences, if I’m offered basic respect without having to artificially ‘earn’ that. But if a person already has a decidedly negative belief and finds my existence as a trans person distasteful, then they don’t get to interact with me. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for what they’re able and willing to deal with, and that’s where I draw the line for myself. My partner is willing to deal with people who are… quite a bit further in, but few are able to do so effectively. Even then, choosing what to get into or not is always a calculation.
That being said, I usually don’t have it in me to do the online footwork these days. It’s gotten harder for me as things have grown more volatile. I want to do at least some of it, but I also know that it can derail me for a day or more if I have a shitty interaction with someone online. So I have to know how best to spend the energy I have, which means knowing what my strengths are. A lot of the time, I’m going to be able to affect change more directly by sitting down and working on an important painting in my gender series, or striving to get that work out there, than I will by wading into a Twitter argument where there’s a decent chance that person isn’t in a place where they’re willing to listen.
Writing this post itself is another one of those things that I can do which I hope will have a greater impact. That’s a tough thing for me to even state, since it forces me to take ownership of my own merit and value.
But I have to admit that I’m in a unique position, one which grants me a wider range for potential empathy and understanding than most. Being that I transitioned in my mid-twenties, I’ve had a fair amount of experiences living as a young woman, as a young man, and then claiming my non-binary identity. Meanwhile, my partner has swung the gamut from being raised in a repressive Christian conservative household and himself holding anti-LGBT views into college (having no exposure to anyone who could share their real experiences), to coming to terms with understanding people on a whole new level and being the most radically empathetic person I know.
I’ve learned a lot from watching and listening to him, specifically to how his history and background leave him uniquely equipped to talk to people with conservative backgrounds and understand where they’re coming from. And while I don’t have quite the same background, I’ve learned a lot about asking and listening.
In this sea of scary things happening, one of the things that I find the most chilling is the aggression that continues to grow hand-in-hand with polarization. I’m not just talking about the fact the growing divide in the country politically— I mean that as individuals, we are pushing farther away from those we disagree with, becoming more verbally aggressive in an effort to distance ourselves from the pain of their not caring about the issues that directly affect us, that we know are so important.
This makes sense to do, at an immediate level. After everything that’s been going on, if someone is still so short-sighted as to be voting against you as a person, then how can you continue to trust them? In a way, I have to admit that if someone is choosing to vote for a party that so directly wants to remove my human rights, then it doesn’t feel like they deserve to still get to be around me as a person.
But I also know that I can’t settle for that impulse. As right as it may feel, and as right as we are to be angry, to be hurt— I think the shitty truth is that we have to take the higher path. I don’t think that being shouted at inclines people to listen or have their hearts changed. I think it makes them feel further justified and self-righteous. I think we need to be vulnerable in talking about ourselves and how certain legislation affects us and our loved ones and others. And beyond that, we need to ask other people how things affect them personally from the other side of the equation. Even further, we need to genuinely try to understand where they are coming from, to be able to find ways to relate to one another.
This won’t stop the false articles and anecdotes which paint us as the aggressors, as being disconnected and dismissive. There’s nothing we can immediately do to counter that issue. If anything, the approach taken on a political level shouldn’t be about trying to win these people’s hearts at all. Here’s a video that will do a better job of encapsulating that than I ever could. But my focus isn’t about the approach from a political angle, it’s a personal one. It’s about surpassing a person’s pre-conceived expectations for you and finding a way to converse that breaks the script they were expecting from their stereotype of you. If anything, the people who move from a strong conservative or centrist background and come to understand a more progressive approach are some of the people we need the most.
Not everyone is ready to converse earnestly, and some will never be ready. But we have to be willing to accept and work with even those who we feel have been too late to catching up.
Let’s take Caitlin Jenner as the most visible example. Her celebrity-level coming out story made a huge impact on the nation’s perception of trans people, for better and worse. In such a media-focused society, people had to reckon with this news. We’re more visible as a people group, after her coming out— that means that more ‘average’ Americans have at least a lukewarm conception of trans people, but it also means that extremist conservatives are legislating more aggressively than ever against us. And if you aren’t already aware, most trans people do not care for Caitlin Jenner, because she’s been more loyal to her high economic class and Republican position than to the rights of other trans people.
Last week, however, she posted this article. When I came upon this headline through a friend’s shared Facebook post, the comments were a list of patronizing but very justified ‘No shit!’ gifs and remarks. People have been trying to tell her this from the start, so it might feel a little late now to realize her error. But here’s something which I think is both upsetting and true: We need Caitlin Jenner. Specifically, we need this timeline’s Caitlin, who was stubborn enough to pursue the only political path she knew and to try making things work that way. We need her specifically because things didn’t work that way, and now she has the power of a story they need to hear. She can use that story to talk to conservatives and have her words be granted more weight and respect, because she did this, unlike us loud upstarts.
Will she use her unique position to the fullest? How much has she learned and will she be able to speak in a way true to our needs now? I don’t know. But I have hope. Besides that, I don’t think we can afford to turn away from accepting someone who is saying they were wrong and want to make a difference. On principle alone, we shouldn’t turn them away, if they are listening and open. There is a difference, of course, between constructive criticism and hostile ostracism. I just think we have a long way to go in learning to better convey that difference in how we communicate.
So, as we enter a time where things feel more contentious and tense than ever, I have two things that I hope to impart.
The first is that we must be the people of compassion. Here I’ve mostly spoken about trying to understand others on a more personal level. I do think this will be a crucial skill going forward, to be the best we can be. But I also know that sometimes taking the higher road means knowing when not to give someone your time, when someone is only showing up to do deliberate harm, and shutting them down from being in that space is the most compassionate thing you can do. This is, of course, the Paradox of Tolerance. I believe that the video I linked above (The Alt-Right Playbook: You Go High, We Go Low) expressing the pursuit of justice as being a greater high road than adherence to the system is a great perspective which falls into the Paradox of Tolerance as a concept. But I also don’t think that on it’s own is necessarily enough; if we truly self-isolate into ideological groups that are unable to communicate, not only will the extremity of the clash between these groups grow, but more minor differences in perspective within these spheres will cause internal splintering. I cannot see a way to avoid this which does not contain compassion as a key to understanding.
Second, we must know our own strengths and limits. It is entirely possible that your own inclinations and skill set as a person mean that your energy is better spent focusing on building up your in-group, rather than focusing on this difficult work of trying to bring understanding to those in your out-group. If the injustice of the situation leaves you too angry to express anything but rage towards the out-group, then you may find that better expressed in speaking to people who understand you already, to find a way to share healing of the same pain between one another. Your path of having the greatest positive impact may very well look quite different from mine.
In any case, I hope you will reflect on what I have expressed here and keep it in mind. Even outside of the context of trying to accomplish some sort of ideological goal, I know that the future will bring a greater struggle for us as people all living on the same planet, and being better communicators can only help with that. I’m angry and hurting, too. But if I’m able to process those things and turn my situation into a means to bring greater connection and understanding to people, then that’s worth my hurt. Pain means something is wrong and needs to be made right. That doesn’t always mean the solution will be easy, but I know it will be worth it.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share any thoughts you have below; I’d love to talk further about any part of this.
It’s important to me to do more writing like this in the future, on all manner of topics from communication to trans and queer issues, to my work process and how my art relates to spirituality: If you think that content should exist, please support my Patreon. I’m halfway to the income goal that will allow me to afford doing writing like this on a regular basis, and I have so much I would love to share. Thank you for your time and support!