Dear Underpaid and Overworked Organizer,
We’re Kai Cheng Thom and Ivan Coyote, two transgender writers and performance artists checking in to chat about (insert event you invited us to).
But before we get into all of that, we wanted to extend our gratitude to conference organizers, event programmers, festival curators, and all of you often under-appreciated folks who do so much unseen work to create spaces for learning and art.
Thank you for including us trans and gender non-conforming people, and our voices, in the work that you do.
We understand that planning to book a trans artist or speaker can present its own unique set of logistical challenges. There are so many things that can be tricky or indelicate — from sending that first email and not being sure which honorific (Mr? Ms? Mx?) to use, to booking transportation and having to ask what gender to check off on our travel documents — and we have both been the, often uncomfortable, recipients of what happens when things go awry.
In fact, when we first got together in Ivan’s kitchen over homemade chicken soup to swap stories about our lives as traveling trans performers, we were shocked at how similar out experiences were — despite the twenty year difference between when we first began performing.
Like that time when I, Ivan — a 46 year old white transmasculine Yukoner who first began performing in 1992 and who is currently putting the final touchers on my eleventh book — had to unpack my underwear in the front lobby of a hotel in downtown Toronto at midnight in order to show the front desk clerk the back cover photo of one of my books, just to prove that I was the keynote speaker at the queer conference the hotel was hosting.
Or the time that a Human Rights Minister told me, Kai — a 24 year old Asian trans woman who’s super excited that my first book will be coming out this fall, especially since I just began performing in 2012 — that I was “hot” and should “get in touch with him” after my keynote speech at a queer youth conference.
Both events were invasive, inappropriate, and entirely too familiar.
There’s particular kind of frustration that both of us felt as we commiserated in that warm kitchen about the landscape of transphobia that we were both traveling through: mountains of misgendering, deep ditches of deadnaming, vast stretches of territory without a trans-friendly bathroom in sight.
All of this, after having been specifically invited to talk about trans oppression.
So the two of us have put together a handy checklist to help you make sure that inviting and presenting a trans speaker at your event is as trans-friendly as you want it to be.
1. Please Consider Trans-Related Travel Issues
We are trans. This means we will be traveling while trans. This can involve very trans un-friendly things such as documents, airport security, physical searches, scrutiny, X-rays, and gendered public bathrooms, to name but a few.
You can help us navigate this by checking with us before booking anything, from transportation to accommodation, as to what legal name and gender marker appears on our ID.
This does not mean that it’s okay for anyone to refer to us by those names or genders!
Please take the time to make sure that our pronouns and the names we use are respected by everyone involved in your event. This includes, but is not limited to, organizers, hosts, co-performers, accountants, hotel staff, and attendees.
Please keep in mind to ask us before outing us as trans to anyone.
2. Think About Our Safety
Please consider our safety when arranging accommodations.
Let’s be real: Living while trans can involve navigating uncomfortable or even dangerous situations on a regular basis, especially for trans women and trans feminine folks. You can help make us safer by ensuring that we are housed in a situation where we have private access to a gender neutral bathroom.
Please don’t invite us to come and speak about our trans lives and then book us into gendered dormitories with communal shower facilities — while an Evangelical Christian boys’ basketball tournament is happening on campus!
If only that was a hypothetical example. But alas, it’s not. It actually happened to me, Ivan, in Sasketchewan, Canada a few years ago.
Unable to shower in an open changing room with an Evangelical boys’s basketball team, I had to walk 10 minutes across campus, sneak into the women’s dorm, and brave the women’s shower facilities — where I was screamed at.
In other words, I had to choose between the physical danger of showering with the boys and being reacted to with fear and disgust by girls. I chose the latter.
No one should have to make a choice like that just to bathe.
3. Make Your Event Location Accessible to Trans People (and Other Marginalized Folks)
If you invite a trans artist or speaker, hopefully other trans people will attend your event! It is important to make the venue or facility as trans-friendly as possible.
Some things to consider in advance include: Is there a gender neutral bathroom on-site? Gendered bathrooms can and should be made gender-neutral for the duration of the event. Volunteers, staff, and especially security, working the event should be prepared to address guests respectfully by not assuming the gender of any participants or attendees.
(Let’s not “ladies and gentlemen” anyone, okay?)
And on the topic of intersectionality, think about this: I, Kai, am often invited to speak and perform at “left-wing” art festivals and political events. I’m invited to give the proceedings a sense of diversity “street cred” (as a trans woman of color, I am three minorities for the price of one!).
But there are very rarely any other actual trans women of color at these events.
This means that I am revealing deeply personal narratives that belong to trans women to audiences solely composed of people who have no personal experience or connection to them. Which means my stories, trans women’s stories, are being used, exploited — not shared.
This leaves me with the empty feeling that I’m being consumed, just as trans women are so often consumed by a society that fetishizes and violates them.
So the takeaway here is: If you’re going to invite a trans woman of color to your event, make sure that she has the chance to speak to her communities and not just those of white, cis people.
4. Moderate Your Event With Trans-Sensitivity in Mind
Choose your host or MC with care. Give them the information they need to do their job properly. Ensure they are aware of the correct name, spelling, pronunciation, and gender pronoun of all performers or speakers (ask, don’t assume!).
Information online can often be incorrect or outdated. Hosts should also be prepared to moderate questions and comments from the audience that may be offensive, invasive, or inappropriate — please don’t make us the only ones responsible for dealing with all those “have you had the surgery yet?” questions.
It’s really important that hosts be educated as to the importance of what pronoun a performer uses. Just last year I, Ivan, was introduced with the following statement at a mostly straight writer’s festival where I was also the only trans person in the room:
“Our next performer has requested that we use the singular they pronoun for her. As a former English teacher and grammar nerd, I simply cannot do this, so please welcome her to the stage, all the way from the big city, Ivan Coyote.”
Imagine having to be polite, gracious and entertaining in front of three hundred straight people after an introduction like that?
Please keep in mind that there’s a difference between moderating a conversation and controlling it or speaking over others — it’s a good idea to check in with your performer or speaker first to see what style of moderation works best for them.
5. Pay Us For Our Time!!!
Speaking and performing at an event is work. It involves research, writing, editing, and extensive rehearsal time in advance. Traveling to speak or perform is also work.
Some of us pay our bills from doing just this. Others have to take time away from paid work to do this important and necessary labor.
Please don’t ask us to do it for free.
Please respect and acknowledge that our time, labor, and experience are valuable.
Even if your event is for charity or a non-profit organization, we still have to make a living – and a making a buck can be hard for trans folks at the best of times. Help us resist the economic marginalization of trans people by paying us fairly.
6. Don’t Expect Us to Represent Every Trans Person in the World
Please don’t expect us to speak on behalf of or represent all trans people. We’re actually an incredibly diverse community of folks with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, and politics.
A white, transmasculine person from the Yukon (just by way of example) can’t speak to the lived experience of an Asian, transfeminine city girl, or vice versa!
Don’t ask us to. It’s really uncomfortable, and doesn’t allow your audience to learn or benefit from the richness of all of our complicated, complex, and nuanced lives.
Last fall, I, Kai, was booked as a conference keynote. Two days before I was scheduled to deliver my speech — already written, by the way — the organizers contacted me, requesting that I also include a thoughtful discussion of Indigenous and Two-Spirit issues, as well as colonization.
Just to recap: I am Chinese, not Indigenous. If we have to explain why that’s problematic, maybe go read this article.
7. Don’t Tokenize Us
Invite us to your event because we have something important to add to the conversation — not just because we are trans. Don’t invite us last. Don’t make us an afterthought, or a political token.
There is an enormous wealth of trans talent, thought, and creation in the world. We have written, invented, organized, and built incredible bodies of work.
Look beyond simply “checking off the T” in LGBTQIA+ — recognize us as real individuals, with unique voices.
Familiarize yourself with our work and lives, not just our identities and labels.
This is what it means to start treating trans people as, well, people, and not exotic animals.
8. Get Connected to Local Trans Communities
Think about how to do specific outreach to the trans folks in your city or town. Events that include trans voices are a good start, but the next step in ending transphobia is creating events that benefit the broader trans population.
Consider including resources and information for local trans groups and organizations as part of your event.
How can any funds or resources raised benefit local trans people and communities? And, of course, one of the best ways to make sure that trans people benefit from the work you do is by working alongside and in collaboration with us, from start to finish.
Between the two of us, we perform and speak at upwards of 200 events per year; that’s a lot of hearts and minds. But we don’t how many trans people actually benefit from all of this.
We turn on the news, and trans women are still being murdered all the time. Laws are still being passed North Dakota, Arkansas, Texas, Washington, that discriminate and endanger trans people who just want to go to the goddamn bathroom.
Taking time to us is only part of the battle. The other part is standing up to transphobia and cis-supremacy in your own communities.
As the fantabulous non-binary trans performer duo Darkmatter says: “Much of what we call ‘trans issues’ are just issues that cis people have with trans people.”
Ask not what trans people can say to you, ask what you can do for trans people.
Writing this list, for both of us, was a bittersweet experience. It was at the same time validating and heartbreaking for each of us to see that although most of this list seems self-evident, we both have experienced the consequences of this information being disregarded, ignored, or simply not known in the first place.
As trans artists and performers, we are grateful for each and every opportunity to share our work and lives with a wider audience.
It’s time and past that things change for the better for all trans people – because we all do the work of educating people and imagining better worlds every day, just by living. We hope that this list will be one more resource for creating a better, safer society for all of us.
Kai Cheng and Ivan
Kai Cheng Thom is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist based in Montreal. She also holds a Master’s degree in clinical social work, and is working toward creating accessible, politically conscious mental health care for marginalized youth in her community. You can find out more about her work on her website and at Monster Academy.
Ivan Coyote is the author of ten books, and their eleventh book, Tomboy Survival Guide, will be released from Arsenal Pulp Press in the fall of 2016.