Pride Month, celebrated annually throughout June, commemorates the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community. However, Pride Month 2020 feels different; between COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality, it may seem like LGBTQ+ issues have faded into the background. Yet this is not the case, as the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ concerns have always been complementary and intersectional to one another. In fact, Stonewall lore has it that two Black trans women were the first to throw bricks at the cops that fateful June night.
Today, I “sat” down with the writer and author Meredith Talusan, an albino Filipina trans woman, to discuss topics including transgender health protections, COVID-19, the BLM protests and allyship. Talusan is an award-winning journalist and author. Her memoir “Fairest” was published in May and chronicles how she became the trans woman she is today. She is also a founding executive editor of them., Condé Nast’s exclusively-digital LGBTQ+ community platform.
GO: What does it mean to be transgender?
MT: Being trans means many things; it is a meaning that has shifted over time. These days, “trans” simply means a person who lives as a different gender than the gender that they were assigned at birth. That can include anyone who was considered male at birth and has since transitioned to become a woman. But now that we have so many more gender identities, nonbinary identities [and] people who identify as multiple genders, the meaning of trans keeps evolving and changing over time.
GO: How is it different than being queer? Because I know that being trans gets lumped into the LGBTQ+ grouping, but it is different, right?
MT: I feel like queer is a larger umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Whereas trans is a specific segment of that community: people specifically who are a different gender than the one they are assigned at birth. Also, there are trans people who don’t identify as queer. There are trans people who believe that once they transition and if they are attracted to the opposite gender that they are straight and don’t belong to the queer community. Even though there aren’t necessarily that many of those people, it is still important to distinguish between the two categories.
GO: Yes, that being transgender is about your gender identity and that being gay or lesbian [or queer] is about your sexuality. I saw a great conversation that you facilitated on Buzzfeed about gender dysphoria and the old-school notion of “I am just not in the right body” not being as relevant to trans communities today. Can you speak to that?
MT: For a really long time, that was the prevalent model: that the reason why trans people need to transition is because they feel trapped in their body and somehow, it is a matter of life and dead or completely untenable for trans people to stay in their birth gender. [However] that way of framing and thinking has really been shaped so much by the medical gatekeeping community. Because for a really long time, you couldn’t get trans affirming care, you couldn’t get hormones, you couldn’t get approved to have surgery unless that was what you said.
Increasingly, a lot of trans people are like “Well, (a) I don’t identify with that model” — including me, you know, I am one of those people — and also “(b) We should have autonomy over our bodies.” We shouldn’t be left in the position of needing to ask for trans affirming care whatever our reasons are for being trans regardless of how dire, or whether or not we feel dysphoria. We should have a right to determine our own futures for ourselves.
GO: I think that is really relevant because transgender health care protections were recently reversed. Could you tell us a little bit about what was lost and why it is necessary?
MT: Obama instituted regulations that prevented trans people from being denied healthcare for being trans. Trans access to healthcare is a really, really huge part of what the trans community is fighting for. Especially in a time when we are dealing with COVID-19, the idea of it being allowable for a doctor to refuse a trans person care (simply for being trans) can mean the difference between life or death.
The discrimination already happens. There are so many accounts of trans people being discriminated against in health care. Now that the government is allowing for that to happen, it makes the situation even more difficult. Hopefully with the recent Supreme Court decision — that now bars discrimination in the work place for LGBTQ+ people — discrimination in health care will become an issue in the future that the Supreme Court can weigh in on and say is absolutely unacceptable.
GO: I truly agree and it is so unfortunate that [the protections] were reversed and I hope that they do something to fix as fast as possible. In your memoir “Fairest”, you mention that you had a deep interest in the AIDS crisis and I am wondering if you see mirrors of that crisis today with COVID-19.
MT: I lived at the tail end of the AIDS crisis. When I was in college, in the mid-90s, that was around the time that protease inhibitors were being developed and AIDS began to become a more controllable disease. I definitely see parallels in the ways that the government is less responsive because of the fact that COVID-19 affects people of color disproportionately. There are definitely parallels in the way that gay and lesbian — mostly gay men — at the time were treated and discriminated against and that AIDS was not paid sufficient attention to because it was affecting a really specific segment of the population.
Beyond that, one of the things I have been feeling a lot is this sense of carefulness with risk and trying to be responsible, both to myself and other people. I definitely sense echoes of that in the way that we have been responding to the crisis, but also what was really interesting at the time, sex — protected sex — became a really strong form of rebellion. Just because people didn’t want to sacrifice what was central to their identities even in the face of this disease, and it felt like there were times where it was justifiable to rebel through sex.
I do see parallels with the recent protests around anti-Blackness. Even as we are facing this crisis, even as people are being careful, people are also seeing that this is an issue that we need to be out in the streets for because the government and the police are so disregarding our lives.
GO: Yes, and it is a public health crisis. Police brutality is definitely a public health issue.
MT: Absolutely. There are definitely really complicated parallels, definitely resonances between the two eras.
GO: I am wondering if you can answer some questions about anti-Blackness, because your memoir does mention that you have albinism. What does whiteness stand for? Why is anti-Blackness prevalent in Asian American communities?
MT: Colorism is a huge part of Asian American communities, across Asian diaspora, across different segments of the Asian American community. For Filipinos, in particular, the fact that we are a former American colony exacerbates that colorism and makes it even more concrete in terms of exposure to anti-Blackness. Black people were present in my childhood, but they were always portrayed negatively and it was always considered undesirable for a Filipino person to be with a Black person. Those ideologies were a big part of my childhood and for me, [anti-racism] is a lifetime task. It will take my lifetime, a lifetime of work, to dismantle all of those anti-Black unconscious messages for myself. Let alone me advocating around anti-Blackness within the Filipino and Filipino American communities.
GO: I really resonate with that. My parents are also from the Philippines. Colorism is not something that only comes from the outside; it is also something that comes from the inside. I have used skin whitening creams before, so I know what that pressure feels like. It is something really prevalent in the Philippines with all the movie stars being fair, Spanish-blooded Filipinos.
MT: Right and I also think that in terms of skin whitening creams or in my case — really leaning in to this idea that I am close to American[ness], meaning white Americans because I’m albino — those are ways for us to navigate as individuals through this system that consistently rewards lighter-skinned people. It is both a personal challenge to figure out how to name those dynamics and a much bigger societal challenge both within the United States and also in the Philippines.
One of the things I figured out is holding myself accountable to my actions as a younger person and while at the same time, recognizing that it is more possible for me to do that [now] because I am not in a position of desperation. When I was a child, I was holding off a lot of feelings [in regards to] people considering me freakish and considering me abnormal, and then as a young adult in the United States living in poverty, a lot of people were actively discriminating against me as soon as they found out I was Filipino. And so, it is really important to figure out how to weigh your individual actions [against] the conditions you are in at the time. Now that I am further along in my career [and] I am in a more economically stable situation, it is possible for me to be able to hold myself accountable to things that I’ve done.
GO: You say it so eloquently. I think there is a matter of survival which a lot of people who work within these ideological spaces of equality and equity in race theory, gender theory and queer theory don’t really realize. Some people just have to survive so they can’t hold themselves to those kinds of standards.
MT: I get exposed to a reasonable amount of a certain kind of call for ideological purity online. Whenever I encounter that, especially from white people, the things that I ask are: What position are you in? Do you have parents that can bail you out? What is your material position? Because it is a privilege to be ideologically pure. If you are an ideologically pure person who is experiencing tangible, material hardships because of positions that you hold, that is one thing. But the stakes are different for different people. So I am always slow to judge and slow to condemn. The people I fight against are people who on the whole are more powerful than me. I try to simultaneously be strong with people who are not in a powerful position, but at the same time, give them more leeway compared to somebody who is in a position of power.
GO: This conversation leads me to another question. Why is Pride Month so important, especially when we have seen up to last year a lot of commercialization by businesses during this month? How is it different this year?
MT: Already before the protests, Pride Month was going to be different because of COVID-19. One of the things, at least for me, that I’ve been feeling is the way in which Pride Month for the past few years has been so overtaken by capitalist corporate concerns. That corporatization of Pride Month was put in so much greater relief because of the fact that the anti-racist and anti-police brutality protests started happening during Pride Month.
This Pride Month [carries] so much more impetus for the queer community to recognize that we have such a huge breadth in terms of living conditions which different parts of our community [exist in]. Even as [our community includes] all of those wealthy gay, white men — from CEOs of corporations to these big celebrities — for the most part, overwhelmingly, trans women of color, especially Black trans women, are in a very different position.
The way that we emphasize the commercialism of Pride has not served significant segments of the LGBTQ+ population. That is something I am feeling really keenly, as somebody who in a lot of ways bridges these communities: I have been a gay man, I am now a trans woman, I am a person of color, but I am often perceived as white. It feels really really important for me this month — and throughout the year and always — but especially this moment to figure out how to support, uplift, and be an advocate for the part of our community that has been ignored and set aside for too long.
GO: I remember going to Pride in San Francisco a few years back. But I am a straight, cisgender woman and looking around, I knew it was not my space and it felt very wrong for me to be there.
MT: There is nothing inherently wrong with being an ally. When the allies overtake the feeling of the space and when the allies end up wielding their privilege in those spaces, that is when it becomes a problem. That line can be really hard to figure out. I think as long as allies focus on supporting… [For example] within the Black trans community, I am an ally; I am not part of that community. Whenever I am in those spaces, I am very careful and I try as much as I can to cede as much authority as possible to people for whom that space was created for.
GO: That’s a great way of positioning yourself and it is really responsible. I think more people should follow that model. I really appreciate you sharing with us today.
Pick up Meredith Talusan’s “Fairest,” part immigrant tale, part coming-of-age story, and unlike any other memoir you’ve read before. From June 24 – June 30, purchase a donation copy of “Fairest” — at a discounted rate — from One Grand Bookstore to be sent directly to a queer and/or trans person of color who can’t afford it.
Celebrate Pride Month by supporting LGBTQ+ artists and creators and putting your dollars toward the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and The Okra Project, both of which empower and provide resources for Black trans women.