An accidental inspiration
Revisiting the 2015 Toronto Trans March & Rally
I never thought that I had much worthwhile to say. It wasn't a confidence issue so much as a practical one; it seemed like everything I could talk about had already been discussed and was put more eloquently than I ever could. I don't consider myself a strong public speaker but after getting involved with the International Asexuality Conference in 2014 by chance, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive.
People told me that I had captured experiences and feelings that they had struggled to put into words. They said that they appreciated me speaking because they hadn't seen much conversation about asexuality, gender, and race all at once. They thanked me for sharing my perspective and said that I gave them something to think about.
That was a pivotal moment — I realized that my thoughts and opinions mattered, not only because they were relevant to other people, but because they stemmed from my own experiences. I felt a new sense of validation and drive to tell personal stories that might help others.
I was the first-ever asexual speaker at the Toronto Trans Pride March & Rally. Photo via Aesthetic Magazine.
When the opportunity to speak at the Toronto Trans Pride March & Rally in 2015 came up, I seized it. I addressed people of colour who have struggled to claim a gender or sexual orientation because of whitewashing. I wrote a bit about the experience itself here.
At this year's Trans March, a couple of people said that they remembered me and my speech from 2015 and one even said that I gave her the motivation to join the march.
This feedback prompted me to revisit that speech. While I cringe at the poor phrasing, grammatical errors, and omissions, it means a lot to me that people found comfort and inspiration in it.
There's a lot of this story still to tell and I'll get to that in future blog posts. For now, here's the speech as I delivered it that day in 2015, in all its badly-written, honest glory.
Please be advised that the speech contains non-graphic discussion of asexual marginalization, racism, misogyny, sexual violence, and compulsory sexuality.
I constantly ask myself, “am I trans enough? Am I queer enough? Am I asexual enough?” More often than not, these questions translate to: “am I white enough?” When I search for pictures of non-binary people on the Internet, the majority of images that come up are of slender white people with short dyed hair. Of course, there isn’t anything wrong with expressing your gender identity as a slender white person with short, dyed hair. The problem is that when being non-binary is so associated with being white, and a specific kind of whiteness at that, it makes it that much more difficult for non-binary people of colour to claim that identity.
I had similar experiences when I was trying to navigate my sexual orientation. I’m asexual, or ace, which is the umbrella term used for people who identify towards the asexual end of the sexuality spectrum. I always viewed asexuality as a white orientation because the few times it attracts media attention, only white aces are interviewed. The images that accompany articles on asexuality are always of prominent white aces, and of white aces marching in Pride. There is also a large over-representation of cisgender aces, despite the fact that roughly 1 in 4 aces is trans or non-binary. It is the voices of white cisgender aces that are loudest, and that sends the message that you can’t be trans, a person of colour, and asexual.
R-ACE matters: my sign for the march. Photo via Aesthetic Magazine.
My experience of transracial adoption — yes, “transracial” is a real thing, and it refers to situations like mine, wherein my adoptive family is of a different race to me — means that I have an advantage. I lived with my family in England for 18 years, and so I have an immense amount of colonial privilege, which allows me to “pass” as white to an extent, meaning that I can access some of the privileges that white people have. I’m still not hugely comfortable with the idea of passing, as it denotes that you have to conform to certain standards and criteria in order to be passable, to be acceptable, but it’s important to recognise that the standards that we are taught are overwhelmingly white-influenced and that they exist even within marginalized communities.
Aside from being overwhelmingly white, many queer spaces are also overwhelmingly sexualized. There is a stereotype that trans and non-binary people are hypersexual, that they always want to have sex, and of course this stereotype plays out differently for people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Chinese women are expected to be submissive, to the point of objectification, which actually results in hypersexualization and fetishization of them and their bodies. Since I’m often treated as female, this hypersexualization through desexualisation prevents me from claiming asexuality on my own terms because my asexuality is assumed, and instead of being respected, it’s co-opted and given a sexual purpose against my will.
Within the queer community, there are still many places where ace people are told they aren’t welcome. Many of these places are sex-positive, except their definition of sex positivity doesn’t apply to ace people. To me, sex positivity is all about choice and how people express their sexualities, which includes the choice to not engage in sexual activity or to not to want to express sexuality. After all, there’s nothing inherently empowering about having sex and letting other people know about it, and that should never be a message that sex positivity promotes.
I know it can seem counterintuitive, to fight for the right to express your sexuality for so long and then to see other people fighting for the right to legitimise an orientation that is decidedly non-sexual and then claiming that they deserve to share space with you. The problem is that asexuals are still a minority sexual orientation and many of us do face other kinds of queerphobia due to whom we’re romantically attracted, which can be different than to whom we’re sexually attracted, and due to our gender variance. We face issues of reparative therapy that exists to try and “cure” our sexual orientations, and we face sexual violence and coercion related to our ace identities, including corrective rape. Many of us are queer, and we are working to end the same problems as members of the queer and trans communities.
"ASEXUAL and HAPPY." Photo via Imprint.
My name is Iris. I am a non-binary, transracially adopted, Chinese asexual and I am sure that many of my experiences are not unique. If you’re a person of colour questioning your gender identity or your sexuality, or both, and you feel like there are identities that you can’t claim because of your race or ethnic background, then I want you to know that you have every bit as much of a right to those identities as any white person. You can take every narrative that marks whiteness, sexual desire, and cisgender identity as prerequisites for happiness and shatter it. We are a body politic, for our bodies are political. Everything we do is an act of resistance. For that resistance to be effective we must make an effort to understand one another and respect intersectional lived experiences. Only then can we work in solidarity with one another to achieve equality through equity.
There was a unanimous interest in annotations and commentary, so here you go. If I were to do the speech again, of course I'd do it quite differently. It never hurts to look back on your work with a critical eye and identify its shortcomings. It reflects my knowledge and its limitations at the time and I'm pleased that I've learned more since then.
"When I search for pictures of non-binary people on the Internet, the majority of images that come up are of slender white people with short dyed hair."
It's ironic that I complained about the aesthetic standards for gender non-conforming people because I now meet most of the criteria for those standards. I don't think it's hypocritical because these norms are pervasive and institutional, but it is noteworthy. People are more likely to accept my gender because I look like their expectations for nonbinary people.
That's another dimension of access to white privilege; people will choose to overlook my skin tone in favour of my aesthetic choices and British accent. Even if it comes at the cost of erasure, the result is that I benefit from oppression.
"My experience of transracial adoption — yes, “transracial” is a real thing, and it refers to situations like mine, wherein my adoptive family is of a different race to me — means that I have an advantage."
At the time of giving my speech, everyone was talking about the Rachel Dolezal scandal, the white woman who claims to be Black. She used the term "transracial" in her argument, which mislead a lot of people into believing that transracial was the same as "transgender" but for race. In their haste to condemn Dolezal, critics dismissed the term as though it were complete nonsense, an invention to uphold white supremacy.
This misapplication of the term upset me, especially when I saw social justice advocates and people who ought to know better write it off immediately. Also, a person is not "transracial" — they are a transracial adoptee or they are transracially adopted.
For clarification, the fact that I am transracially adopted isn't an advantage, but the fact that I was transracially adopted into a white family and lived in the UK for 18 years is.
"I’m still not hugely comfortable with the idea of passing, as it denotes that you have to conform to certain standards and criteria in order to be passable, to be acceptable..."
I phrased this point poorly. I meant to say that "passing"suggests that people of colour are always striving towards the standards set by whiteness, when in fact "passing" is the result of perception on someone else's part. Nowadays, I prefer to discuss this issue using "perception,"because it allows for a more nuanced conversation about racialization. To me, "to racialize" is a verb and it is something that someone does to you. It's about how someone else views your race and/or ethnicity and their treatment of you based on it.
Me at the 2017 Trans March. Photo via Al Donato.
"Since I’m often treated as female, this hypersexualisation through desexualisation prevents me from claiming asexuality on my own terms because my asexuality is assumed..."
I went over this very quickly. I mean that the submissiveness of East Asian women is a common Western fetish and that deprives me of the ability to identify as asexual on my own terms since it's already assumed of me. It is further complicated by the fact that the desexualization itself is the basis of hypersexualization — the idea that I don't have any agency or sexuality of my own and that I exist only to fulfil (white) men's sexual fantasies.
"If you’re a person of colour questioning your gender identity or your sexuality, or both, and you feel like there are identities that you can’t claim because of your race or ethnic background, then I want you to know that you have every bit as much of a right to those identities as any white person."
I stand by the point that I made, that the overrepresentation of whiteness creates barriers for people of colour who are looking for more information on sexual and gender identities and considering whether they want to claim them. But I could taken a different angle and said that nonbinary genders have always existed and that the whitewashing of them was is the fault of colonialism. If I had known more more about nonbinary genders in other cultures, I would have emphasized that outright rejecting "white" orientations is a valid option. It would have fit well in the part where I discuss having access to colonial privilege.
"For that resistance to be effective we must make an effort to understand one another and respect intersectional lived experiences. Only then can we work in solidarity with one another to achieve equality through equity."
I apologize for all the buzzwords and the somewhat preachy tone! I don't use words like "intersectionality" or "equity" as frequently as I used to and I wish that weren't the case. Because they're not really buzzwords, they're necessary terms for anti-oppression work. I've mentioned intersectionality in conversation and had one too many people roll their eyes at me and call me a raging SJW. I don't mind being called that — it's not an insult in the slightest, but it does mean that I won't be listened to or have my argument considered or respected.
Overall, my speech reflects my knowledge and its limitations at the time. And that's all right. It was also incredibly difficult to read aloud and I ought to have made my sentences and paragraphs shorter. I'd like to think that my writing has improved but we'll see. For now, I'm happy that what I said, even in as muddled a fashion as I did, touched people. Thank you for having me, community.