Trans Individuals of Color and the Power of Family

Given the generational and translational barriers, I often criticized my family for not understanding the difficulties of growing up as a first-generation Asian-American, and likewise, I never really sought to understand their difficulties. So, I expressed what I thought was my individuality outside of the home because I believed my family, backward and conservative, could never understand me and hoped my brownness would blend in with the whiteness outside. I was very wrong. By analyzing Alok Vaid-Menon’s spoken word poem entitled “Trans/Generation” through a queer diasporic lens, I discover why trans individuals of color refuse to leave their families of origin (despite the ideals of white queer politics promoting otherwise) and will show how connecting one’s family with the created “home space” outside will deconstruct the existing hegemonic structures, including those that play out on the South Asian female body.

The family of origin is a place that is disconnected from the outside, so the lines “turns into me deciding to show her who I am / turns into me leaving the house” display the disconnect and desire to escape from the family home. Here, Alok describes the chain reaction that occurs when they put on a dress: they want to show their grandmother who they are, so they do so by leaving the house, presumably because they believe their grandmother can never understand their queer individuality. This inherent and unavoidable disconnect that people, who are “other”, experience between the communities they’ve built and the communities they’re born into forces these individuals to choose one side. By allocating oneself to a particular cause or movement, people create alternative “home spaces”, a “national, communal, or domestic space outside a logic of blood purity, authenticity, and patrilineal descent” (Gopinath). And by choosing their queer trans identity over their cultural nationalism, Vaid-Menon was committing a betrayal, which is how Leslie Bow describes the problems with Asian American feminism and choosing an either/or identity. Similarly, the grandmother in poem also committed a betrayal— a betrayal from herself— because she sacrificed her individuality, which is finally expressed through her paintings, for society’s heteronormative path: “gender”. The men in the grandmother’s life, like her father who altered her age, have dictated her existence through objectification of the female body and its labor. The grandmother’s rage and silence thus stems from this betrayal of individuality, and she exerts the emotion by “blaming [Alok] for [their] own violence” and fails to recognize that their hurt is the same as hers and “how good it feels for the hurt to hurt someone else”.

“My grandmother starts painting in her late 70s,

When I watch her make art I recognize that this is the first time in her life

she is using her hands to make something for herself.

Eventually pen and paper turns into brush and canvas

turns into paintings scattered across the apartment floor like a silent protest

turns into the person she sacrificed for ‘woman’”

In a secondary source that corroborates the poem’s message about the South Asian family frustration with queer people, Alok notes that by creating a political “home” outside, they found neither control of their own narratives nor an authentic sense of belonging. Queer politics undermines the traditional authority of families of origin and fixates on the familial violence that is experienced (even though the violence is it in by itself a product of imperialist structures), which really aids the larger imperialist narrative that immigrants need to be saved and educated. Eventually, the poem’s narrator realizes why they should stay with their family. Because white colonialism and regulations in America policed genders and sexualities of colored people, it is understandable as to why many families are stuck in a land of transphobia and heteronormativity, like the grandmother in the poem. America has forced people of color to secede their culture, traditions and families for assimilation, and in the process, America’s global relations are played out directly on immigrant female bodies, similar to the gendering of Filipina bodies in an area of postcolonial American management (Gonzalez). However, Vaid-Menon in the spoken word states that “I refuse to call her transphobic / I will not blame her for her own violence”, and this sympathy they have for their grandmother’s pain is a powerful emotion, one that can tie the two “home spaces”. Alok goes back to their family of origin— the “grandmother’s apartment”— after experiencing harassment on the train, which symbolizes white hegemony and queer politics, and realizing that “there is nowhere to escape in a moving train”.  This artistic depiction exhibits the dichotomy of the unauthentic home space outside and the family of origin bound to hegemony, which fails to recognize their prejudice towards their own.

Vaid-Menon acknowledges in an essay that they unknowingly became victim to confirmation bias and defined their family of origin in contrast with their queerness. This is similar to the reasoning behind positioning ‘queer’ and ‘diaspora’ as dependent on the purity and authenticity of ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘nation’ (Gopinath). In the poem, the grandmother calls Alok “the biggest disappointment” of her life because she alludes heterosexuality and nation as pure, which is not what Alok’s transgender identity allows. However instead of breaking away from familial ties, Alok recognizes their grandmother’s suffering and disappointment as a product of her gender oppression and ultimately joins her in not smiling in the photograph, saying that “there is solidarity in this silence”.

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Alok Vaid-Menon (right) is part of a trans performance art duo called Darkmatter. See more of their work here

So how do I or people of color in general connect to Vaid-Menon’s poem? What’s so special about it? The culmination of the poem epitomizes the key—understanding one’s family and using the emotions garnered from familial violence as a method of establishing visibility of complex identities that are more than genders and sexualities. In the end, the narrator understands that just as how the grandmother’s paintings symbolize her individuality and value, their open expression of trans identity in their family is a recognition of self-value and one doing it for oneself. As a South Asian female, I too have found frustration in my family’s seemingly conservative ways, but I also haven’t really found a place where I feel authentic outside of my family. The emotions that surmount from this vulnerability—by “making something out of all the rage that surrounds us”— translate into legitimate political work that will eventually allow our people to recognize their prejudice. By doing so, the relationship between the supposed purity of heterosexuality and nation is challenged. And the attained visibility that follows originates from a new, authentic “home space” because we are then truly coming out as ourselves.

 

Primary source:

Trans/Generation. By Alok Vaid-Menon. Perf. Alok Vaid-Menon. Return the Gayze.  18 Sept. 2014. Web.

Secondary sources:

Bow, Leslie. Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women’s Literature. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Gonzalez, Vernadette V. Military Bases, “Royalty Trips,” and Imperial Modernities: Gendered and Radicalized Labor in the Postcolonial Philippines. University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Gopinath, Gayatri. Queer Diasporic Critique In the Aftermath of 9/11. Duke University Press, 2005.

Vaid-Menon, Alok. “Coming Home: Queer South Asians and the Politics of Family.” Return the Gayze. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web.

 

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