Diary — April 6, 2017, 11:52 am

What Has Always Been

A diary about gender under Trump

November 2, 2016

Who affords privacy? Who gets to come out and who is outed? There is no gay progress without trans backlash. There was no gay marriage victory without hundreds of anti-trans bathroom bills. There is no protection of the private without criminalization of the public.

I read today about how “LGBT” foundations and nonprofits like the Gill Foundation have decided to back nondiscrimination legislation that excludes public accommodation protections. It is decisions like this that make so many trans people like myself believe that we should just say “trans” instead of “LGBT”: when you look at the policies, when you look at the experiences of violence on the ground, it is gender non-conforming people who are experiencing the brunt of the backlash. Many of the “victories” that the gay movement has enjoyed (marriage, state protections, etc.) have come from campaigns that distanced “LGBT people” from gender non-conformity. “Love” becomes something that happens in private whereas “gender” becomes that thing that haunts the public.

Trump is not anti-LGBT. He is anti-trans. There is a difference.

November 7, 2016

A trans woman in Tennessee had her car spray painted “TRUMP” and then torched on fire in her driveway.

I am horrified. While it has been encouraging to see so much mobilization by young feminists against the rampant misogyny of his campaign, I am dismayed that the presumed subject of Trump’s vitriol is always already seen as a white cisgender woman. I worry for my transfeminine sisters and siblings who are always gendered as perpetrators and never victims of patriarchal violence. It’s not a question of if violence against trans people will increase under this administration, it’s a question of how we are going to respond once it does.

I worry because I know that we will be bashed, attacked, harassed, assaulted, and I worry because I know that we will be blamed for it. I worry that there will be no movements to rally for us because we are not desirable victims. I worry that there will be no feminists to rally for us because we may not identify as women. I worry that they will be able to get away with this because the one thing that bonds liberals and conservatives is their ingrained hatred and suspicion of transfeminine people.

In times of heightened nationalism: borders are erected, fortified, and militarized. Some will talk about the border between the United States and Mexico, but few will talk about the border between man and woman. How there are walls that are being erected there, too—and, how if you cross them, you are punished.

I consider enrolling for self-defense classes. I ask myself why it’s taken so long.

November 8, 2016

I am sitting in the living room with two non-binary friends of color as the election results come in. We sought out each other’s company on this night because we wanted to be somewhere where we were affirmed for our cynicism. We are not surprised when Donald Trump is declared the next president. Just like we were not surprised when we were harassed on the street on the way to my apartment. Just like we were not surprised when we had to leave our hometowns to be safe when we were younger. Just like we were not surprised when we weren’t safe in New York City, either. Just like we are not surprised when we read that fifty-seven percent of white women who voted went for Trump. We have experienced firsthand white women screaming at us on the streets. We have understood that white women’s allegiance has always been to racism and money.

The news anchors ask: “What happened?” And we want to shout, “You didn’t consult us.” You never consult us.

November 9, 2016

I have never seen so many people cry in public before. It’s as if the entire city is in mourning. There is a possibility in this tragedy. Will this pain propel rage against the system and not just an individual?

But in the streets, they are already chanting that Hillary should have won. And I remember how much easier it is to believe that something is broken, and not just working the way it was supposed to.

November 10, 2016

Eight transgender youth commit suicide after Trump is elected. Many are saying that this data has not been “confirmed.” But what they do not understand is that violence against trans people is rarely confirmed. We do not have the data about what you do to us because you misgender us after it happens. To be a trans activist is to learn the art of believing people over publications.

My inbox is full of journalists asking questions about trans issues and mental health. I wonder why they only reach out when we are under attack. I think about how the only space trans people have in the cultural imagination is as entertainers. I close my laptop and I go have dinner with my trans friend. They are sixteen years old and they are much stronger than me. I tell them to text me when they are getting home. They tell me to text them when I wake up.

November 11, 2016

I am walking home with another transfemme after a party in Hells Kitchen when an older white man starts screaming, “GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!! TRUMP!! GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!!” I laugh in his face and call him a patriarchal pig. I go home and post a Facebook status discussing how transfeminine people will be uniquely targeted by this state-legitimating of misogyny and how we will be erased nonetheless. Multiple white cis women comment and tell me that I am a man masquerading as something I am not. That feminism isn’t for me. That I should shut up. I am only supposed to be afraid of the man on the screen (Trump), but I find myself just as afraid of the cis feminists afraid of him.

November 12, 2016

There are hundreds of thought pieces going around with everyone’s attempt to understand how the unthinkable happened—how did Donald Trump win? The white liberals keep on blaming people like me: Why did Hilary spend so much time campaigning to transgender people? Why didn’t people take white working-class men’s rage more seriously? I can’t tell whether I’m more hurt by this election’s blatant endorsement of white supremacy, or by white liberals’ continual denial of it. It’s such a strange feeling to witness something so simple be theorized into oblivion.

November 15, 2016

I am giving a poetry reading tonight at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The organizers emailed me a few days ago expressing concerns about my safety. They said that there had been pro-Trump rallies in town. I thank them for letting me know and tell them that I think it is more important than ever to keep events like this going. During my rehearsal, the tech supervisor introduces me to his daughter. “I just wanted my daughter to see someone like you. You are like what America should look like.” I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but it feels like a slur. I am tired. I don’t want to be a symbol of anything other than myself.

November 22, 2016

I am back in my hometown of College Station, Texas, visiting family. I read online about trans people choosing to go stealth (pass as cisgender) in light of the Trump election. I look outside and see Trump signs everywhere. I see American flags everywhere. I see churches everywhere. And I understand. I hate how we romanticize people “persisting despite the odds,” and don’t allow people to do what they need to do to survive. To truly love trans people would require you to accept our ownership of our bodies and safeties. I often wonder whether being your inspiration matters more to you than our safety. Being stealth and “invisible” (whatever that means) doesn’t make you any less real, any less trans.

November 29, 2016

My mom and I walk around our neighborhood as we always do in the evening. She tells me that she is worried about me living in New York as a gender non-conforming person during the Trump era. I tell her that I’m afraid of her and our grandparents living in Texas as Indian immigrants. We tell each other to be safe. I wish I could believe that was enough.

December 3, 2016

I’m in Saigon connecting with LGBT activists and artists for a few days. Tonight I am at a bar run by local artists that serves exquisite teas in little petri dishes. It is all very quaint. My hosts tell me about how when President Obama came to visit Vietnam a couple of years ago, their government put all of the political artists under house arrest for several months. They spoke about it so matter-of-factly: how they organized meals for one another, kept each other company inside. Being abroad is a constant lesson in how limiting U.S. exceptionalism is. People across the world have been living under surveillance for a very long time.

December 5, 2016

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. A new HBO documentary called “The Trans List” was released, and I’m one of the interview subjects in the film. After of slew of congratulatory texts from my friends, I get a text that feels starkly different. “Are you okay? I just saw your Facebook.” I log online and see that there are hundreds of comments on my photos from people telling me to kill myself. I am used to things like this, but not in this concentration and intensity.

Every time I participate in a mainstream project I get vitriol like this. The current moment of trans politics is that trans people are somehow supposed to courageously declare ourselves (with little to no support from anyone else) and then weather the backlash—looking fabulous throughout!

Later that night I receive a message from a young Indian trans person telling me that I was the first person they had ever seen who looked like them.

January 20, 2017

Today, the day that 45 is being inaugurated, I am with my family in Kerala. My uncle looks out at the Indian Ocean from the beach near our family home. “I wish everyone got a vote in the U.S. election,” he says, “They don’t understand that what happens over there affects us over here the most.” I nod my head. Later that day, we eat a big lunch. We do not watch the news.

January 21, 2017

They say that the Women’s March in the United States had over 600 locations with over four million protesters, making it perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history. As I look at all of the photos from the march thousands of miles away, I think about how I wish there was more space in our movements to hold contradiction. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I am inspired by the sheer mass of people who took to the streets. This is an unprecedented testament to the power of direct action. But on the other, I wonder: would as many people have mobilized if this was a march for refugees, a march against Islamophobia, a march for trans people, a march against incarceration, a march against white supremacy? Why “women?” When the majority of white women voted for Trump what does it mean to march for “women?” I think about who is not invited to speak at marches – I think about how absence isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one. Is the future “female,” as they suggest – or is the future beyond essentialist ideas of gender to begin with? It is much easier to march for women, then it is to march against misogyny.

There are so many photos of white cis women wearing pussy hats from the march. Everyone wants me to write a thought piece or a response about how this prioritization of genitalia is misguided. But I’m exhausted. It feels as if the only political space we have to express critique anymore is to perform a narrative of trauma, is to say: “I [insert identity] felt erased because you [insert identity] erased me.” The critique has to be articulated as a minority speaking to a majority. The critique has to be articulated as an individual speaking to an individual. What would it take to get people to realize that trans feminism isn’t just about trans people, but about everyone? A critique of vagina-centered feminism is a critique that expands the horizons of what is possible for all people, of all genders.

February 3, 2017

Everyone is celebrating because Ivanka Trump and her husband convinced the president not to pass an anti-LGBT executive order. But all of the other executive orders were anti-LGBT too. Last time I checked, LGBT people were Muslim, were poor, were black, were incarcerated, were undocumented, were not just rich, white, and cisgender.

February 22, 2017

I am in London for a performance when I read the news that 45 has repealed protections for transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice. What this election has made very clear is that an “LGBT friendly” administration is one that is ruthlessly anti-trans. That in fact the current moment of trans politics in one in which the symbolic act of saying “LGBT” is actually how trans violence gets pushed under the rug. They don’t know who we are; they don’t know what we go through. This becomes evident to me when I see people post statuses that it is “time to stand with our transgender brothers and sisters.” I appreciate the effort, but I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Where do those of us who are gender non-conforming go? Those of us who are neither brothers nor sisters, neither men nor women, neither girls nor boys? Those of us cut out of LGBT nonprofit campaigns for public accommodations, those of us ignored by the trans movement for being complicated, those of us most directly scapegoated by the rise of racist nationalism. I want to post statuses online telling transgender youth that I am there for them. But where is there? What does it mean to be ‘there’ when I am actually over here?

February 23, 2017

My achamma (grandmother) texts me from Kerala saying that she is worried about my father’s safety after reading that Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer, was murdered in Kansas. I don’t really know what to tell her that wouldn’t involve me lying. But isn’t this what love is about? Lying so that the people you love don’t have to worry anymore. I tell her that everything will be fine.

February 28, 2017

Today I receive the news that Jaquarius Holland, an eighteen-year-old black trans woman was murdered in Louisiana. This makes her the seventh black and/or Latinx trans woman pronounced dead in 2017. I am devastated. Last year at least twenty-six trans women of color were murdered. The ongoing genocide of black and indigenous transfeminine people is relentless.

I remember how easy it is to understand this Trump moment – with all of its tumult and terror – as unprecedented. But then I remember how important it is to resist that temptation. Our country was founded on this kind of violence. “Shock,” then is already always racialized and gendered. Who is surprised? And why? For many this is just a continuation of what has always been. There is something sobering about this recognition: not just a president, but a system.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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