To Romain and other colleagues,
in memory of our shared misfortunes
First day on the job. Anxiety of the unknown mixes with the relief of finally having access to employment. Thanks to some string pulling, of course. The transition from one social gender to another left me with no other way of entering a job market already unfavorable on the basis of my race. I’ve learned from prior experience that papers identifying me as female — which is to say, not corresponding to my male appearance — arouse suspicion not because I represent a sexual marginality, but because I become a double racial marginality: a Black man, undocumented. This is where the totalizing dimension of racism comes out in full. You’re Black, and that’s it. This thing we are supposedly “hiding” — the lack of valid identification — is inextricably tied to race, which is where the discussion begins and ends. A legendary duplicity; liars, swindlers, and profiteers. Even more so because the West is convinced of having invented race outside of the gender and sexual binaries — hierarchies made to facilitate a criminal economy — when in reality race was the primary weapon used to destroy all the diverse and varied expressions of gender around the world. So it is simpler for them to think of myself as undocumented, rather than trans. Not a problem as I see it, at least.
The mandatory white shirt for my new job as a supermarket cashier barely conceals the constricting binder — which flattens my chest — that I have had to wear for years, despite how bad it is for my asthma. I can’t wait to be rid of it. Though this won’t happen immediately. The supervisor who conducted my interview warned me: “It’s best that your co-workers know nothing about your situation, so we can avoid creating a disturbance in the team. It’s for your sake that I’m telling you this.” Right, of course, for my sake… Behind the hypocrisy of this manager, far more interested in preserving his company’s profits than my safety, there is all the same a certain truth: violence is sure to follow any discovery of my “situation.” It’s necessary therefore that I do everything in my power to make sure nothing is ever glimpsed underneath my shirt, as well as the inverse, to make sure that some forms are detectable where “nothing” would appear as suspect. This is a vastly different reality from homosexuality, from having to be careful about what one says or doesn’t say; for us trans people, it’s our bodies in their materiality which evoke transgression. This is why it is high time for the critique of “coming out” and its Eurocentric character to finally open up to the transgender reality and bypassing the debate between homonationalists and antihomonationalists, where only the experiences of “real men” — white and non-white, rich and poor — are considered in the discussion, the injunctions of one side and the resistances of the other. Cisgender men, of all races and classes, have more access than the cis women and trans people of their respective social groups to sexuality — regardless of whether it is to a version which has been normalized or one which remains transgressive, in private or in public — as well as to possibilities of negotiating within the interstices of societal norms. And those among them who are poor and/or non-white are not the only ones who are being destroyed by white bourgeois heteronormativity. It is therefore time to broaden the discussion.
After a general presentation about the company and what it expects of its employees, I’m given a tour of the premises, most of which is devoted to the spaces reserved for the staff. Cafeteria, rest areas, offices. Then the locker rooms. And here a thundering reminder of the sexual order. A locker room for women, a locker room for men. It is discretely explained to me that it hasn’t yet been decided which one I should use. The obvious thing would be for me to use the male changing room, since to the entire team I have presented as a man, my use of testosterone helping to that matter. Though this has not managed to persuade the reluctant Director of Human Resources: “If she — excuse me, he — is assaulted, we can be reproached for having allowed a woman, you see, into a male space!” Why not the women’s locker room then? It would be much harder to fit in there, though I understand that in this case the fear is that I could be the one doing the assaulting. Between perpetrator and victim, they don’t know how to categorize me. One thing is for sure though, that rape haunts their vision of me in the midst of their workforce. I, the trans person, remind them of the ugliness of a reality in which they condone and encourage violence most of the time: the threat of rape is used as a call to order for women, and in particular for the most vulnerable among them — and most often by their superiors within the context of work, rather than in the common conception of rape being perpetrated in a dark alleyway at three in the morning by a complete stranger. Those in the margins of the sexual order disrupt the division of labor along a strictly hierarchical binary of man/woman (in addition to the racial division), and it’s not by chance that trans people are massively excluded from the official labor market. Work is in itself a violence which exposes and exacerbates oppressions, and for it to be sustained, we are made to discipline ourselves and one another. For me, the trans person, I experience this in a specific way.
Of course, it’s not only my trans body which is exposed to the brutality of work — we are all subject to an exploitation which takes the form of a surveillance of every moment, of a meticulous, obsessional accounting of the amount of time it takes us to accomplish one task or another. And working at a supermarket and going to school at the same time, or biding one’s time and hoping one’s degree to finally lead to something better, as it is in my case, is not the same thing as being stuck there for 35 hours a week for the rest of one’s life, with no other feasible option. At the end of the workday, the managers post a chart that shows the performance of each cashier: time between each transaction, amount of customers successfully registered for a store card, etc. We see the results the next day as we return to work. The three fastest and most efficient cashiers have their names highlighted in fluorescent yellow, the three worst performing in red. In this context of intensified competition, if the violence of coworkers in the same position as myself is an expression of a general homophobia/transphobia, it should also be understood as a symptom of the managerial violence which encourages us to mobilize our every asset to secure a better position than our neighbor and to win the favor of the bosses.
I have to constantly remind myself who the real enemy is, despite the unbearable daily teasing — by coworkers who are just as much subaltern as myself — along with the suspicions of homosexuality I endure (aside from the managers in the know, no one imagines it could be a matter of transsexuality). “The girls and I were wondering, are you gay? I don’t have anything against it, just wanted to know.” “It’s funny sometimes how high your voice can get.” “You’re kind of weird, dude. Where’d you say you were from?” One comes to exercise a certain self-control almost like when one is in public space. Sure, the streets have their share of dangers and oppressors — most notably the police, whose deadly force is by far the greatest threat of all, and which has the full support of the state apparatus when used against a Black man, cis as well as trans. But the space of work, in the context of the subaltern (though these things are surely very different if one is an executive), turns out to be perilous in its own way. And in particular, of course, in the notorious locker room — which I am finally allowed to enter as a man after nearly two weeks on the job, an episode my coworkers could have hardly failed to notice. So much for discretion. . . Sometime after the locker room affair is settled, a few of the guys want to know why I make such minimal use of the space: I come in with my uniform already on just to drop off my bag, then pick it up on my way out without changing clothes. At the arrival of summer, as the heat becomes more and more oppressive, they can’t help but ask: “Why do you wear a t-shirt underneath your work shirt? Aren’t you hot like that?” Of course I’m dying of heat, you asshole, but these cheap white shirts aren’t so great at hiding a chest binder, you see. The pathetic lunch break (30 minutes for seven hours of work), which is a like a race against time, is not exempt from these difficulties; the hetero-cis-normativity of all the tired workers comes out in an uninhibited and almost vengeful manner. “Try to be understanding,” I am being told. Especially around the guys. It’s as if exploitation, the violence of the state, or racism only touched cisgender males, or only heterosexuals, regardless of gender. What remains for us, who are just as exhausted from work and its social order, as well as racism, but who do not have the resources of hetero-cis-normativity to reassert our value?
So be it, this is a constant I’ve learned to live with: share the experience of exploitation and racism with many others, while at the same time being subject to more specific modes of control — which go well beyond interpersonal relations, and which the great anticapitalist and antiracist narratives don’t want to understand; all this while a substantial part of feminism is engaged in more or less an open war against trans people, particularly trans women. In this context, these three great movements don’t exactly provide political refuge. Except, as is often the case, for a minority of trans people in a comfortable situation, who are raised up as evidence of the supposed “inclusiveness” of the time and place in question, regardless of whether this term is explicitly used. And since we’re talking politics, with regard to these miserable experiences of work where the shared exploitation of the majority intersects with the singular experience of being trans, how about trans trade unions? Both to defend ourselves as trans people from an anticapitalist perspective, regardless of profession, as well as to resolutely disrupt the marketization of the gay or queer “lifestyle.” For it’s not only multinationals who do the exploiting, though their power to do so is unmatched. Gays, most notably — but also many who identify as queer, and even bourgeois trans people — enrich themselves on the backs of their marginalized and disenfranchised queer, lesbian, and trans counterparts, among whom many are of course Black, Arab, and Asian, and who are faced with either toiling for the elites of their “community” or else being unemployed for long periods, and with chronic frequency. They are, understandably, seduced by the fact that in the context of these pseudo-communities, to be visibly trans, flamboyant, or butch, does not pose a problem. The result is a greater permissiveness toward the things which would immediately read as unacceptable in a different context. But there are two sides to every story. And there are two sides of the rainbow. The workplace should be understood as a daily violence, precisely because work itself is a violence; this goes for not only the supermarket I have described above, but for all the places which function on the basis of property hoarded by one person or group for which the rest sell their labor, to bosses who can just as easily be villainous cis-white-hetero males or friendly gays and queers. This concerns the essence of the market, and it is thus an entire world that would have to change. What role can trans people play in destabilizing, and eventually destroying, this system in which we live? And, finally, what is our vision, which we should already be negotiating with our dear revolutionary “friends,” of the world that will rise from the ashes of white-supremacist capitalism?
Translation from French by Maxwell Donnewald.