This past summer, when the uprising against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd popped off, I was processing with three friends. One friend shared a feeling that’s been germinating in my mind ever since: “When I see ‘Black Lives Matter’ everywhere, now, it actually makes me sad,” she expressed. “It reminds me that, to most of the country, to the police, to authorities and institutions, to this country, my life doesn’t matter. Usually I’m able to ignore this, but I can’t anymore. It’s depressing.”
Hil Malatino echoes a similar feeling in Trans Care, as they discuss a trans-positive billboard near Joshua Tree, CA that reads “Transgender People Deserve Health Care, Support, Justice, Safety, Love.” It serves as a cogent reminder, in Malatino’s mind, of all the things we as trans people tend to be institutionally denied. “Strange to be triggered by a trans-positive billboard,” they recount. “Strange to be triggered by public gestures of inclusion and allyship.”
The billboard referenced had recently replaced a decidedly trans-antagonistic political billboard. That makes sense to Malatino: “In this deeply schizoid political moment, these are the public roles available to us, altogether undeserving of care, on one side, and the demographic most in need of robust rights protection at both state and federal levels.” Sometimes, we want to just exist without being reminded of the precariousness of our existence. And yet, the concept of care is predicated on an acknowledgement of lack. One can’t ask for care – or provide it – without articulating a need that is not being met. It may be for this reason asking for help is so difficult.
This manner of iconoclastic thinking is typical of theory, and is the vibe of this powerful little book. Theory is often inaccessible to many of the people who might most benefit from reading it because of its assumption of a certain level of education. While Malatino is guilty of this, Trans Care is more accessible than most, language-wise. But it’s difficult for ideas this contradictory to be accessible, no matter one’s vocabulary. If you were looking for answers, they aren’t here. If you want to ponder the nuance and difficult of care, though – dive in.
Trans Care begins with the largest, most difficult question when we talk about taking care of each other. In discussing Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s concept of a “care web,” described as “a crip-femme reworking of the integral anarchist concept of mutual aid,” they dig right in to the contradiction everyone discovers when they try to build communities of care: it’s hard, and for good reason. “A resilient care web coheres through consistently foregrounding the realities of burnout and the gendered, raced, and classed dynamics that result in the differential distribution of care … a care web works when the work that composes it isn’t exploitative, appropriative, or alienated.” Later: “Any care praxis worth enacting must be attentive to … tendencies to reproduce injustice. This applies to forms of emotional support as much as … financial support.” The immediate rejoinder, of course: How, Sway?
That Malatino doesn’t have an answer is not necessarily a critique. The truth is there likely isn’t one. I’m reminded of the people – many of them queers – who are over being burdened by the sacrifices necessary to keep strangers alive during the deadly global pandemic we’re currently in the midst of, who have decided to party, date casually, and the like. They may rail at our government’s terrible response to the pandemic, or discuss “lockdown fatigue” or “touch starvation,” or genuinely be suffering powerful mental health effects of isolation. But this is the worst public health crisis in generations. It makes sense that it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever had to endure in our lives and that there are no easy answers, and there will be no “normal,” at least not for a very long time.
Being trans is similar – it’s doubly oppressive that we’re denied care and then left to fulfill the care needs of each other with our own depleted resources. Transantagonism is a global pandemic of indifference and hatred – but there’s no vaccine coming. It’s very likely that there is no simple or even feasible answer to live well, or sometimes at all, in an oppressive, transphobic culture. So many of us quit trying.
While there aren’t answers – and it’s not the theorist’s job to provide them, regardless – “preservative love” seems to be the guiding principle Malatino’s work vaguely calls for, defined as: “all of those acts that keep a being alive and intact … to see vulnerability and to respond to it with care rather than abuse, indifference, or flight.” But, again, how?
Is it by feeling obligated to take care of other trans people, as “voluntary gender workers?” We have frequently found ourselves to have “raised each other in the vacuum of care left by the overlapping economies of abandonment that shaped our days. We keep each other alive … we owe each other.” But what specifically do we owe each other?
There is at least one thing we can do, especially as trans visibility grows in mainstream culture: not tear each other down. Malatino quotes Morgan M Page: “I do not shit-talk other trans people in public. If I truly have a problem that must be addressed, I speak to them directly.” When I read this passage, I think of Twitter. This is one of the few pieces of practical advice within Trans Care, even though it’s not presented as such: we’re in a precarious position. Those who hate us will use internal discord as evidence of our undeservingness of care. Tearing down other trans people publicly is clearly not in our community’s best interest. But not tearing each other down also isn’t the same as building each other up.
Malatino discusses the power, promise, and failure of social media – it both builds and destroys community. “In this cultural climate, the echo chamber afforded by social media might be better understood as a provisionary form of trans separatism that offers imperative reprieve,” they explain – the social media communities we create are often “the only trans-majority spaces to which many of us have access.” They also, however, “reify the forms of stratification and inequality that shape our experiences IRL.” Who is able to effectively crowdfund their transition-related surgeries, for example? Oppression makes “health care access in the context of compounded inequalities tantamount to a popularity contest.”
We’ve come back again to the central tension in this work. This is present in my own work on the subject, which takes a decidedly more practical approach but still can’t answer the question of how we’re supposed to get the energy to take care of each other when we’re so bereft of care ourselves. Or how much care of others we should expect of ourselves. Not long ago, for example, I deleted my social media. Part of the reason? My feeds were inundated with requests for aid, usually financial. I can only read about so much trans suffering day in and out before I simultaneously stop caring and care too much to where my mental health is affected. Should I feel guilty? What do I owe to the community?
It doesn’t feel empowering to say that the only answer is for cis people to step up and take care of us in ways that they’ve historically refused. Or, at the very least, figure out how to get their own community to stop their abuse of us and just leave us alone. It’s obviously problematic to make too many connections between racial and gender justice – please imagine a comprehensive treatise about intersectionality here – but I’m reminded of my feelings about how racial justice will be accomplished: when white people eschew white supremacy, and not a moment before. We can separate ourselves, but in a global economy and overpopulated planet, we will always be affected by the actions of our neighbors. It’s white peoples’ respsonsibility to end racism, and it’s cis people’s responsibility to end transantagonism.
All the mutual aid and community building in the world will help us survive a few moments longer, and will keep a few of us a bit further from death. Theories of how to do this in the most loving, ethical, powerfully creative ways – as Malatino theorizes here and many others do elsewhere – is crucially important, and this book is an incredibly fecund resource for thinking through the issues at hand. But there are no answers here.