Ongoing Legacies of Transmisogyny
by Dallas Fellini
About a year ago, I attended an artist talk hosted by an arts organization dedicated specifically to serving queer artists. After relishing a rich conversation between featured artists of many different identities, one attendee expressed that they couldn’t help but notice a heavy absence of trans women in the artist talk and in the room more generally, and inquired about the organization’s history of engaging trans women artists. While the critique was warranted, it felt overly simplistic to attribute this failure to one artist talk or one arts organization; at that moment, there were no trans artists being shown at the Toronto galleries that I frequented, many of which had programming histories that didn’t include trans women artists at all.
In recent years, I’ve read job postings that explicitly encourage applications from trans people, received emails from cisgender gallery staff with their pronouns in their email signatures, and read exhibition statements that use some variation of the term “women and femmes” to supposedly signal inclusivity of diverse gender identities. While many trans artists have achievements worth celebrating, this institutional inclusivity rarely goes beyond linguistics and appearance-focused actions. We are still in an arts landscape that is desolate in terms of actual trans people being given presentation opportunities—whether in larger institutions, commercial galleries, or even artist-run centres. When trans people are granted access, it’s important to consider which factions are prioritized, how and why they’re supported (or not supported), and the potential of other models of inclusion based in self-determination.
I spoke with three trans women artists who have contributed to the Canadian arts scene over the past decade—Luis De Filippis, Kama La Mackerel, and Kim Ninkuru—each of whom generously shared with me their experiences. We discussed the ways that the arts have failed to include and support trans women, the structural changes that need to be enacted in order to facilitate their inclusion, and the role that community plays in each of their practices. An array of common threads ran through each of our conversations, revealing shared perspectives between a group of artists working in different media, living at different intersections of identity, and practicing in different cities in different stages of their careers.
While the mandates and equity statements of arts organizations communicate a desire to exhibit more marginalized artists, their structures convey another message, only allowing entry to artists who have university degrees, stacked CVs, and the financial security to work for small honoraria and exhibition fees that are far from a living wage. While this reality poses barriers for many marginalized folks, it’s worth mentioning that trans women are disproportionately faced with poverty and barriers to accessing employment, medical care, and education,1 leaving many unable to yield to the demands of this system. At the end of the day, basic survival prevails as a priority.
The artists that I spoke with explained this. De Filippis, a Toronto-based filmmaker celebrated for her recent work For Nonna Anna, a short film exploring a trans woman’s relationship with her grandmother, offered: “Trans women are just too busy surviving. They’re too busy trying to get through their everyday. It’s really hard to make art when your existence isn’t even being validated [in terms of identity and basic needs]—where do you go from there?” If arts institutions have a sincere desire for an improved presence of trans women artists within their programming, they need to rethink conventional approaches. La Mackerel, a Mauritian, Montreal-based artist whose practice spans performance, poetry, and textiles, as well as education and community-focused work, gave an anecdote: “It’s necessary to go beyond tokenism and think of ways in which you can actually empower marginalized communities in the long term. What can you offer, beyond just a show, that can actually be transformative for a career? I think of my relationship to the MAI [Montréal, arts interculturels], for example, which is where I’ve been developing my show ZOM-FAM for the past couple years. They gave me a one-year mentorship program and money that I could use to get whatever training I needed [in order to produce my show and further my career more generally]. They actually gave me resources to allow me to empower myself to learn new skills, to grow as an artist. We need more of that kind of engagement. Instead of asking: what will this artist do for us? we should ask: what can we do for the artist? What can the impact be, beyond just a symbolic impact? How can we support this artist long term? How do we create visibility for them? How do we take a chance on them?”
De Filippis mentioned an initiative of their own that is similarly proactive: “On my next project, I’m actively working on a paid trans mentorship that focuses on bringing trans youth who are interested in pursuing a film career onto set. They would be paid for their time, their accommodation, their food. To me, that’s how you make change. You kind of have to make it yourself. Because people don’t often take into account how difficult it is to get on-set experience as a trans person when blindly walking onto any given film set is often not a fun or safe experience. At this point, I only work on the film sets of people who I know and trust. What I’m trying to do with this mentorship is give trans people an opportunity to be on a set that will hopefully be safer for them so that they can go off and continue making their own work, because I want to make sure that my films are not the only trans stories being told.”
In the cases where trans women artists do have the time, energy, and financial stability to make art, they are faced with exclusionary modes of entry and ways of working. Over the past few years, and exponentially in the last year, arts institutions have hastily rushed into long-overdue diversity endeavours, always failing to enact any real change because their focus is fixed on optics rather than self-examination and systemic transformation. Inevitably, the trans people who benefit most often are those who least threaten the predominantly white, cisgender positionality of the institution.2 I think of this as trans palatability, a force that has sanctioned the warping of “trans inclusivity” into a somewhat meaningless term, now more accurately representing the selective inclusion of white trans-masculine people and non-binary people who don’t face transmisogyny. La Mackerel offered insight: “While there is more space for trans people in the arts now than there was five years ago, I still question who gets access. The odd trans artists that I’ve seen being given representation are typically white, but also cater to a cis audience and still fall into tropes and narratives that nurture the fantasy of what transness is for this audience. A lot of the art that I’ve seen being given representation is very sensational. There’s still a lot of focus on the body and the transition.”
While works focused on the physiological aspects of transness are often meaningful for trans artists and trans viewers alike, when this is the only type of trans representation offered, it normalizes an institutional expectation that pigeonholes artists into performing their identity and trauma. De Filippis spoke to what factors might be perpetuating this phenomenon: “There just aren’t trans people in gatekeeping positions. And if there is a trans person then… it’s just one person, and one person cannot decide what the trans experience is. If you’re really interested in getting the trans perspective or talking to the trans community, make sure you’re talking to more than one person, make sure you’re getting more than one experience.”
As a trans-masculine non-binary person, I also feel confident that there is a gender-essentialist rhetoric implicated in space-making efforts for trans people who are exempt from transmisogyny—who are covertly seen as less threatening to cisnormativity than trans women and trans-feminine people. Illustratively, I’ve found myself invited to events in the arts meant specifically for women, when “woman” is an identity that I explicitly identify outside of. Meanwhile, I’ve found that trans women are almost always glaringly absent from these “women-centred” events, programs, and exhibitions, leading me to ask: what is it that makes cisgender people assume that I belong at these events more than my trans women peers? My invitation to these events (which I always decline) is somehow defended as inclusive feminism, when in reality it represents biological-essentialist perspectives and thinly veiled transmisogyny that runs rampant in supposedly progressive arts spaces.
These kinds of biases—however un/conscious—bring to mind the discrimination and hostility that trans women face on an interpersonal level. It’s worth mentioning that such experiences vary greatly from person to person, and that factors like race and the politics of gender presentation have a large influence on how these experiences unfold and who they affect most. Interpersonal discrimination creates barriers that often aren’t properly factored into policy-driven inclusion and diversity initiatives. To many cis-centric organizations, once a trans person is offered an exhibition, invited to be a panelist, or given virtually any other opportunity, the work of the organization is done. The artists I spoke with recounted upsetting but unsurprising experiences of interpersonal transphobia and hostility encountered at all levels of arts organizations.
Ninkuru, a Toronto-based performance artist, creates work that explores Afrofuturism, her relationship to femininity as a Black trans woman, and her positionality within spaces both physical and virtual. She shared: “I think that it takes people by surprise when I’m assertive about what I want, what I need, what I will not do, and what I need done. Sometimes people respond to my assertiveness well and I appreciate that. But other times, people will respond to me as if they believe I should be thankful that they’re even giving me an opportunity, and I’m just not that girl. I’m not the girl who is thankful because you gave her a little bit of the food off of your plate. You didn’t give me a plate to go to the buffet and serve myself. I won’t kneel down, kiss your feet, and bow to you to thank you. When people don’t receive that kind of reverence from me it shocks them, and they retaliate by being snappy, mean, and snarky. A lot of people have these misconceptions about how Black trans women specifically should move in the world and how grateful we should be just to draw a breath. It’s very interesting, especially right now in the art world, because trans people are included really performatively, just to fill a quota or gain good publicity from that association. I’ve had experiences where cis women have invited me into a space but didn’t do any of the prior work necessary for that space to be safe for me. When I actually enter [it], I end up being the target of microaggressions because they haven’t asked questions about the cis people who they keep around them. They aren’t making sure that those spaces are safe because it doesn’t impact them. They don’t even consider it until I am already in the space, and then it’s too late. They should have done that work a year ago, and that would have left enough time to make mistakes and amend them and learn from those mistakes. But now they have to cram all of those experiences and knowledge into the one time that they invited me to be in the space.”
As many marginalized communities do, trans women artists have moved to create their own spaces within their communities. Many of trans women’s contributions to the arts happen outside of galleries; for example, La Mackerel performs at grassroots, underground venues, Ninkuru shares and archives her performances online, and many of the other Canadian trans women or trans-feminine artists I admire—like Nina Arsenault, Mirha-Soleil Ross, Ravyn Wngz, Sybil Lamb, James Knott—have created performance works that do not necessarily cater to gallery formats. Arts practices that are more community-oriented, which are often dubbed “outsider art” by the contemporary art world and largely considered unsaleable, are less likely to be welcomed into the gallery. Institutions are deeply tied up in classist, exclusionist frameworks of valuing artwork, and yet feign shock when marginalized communities are unable to access the material resources, formal education, and thus theory-speak and elitist aesthetics necessary to achieve conventional ideas of success. Whether or not an artwork conforms to these norms dictates in large part who benefits from inclusion efforts. What the artwork looks like, how it operates, and how its intelligence is understood become conditions of participation. Marginalized artists who make work that doesn’t fit into these bourgeois confines are only considered if they are willing to perform their trauma, by putting forward work that is excessively biographical or that mines emotionally difficult experiences. It is no surprise that some trans women artists have turned away from striving to gain institutional recognition and instead focused their energy into community care.
In our conversation, Ninkuru expanded on how a community-oriented practice serves her as an artist: “I feel very tender and soft when I share my art with my community, compared to how guarded I feel when I share my work on a stage in an institution for people who aren’t my community. That’s why I slowly started transitioning more into video performance and away from live onstage performance, because there are boundaries that I did not want the audience to cross. It didn’t feel good anymore, so I felt that I had to add the extra layer of protection of being on video. It gives me a level of separation from the audience that makes it a lot safer for me. Institutions just don’t make me feel safe, which has made for a very interesting shift in my artistic expression. Creating video performances is very fun for me, but it wouldn’t have happened had I not started feeling a little bit unsafe or uncomfortable onstage in an institution.”
La Mackerel also spoke to this experience of creating solace and safety in community: “I did not start in the institutions—I think that is an important part of my history and my practice. I emerged in the Montreal art scene from 2012, 2013 onward. I remember moving to Montreal and looking for grassroots queer spaces that would be more radical, but then realizing that all of them were predominantly white and cis. For the first few years, my practice took place in spaces that I created myself, or that I created with other queer trans people of color; GENDER B(L)ENDER, a queer open mic [for all forms of performance art, from spoken word to drag] that I ran in Montreal for five years, became the safe space. It was the only space in Montreal where you would walk in and see a Black trans woman running the show. My practice really emerged as a grassroots, DIY practice, because that was the only way to actually create a space that felt safe for me, as a Black trans-feminine person in particular. And then once I created that space for myself, I couldn’t be the only one who’s performing, so it became about creating that space for other people like me, because if I needed it that means that we all feel that need. I’m a self-taught artist who didn’t have a lot of mentorship or support and there’s just so much that I had to figure out on my own, being a trans racialized immigrant. I want to be able to give that back and to be able to create a space of safety and to just bear witness and hold somebody else’s story, because I think that can be so transformative. In our community there are a lot of mental-health issues, a lot of grief, a lot of dying. I really want to be able to bring more than that to our communities, because we deserve better.”
Community-oriented spaces built by trans women, like GENDER B(L)ENDER, hold a profound capacity to nurture and prioritize trans artistic practices in all their multiplicity, a capacity that is still not being fulfilled elsewhere. De Filippis, La Mackerel, and Ninkuru shared insights and experiences with me that offer lots of context to the critique that was indirectly communicated by an attendee at the artist talk I attended a year ago: that there is a profound lack of presentation opportunities being afforded to trans women artists. This critique has an obvious rebuttal: perhaps there simply aren’t any, or enough, artists within this identity category to be programmed. While this rebuttal might absolve an institution of culpability for their exclusion of trans women artists, it’s plainly untrue—there are practicing trans women artists in every major Canadian city.3 Such an alibi points to a failure on an institutional level, wherein organizations are either not monitoring the absences in their programming and/or not actively seeking out trans women artists, and/or when seeking these artists out, doing so in the wrong places. While community-oriented spaces where trans women artists can thrive continue to emerge, community arts and outsider arts are systematically devalued as undeserving of inclusion in the contemporary art gallery, perpetuating a pattern of trans women artists being treated as invisible. In actuality, these artists have been consequential contributors and leaders in Canadian arts communities for decades, and continue to shape the course of contemporary art today.