Grey Weinstein (he/they)
Transgender people face widespread violence from a variety of sources, from interpersonal acts of brutality to structural violence that denies them housing, healthcare, and employment at every turn. Trans women, especially trans women of color, are particularly vulnerable to this violence. How to capture and make sense of this violence– without romanticizing it or painting trans people as helpless victims– is central to the work of transgender poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. In the three poems “The Moon is Trans,” “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature (For Cis People),” and “Who She Was,” Joshua Jennifer Espinoza uses tone and imagery to argue that ever-present violence is used to control transgender women. However, even as cis people coopt this violence to ease their own guilt, trans women’s continued survival and resistance remains a source of hope for Espinoza.
To begin, Espinoza employs a variety of narrative tones to establish that violence is ubiquitous in the everyday lives of trans women. Specifically, contrasting tones in “The Moon is Trans” and “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature (For Cis People)” both underscore the crushing weight of transphobic violence. For example, in “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature (For Cis People)” Espinoza writes, “We’re dying and we’re really sad./ We keep dying because trans women/ are supposed to die./ This is sad.” There is a note of irony in Espinoza’s tone. Her reaction to the phenomenon of widespread violence against trans women (“we’re dying”) is immensely understated (“we’re really sad”), conveying the futility Espinoza feels in trying to fully express the depth of her grief to her cisgender audience. Her sardonic remark that trans women “are supposed to die” sarcastically recounts the societal view of violence against trans women as inevitable. Thus, the poem’s speaker is clearly full of frustration and hopelessness. Trapped within a society that sees trans women’s deaths as a mere fact of life and unable to articulate her despair to the cis people around her, Espinoza’s profound sense of bitterness comes through in her tone, conveying transmisogyny’s emotional toll. Furthermore, in “The Moon is Trans” Espinoza says, “The moon has not known the feeling of not wanting to be dead/ for any extended period of time/ in all of her existence.” In contrast to “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature,” Espinoza’s tone in this poem is somber and sincere. She uses this tone to convey the gravity of transphobia and its consequences– specifically, of suicidality in trans women as a consequence of transmisogyny. The seriousness of the speaker in “The Moon is Trans” reminds readers that, for all of her mocking wit, Espinoza finds nothing humorous about transphobia. With heartfelt urgency, she warns the audience that transmisogyny is deadly, even when it does not come in the form of physical violence; a culture of transphobia instills the feeling of “wanting to be dead,” leading trans women to self harm and suicide.
Espinoza then argues, through imagery of brutality, that this transmisogynistic violence serves to control trans women by punishing them for their very existence. In particular, in “Who She Was” Espinoza recounts how the violence visited on the poem’s main character reminds her of her subordinate role in society. For instance, Espinoza writes, “They know when they taste/ her blood/ that she was who she said she was.” The imagery in this passage invokes the sense of taste as the main character’s attackers “taste/ her blood.” In addition to creating a visceral and deeply engaging scene for the reader, this imagery conveys the sense that the trans woman’s pursuers are savoring her pain; this is not a random act of cruelty, but an intentional use of force to achieve an end. Espinoza reveals the intent behind the attack with the statement, “They told her who she was/ with what they did to her.” By brutalizing this anonymous trans woman to “tell her who she is,” her attackers attempt to define her identity through violence. In their view, her transgender status renders her worthy of physical discipline; being trans is thus defined as something that is wrong, a transgression to be punished. Transmisogynistic violence thus serves to “put her in her place,” forcibly subjugating her in relation to her cisgender peers. As this woman’s attackers are never identified, it is easy to extend the metaphor beyond interpersonal acts of physical violence, to structural violence. Trans women’s exclusion in many aspects of society– housing, employment, healthcare, etc– can thus be seen as structural violence that “tells them who they are” by defining trans womanhood through marginalization and oppression. When society “tastes the blood” of trans women, watching them die from homelessness, poverty, or illness in addition to physical violence, that society is observing the effects of its own intentional and violent persecution; observing, as Espinoza puts it, “what they said/ when they were making her.”
Next, Espinoza demonstrates how trans women are marginalized within discussion about transphobic violence, so that cisgender people can center their own emotional needs. Particularly, “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature” criticizes cis people for platforming their own guilt in conversations about transphobia, and can be read in conversation with “Paranoia as a Trans Style.” For example, Espinoza tells her cis audience to “pretend” that “my body doesn’t exist./ There’s nothing left for you to be complicit in./ It’s okay for you to feel happy about that.” As she urges cis readers to imagine that “my body does not exist,” Espinoza points out that what would make cis people “feel happy” is not the eradication of transphobic violence but rather the eradication of trans women themselves. Their concern over transphobia is not motivated by a desire to build a better world for trans people, but rather by a desire to ease cis feelings of “complicity.” Thus cis guilt, rather than the concerns of trans women themselves, becomes the primary focus of wider diaglogues about transmisogyny. Similarly, in her article “Paranoia as a Trans Style” Jules Gill-Peterson condemns cis people who performatively declare that “trans women of color are being MURDERED! They are THE MOST OPPRESSED, so we have to CENTER them,” which positions trans women of color as “simultaneously the motive for other people’s political action and the guarantor of their activism’s righteousness.” To Gill-Peterson, these noisey cis “allies” are all too eager to talk about transmisogyny, but only for the sake of their own sense of moral “righteousness.” The result is that, far from actually “centering” them, cisgender society continues to have no “real interest in what trans women of color know, do, want, and feel.” This is what Espinoza refers to when she instructs her cis readers, “Now pretend you are absolved.” She notes that as cis people center themselves in conversations around transmisogyny, they primarily seek reassurance that their cisgender privilege does not render them complicit in the oppression of trans women. They are ultimately concerned with their own moral righteousness. But as long as institutionalized transphobia exists, cis people can never escape respnsibility for their own systemic privilege; thus, they can only “pretend” to be absolved.
Finally, Espinoza contends that, through resistance or simply survival, trans women display strength and dignity through their continued existence in a violent world. Specifically, while “The Moon is Trans” celebrates the beauty in the moon’s continued survival, “Who She Was” goes a step further to call for action against transphobia. For instance, in “The Moon is Trans” Espinoza writes of her titular character, “she is not delicate and she is not weak./ She is constantly moving away from you the only way she can./ She never turns her face from you because of what you might do./ She will outlive everything you know.” The moon (representative of trans women in general) seems fearful of further violence– she is “constantly moving away” as if fleeing harm, warily watching for “what you might do.” However, Espinoza sees this fear not as a weakness but as a sign of strength; like many trans women, the moon continues to survive even in atrocious circumstances. As a result, she is “not delicate and she is not weak,” but instead is a tenacious survivor and thus worthy of celebration. In contrast, in “Who She Was” the main character “knows when she cries/ for peace/ she means someone else’s/ blood.” Unlike the moon, this woman wants more than survival amidst violence; she wants to no longer be the target of violence (“she cries/ for peace”) and, according to Espinoza, this cannot be accomplished without a bloody reckoning. Whether this is a call for justice, retribution, or both, it is clear that the protagonist in “Who She Was” exhibits a different type of strength, one that actively resists her own oppression by fighting back. Notably, Espinoza appears to be engaging in the exact rhetoric which Gill-Peterson criticizes when she decries the insistence that trans women of color are “SO STRONG AND RESILIENT, every breath they take is A REVOLUTION,” which she characterizes as “a macro dose of idealization [...] which is toxic shit.” Unlike the cis people whom Gill-Peterson deplores, however, Espinoza is writing from the point of view of a trans woman. The poet’s intimate, first-hand knowledge of transmisogyny frames her admiration of trans women’s strength as a genuine appreciation of her own community, rather than just more “toxic shit.”
In conclusion, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poems “The Moon is Trans,” “A Guide to Reading Trans Literature (For Cis People),” and “Who She Was” reveal the pain and frustration trans women experience as they face interpersonal and structural violence that seeks to control them. Yet Espinoza continues to draw inspiration from trans women’s perseverance in the face of adversity. As the world remains a dangerous place for trans people, Espinoza’s work remains more relevant than ever. By refusing to shy away from the realities of transmisogynistic violence, her poems force readers to confront their own place in systems of power and oppression. Ultimately, Espinoza’s writing challenges her audience to imagine a future in which trans women can live freely and safely.
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