Abstract

Building on work by Ono,1 Calafell,2 and Simmons et al.,3 who use the letter as autobiographical performance, this essay/letter explores trans and queer of color (QTPOC) community-building as rhetorically significant and ongoing labor. Using Moraga's theory in the flesh,4 I draw from my own experience as a student of Third World feminisms and as a trans nonbinary queer Taiwanese American to query how QTPOC can address intracommunal conflict and harm. This application of intimate, interpersonal address also challenges the field(s) of rhetoric to reconsider the forms of writing given prominence as “rigorous” work as well as the implied audiences of those texts. What and how might we write if we prioritize the people we wish to call into community and the relationships we most value? How do we approach and evaluate work that centers one another's survival? Although the open letter has become increasingly popular as a means of calling out, this essay spotlights the openness of this form, inviting responses that might facilitate community accountability and healing. Finally, this essay is a tribute to the QTPOC mentors and kin who have made my life possible, as well as to my QTPOC students, who give me courage to fight for worlds where we can all thrive.

My writings have always been a kind of extended love letter to my relations, not always laudatory, but always with the intention of reunion.

—Cherríe Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness5

September 24, 2020

Dear Professor Moraga,

I think I'm supposed to start this letter by hoping that it finds you well, the way we start all messages out of habit even in the midst of a global pandemic, even as the West Coast burns and the gulf is subsumed by storms. As I write, our streets surge with the outpouring of long-simmering outrage over police violence and racism. We are not well—not any of the faculty members teaching classes jury-rigged for Zoom, hybridized into juggling acts of whiteboards, cameras, and computer screens, or lecturing behind masks and plastic shields. We are not well—not the parents balancing childcare with full-time jobs; not the sick whose health care has been disrupted by medical upheaval; not the adult children who can no longer visit their parents for fear of transmitting a lethal virus; not the growing number of Americans losing jobs and health insurance; not any human who cares enough of about the hundreds of thousands of lives now sacrificed for fleeting or fantastical economic stability.

Amid this global distress, my field of study has asked, via Stuart Hall, “Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point of cultural studies?”6—or in our case, rhetorical studies. Since I read This Bridge, your words are the ones I return to in crisis, when I question whether this work is worth doing, when I want to know what difference rhetoric or poetry can make when the world is on fire (“we have let rhetoric do the job of poetry”7). Theory in the flesh is still my touchpoint for how words concretize “flesh and blood experiences” into personal and communal healing.8 The conversations you and Gloria Anzaldúa pulled together gave me interlocutors when I otherwise could find none. Without that conversation to join, I would not have written my dissertation. Without the dissertation, I would not have the job that pulled this wayward queer kid into a life of undreamt privilege, where I get to teach and mentor other queer and trans POC, who still often find and cling to your words like a lifeline. I worry that we are still trapped by the stagnation Anzaldúa laments in Haciendo Caras—still “tokenizing the same half dozen mujeres” while stymieing literary and political progress.9 (“One voice is not enough, nor two, although this is where the dialogue begins.”10)

I am also writing because last week, California State University, Monterey Bay hosted “Cafecito con Cherríe Moraga”—the sort of opportunity I would have jumped at right now, when social distancing has made our events more geographically accessible via webinars and livestreams. I did not attend. It was less a conscious choice than a decision made by resignation. I did not feel authorized to attend, the same way that I have felt unauthorized to access or relate to your ideas since I read A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness. “I am scared,” you write, “scared that the political agenda of the transgender movement at large, and plain ole peer pressure, may preempt young people from simply residing in that queer, gender-ambivalent site for as long and as deeply as is necessary.”11 I am writing because I have never felt any pressure from trans folks to identify one way or another, or to adopt any particular form of embodiment, but I have been connected to them through our shared fear of losing our cisgender kin—of being seen, precisely as you describe us, as abandoning the homes of our queer of color elders.

“I do not want to keep losing my macha daughters to manhood,”12 you write, and I cannot help but hear in those words the accusations hurled by angry white lesbians who've stalked trans events I attended or helped organize. I hear in those words the literature of trans-exclusionary (self-described) feminists who lament the “erasure” of women by transgender people. These women—like you—fear that trans communities have made “butch lesbians . . . a dying breed.”13 I am writing to remind you that scarcity is another of the “divide and conquer” tactics that This Bridge resisted.14 We—by which I mean the aspirational, not-yet family of QTPOC; by which I mean the “butch[es], studs, aggressives, trans folks, tops, bottoms y más”15 for whom you have been and regard yourself as “queer elder”16—are not a few isolated aberrations. Butch women and trans men and trans nonbinary people are all authorities of their own, distinct experiences. Those experiences, likewise, provide distinct critiques of racialized gender norms. Their myriad identities, embodiments, and ways of relating form a mosaic of how to expand and explode the unimaginative constraints of binary gender—of the bodily and behavioral standards imposed by and made to elevate white heteropatriarchy. A feminist revolution is incomplete without addressing the imbrications and divergences of our experiences and needs. More, I am not sure that a revolution is possible without our collective power. (“It is essential that radical feminists confront their fear of, and resistance to, each other, because without this, there will be no bread on the table. Simply, we will not survive.”17)

It should go without saying that any movement toward the “liberation of women of color” must also include and listen to trans women and femmes. This, too, is an inheritance from queer of color elders. The Combahee River Collective taught us to center Black women's freedom “since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”18 A world where Black and Indigenous trans women and femmes are free would be a world without anti-Blackness, cissexism, and misogyny—and the institutions that enforce them, including police and prisons, discriminatory housing and healthcare policies, and educational conventions that erase the contributions of Black trans women to gender and racial justice.

The experiences of trans women of color, cis queer women of color, trans men of color, and trans men and nonbinary people of color—for all their differences—converge at the boundaries of womanhood, this dividing line that colonial regimes designated to mark us as Other. This boundary is defined by the strictures of white femininity, which have always rendered women of color as excessive and queers as aberrant. This is the line we have always already crossed. The ways we experience the border and the consequences of its violations are not equal. We are, however, all invested in its eradication. So, how do we respond when feminists of color—when our queer of color family—reinscribe that boundary, when they refer to trans men as their “daughters,”19 and when their conceptions of womanhood are fixed to an imagined “born gender?”20 I know that this might never reach you, and that our views may never align, but I am laying my words bare—if not for you, then for “the pending promise inscribed by all of us who believe that revolution . . . is possible.”21 You taught me that writing is a conjuring; I am writing for the community that could be.

This is a theory in my flesh, which has never experienced womanhood as anything that belongs to me. On this, I defer to the authority of trans women, who have held fast to their womanhood despite a world of threat and persecution—who, despite constant violence, have modeled womanhood as empowerment, as liberating, and as a site of invention. From them and other trans kin I have learned to live the future we were not given. That is the thing about experiencing the world as an impossibility: we have no choice but to dream otherwise and to walk toward the worlds that are not-yet-here.

I have spent 32 years at war with this flesh that would not press into the shape of “woman” or “man.” At 32, I am watching the face in the mirror become—slowly—someone I recognize. My partner teases me for the way my voice breaks the fifth week that we plunge a needle into my leg. We screw it up again, both of us woefully inadequate at the art of tender harm. I limp for three days, but with a full heart, knowing this new weekly ritual is wrought of love. Neither of us can be certain how I will change in the coming years and of how those changes will augment five years of learning one another's dispositions and bodies. Still, each week she depresses the plunger that pushes us further into a future we cannot predict.

As I sink into this body that feels more like home, the outside world will become stranger. Gender is lived in relation, and I am not yet sure how this will change my means and sites of connection. Every endocrinologist has warned me that “because [I am] East Asian,” I may not acquire the traits most commonly recognized as “masculine” in the West. I won't get any taller than my 5΄2΄΄. I may never grow facial hair. My voice (ironically, already “low” for a “woman”) might never drop deep “enough” to be gendered otherwise on the phone. The doctors say this like an apology, as if anticipating my disappointment. I want to tell them about how and why East Asian bodies have been feminized in Western history—always at the whims of white insecurities. At the cusp of the twentieth century, Chinese men were seen as barbarous contrasts to “artfully feminine”22 Japanese men. This juxtaposition flipped with the rise of Japan's military power, whereupon Japanese men embodied “an anachronistic, savage masculinity”23 compared to the “steady, honest, and unpretending” Chinese men from a “flowery kingdom.”24 I want to tell my doctors that these are the only two options whiteness has given to people of color: brutish masculinity that justifies any violence, or a bridled femininity subjected to white whims and desires. I am not interested in either. I needed both the lessons of Third World feminisms and my present trans communities to understand this—that oppressive cultures do not own masculinity or femininity; that, they don't get to define for us what our bodies are or can be, and that we can write for ourselves novel definitions and ways of relating.

You are right that “so many of us” queers of color already “[cross] the male-female divide” delineated by white respectability.25 This is perhaps why I am most confounded by conflations of trans masculinity and trans men with assimilationist agendas. Colonial taxonomies for gender should not determine the boundaries of our communities. Of course, there are trans people who accept “commodified” iterations of masculinity and femininity—just as there are queers of color and butch women of color who do so.26 If you write off trans folk as altogether lost, you abandon some of our most vulnerable; you lose the precious and courageous insights of some of our boldest gender transgressors; and more, you enforce the divisions contrived to sustain white dominance.

I am writing because queer of color community is not a given and that, as you taught us, coalition is difficult and unrelenting work. I write toward QTPOC worlds where we “allow ideas to grow within the context of an evolving community base, to live within the site of political contradictions, to abnegate our own knowledge in the plain effort to listen on the road to learning.”27 Following the lead of This Bridge, I am writing toward a world where the labor of calling-into-community is positioned as challenging and worthwhile intellectual exploration, and where the knowledge made of trans, queer, and crip of color experience is given as much authority as the caprices of bygone white intellectuals. I am writing because we are all deeply flawed humans with limited perspectives and I know that I also have and will continue to harm those I regard as kin. When that happens, I want there to be avenues of redress, and I want us to have the affective and linguistic resources to heal.

As I said, this is a theory in my flesh, and others will have different perspectives, experiences, and ways of connecting with or departing from queer of color legacies. I am writing because we are alive and will grow and change and transform and will need ways of reconnecting with our ideas, our principles, and with one another. This is the urgency of rhetoric when people are dying in the streets: it holds the capacity to find and foster care; to describe our wounds and navigate our healing; and to script and summon better futures. If this letter does not find you, I hope that others will answer me, and challenge me, and dream with me. If it does find you, I hope you accept this as a love letter—with all of the tenderness and vulnerability and pain that loving entails. “The real power,” you wrote, “is collective. I can't afford to be afraid of you, nor you of me. If it takes head-on collision, let's do it.”28 I am here, waiting for you to meet me.

Yours,

Jo Hsu

Notes

As proof that conversations often expand well beyond their explicit interlocutors, I could not have written this without a community that guided me to Third World feminisms and emboldened me to draft this letter, nor without the editors and reviewers of RPC who created a place for this forum. I am especially grateful to Vani Kannan and Christina Cedillo for reading an early draft. Thank you for being my intellectual companions, my supportive network, and my academic family. Your care has taught me that this work can build meaningful relations that will hold in and outside of universities. It has also taught me to pursue professional practices and platforms that will support and value such connections.

1

Kent A. Ono, “A Letter/Essay I've Been Longing to Write in My Personal/Academic Voice,” Western Journal of Communication 61, no. 1 (March 1997): 114–25, https://doi.org/10.1080/10570319709374566.

2

Bernadette Marie Calafell, “Mentoring and Love: An Open Letter,” Cultural StudiesCritical Methodologies 7, no. 4 (November 2007): 425–41, https://doi.org/10.1177/1532708607305123.

3

Benesemon Simmons et al., “We Read Your Letter,” Writers: Craft & Context 1, no. 1 (August 13, 2020): 6–14, https://doi.org/10.15763/issn.2688-9595.2020.1.1.6-14.

4

Cherríe Moraga, “La Güera,” in This Bridge Called My Back, 4th ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 22–29; D. Soyini Madison, “‘That Was My Occupation’: Oral Narrative, Performance, and Black Feminist Thought,” Text and Performance Quarterly 13, no. 3 (July 1993): 213–32, https://doi.org/10.1080/10462939309366051; Bernadette M. Calafell, “Rhetorics of Possibility: Challenging Textual Bias through the Theory of the Flesh,” in Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods & Methodologies, ed. Eileen E. Schell and K. J. Rawson, Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 104–17.

5

Moraga, “La Güera,” 176.

6

Stuart Hall quoted in Michigan State University Press, “Rhetoric, Politics & Culture: Now Open for Submissions!,” Michigan State University Press (blog), August 19, 2020, https://msupress.org/blog/2020/08/19/rhetoric-politics-culture-now-open-for-submissions/.

7

Moraga, “La Güera,” 25.

8

Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 4th ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), 19.

9

Gloria Anzaldúa, ed., Making Face, Making Soul Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990), xvi.

10

Moraga, “La Güera,” 29.

11

Cherríe Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000–2010 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 184.

12

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 186.

13

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 186.

14

Toni Cade Bambara, “Foreword to the First Edition, 1981,” in This Bridge Called My Back, vol. 4 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), xxx.

15

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 186.

16

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 186.

17

Moraga, “La Güera,” 29.

18

Combahee River Collective, The Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties (Albany, NY: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1986), http://books.google.com/books?id=sEqaAAAAIAAJ.

19

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 189.

20

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 186.

21

Cherríe Moraga, “Catching Fire: Preface to the Fourth Edition,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 4th ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), xxi.

22

Amy Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American “Oriental,” Kindle edition, The Asian American Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 2.

23

Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex, 105.

24

Percy Edwards, “The Industrial Side of the Alien Land Law Problem,” Overland Monthly 42, no. 2 (August 1913): 190.

25

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 184.

26

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 184.

27

Moraga, Xicana Codex, 171.

28

Moraga, “La Güera,” 29.