Editor’s note: Trigger warning for violence as a first-hand account of violence against Ms. Banks is discussed.
TransEthics: There are many who would consider you a leader in the trans community. How does that make you feel?
Sophia Banks: Uncomfortable, to be honest. I don’t think of myself as a leader. I am not really into the concept of leaders. I am glad and honoured I inspire some folks and have a platform to educate people. But being seen as leader makes me uncomfortable. Rising to a sort of level where I am seen as an authority has always been weird for me. I started out just speaking my truth as a trans woman pissed off about shit and things kinda blew up. One thing I hate about being seen as a leader is how I am expected to act strong all the time, never feel weak or insecure. It all happened so fast as I was going through my own transition and the struggles that come with that.
TE: Do you think being seen as a leader has a negative effect on your mental health at all?
SB: Hell yes. I feel like I lost my community in many ways. That I could no longer just chat with other trans women about stuff I used to like HRT, frustration with family, cis people, etc… As my status grew on twitter I felt my connection and ability to just chat casually with other trans women declined.
Also it meant I was getting more exposure and that lead me to being trolled and cyber-bullied more, which started causing me to feel more closed and paranoid. Ironically as my exposure grew, I began to feel more isolated. And part of why my exposure grew I suppose, was my frankness and my talking very candidly about my life. I started feeling anxious and under pressure to say the perfect thing… to always be witty and to never just tweet freely or jokingly. I was suddenly under pressure to behave better and be on ball all the time. The fun of twitter started dissipating. I felt like I was failing in this role that was thrust on me… that I was hogging the mic from so many. And of course the criticism also ramped up. I was suddenly pissing off other trans people for simply saying what I thought. It was a platform and role I never sought and it certainly increased my anxiety and loneliness.
TE: There are a lot of trans women that get trolled and cyber-bullied on twitter. Why do you think that we, as trans women, seem to attract so much negativity?
SB: Several reasons, all of which intersect. Misogyny, transphobia, transmisogyny, the vulnerability of trans women. Bullies, and that’s what they are, like to focus on those they can hurt. Trans women are often hurt people, often rejected by families and society. Many trans women turn to social media to vent and talk and thus show their pain and vulnerability. And for many trans women social media is the only outlet, the only community –especially for those in more rural places, small towns, etc. So you have these bullies that delight in targeting women but can also target trans women who are vulnerable and hurt.
From I what I see, cis women tend to be targeted more by MRA (Male Rights Activist) men, where in my experience it’s often cis women who attack and harass and trans women online. Which is, of course, transphobia and misogyny. But I also think it’s misdirected anger when it comes from cis women. I know a lot of trans women have been bullied off twitter or deal with daily abuse. My mentions are hellish some days. The general public is still in many ways unaware, uninformed and nervous around trans women. I think with men it’s often an insecurity with their sexuality in finding trans women attractive. It’s lashing out at trans women for them being attracted to us.
TE: Do you think Twitter is doing enough about the harassment of trans women?
SB: (laughing) Fuck no. Does twitter see misgendering a trans woman as bullying? Nope. Does twitter see using the birth name of a trans woman as bullying? Nope. Twitter allows [transphobic feminists] to stay on twitter and bully trans women, out trans women, etc. Twitter, much like society, has a long way to go with understanding transmisogyny.
TE: I recently read a tweet that cited straight cis men are the largest consumers of TS porn. Do you think reaching out to this demographic would ultimately hurt or help the trans community?
SB: I am not surprised. Lots of straight cis men are into trans women. My online dating inbox is full of men wanting to get with trans women. I have never had a shortage of men who want to fuck me. It’s that these men want to fuck me in secret [which is problematic]. Men who find trans women attractive are often shamed and mocked by society via friends, movies, TV, comedians, etc… Then we get the “tranny-chasers” thing. As someone who is attracted to trans women myself, I can get being into trans women with a penis. I find it hot. But these men are often really creepy and tend to fetishize trans women who have a penis, which is not good. To love trans women is to love us regardless of what genitals we have.
I guess the one problem with a lot of trans porn is that it gives men the idea that all trans women have big tits and a working dick. Truth is, my penis don’t work so hot and my tits are tiny. So yeah, I see good in this as I think the idea of men being into trans women and still being straight is a necessary process that needs to happen. But it also creates false standards many trans women can’t meet. I hope though as a trans porn grows we start seeing more diverse trans bodies in it.
TE: Many people do not understand the concept of privilege. Could you explain how the loss of male privilege personally effected you?
SB: Oh jeez… where to start? Well for starters my last year as a living as a ‘man’ my wedding photography business billed almost $100,000.00. My first year out as a trans woman and my business billed $6,000.00. That about sums it up. Losing male privilege was like a kick in the gut. It happened overnight with coming out as trans. Everything changed. My technical skills as a pro photographer were suddenly questioned. My opinions in groups seem to matter less now. I was 32 when I came out as trans, and I was accustomed to be listened to a six-foot tall straight white guy. All of a sudden it was like everything I knew meant less and was less valued. And as I lost my photo business, I feel back into my old trade of cooking where all of a sudden men doubted I could that job as well.
Losing male privilege made me feel like all of a sudden I was incompetent at everything. It also affected me in other areas of day-to-day life, like simply walking alone at night. As a six-foot tall white guy read as straight I never felt worry about walking alone at night. As a trans woman I suddenly felt afraid walking alone. I was worried men would read me as trans in the beginning, but over time I started fearing just being seen as a lone woman on the streets. Seeing a group of men walking towards me would suddenly stress me out. I could see them looking over me which I had never experienced as a ‘man’.
Losing male privilege made me less, it made me feel vulnerable, unheard, a target. I took for granted what male privilege was. And I used to consider myself a progressive ‘guy’… I had lots of women as friends and I thought I understood when they spoke to me about these things but I never understood how it actually felt: how the daily micro-aggressions against women is so wearing and so draining… how it feels to walk alone at night feeling afraid of men.
TE: Have you been physically assaulted for being trans?
SB: Yes. Last summer I was attacked. I was riding my bike and a man ran at me and thew me off my bike and into a concrete poll where I hit my head. I was scraped and bleeding and it total shock as this man called me a “freak” and a “tranny” and held up his fists like he wanted to fight me. I was dazed, but just got up and rode off. What bothered me the most was how people saw as this happened midday and just stood around. No one got involved or asked if I was okay. Nearly a year later and am still working through this… working through the pain in my neck and knee, working through my paranoia about men… how I don’t even feel safe riding my bike.
TE: That’s terrible! Did you contact the police?
SB: No, I don’t trust the cops. I never really dealt with cops before I came out as trans. Never had a reason too. As a trans woman I have had several encounters and contacts with them. I have had cops call me “freaky”. I have had cops call me sir directly after I told them I was a trans woman. I have had to explain to cops what trans is. I have [had] cops refer to trans women as those men on Jerry Springer to me. Unless it was very serious I would not approach the cops on anything.
TE: We obviously need to educate the general public on trans issues, and we need cisgender allies to help us. How can we avoid being seen as “angry trans women” – which alienates some of our allies – when we experience this kind of disregard for our identities?
SB: Any cis person who feels alienated by a trans woman who is pissed off is no ally. If a cis person is feeling uncomfortable with the anger of a trans woman, then that cis person needs to sit with that [feeling] and figure out why they feel uncomfortable. We as trans women seeking trans liberation can not –in my opinion– worry about how cis people read our message. That’s respectability politics and it does not work.
Trans women have a right to be angry. We are losing so many in our communities to violence, to suicide. Cis people who are ‘allies’ should be angry [together] with us. If we have to taper the anger to appease cis people, will we really gain the liberation we seek? Or are we accepting the ‘kindness’ of cis people who care but don’t care enough to be part of the solution or to listen to why we are angry?
TE: Do you think we will attain trans liberation in our lifetime?
SB: I hope so. I have seen a lot of change in 20 years. Even 2 years. But trans liberation requires a huge shift in society and how we think about gender and people. And for me trans liberation includes all trans folks and I feel with non-binary people we have a lot of way to go. Of course we have a long to go still with binary trans people too. Imo trans liberation is a massive social change right down to ending the gendering of babies.
TE: Do you think the trans community is too fragmented to unite for liberation?
SB: Are we fragmented? Hell yes. For starters I prefer to use ‘communities’ over ‘community’. We live such diverse lives. The trans community is fragmented for so many reasons. Many trans people go stealth. We have white trans guys who go off and be dudes that have no common ground with trans women. When I see fragments I see people calling out racism, I see racism, I see trans men being shitty to trans women, I see trans women being shitty to non-binary people. I see classism, I see respectability politics, I see whorephobia, I see ableism. I don’t think we should just put all this aside for the ‘greater good’ of community. This shit needs to be talked about. The trans communities will always be fragmented to some degree. Being trans is not this universal uniter. This shit needs to be discussed and worked out. I think we can find liberation, but trans liberation that favours pretty middle class white trans people is not liberation.
TE: Many trans women resort to sex work to make ends meet. Have you ever seriously considered entering the sex industries as a means for survival?
SB: I have dabbled in sex work to make money for rent and food. If I was younger I would probably be doing it full-time. Even now I am considering getting into trans/queer porn, but more as a photographer and videographer. I have no problem having sex for money. But at 35 and being visibly trans, I am not sure as a sex worker or cam model I would make that much money.
TE: Just one more question: How do you respond to critics who would say that being “visibly trans” doesn’t make you “trans enough”? I’m …umm… asking for a friend. (giggles)
SB: We old punks have a thing for assholes like that: Give them the finger. (laughter)
Joking aside. It was something I struggled with back in 1999 and what kept me in the closet for another 13 years. It took me a look time and a lot of therapy to accept being visibly trans and to find the strength and courage to live that life. Being visibly trans does not make a trans woman any less of a woman. What we need to unpack is the cisnormativity that say women have to look a certain way. Anyone who slights a trans woman for being visibly trans is being a misogynist and furthering the harmful ways we see and box in women. If someone sees me as not trans enough because of my traits that society deems masculine, they are judging me solely on my looks, being a jerk, and catering to the oppression of women. If anything, being visibly trans makes me stronger as a woman.
TE: Thank you so much for your time today.
SB: Thank you. Have a lovely day.
Follow Sophia on twitter.