I spent the past year abroad as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, living in five different countries to see how the design of cities made space for residents to identify with their streets and neighborhoods, and also to see where there was a disconnect that made urban residents feel far away from the places where they lived. This past weekend, I traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin to meet the other thirty-nine 2011-2012 fellows. Throughout the year, I had wondered about their projects, and about how they were doing as they managed and reconsidered their questions about international gay rights, approaches to fiber art or the cultural implications of fashion. Sharing space with the fellows brought home the idea that each of us has spent the whole year looking and in so doing, we’ve learned both how to look and that the maintenance of the state of looking is its own point of completion.
One of the fellows, whose project focused on relationships between science and spirituality in the Middle East, said that what she learned on her Watson year was that she was most interested in the critical thinking that came with asking questions of how systems operate and fit together, how two opposing ideas can both hold truth, and how it becomes possible for one person to disagree with someone else’s conclusion, but to respect the process by which they came to it. She said that she arrived at a place where to be comfortable in a constant state of asking questions was an end in itself, which she found both liberating and challenging.
I continued to think about a commitment to process as a point of arrival as I spent parts of the weekend talking about my experience as an openly and visibly transgender Watson Fellow. In some respects my Watson year was singular, because I viewed everything I saw with an awareness of myself as a trans-bodied researcher. In many respects, however, the fact that I understood my body to be a possible point of contention in contexts where I could not necessarily navigate the culture, particularly in the ten weeks I spent living in Ecuador, was common among the experiences of many of the Fellows. In the situations on my Watson year where I felt especially comfortable, it was because someone in the community had made it clear that they were an active ally, that they supported my inquiry-based approach to living, as well as my state of being trans, whether or not we ever talked about it, which in turn enabled us to move beyond my gender and to engage as individuals sharing a room or a park bench or a Tuesday morning.
What distinguished active allyship for me was that instead of being told that it’s okay that I’m trans and that I’m supported in my trans experience, an active ally made an effort to show me that they were interested in engaging with me holistically. In cases of passive allyship, often what was construed as support felt like it was turned on its head, the acceptance of my transness becoming a badge of progressivism instead of the means of engaging with another individual. With an active ally, there was space to talk about the questions I had, or the questions they had, about gender or about anything. There was a commitment to asking, to wondering, and to co-generative support as an end in itself.
In coming out eight years ago, the people in my community who made me most comfortable were those who communicated not only that they supported the fact that I was transgender, but that they supported my ongoing exploration not as a temporary process of deciphering my queerness but as a continued deciphering of my humanness. Where passive allyship was static, ie: “I support you as you are,” active allies provided dynamic supported and expected it in return.
We learn from our allies what kinds of questions we have the space to ask, and, as a result, what kinds of questions we are willing to ask of ourselves. The language of “coming out” implies a point of completion, but it doesn’t account for the evolution of our identities, something that’s just as daunting, and just as essential as coming out itself, and which requires as strong of an ally as does coming to terms with being queer. This may require a shift in how we see allyship, and even in how we see our own process of self-development: less as a series of sequential arrivals and more as an arrival in its own right, embedded in a commitment to ongoing inquiry.