You would think as a transgender woman that when I learn another transgender woman is going to be at the meeting I’m going to that I would be both relieved and thrilled. However, as nice as it is to not be the only transgender woman in the room, it is also incredibly anxiety inducing. The hate I’ve internalized comes out in a mantra I recite repeatedly inside my head: “Please be normal please be normal please be normal please be normal.” And in that general prayer are even more ugly parts: please don’t be dressed like a teen mall goth. Please don’t sit with your legs spread out. Please don’t talk over people or yell. And please please please don’t bring up any weird sex stuff.
I won’t pretend that there’s any redeeming element of these toxic thoughts, some benevolent wish to spare these other women harm. No — it is a selfish anxiety. The anxiety of being defined by them. I don’t hide that I’m transgender but I’m also incredibly fortunate to not have to deal with it most of the time. When I first came out, complete strangers would come up to me and ask if I had real boobs or pull on my hair to see if it was a wig or try to grab something even worse. I’ll never know which of them were simply curious and ignorant and which were malicious but the experience was humiliating and traumatic either way. Luckily hormones and such have led to me “passing,” a term meaning that I look enough like a cisgender woman to not have my womanhood questioned by random acquaintances. There’s a more crude but apt way a lot of my well meaning cisgender friends have said it: “You look like a normal woman.” And so when a transgender woman is not “normal,” it feels like it undermines this “normalcy” I have fought for and that has made my life so much more fulfilling and safe.
It is important to understand this aspect of normal. Normal isn’t just the expectations of the powerful or those who pretend they are. And the motivations for it on the Left are not always as clear cut as we would like to think.
In what has become a rather routine social media performance, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara posted the following meme and was quickly met by outrage:
But as I confided in a friend I actually thought the meme was quite funny because it touched on an insecurity most Leftists have. As I told this friend, what Leftist in their right mind has not wished for the Left to be a bit more normal when dealing with JFK conspiracy theorists at Left Forum or Soviet cosplayers at protests or, dare I say, Jacobin’s own odd angsty “war on Christmas” marketing campaign.
But that last example gets to an important point. The people who run Jacobin, however we may feel about their political vision, are not dumb when it comes to selling their magazine. However they couch it, Jacobin’s readership is not normal people, so why would they appeal to normal people? A poshly designed magazine focused mostly on obscure history or even more obscure (at least in the United States) intra-Left debates is not in anyway normal. Sunkara may dream of a more normal Left on social media, but his magazine affirms the counter cultural identity of his readership as outside the norm.
And the major strategic goals, and the tactics used to achieve them, by the related social democrat wing of the DSA are hardly anymore appealing to normal people. I recently participated in a debate about mutual aid in DSA. I focused on using mutual aid as a tactic in, rather than instead of, our Medicare For All work. This tactic is crucial to expand our membership to normal people. There’s nothing more normal under a privatized healthcare system, unfortunately, then having problems with insurance and medical debt. Or to touch on another DSA mutual aid project, there’s nothing more normal than getting pulled over for a broken tail light. While a progressive or socialist person is often willing to have a 20 minute discussion about singlepayer with a stranger who knocked on their door, most normal people are not. Especially when that stranger, most likely a young white man, is not normally seen in that neighborhood.
We need to take the following three truths very seriously: (1) we very much do need the support of normal people if we want to build a mass socialist movement, (2) we need tactics that activate them which will be different than those that activate already political people (like Jacobin or panels at Verso), and (3) even as we focus on winning over normal people, we must challenge what is normal.
The advantage the alt right has had is because racism is normal in U.S. politics and white culture. That’s obviously a norm we don’t accept. But there are plenty of norms held by the same people that we do not need to dismiss outright. The norm of the nuclear family is a great example. It’s often been a force of reactionary misogyny and homophobia. It’s racialized and used to impede communal relationships. I’m sure most of us have heard the mantra “I’m just looking out for me and my own.”
But the reason it’s such an effective tool for these harms is because it appropriated what is usually a genuine sentiment of love and collective survival. The nuclear family shouldn’t be normal, but while it is normal we can use the empathy within it as a stepping stone to the communal empathy necessary for building a socialist society. There’s a reason why so many Leftists have addressed each other as “brothers and sisters.”
Ultimately it is highly unlikely the leadership of the Left will ever be mostly “normal.” Aside from how much energy it would take to change its current composition, the irony is that normal people are not looking for normal leaders. The campaign of Danica Roem is a great example of this. A transgender woman and metalhead, Danica is far from “normal” in our society. But her campaign appealed to what she constantly referred to as the “bread-and-butter issues” of normal people, specifically infrastructure.
We don’t need to make ourselves normal, nor should we give into the projected anxieties I described at the beginning of this piece. But we do need to appeal to normal people, and we need to be real with ourselves that what has activated the dormant Leftists that comprise DSA, people like me, will not be enough to activate those normal people.