Imara Jones, creator of TransLash, a multi-episode docuseries about what it is like to be trans at a time of social backlash, joins the program to discuss her journey of making the docuseries, and some key takeaways from the experience. Discover the connection between storytelling and social change, and why change is not inevitable. Imara also discusses her experience of attending a United Nations’ gathering on gender diversity.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Imara’s process of documenting her own journey (4:00)
- Why change is not inevitable (14:00)
- An important moment in TransLash and how it impacted Imara (25:00)
- Two key insights that can transform the world (30:00)
- How work environments create scarcity and competition (36:00)
- Imara’s thoughts about pronouns (39:00)
- How to give people a choice of how to identify themselves (44:00)
- Why some women have continued to support the patriarchy (46:00)
- The United Nations’ gathering on gender diversity (48:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Imara, welcome to The Will to Change.
IMARA JONES: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m a big fan of your docu-series, which is called TransLash, and I recommend everybody check it out. I learned so much about you in that series on a personal level, so I hope that we can talk a little bit about that. And then we’re going to get into your voice in the world.
We had the amazing experience, you and I recently, of sharing a panel at the LBTQ Women Conference hosted by Microsoft in New York. And I learned yet again more about you, and it was just incredible to be in community and learn from you and all the stories from the LBTQ women, which are so relatively unknown, so it was just so powerful to have you in that group.
Vis a vis that, we always start The Will to Change with our diversity stories. I know that is a vast subject for you, so let me ask you: What would you like to share with our audience about you, your evolution, your work, your family, your history, and what has brought you to doing the work that you’re doing today that’s so imperative?
IMARA JONES: Well again, thank you for having me. I think what has brought me to the work that I do now is my life. Right? It’s the sum total of so many different parts of my life, so many interests, a combination of what I’ve learned, the kind of intrinsic skills that I have, the skills that I’ve developed, and then just who I am as a person, the essence of who I am as a person.
And they all kind of converge at this point of the way in which I believe in using media and personal storytelling in order to try to change the world, to change minds, to open minds, to get people to see things differently, to get people to see all of us as human beings because that, ultimately, is when we will have change in the world and in the planet when we see that everyone matters.
And there’s no greater sort of question about who matters and who counts and how we see people as human beings than the subjects and the conversations around gender. Because, unfortunately, patriarchy has been so essential to the construction of the modern world that it’s hard for people to begin to imagine things that are outside of it, for us to imagine different ways of being.
And that’s where, specifically, the critical conversation around being trans comes in, because it’s a direct collision with established ideas and norms around patriarchy because patriarchy is so based in biological essentialism of women, that it forms, kind of, the core of control. And once you crack that, you begin to open up an incredibly different imagination around freedom and what’s possible for everybody.
So, of course, being a trans woman who’s had to journey through the patriarchy in order to get to where I am, it’s given me really unique insights about the way in which all of that works.
And what I do is I articulate that alongside with the parts of myself that are equally as important being that I am black, that I am African American in this country, in that experience, what that experience tells me about America, being from the south, what that experience tells me. And then combined with all the things that I’ve done in my life, that is to say places that I’ve gone to school like Columbia, like the London School of Economics, the fact that I both have a creative side and a highly analytical side. The fact that I have worked in so many different types of places. I’ve worked in corporations. I’ve worked in nonprofit. I’ve worked at the highest levels of government, at the White House, and the fact that I’m a journalist.
And I kind of bundle all of that together into this package which is about reflecting what I believe are, kind of, the downsides of where we are and then the upsides of where we can possibly be. And that’s kind of my world and my work.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell me about the shift from being the objective journalist, right, which is the stock and trade of documenting our world, and putting yourself in a storyteller position, I suppose, about others. And then the processes of bringing yourself to the front and turning the gaze on yourself and the community. What was that shift? Well, I know why. I believe you and I have spoken about the urgency of the message, right? If for no other reason, you felt you had to do this because we are in a dire moment of violence, particularly perpetrated against trans women of color. And, in fact, you shared a statistic that the U.S. is second to only Brazil and Mexico in terms of the number of murders of trans women of color since the beginning of the year.
I’m sure that there was nothing else you could do besides document your story. However, you used to be – you remember the days when your objectivity was the thing. So, I wondered, bringing your story to the front, what was that process like? Was it difficult? Did you have to talk yourself into how to do that in the series TransLash particularly? You very much get personal, which I love and I think is so effective, but I’m sure it was a little bit of a journey to get there.
IMARA JONES: Yeah, I think a couple things. I think, first of all, the way in which we’re all trained is to disassociate and to objectivity. If you think about the way in which we get trained through our education process, we learned to disconnect what we’re doing from who we are, what we really want, because we’re told that that’s the way we have to function in society.
And then there’s a heavy emphasis on then commodifying the disassociation that you have from your work and from your craft and what you do.
And so I think that that’s just the way that we’re all trained and the way that we don’t think about it. And then you layer on top of that identity. We are formed into these larger identities, which in this society, which is patriarchal and white supremacist, just as a matter of fact, not as a matter of judgment, I mean those things are just factually the case. Both of those things, for everyone involved in the system, for people who are white and black and of all different ethnicities and races, process of patriarchy and white supremacy dehumanizes you, right? So the minute that you begin to think of yourself in this context as a white person supposedly having to do certain things, you’ve been dehumanized in the process. So we’re all taught to disassociate and dehumanize.
And so I did that in my own life in various ways. In terms of my education, I’m an economist. It’s inherently about disassociation in a certain way because we’re taught to analyze these massive systems and these massive changes. Within that, your humanity isn’t in there. You’re looking at this thing objectively.
The same is true, then, for journalism and storytelling where you are there to study the thing, and you’re taught that you’re not supposed to be a part of what that – it’s just a process of observation. And that was also true before I went into journalism and I worked in communications at Viacom and then before that the White House. I mean, everything that you’re advocating isn’t about you. You’re advocating on behalf of an organization or you’re advocating on behalf of ideas, so there’s a certain amount of disassociation from that.
I just wanted to point out for everyone that we all are engaged in that in some way, and should really think about ways to connect to our humanity. But I think that one of the things that did it for me, that made me realize that I’m important and that my voice matters and I couldn’t have this disconnection between what I do and who I am in the world is the moment that we’re living in, where given the political environment, given the policy environment, who everyone is has suddenly become weaponized by the administration.
And so consequently, because who I am has suddenly – who I am as a person has suddenly become at the core of political discourse, it would actually be malpractice on my part to not then bring my personal experience into the analysis, right? Then I would have to have some high level of just totally being outside of where we are to just say that I shouldn’t do that.
And so I think the moment that we’re living in forced me, in so many ways, to connect, right? And that’s one of the flip sides of the moment that we live in, where it has – because we’re in a time of choosing, it’s forced people into connecting, to activating, to reflecting, to being so many different things and in so many different situations than they would have ever thought they would have been three or four years ago.
So, that’s kind of the flip side of all of the ugly is that it has actually forced people to come together both inside of themselves and with other people. And that’s definitely been true for me.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true for me, too. I have to say, the appetite for this whole conversation has really spiked in the last two to three years. And I’m so grateful because I felt – I described the first eight years of having my business as pulling teeth. You know, trying to get people to pay attention to what I knew was an emergency, which is the fact that so many of us don’t feel included in the workplace and also in our families and et cetera, et cetera. But that the pull that’s occurred in the last couple of years by people who realize, as I like to say, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lovely quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It struck me that we have to bend the arc. It’s not just going to bend itself. And in fact, we learned over the last couple of years that it can actually bend, perhaps, in a direction that is harmful, like something we can’t even imagine.
And you shared a statistic in your piece in The Nation. You said the most violent years for LGBTQ people on record have occurred since the election of Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2017. And so this is the world we’re living in. And I’m so glad that TransLash, which is on its third episode, the fourth is coming out soon, is that right, Imara?
IMARA JONES: Well, episodes four, five, and six will be rolling out most likely early 2020, perhaps late 2019. But might pretty sure we’re on track, given our production schedule, for early 2020.
JENNIFER BROWN: Congratulations.
IMARA JONES: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, tell me, now you’re behind the camera and in front of the camera. And it’s your series. Can you describe the creative process of choosing, because every moment matters so much, how do you story-tell in the context of TransLash? And how did you come to decide these were the most powerful ways to influence hearts and minds and get the word out about the reality?
You made it very personal, which I’m sure was a strategy, but also really healing for you. You sort of go through your own past and it seems that there were some threads that you needed to connect for yourself that are, I hope, have brought you a sense of perhaps closure. I’m not sure because I know there are some other things that you don’t have closure about, family-wise. So tell us when you chose to focus in the series and what the process was like deciding that and maybe describe a little bit about a couple of the vignettes that you think are particularly powerful.
IMARA JONES: Yes. I think what’s really interesting and really important about that is just the use of that quote. I think it’s often used as a source of passivity and hope that it just bends, but it doesn’t just bend. People bend it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly.
IMARA JONES: And it’s bent through a lot of sacrifice and a lot of difficulty. There’s no bending towards justice in any way that you can imagine or say that hasn’t involved those things. Whether it be the fight for women’s rights or you name it, I mean, we could go – we can give various examples. But I think it’s important for us to realize that. We bend it; it doesn’t just naturally bend.
For me, I think speaking of bending justice and how we do it, on the issue of trans and gender, I think what’s really important is that we humanize ourselves. A lot of the violence is perpetrated against us as women of all backgrounds, quite frankly, because people don’t see us as human beings and see us as objects and, in so many ways, disposable. And the way to overcome that is to connect people to your sense of humanity, which is the one thing that we all have in common – our relationships, our desires, our hopes, our need for community, our need for acceptance, the desire to belong and to be free and to express yourself – all those things.
And so I am convinced that to the degree that we’re able to tell those stories in ways that are relatable is the way that we will decrease violence against us and to be able to survive and to live.
And so that’s why I decided to tell that story and why I decided to tell the story that way, because as I say at the beginning of that documentary, the assumption is that trans people just materialize out of thin air, that we don’t have history. That’s the thing, that assumption about us is what leads people to, in part, objectify us.
And so I wanted to do something that centered the fact that we are grounded in our connectedness, in our humanity, in our family, just like everyone else. And even to the degree that we don’t have those things, that we create them.
So, I decided to tell the story of family within a queer context, within a trans context. And that inherently, in order to be effective, had to be personal. There was no way that it wasn’t going to be impactful or effective if it wasn’t personal.
And the way that the entire series works overall is that it’s personal, right? I start out by asking these questions for myself that I’m trying to answer through the journey of those minutes, and everyone in each of the episodes is coming along with me into that exploration.
And so if I was going to talk about my family, then I had to go to the place where my family was from and I had to engage in all these conversations with people that knew me before I knew myself, knew my parents, knew my mother before she knew herself, in order to ground the conversation in family. And then, secondly, to explore this question of acceptance from my mother, which I can’t answer because she passed in 2011 before my transition. It was a good way to be able to try to explore that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And in the process, you did that by meeting up with Mama Rose, who is 94? Is that right?
IMARA JONES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I loved that part, where you were trying to explore your relationship with your mom and who your mom was in her early years, without that data, because she’s gone. How would she have felt about the woman you are today?
IMARA JONES: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: And tell us about her. Maybe you were surprised and really touched by her answers to your questions as you interviewed her. That’s apparent in the episode.
IMARA JONES: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s an assumption that because you – she’s a 94-year-old black woman from the south. Now, with a huge caveat that she’s also highly educated. So let’s leave that to the aside. She taught for four decades and worked as a substitute teacher well into her 70s – well into the time that she retired. This is a person who has seen all types of people, all types of children.
But at the same time, from the outside, someone would see her and stereotype her in a certain way, and she’s also highly religious, right? What I think is the most touching about her is it made me just think about the fact that if and as a person in their 10th decade on the planet can have an openness to trans issues, an openness to the ability for people to be diverse in terms of sexual orientation, and for her guiding light and all of her interactions to be love and acceptance and lack of judgment, because for her, her faith tells her that those are the things that actually come from God, and if she is to manifest those things in herself, she has to be that way.
It gives me hope that everybody can be that way. Right? There’s actually no limitation, no one gets a pass on being closed, on being hateful, on being angry. No one gets a pass on that because through her example, she shows everyone what’s possible. And it’s really deeply powerful, I think.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s one of my favorite scenes. And then pinging to the other end of the generational spectrum, you have this lovely scene with her great-grandchildren.
IMARA JONES: That’s right, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us about that. I know you were very surprised by something that was discussed.
IMARA JONES: I was surprised by the whole conversation. I mean, I’m surprised by the whole conversation. A couple of things. I think one of the things I learned through them is how – someone told me this a long time ago, but families have culture. Every family has a culture. One of the things that came through when I saw Mama Rose and I see the great-grandkids is that we in our family do have a culture of openness, even though it’s not necessarily – it wasn’t apparent to me until I actually pushed it.
On the surface, it’s very conventional in a lot of different ways, but then right below the conventionality is an openness. And the great-grandchildren display that in some really, really key ways.
Yeah, they surprised me for so many different reasons. One, they’re still at the age where – one of the things I think that’s really interesting about teenagers is that they’re receptive and open on the idea of gender because they understand that gender isn’t fixed, gender is something that they actively learn.
One of the things that’s interesting, Courtney, who is in the piece, if you look at her Instagram feed, every month or so she has a different look. And I realized that what she’s actually doing is that she’s actually playing with her gender. She’s trying to figure out what presentation in the world actually matches who she is and what she feels comfortable with, right? They get the idea that gender is something that, on some level, is constructed, because they’re constantly playing with it. Her sister as well, it’s the same thing – constantly changing their looks, changing their hair, changing their make-up, changing their clothes. It doesn’t stay the same.
And they’re in this fertile period of 14 – “fertile” as in fruitful of change, 14 to 16, where they’re really exploring all of these things. And that depth of reflection on gender is what they articulated in the conversation that we had. They had a depth and an understanding that people who teach gender, who understand gender, take decades to understand, and they have it at 14. And that’s what I found so astounding about it. And that no one ever asked them what they think about larger issues in the society and core issues, but they have lots to say about it, and that we need to listen more to them. That was one thing that surprised me.
Another thing that surprised me was Courtney telling me that my coming out encouraged her to come out as a lesbian.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know! That moment!
IMARA JONES: Yeah. That was really surprising, I didn’t know any of that. And how she and her friends had been in counsel about it. Her friends were saying, you know, “This is the moment, you need to tell your friend, your cousin just came out,” – all this stuff. Again, just the activity of the conversation and the engagement that they have in the world was really surprising to me.
But at the same time, they’re still people. And so even with all of that understanding, when they saw me post surgery posts, breast augmentation surgery and other changes, that they were totally surprised and they had to get used to that.
In that, it allowed me to have a greater forgiveness of people who still get tripped up by my gender or pronouns or are surprised, because even these people in my family who are incredibly open, who understand all these things about gender, who are, indeed, one of them at least is queer themselves, was like, “Well, I was really shocked when you posted surgery, I had to get used to it.” It made me more forgiving of other people. There was so much in the exchange with them.
I have to say, I think that’s five minutes of TransLash. In the first cut, it was the entire length of the entire episode that you see right now, because that exchange with them was just so rich and so fascinating that there is a lot there. And so it’s a really important moment as well in TransLash.
JENNIFER BROWN: This whole journey is almost like you doing a deep dive into your own community and all the diversity within the community, right? We’re always learning, and as a storyteller, for you to be surprised, what else were you surprised to learn as you constructed these episodes? Is there anything else that you were just blown away by, whether you had your own bias or blind spot? Or perhaps there was a generational insight that knocked you in the head about the community and what’s actually happening. I’m sure your journalist in you was like, “Wow, there’s so much I have to learn.”
IMARA JONES: I’m shocked at how eager people are to talk about and to engage in these issues on a human level. I’m always shocked at how responsive trans people are to me to talk about things. Some have been reticent, but overwhelmingly, most people are. And it’s like Yari Jones (ph.) who’s in the first episodes said to me – I don’t think this made it into the episode, but she said to me, “People need to listen to us. And they don’t only need to listen to us about trans issues, but they need to listen to us about everything.”
And I think that that idea, that concept, I think my cousins were so eager to talk because no one ever sits down and asks them in a really complex way, “What do you think about the world around you and what’s striking you? What’s driving you? What do you have to say?”
And that’s the inherent mark of marginalization. And it shows a clear divide in who we value as storytellers because people who are mediocre and white just automatically assume that their story should be centered and taught freely and when they’re not centered, feel like they’ve been damaged or hurt or crossed or targeted. When the only thing that’s happened is that someone has actually just asked someone else about themselves, not only centering you.
And so I think that it’s interesting the way that marginalization happens in storytelling and the eagerness with which people are wanting to engage in these larger issues. I think that that’s really surprising.
Also, just the tremendous activity and hope that is embodied in “transness.” There’s so much hope for the world embodied in who we are and what we go through and what we have to say and what our perspectives are that it’s really inspiring.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. What is your larger message? When you lift yourself out of focusing on trans identity and you’re saying, “Ask us about the world.” When you pull up to the 30,000-foot view, how do you articulate that? I think I know the answer, but I’d just love to hear what it is.
IMARA JONES: I think my 30,000-foot view on this is two quick things: The lines aren’t the lines and your fears aren’t real. I think that those are the things that I would say. And I think that those two things are really important to change in the world.
For instance, if you ask a lot of people why they’re resistant to climate change, it’s because they fear that they’re going to lose something in their life, they’re going to lose a way of life. And what you’re saying is that we have to go back to caves. Right? So it’s this extreme point of view that is grounded in fear, is grounded in loss. If we have real conversations about racial equity in this country or gender equity or the balance between the global south and the global north in the world, what we normally call the developing countries and non-developed countries, everything gets framed in these binary absolute lines of division that translate into someone winning and someone losing.
And I think that once we realize that the lines are artificial, that the lines aren’t real, and that, consequently, because the lines aren’t real, our fears aren’t real, then that means that we can build and construct a radically different world – one that is hopeful, that works for everyone, that’s based on freedom, that’s without oppression, that is in sync with the planet, that centers on the wellbeing of human beings, not the wellbeing of corporations or the wellbeing of rich people or the wellbeing of white people – you can go on. That world really is possible if we understand that the lines are not real, and so therefore our fears aren’t real. And I think that that’s one of the things embodied and underscored by “transness,” which is why I say that at the core of transness and who we are is hope for the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is so beautiful. I find myself thinking, too, a lot about our understanding of the status differential between being male and female and the ability to directly experience that and walk in that identity.
When I talk to my trans friends, we have such fascinating discussions and depressing conversations about the binary between the opportunities, and the ease with which certain genders walk through the world and the discrimination and violence and fear that’s faced by other genders in the world.
Speaking of the importance of the message of who can speak more beautifully and powerfully about the differences than somebody who has walked in the world, expressing in the gender binary? Each of us that’s cisgender is looking at the conversation about expectations of gender from one side.
I’m curious, how do you think about your – I guess how are you experienced in the world, presenting as a woman, and what were the adjustments that you made, that you became aware of, that you had to adjust for? I’m curious what that was like. I’m super fascinated about that because it’s so persistent.
IMARA JONES: Yeah. I mean, I think a couple things. I think that I would say that I present as I am. I present as a woman because I am a woman. I’m not only presenting.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
IMARA JONES: If I understand your question correctly – can you specify slightly more about what you are driving toward in that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. My friends in the business world, for example, say my trans man friends who have transitioned female to male enjoy a status and a safety and an inclusion, and literally are almost uninterrupted in terms of their career path. And then trans women I know, literally I have a friend who said she went from a senior level SVP with a giant team through demotion after demotion.
I have these stories that are being shared with me. It’s so striking because it’s like all of our unresolved gender biases and stereotypes in this broken world magnified. I am struck by the difference in terms of how we are still treated. It’s been exponentially clear to me. I wondered if that had been your experience as you operated in the world.
IMARA JONES: One really great thing is that I don’t work for a corporation.
JENNIFER BROWN: True.
IMARA JONES: If I was in an organized system, that would be difficult. I’m not going to speak to that because I think that it speaks for itself, quite frankly.
If you look at the way that corporations are set up, they are the residence of patriarchy in some ways. They’re the residence of white supremacy in some ways. Those structures as I say, speak for themselves. The difficulties that people encounter in them, given the fact that I have worked for a major corporation, they don’t come terribly as a surprise.
I think that – so that’s one thing. The stories that you told me are not a surprise, sadly.
It’s slightly different for me in that I am myself. For me, because I work for myself and I create products that are driven out of my life experience for me, so far, everything has to be highly qualified in life because it’s always in motion. But for me so far, what has been true is that the more I am myself, the better it is for me in every single way. For me, the more I am myself, the more I am pushed to dig and excavate and to reveal who I am and to bring that in the world, the better that is for me.
If I were in a structured organization where all of these forces are at work, where the idea of scarcity is created – think about it in a corporation. Immediately, the idea of hierarchy and promotion creates an idea of scarcity, right? There’s only going to be one person that heads this department, and there are five eligible people. Therefore, that immediately creates a competition, that immediately creates the sorting that can come through stereotyping and through all these different power dynamics. And so that’s a totally different conversation.
But for me in the world right now so far, what is the truth is that being myself is actually better for me, it’s more fruitful for me.
And I would say that that’s true for everyone, but being yourself in this world is a constant challenge because the world wants to commodify you so that it can buy and sell your labor or your products for the benefit of others. We could go on and on about that, but I think that’s my short answer. Actually, that’s my long answer. But it could be even longer. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: The commodification of ourselves as goods and services. I think it’s depressing, but it is effectively what’s going on in the modern workplace.
IMARA JONES: 100%.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re right. While we’re on the topic of gender, I did want to ask you about pronouns. There is so much debate, not debate, but there’s just a lack of awareness about how and why it’s important to share them, particularly for my audience. I’d love to hear, when you’re asked about that, I always think in the organizational context. When I bring up pronouns and I bring up that I’m cisgender and using the pronouns she/her/hers, I get a lot of attention. People are holding their breath. They want to know more, but everyone is confused about why it’s a thing.
And then from a leadership perspective – an allyship perspective – I try to explain how the sharing of pronouns is so powerful as a signal for inclusiveness. I wondered if you’d decode that a bit for our audience, assuming a primer on it and give us some context. And perhaps do you see this continuing to be – and growing in importance based on what you’ve heard from the younger generations, perhaps, that you have been speaking with on the show? I always like to say it’s being driven by that younger generation, and that’s something I hear in schools a lot when I speak to them, but I never hear it in corporate and I never hear it in the workplace. So it has yet to really take hold there. To your point, who knows if it ever will. What would be your vision for that? How would you help people say, “So what are you saying? That I have to say I identify as John and my pronouns are he/him? I say that at the beginning of every team meeting? Is that what you’re saying?”
People really are trying to nail me around, “What are you saying I should do in my daily life, in my workplace? If, indeed, this is important, how do I self-identify without making an awkward situation? If I’m on board to signal inclusion and inclusiveness, what is the role of my pronouns in that?” I get asked that a lot by my largely cisgender audiences.
IMARA JONES: The pronouns are really important for a variety of reasons. We have a lot of people, increasingly, as you move down the age spectrum in this country, who don’t identify as either gender. We need to create space for them. It’s really simple. It’s actually not harder than that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
IMARA JONES: Because there are more people who are not identifying as she and he or her and him, if we constantly just use those out of assumption, we are erasing people and erasing their identities. That, fundamentally, that erasure, what that translates into is the same as calling –
(Break for direction.)
IMARA JONES: I think that the reason why this is important, this issue, is because there are lots of people as we move down the age spectrum in this country who don’t identify as either gender, don’t identify as her/she or him/his. Consequently, we need to make space for them. It’s as if we were only saying that there’s only black and white, and then we were looking at people who were Latino and saying, “Oh, you’re black,” or Asian, “You’re white.” We have to create space for the identities of people racially, we have to create space for the identities of people gender-wise.
And the reason why that’s so radical is gender is so ingrained and so assumed that the mere suggestion that it may not be is shocking to some people who’ve never had to think about it before, which is what the pushback is that you get about it.
It would be the equivalent of calling someone by the wrong name. We know that when we have our essential identities erased, it causes us to marginalize ourselves, it causes us to not speak up, it causes us to not be able to show up in some really important ways and to go into ourselves. And that erasure is unnecessary if we just ask people what their pronouns are. It’s a really small thing to do. It does not take a lot to do it. And the fact that people are so jarred by it I think shows the age divide in this country, and it also just goes to show you how deeply ingrained the idea of gender is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Oh, my goodness, the cisgender normativity, I suppose, is that the word? I know hetero normativity, based on cisgenderness, if you are around you. And I think the stat is, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but one in five people under the age of 35 identify as non-cisgender and not heterosexual.
IMARA JONES: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love taking that stat to the stages I’m speaking on to say this is one in five on your teams, amongst your coworkers, in your families. And the fact of denying this whole pronoun thing is not really a winning strategy. It’s like I try to win them over with data because you need all the tools, but that’s a really powerful statistic.
I think, too, there’s a way to share pronouns, but there’s also a way to not force people to disclose their pronouns if they’re not comfortable doing so, particularly in a work environment. Is there a way to make it safe without putting anybody on the spot that you might recommend? Or would you say it’s super important no matter what to open that door for people, and if they choose to walk through, great. And if they’re not ready, that’s okay, too.
IMARA JONES: Yeah. I think that you give it as an option and say, “Please introduce yourself.” If you’re at a work thing, “Please introduce yourself, where you work, and then what your preferred gender pronoun is, if you wish.” Sometimes, I don’t feel like giving it and I don’t. Sometimes I do. That’s just a choice that I make as well. Some people don’t want to be, because if you’re transitioning in some way and you don’t want that to be public, that’s also it.
I think that there are no easy answers here, but the question and the most important thing is actually to ask yourself the question. So in a workplace and another, should we be doing this? Should we be allowing this? How do we create space for this? Rather than just the assumption that everyone is binary.
Again, all these systems work on the binary. And if you work in binary systems, it means you’re to constantly exclude people. That is what we need to break out of in general, and that’s what gender does. But part of the pushback is that certain people know that their power comes through gender segmentation, so they don’t want to create space for the idea that that may not be what is actually the case.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s provocative. That’s’ very interesting. It has to do with power and which gender has power.
IMARA JONES: 100%. Honestly, let’s just be real about it. A lot of women or people who identify as women see their power as coming through patriarchy. And so for them, even a threat to the patriarchy is a threat to them, and I think about the white women that voted for Donald Trump. It’s not that they don’t see themselves as women, it’s just that they see their power and their place in the world as coming through white men. And for them, upholding patriarchy is essential to their place in the world.
We also have to acknowledge that patriarchy wouldn’t survive without the support of a lot of women.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good stuff. I’m so glad you said that. Really important. I want to hear, Imara, about the U.N. high-level meeting on gender diversity that you just chaired a couple weeks ago. Congratulations on that.
IMARA JONES: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s incredible. Just describe, what is that? What are they studying? When they say gender diversity, are they being inclusive in that? What were some of the take-aways from that important meeting? What was being looked at and where did you land? Were there resolutions? Were there ah-hah moments for you or others? It must have been incredible.
IMARA JONES: Yeah, it was really incredible. That event brought together nearly 600 people from around the world to the United Nations for the first ever formal meeting on gender diversity, leading LGBTQI-plus nonbinary and trans issues in the history of the United Nations.
That was organized by U.N. Women. It’s a high level meeting because there weren’t resolutions passed. If there were resolutions, that would be a formal meeting of one of the U.N. bodies. But as a formal meeting at the United Nations, what it meant is that permanent representatives, i.e., ambassadors of various countries to the United Nations took part. It meant that the head of U.N. agencies, including the heads of U.N. Women also participated as well as activists.
What we did was we spent an hour and a half surveying the status of gender diversity around the world. We explored the ways in which it plays out both in the global north and the global south. We talked about examples around the world where we are working to create more gender-diverse communities and countries around the world. Argentina spoke about the laws that they have not only around gay marriage, which they opened up very early, but also around gender identity and the ability to be able to live in whatever gender you were born in without any legal complications within that country.
We spoke about the need and the importance of intersectionality and feminism to understand the way in which this intersects with other issues of race, poverty, class, and also of women – of all women of all backgrounds and all stripes, of giving voice to women in the global south, and also just the importance of listening to each other.
I think what was really important was that we had the ability to explore these issues over an hour and a half with a wide-ranging audience that not only included the high-level people that I mentioned, but also non-governmental organizations and activists. I think where we landed was that this was the first conversation of its type at that organization, but there will be many, many, many more and that there’s a lot of work to be done to address this issue.
But around the world, no matter where you are, there’s tremendous hope and tremendous cause for concern. And so how do we build a world that centers human rights and that expands the places of hope and then diminishes the places of violence and darkness when it comes to these issues? So it was a really powerful, interesting, and engaging conversation.
JENNIFER BROWN: And the fact that you got to do that with a global audience and hope was one of your takeaways was actually really encouraging to see that through your experience and know that the global community is hopeful, even in the face of our times of intense marginalization but also intense mobilization, which I know that you call that “whiplash.” You may as well call it “translash whiplash.” Like you said, at a time of the most worrisome things that have happened for a while, there is also this tremendous sense of community and change that’s possible right now that we’ve maybe never seen. It’s been my experience, too.
Imara, this has been incredible. I could spend a lot of time with you, learning from you, and reading what you write. I love your writing. You’re an exquisite communicator. I want to make sure our audience can follow you. Please watch TransLash and stay tuned for future episodes. I’m so excited. Where else can folks read your work?
IMARA JONES: Yeah. Everything that I write and generally do is on my website, ImaraJones.com. Or you can follow me across social media @ImaraJones. It’s my name. It’s very simple. I have no fancy aliases. If you know my name and you type it in on Google, all of those different ways of engaging my work will easily come up.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. And your recent pieces in The Guardian and The Nation I wanted to alert people to. Please go find Imara’s Jones’s pieces. Any other pieces coming up that you have that you’d like to direct us to?
IMARA JONES: One I’m working on, but it means getting a source to come forward. Until I’m able to do that, I can’t really finish that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued. Well, thank you, Imara. It is a delight to have you in our world and bring your story and your message and your wisdom to our audience on The Will to Change. Keep on doing what you’re doing. I really look forward to continuing to learn from you as we both travel this path together. Thank you for joining me.
IMARA JONES: Thank you so much for having me and enjoy the rest of your day and your week and thank you so much for your podcast and for all of your contributions in making the world a more open place.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.
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