Before Kai Cheng Thom picked up my phone call, she was at a martial arts class. “I am really fascinated by the world of somatics,” the Canadian writer explained, “and the body-based wellness movement. I’m constantly doing martial arts training and breathwork. I’m ob sessed with drama healing.” Or was it trauma healing? Shoddy phone reception blurred her Ds and Ts.
“Did you say you’re ‘obsessed with drama,’ or ‘obsessed with trauma’?” I asked.
“Both!” That's clear in Thom’s writing—her work chronicles the complicated inner workings of queer community, where drama and trauma are basically inescapable. Building on these themes as they appear in her 2016 novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, and her 2017 poetry collection, A Place Called No Homeland, her latest book, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes at the End of the World, tackles queer community dynamics head-on in a mix of poems and personal essays.
Published last fall, I Hope We Choose Love reckons with a number of queer community practices and logics that have become commonplace over the past two decades. Queer community, as Thom examines it and in the wider world, can take many forms: a more intimate, chosen-family model of mutual aid and support; the more nebulous web of connections drawn by individuals who might frequent the same bars, parties, or organizing circles because of their shared identities and experiences. For some, these communities provide catharsis, a space to let your hair down after a long, hard day of having to interact with straight people. For others, they are also a lifeblood: a go-to resource for housing and job opportunities free from the discrimination that they might face elsewhere.
In I Hope We Choose Love, Thom is concerned with how community might work, and where it falls short, as it exists at this exact moment in time. She looks at how queer people have adapted long-held traditions of intracommunity justice to the age of social media, questioning the effectiveness of the one-size-fits-all Facebook callout when it can have such a disproportionately low impact on white, cis individuals accused of rape and abuse, while potentially destroying the lives of trans people and people of color.
Elsewhere in the collection, the author considers why some trans women leave their social circles by choice after years of being highly active and visible in them. She ties this to the hypervisibility endemic to trans women’s existences “both in and outside of queer communities.” She also critiques a defense of a trans woman’s right to kill herself that has gained anecdotal traction in some queer circles in recent years, which posits that, if a trans woman decides that she wants to die and makes her decision known, one should not intervene. According to Thom, this stance reflects a total misapplication of informed consent and body sovereignty, as derived from trans medical practice and discourse around consent more broadly, and only serves to let community members off the hook for failing to adequately support these women while they’re alive.
Underpinning the whole of the book is Thom’s fundamental hope that as, right-wing governments take power and climate change ravages the planet—these are some of the forces contributing to "the end of the world" referenced in her title—queer people will continue to find a way to operate from a place of love—honest, courageous, compassionate, and accountable love—rather than despair. “This is a book about revolutionary love,” Thom writes in the introduction. “Love that might not save us at the end of the world, but that might make it possible to live through.”
In an interview with VICE, Thom, a former social worker who calls Toronto’s rapidly gentrifying Gay Village home, said she has seen queer community at its best and at its worst—the expressions of those poles may differ by community, but they're best summed up as offering refuge to those marginalized by the straight world while failing to actively support its most vulnerable members. “I really want this world to be a better one, Thom said, "just like I want this community I invest in to be a better one.” To her, achieving the latter is the only hope for the former.
Thom has long been in community with trans women of color sex workers, whom, she notes in the book, “have unique and intensified experiences of marginality” even within queer communities. She knows how great the stakes are when a community doesn’t function as it should—and who pays the biggest price for those failures. That’s why she wrote I Hope We Choose Love, and why she hopes that we choose love.
While I Hope We Choose Love looks at all the many, messy ways queer community functions writ large, I felt like I was reading about an interpersonal relationship—as if community itself were Thom’s partner, and I’d been a fly on the wall during a particularly in-depth couples therapy session.
“Community is one of my primary relationships, if all of my relationships are part of a giant, polyamorous, polydirectional web,” Thom said. “I’m a trans woman of color, and I’ve lived at various levels of precarity in my life. When you live in precarity as a marginalized person, community becomes this very central, essential resource to your life, you know? "Like, trans women of color who do sex work often rely on one another for information, for client-sharing, for safety, for understanding and support.”
“I’ve often thought of that relationship with community as a potentially toxic one, because there’s so much dependence, and where there’s dependence is potential for violence,” Thom said. For example, an individual who relies on their queer network for work or housing might not speak out about being sexually assaulted by a prominent, influential member of that group for fear of being ostracized and, therefore, losing access to those vital resources.
A lot of intracommunal heartbreak stems from the failure to meet expectations, Thom said—like when a queer community fails to live up to some imagined ideal that a newer member might project onto it. In I Hope We Choose Love, Thom explores how the pressure to meet expectations might push a trans woman to leave her community voluntarily, rather than deal with the intense scrutiny and “social surveillance” of her fellow community members. “It’s hard enough to leave a partner," she said. "Leaving a community can feel like you’re leaving who you are behind. We define ourselves through community—who we are, what we believe in, our values, who we cherish. It’s terrifying to imagine leaving.”
“There are so many reasons why trans women are slowly driven mad by community. I just have to make peace with their choice to leave, even when it’s a choice I wouldn’t necessarily want to see them make,” Thom said. “We’re all sovereign individuals, which means we’re allowed to withdraw from connections, and I mean that on every possible level. You’re allowed to get out. You’re allowed to get away from me. With older trans women, it’s hard to think about. Like, ‘Oh, if only you’d stuck around, maybe we could’ve had some kind of better relationship…’ But they didn’t stick around, which is totally understandable.” For all Thom knows, those women who left found new beginnings in other communities, ones that held them and allowed them to thrive—perhaps in another city or off in the woods, surrounded by a new group of people they feel more at home with... or alone and at peace with themselves. It’s an end, yes, but also a beginning. Thom mourns the former but honors the latter.
This constant cycling of community members hits trans women particularly hard, in Thom’s experience, as trans women rely on one another to know how to live. “We need mentors to teach us how to dress and apply makeup, how to carry ourselves, how to survive street violence and sexual harassment, how to do sex work (often the most reliable way for a trans woman to survive economically), and a thousand other things,” she writes in I Hope We Choose Love.
Trans women make up a miniscule percentage of the general population, and the number of potential mother figures has been slashed even further thanks to alarming levels of murders and hate-driven violence; outsized suicide rates; and decades of government inaction on the HIV epidemic, which continues to disproportionately impact trans women. High rates of employment and housing discrimination can force a trans woman into precarious circumstances where she is at an increased risk for violence, or even convince her to detransition.
Society as we know it might be coming to an end, but that society depended on the exploitation and oppression of a marginalized underclass. Perhaps its end could lead to something new, Thom offers: a future where all the people just fighting to survive the present might finally be able to thrive, where communities can form around a love free of dependence, abuse, or exploitation. Communities are difficult to build and maintain, and there are no fixed structures set in stone. What they are and how they function entirely depends on the people within each one, and people—as the author reminds the reader over and over in I Hope We Choose Love—are fallible and capable of making mistakes.
“We’ve already been suffering under capitalism, patriarchy, cisnormativity, and colonization,” Thom said. Now, with the impending climate disaster, increasing wealth disparities, and rise of right-wing governments across the globe, the author sees us heading towards the end times. Within that end, she hopes we’ll have, as she said, “The possibility of creating a new beginning. In order to do that, we need to release a part of ourselves, as well. We spend a lot of time talking about changing society, but not as much about how we might need to become different people for each other.”
Thom is hopeful that queer communities can learn from their mistakes, refuse to mirror the violence of the wider world, and become a place where every member can find support and thrive, without sacrificing accountability. She thinks that love can get them there, for, as she writes in her book: “Love…is the only good option in this time of the apocalypse. What else do we have?”
“It may be hard to believe in,” she concludes. “It will be harder to live. I hope we choose it anyway.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.