Rainbow Rant: Defining ‘trans joy’

Trans joy has become a rallying cry, but what is it, really?

Joy Ellison
Leader of students for Democratic Society at Ohio State Chandler Rupert helps lead chants during a protest against transgender sports bill at the Ohio statehouse on June 25, 2021.

“Your name is Joy so why don’t you smile?” 

When I was a very small child, a well-meaning gentleman asked me that question nearly every Sunday. Only a fake smile, begrudgingly offered, would shut him up. I quickly came to resent him with the righteous ire that only a 4-year-old can muster. 

The phrase “trans joy,” bandied about so often nowadays, always raises questions for me. Does it mean we have to paste on a smile? Or is it an invitation to a deeper kind of transformation?

Since I was given the name Joy at birth, I have spent a lifetime listening to people serenade me with “Joy to the World” (both the carol and the Three Dog Night version). That has given me plenty of time to think about what joy really means. I’ve concluded that joy has very little in common with happiness. It’s something stronger, more powerful and infinitely more complicated. 

Joy is a feeling of pleasure and well-being that is enduring enough to coexist with pain. Joy feels no need to turn away from suffering, because it knows it can take root anywhere. Joy, like trans people, is brave. As people who risk so much pain and mistreatment to live in the fullness of ourselves, I venture to say that trans people are better at joy than most.

Happiness is constantly marketed to us. It’s promised if we buy whitening toothpaste or lose 20 pounds. Joy, though, can’t be bought or sold. It’s fundamentally resistant to capitalism — and necessary for change.

Tragic stories about trans suffering still dominate media representations of our community, but increasingly trans happiness is all the rage. There is no denying that is progress, but sometimes happiness, much like beauty, becomes a kind of litmus test for trans people. To be accepted by society we’re expected to shut up and smile, much like I was as a child. To blend in. To prove we can succeed. To accept “good enough” even when our needs aren’t met. True liberation, however, has room for all our feelings, good and bad. True liberation is about joy.

I see trans joy in our marches for justice. I hear it in Jackie Shane singing “Any Other Way.” I feel it in the mosh pit of a Laura Jane Grace show. I learn it from Marsha P. Johnson and Lou Sullivan. I speak it when I tell my friends how much I love them and when I correct people who call me by the wrong pronouns. I live trans joy in both my moments of ease and struggle. 

It takes joy to power a social movement. Joy is what allows us to carry on and carry each other. Trans joy, not just trans happiness, is what it will take to change the world.