Kai Cheng Thom is a force within social-justice communities. A quick-witted, sharp-tongued, staggeringly prolific trans woman of colour, Thom is known primarily for her insightful and critical writing – including a fairy-tale novel, a book of poetry, a children’s book, and dozens of articles and think pieces. She’s also worked as a therapist and social worker. Keeping in mind that all of this has been accomplished before her 30th birthday, it’s easy to see why she’s held in such high esteem by the activist left.
Part of what makes Thom stand out among other writers and thinkers is the way she turns the lens of critique back toward her own communities. Leftist social-justice communities are usually on the margins of society, populated by queers, disabled people, people of colour, sex workers, and trans people. Settled into our positions as the antithesis to a popular culture that uncritically reinforces systems of marginalization, we tend to forget that we are also able to enact harm and oppression.
In this respect, Thom is at the top of her game with I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, a collection of essays that draw on her personal experience with social-justice culture. Thom uses frameworks she’s learned through doing therapy work, as well as those of leftist critique, to highlight problematic dynamics within her own communities of queer and socially conscious people.
A recurrent theme is the way justice is applied within and among these groups. Thom discusses how, in the case of people used to navigating a world of violence and strife, it can be difficult to direct attention away from a mindframe in which fighting, fleeing, or freezing seem to be the only viable reactions to disputes. The consequences of this attitude are communities rife with needless conflict and social ostracization, a phenomenon that these days manifests in what is commonly referred to as “cancel culture.”
Healthy conflict resolution, community healing, and empathy-grounded education, Thom argues, are much more difficult avenues to pursue. But by eschewing that hard work in favour of social fracturing, we miss out on valuable opportunities to strengthen and empower ourselves and those around us.
Thom is relentless in her sharp critique, and her voice is fresh as well as necessary. However, her arguments occasionally fall into the traps of sensationalism and exaggeration. She’s prone to making huge leaps and using slippery-slope cautioning in attempts to get readers to heed the problems she’s highlighting. In one essay, Thom refers to what Sarah Schulman calls a process of escalation, in which a person articulates their suffering in the language of extremes in order to be taken seriously. Ironically, this process is reflected to an extent in Thom’s writing.
When Thom calls out the unacknowledged proliferation of abuse among queer groups or the idolization of social-justice microcelebrities, she is doing so from a place of care, and it is a labour of love. These essays aim not to tear down but to help people blossom in ways that are healthier, happier, and bigger. Thom hopes we hear her message and opt to choose growth and healing over division and discord.