What would an ordinary trans narrative look like?

Actress Laverne Cox signing autographs.

Diversity is the new trend in media and pop culture these days, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though at times it feels like more of a buzzword than an actual commitment. We are, however, starting to see more diverse projects by diverse creators come down the pipeline — and I’m talking about good diverse projects, not just things slapped together for attention and kudos. This kind of storytelling is critical, allowing people to see themselves in the media they consume, and, moreover, to see accurate reflections of themselves rather than purely voyeuristic versions produced for the dominant gaze.

This is still a big problem in trans depictions, where, with some notable exceptions, people are usually portrayed for the cis gaze in mainstream projects. Transgender women in particular bear the brunt of this brand of transphobia, even in projects lauded by some for their sensitivity and breadth of coverage. Issue of who is playing trans characters aside, such roles are often rife with lingering details over transition, handwringing over gender dysphoria, and other after school special-esque elements that don’t necessarily reflect the totality of the trans experience. For many, gender is just a thing that is, though they may have had periods in their lives where this was different.

What does an ordinary trans life look like, and why is it so important? It’s not just a character who ‘happens to be trans,’ because that can have the effect of pushing that character’s gender to the background, making it a nonissue that turns the depiction into something very tokenistic. But it is a character who is fully realised and who has priorities and experiences far beyond gender. It’s important both because it provides a better experience for cis people — and a better way for them to view the trans community, by knocking the transphobia out of them and forcing them to see trans people as human beings — and because it specifically provides some important grounding for trans youth.

As gender becomes a wider subject of discussion in US culture, many youth are coming out earlier and earlier, while others are understanding that their struggles with gender aren’t unique, that they aren’t freaks, and that they are ordinary people who might just need a little help finding out who they are. This ability to engage with gender is fantastic, but when the only depictions youth see are those of tormented people consumed by their gender identity, those being raped, beaten, and killed for being trans, those who spend all their time thinking about being trans, it sends a really negative message. It’s hard to imagine becoming an adult, living a life as a trans person, if you think that nothing will ever change, that you will be forever haunted by your gender and your past even ever you’ve achieved whatever level of transition is right for you — and of course media would have youth think that they need hormones, top and bottom surgery, plastics to ‘feminise’ their faces, and other medical treatments, because they need to look like the Caitlyn Jenners of this world.

Media creators aren’t required to constantly think of the children, but it’s worth considering how many narratives frame transness positively, as simply part of someone’s identity, and what kind of message trans youth receive when they’re surrounded by depictions of trans people that feel extremely negative. It’s one thing to focus on the intensity of gender dysphoria and emotional stress of transness when you’re telling stories about people in transition — especially youth — though we should be asking why the only stories we seem to be able to tell are about transition. It’s another to feature a trans character post transition (such characters are vanishingly rare) who is still portrayed in a way that revolves around gender identity, complete with ‘before and after’ flashbacks to underscore the novelty and strangeness of transness.

So what does an ordinary trans narrative look like? A guy wakes up in the morning, shaves, dresses for work. A woman sits at her mirror putting on makeup before getting dressed to go out to a party. A fat person peruses a closet looking for clothes, picking a tutu and a tie to don for an art opening. These are all experiences that everyone has. They’re experiences that trans people have, but we almost never see them. Why can’t media and pop culture show people just being while trans, instead of trans while being? Maybe in the context of a story we see a trans guy taking his T, or a woman tucking — as an element of the story, as a component of the narrative, rather than something forced into the eyes of the user like text on a bad Geocities page, giant flashing letters: TRANS! TRANS! TRANS!

Until transness is normalised, we’ll never see these narratives. Which isn’t to say that intense stories about the experience of oppression aren’t important; Invisible Man and Native Son both explored complex racial issues, for example, putting race front and centre because it needed to be talked about, and it still needs to be talked about. Rubyfruit Jungle is still applicable, just like And the Band Played On. So many texts directly tackling oppression, whether in fiction or nonfiction, are an important part of the literary canon and they should be. We live in a world where these things are still issues and we need to engage with them and where readers need to be made uncomfortable and unsettled by them.

But we also need to live in a world that doesn’t constantly exploit experiences of oppression for the dominant gaze, because otherwise, we never see the world we could be living in.

Image: PRIDE Lecture featuring Laverne Cox, UMKC, Flickr