Trans visibility in media and pop culture is exploding right now, which seems like it should be a good thing. One of the best ways to fight transphobia is by being unapologetically visible, reaching people who are mainly resistant to trans inclusion because they think they don’t know any trans people, and using that to create a social structure of condemnation for transphobia. At the same time that we’re slowly working on building a more inclusive culture, though, there are some definite problems. There’s the tendency to take cis people as authorities on trans experience, for example, and very narrow definitions of acceptable transness, like an expectation that people ‘pass’ as cis in order to be valid as human beings. There’s the growing transphobic backlash in legislatures across the US.
And there’s the way trans people are handled in media, because the vast majority of media coverage right now is about transition stories. It’s long, lingering pieces that repeatedly misgender and deadname the subject while describing a ‘transition journey’ and talking about genitals. It’s series features all about different trans people and their transitions. It’s story after story after story about people and their genitals, and nothing else.
Transition is an important part of many trans people’s lives, and it occupies various roles in their lives. For some, it’s a long, ongoing, complicated process. For others, it’s something that is done, that is experienced, and then put in their past — a part of their history, not a part of their present. People going through transition may feel a maelstrom of complicated emotions, and may be interested in talking about them, whether in trans spaces or in public.
But the hyperfocus on transition stories means that people never learn anything else about us. They are frozen instead in a world where all that matters is the moment of our transition — we are half in, half out, and never allowed to shut the door. There may always be a place for including some transition stories, but the number coming out right now is ludicrous. There are so many other stories to tell.
There are being while trans stories, both happy and sad — the stories about trans hate crimes, about homeless trans youth, about employment discrimination and suicide and much, much more. These, too, are important stories to tell, but it’s important to avoid turning trans people into tragic objects. There are happy trans stories: Trans people making political art, trans people making awesome music, trans people specifically telling stories for, about, and by the trans community, and these are great things to cover too.
It also apparently hasn’t occurred to the media that it’s possible to cover people who happen to be trans without bringing up their gender history, that they can talk about us just like they can talk about cis people. We don’t encounter stories like ‘President Obama, who was born with a penis…’ That’s because the reader of the story isn’t really interested in the president’s genitals or gender history, which have no actual relevance to the story. Moreover, people would probably be offended on the president’s behalf that such a thing would be discussed. Why is it, then, that his genitals are off-limits and those of, say, trans women are not?
One of the best ways to fully integrate trans people into society is to stop exceptionalising us. Some of us are just being human, doing things, getting our lives moving forward, and none of these things have anything to do with being trans — our gender shouldn’t be relevant to news coverage. We deserve news coverage just like other people, and the media should try covering us long after we have transitioned, should try acknowledging that we are more than transition stories and process pieces. Even when trans people aren’t doing ‘trans things,’ they deserve to be covered, and I promise that it’s okay to refrain from pointedly mentioning their gender.
Exceptionalising trans people creates a climate in which transness is exotic and other — it has to be singled out and brought to the attention of media consumers in case they missed it. It also creates a landscape in which trans people only matter when the things that are happening to us can be directly tied to our transness. If a trans person sells a book, it has to be about something trans-related to matter. If a trans person makes a television series, it had better have some sort of trans tie-in. This obsessive focus on our gender deprives us of autonomy.
I would like to see a world in which people reported on us as whole human beings doing a broad spectrum of things, and I worry that this world will never come thanks to cis people’s fascination with transition narratives and genitals and ‘how it’s all done.’ Believe me, it’s really not that interesting. Individual people have their own private, separate journeys which are tied with identity and culture and lots of things, but that’s not what the fascination with transition is about. That fixation is about The Surgery and How Do You Really Know You’re Trans and How Do You Have Sex and things related solely to our bodies, an objectification that is deeply troubling, and enabled by a society that perennially refreshes transition narratives to keep them in the cis eye.
So try finding something else to report on. I beg you. Something. Anything. Try covering something awesome that trans people are doing. Try finding a trans person and focusing on what that person is doing, rather than that person’s gender. Try asking yourself if you would be writing the same stories about cis people.
Image: detour, Shannon Kokoska, Flickr