My day is made.
My day is made.
“Don’t read the papers
Read between the lines”
- Darby Crash
Some days, it gets to be a bit much.
On every billboard, on every magazine cover, I see beautiful cis people wearing gorgeous clothes. The names of cisgender movie stars adorn advertisements for their latest films. Turn on the radio and hear lovely cisgender voices talking on a wide range of topics, or listen to songs by cisgender recording artists. In the papers, on the internet, on TV, cis people are making news. They are fighting in wars. They are ruling the world. They are becoming rich, or losing massive fortunes. They are getting married and having children. They are having scandals. They are publishing books. They write the reviews, too. They write the editorials. They write and draw all the comics. In fact, they write the whole damn paper.
When they die, nobody puts the wrong names in their obituaries.
The barrage of cis media can be hard to bear at the best of times, even when it contains nothing overtly transphobic, even when its sins are only of omission, of totally forgetting that we exist. But whenever the cis media actually does have something to say about us, my instinct is to cringe in anticipation of pain.
Pardon me for noticing a pattern, but at this point it seems like there must be a manual of style somewhere for cis journalists dictating all the shitty, condescending, passive-aggressive or outright transphobic things they are supposed to do and say in the course of a journalistic piece about a trans person. It doesn’t matter what the piece is about– whether the trans person in question is a model or a politician, a husband or a wife, somebody’s child or somebody’s parent, a criminal or a victim of violence. The same standards, the same hypothetical manual of style, applies.
What are these elements of style, these journalistic conventions around trans people? Well, some of them include:
These are just a few of the tropes frequently occurring even in pieces about trans people purporting to be “positive” about trans people. (Remember, trans “positivity” in the mainstream media means little more than daring to suggest that perhaps we should not be murdered and that maybe being trans is not a mental illness. Trans positivity in the mainstream media rarely goes so far as suggesting that our identities should be truly respected rather than merely indulged, or that maybe government projects to benefit us are not a complete waste of taxpayer money.)
These tropes reinforce the ideas that trans people’s medical histories and the details of our anatomy should be public knowledge, that our appearances are up for cisgender scrutiny, that our assigned genders and names will always be the most real things about us. They send these messages to cis people, further validating their entitled behavior towards us. They send these messages to trans people, further eroding our boundaries and self esteem. Above all, with every media story about a trans person which treats their transness as the most interesting, relevant, novel, exciting, real, impressive thing about them, the world learns that trans people are one dimensional. We cannot be writers, politicians, musicians, business owners, artists, athletes, not in the way that cis people can be, because our trans-ness makes everything we do gimmicky, droll, illegitimate. Everything we do is considered questionable because everything we are is considered basically invalid.
Since the media itself takes this line, how can it fail to sympathize with others who do as well?
I remember the coverage of Gwen Araujo’s murder. That is how I first learned what a transgender person was. I was thirteen. Gwen was seventeen. The media portrayed this teenager, who had been brutally beaten to death, as a deceiver who had tricked men into sex, almost as bad as a rapist. She had “stolen” these men’s precious heterosexuality, and they had reacted with “appropriate” horror. Although lip service was given to grieving her death, it was merely a cloak for sanctimonious victim-blaming and and tut-tutting– “what did she expect?”
From the case of Gwen Araujo I learned that I didn’t want to be one of those people. I learned that there were consequences to being transgender, and that most people would see those consequences as deserved.
Straight, cisgender boys and men learned another lesson in bigotry, and were taught once again that violence was an appropriate response to the presence of transgender women in the world. They also learned that the consequences of their violence would be slight.
Trans people learned that there is little law on our side. Parents, friends and family of trans people learned, as Gwen’s own family did, that the justice system does little to protect the ones that they love.
I don’t wish to treat the occasion of a young woman’s death as an opportunity for politics, but since it already was– and for politics of the most vile, crass and repellent kind– let’s just imagine for a moment how different things could have been if only Gwen had been treated with respect by the media after her death. If only her privacy, dignity and humanity had been considered valid. If only her killers had been framed consistently as the true villains of the piece. And if only the media could have provided a real outlet for the rage that was felt at their very lenient sentencing.
If only, in other words, the media had done something other than spit on Gwen Araujo’s grave and drag her through the mud again, and again, and again, if they could have treated her reasonably, decently, sensitively, and with a modicum of respect, some very different lessons might have been learned all around.
In America, we trust the media to define reality for us. Even those of us who are cynical cannot escape the onslaught of information, presented as factual, with which we are bombarded every day. Even those of us who wish we could opt out cannot help but absorb these loud, powerful messages. The media matters. It tells people what to think and believe, and thus influences how we behave. Do not doubt that the media is a major player in the perpetuation of prejudice of all kinds, has always been, and always will be for as long as oppression exists. A few small words in a one-page article can make a major difference when multiplied by the millions of minds who will absorb them. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of articles, TV segments and radio interviews, and you’ve got the entire consciousness of this culture with regard to transgender issues.
The media influences how we are treated by the world. It’s time to start broadcasting a different signal.
It’s November, and my lover and I are both doing NaNoWriMo– that’s National Novel Writing Month– an exercise in creative masochism wherein contestants do their damnedest to crank out a 50,000 word novel in one month. I’ve done it before a few times. My lover never has, but we agreed that probably the only way for our relationship to survive November was for us both to embark on the dread undertaking together.
Sick of the high-concept, artsy novels that I have attempted in November’s past, I decided to write a fucking vampire book. (No, they do not sparkle. I am a vampire purist. I will take Bram Stoker or even Anne Rice over That Exceedingly Annoying Franchise Which Shall Not Be Named any day.) Embarrassingly enough, this year’s effort is now evolving into a high-concept, artsy vampire novel. So much for breaking patterns.
But it’s not my novel I want to blog about, but my lover’s. Char, who will probably be mortified by this post (Hi there sweetheart! I’m only doing this because I love you!) has a much more ambitious undertaking in hand this month. Their so-far untitled work is a trashy, pulpy tale about a clash between punks and skinheads, with a body count to rival Dashiell Hammet’s appropriately named “Red Harvest.” It is pure entertainment, with a political twist– nowhere in this gritty neo-noir sleazefest will you find a single gendered pronoun, no “he” or “she” or even “ze,” nor any noun such as “man” or “woman,” or any adjective such as “male” or “female.” All the characters have unisex names. Even explicit sex scenes are written so as to keep the genders of the participants completely ambiguous. It is a world exactly like our own, with a single difference– there is no gender.
The difference is less obtrusive than one would think– the characters don’t notice it, and it takes awhile even for the reader to notice. The first two chapters, at which I was allowed a sneak peak, are an exhilarating and disconcerting read. Quite apart from being rich with description, sexual tension, black humor and vicious nihilism, they unsettle by refusing to assign gender to the characters. Characters have presentations– they are masculine or feminine, sporting shaved heads or purple mohawks– they are dominant or submissive, het or queer– but none of them are male or female, or even decidedly anything in between. They are just people, and are certainly no more noble or enlightened for being free of gender, but perhaps they are subtly less constrained.
Readers are forced to confront their assumptions about the genders of the characters, to ask themselves why they think of a brutal skinhead Angel as a guy or of a lavender-haired anarchist as a tough punk chick. One of my friends who also read the beginning of the story remarked that she thought most of the characters were male, which lead to a conversation about how men are assumed to be the only people who are as aggressive, active, and violent as the characters in the novel. Even more interestingly, it forces the reader to examine that squirmy voyeuristic tension that we have all been trained to feel when we encounter somebody who we are unable to instantly categorize.
Maybe I am just gushing about this nascent book because it was written by my lover. I freely admit to worshiping the ground Char walks upon, but it is also my unbiased opinion that they are highly intelligent, imaginative, and probably a better writer than I am. And I am coming to feel that this book is more than just another NaNovel. I think this is a freaking queer, counter-cultural classic in the making. It is so quietly subversive, not in its content but in its very form. The message it sends, or that I read into it, is that without binary gender the world would be very much the same. People would still fight and hate, do drugs, murder. They would still love, fuck, and squabble over petty things.
Perhaps even more importantly, it makes me feel that trans people, too, have a right to our trash entertainment. It challenges the idea of “political correctness,” that taking the human dignity of others into account will somehow deprive us all of our teeth. Believe me, you will find few novels as edgy as this.
I hope Char does finish it, and edit it, and fucking publish it, because I think this book is important. I really do. And just plain entertaining.
And damn it, I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Happy Halloween, dear readers. To celebrate the spookiness of the season, I would like to talk about transphobia, with emphasis on the “phobia” part. Prepare to be disturbed.
Transphobia is commonly defined as “irrational fear and hatred of transgender people.” As a member of an oppressed and misunderstood class, I can easily accept that many people hate us, though I don’t very well understand why. It’s much harder for me to swallow that the bigots who I fear might actually be afraid of me. Seriously, I don’t see what’s so scary about trans people. We are just human beings at a disadvantage in society, more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it. Yet we have been constructed as vicious aberrations, by everything from horror flicks like Silence Of The Lambs to self-styled radical feminists.
Yep, that’s right. Feminists. As it turns out, a certain number of people who identify as such are only interested in rights for women who happen to be cis. Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffreys, and Mary Daly are often cited examples of transphobic feminists. Daly is particularly noted for comparing trans people to Frankenstein’s monster. All three have accused trans women of being “parodies” of womanhood and of “mutilating” their bodies through surgery.
Considering that these arguments are based on the faulty assumptions that a) trans women all have “hyper-feminine” presentations (they don’t), b) they can’t ‘pass’ as cis (many can), and c) medically supervised surgery is equivalent to self mutilation, I feel safe stating these objections are not rational. I think what really scares and squicks these people is transgender surgery. After a couple of years of being out as trans, this doesn’t really surprise me. Cis people are alternately titillated and horrified by what they imagine we do with our bodies. They see us as medical miracles (man becomes pregnant!), grotesque freaks, or bizarre objects of desire (see “shemale porn”).
I think cis people are freaked out by trans surgeries because they fear our power to alter aspects of our bodies which they take for granted in their own. They see us as violators of “natural” physical and reproductive roles. A man bearing a child or a woman having a “penis” (whether she calls it that or not!) is seen by cis folks as a dramatic reversal of The Way Things Are; when for a trans person it might be just a fact of life.
This fear of trans people and our ability to shape our own bodies seems to be ancient. Demons like Baphomet are frequently depicted with transgender characteristics (to say nothing of their trans-species qualities). In the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, a cis man is merged, against his will, with a female nymph, causing him to become physically androgynous. This story illustrates how cis people fear to undergo the transformations that many of us undertake voluntarily.
Sometimes this fear of transgender body modification includes the conviction that we will resort to mutilating cis bodies. Silence Of The Lambs is a perfect illustration of this trope. Instead of pursuing conventional transgender surgery, “Buffalo Bill” skins cis females to make hirself a “woman suit.” Buffalo Bill, of course, was based on a real trans person, Ed Gein, the same killer who served as inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho. Although obviously it’s not good to stereotype trans people as murderers, I think the narrative of Buffalo Bill has something even uglier going on under the surface. Buffalo Bill’s mutilation of cis bodies represents the idea that all bodies are “cis bodies,” that trans people don’t have the right to alter the “natural” forms of cis “male” and cis “female.” When Germaine Greer asserts that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact,” i.e. by simply existing, this is what she means. When people like Alix Dobkin accuse transgender men of mutilating “women’s bodies,” this is what they mean. Isn’t that unbelievable? Even though I am a man, and my body is self-evidently mine, somehow, transphobes would tell me, it belongs to a “woman,” it is a “woman’s body,” and not mine to alter– and in fact, that altering it is an act of violence and misogyny. Yet nobody seems to be able to tell me who this hypothetical woman is. She definitely never lived at this address.
In many cultures trickster gods such as Loki have assumed gender-bending forms, often in order to seduce somebody. This, too, exposes another cis fear– that we will “trick” them into having sex with us, thus “sullying” their heterosexuality (or homosexuality, for that matter). This is another way that cis people think we can harm them by our very existence– because what if they should find some of us attractive? (The horror!) I have to wonder why the prospect of feeling attraction for, having sex with, or falling in love with a transgender person is so terrifying. Apparently, our sexualities are just that dangerous and threatening, so much so that cis people who experience attraction to trans folks have felt justified in murdering us, and courts have accepted their “trans panic” defenses without blinking.
Now that’s scary.
It’s scary that trans people are victimized in public bathrooms. It’s scary that we face sometimes insurmountable obstacles in obtaining jobs or basic medical care. It’s scary that so many of us are homeless or marginally housed. It’s scary that so many of us are doing survival sex work, and that so many cops feel absolutely justified harassing random trans women on suspicion that they are working. It’s scary that there is so much hatred propagated against us in the media, and so much violence facing us in the world.
Transphobia is scary, not transgender people. So happy fucking Halloween.
I think I’ll go as Germaine Greer.