Thanks to media portrayals and social privilege, trans* people like me (i.e., white, employed, well-educated) are able to have their voices actually reach some eardrums. Therefore, the cis mainstream actually has a surprisingly detailed preconception of what the story of a trans* person like me probably entails. But do these portrayals represent all of us? No. Do these stories help all of us? Again, no.
So instead of telling my story, I try to talk about the expectations and assumptions current Western culture has trained us all to have about trans* people, our experiences, and our stories. I see this manifested most noticeably of late in the emergence of an “acceptable” trans* narrative.
This is the story everyone can write: Ever since childhood, so-and-so felt they were “trapped in the wrong body.” They wanted to wear the clothes and play with the toys of the other gender. They were bullied and ostracized. As they grew up, they became depressed. Perhaps even suicide was considered or attempted. Eventually they got the help they needed and transitioned to the opposite gender through hormones and surgery. They’re much happier now, but things are still tough and they struggle sometimes.
It’s not my intent to pass this narrative off as cliched or diminish its authenticity, but I would like us all to think about why it’s so familiar – even those who don’t personally know any trans* people know this story.
We all know it because this is the narrative our media and our political movements have chosen to portray, over and over. And why have they chosen it? Because it is the easiest to understand. Because it’s the least threatening to the actually-somewhat-limited political goals of the mainstream LGBT justice movement. Because this is the scenario our health-care industry has a treatable, profitable answer for (not even the answer, mind you, just an answer). Because it does not challenge the established poles of the gender binary.
We know it because it is an entertaining, satisfying narrative – problematic beginning, turbulent middle, climactic confrontation, conclusive hopeful ending. Those who hear the story can slap a bow on it… and then walk away.
We Don’t Want to Hear It
Don’t get me wrong: Part of me is thrilled that trans* people are becoming more visible and gaining social acceptance. But the picture cis people and cis media paint of us is simplistic to say the least, and my concern is that it should not be only those trans people that our empathy, and thus, our resources, are going toward.
We don’t want to hear about the messy cases. We’re not as familiar with the stories of inner-city trans* women of color who grow up disadvantaged, below the poverty line, poorly educated, disowned by family, and turn to sex work or living on the streets to survive.
We don’t hear those stories over and over, but they happen over and over. And usually those stories do not conclude on a hopeful note. Anyone who’s ever attended a Trans* Day of Remembrance ceremony and heard the stories of all those murdered in the past year will solemnly corroborate this fact.
We don’t hear about the huge chunk of the trans* population that rebels against going from one sex all the way to the other, against our notions of what male and female are in the first place. We don’t hear about those for whom gender is expressed in myriad incarnations besides just the familiar two.
Where are the mainstream narratives for the femme faggy trans* men, masculine stone butch trans* dykes, intersex people who don’t identify as male or female, genderqueer folks who favor a slinky cocktail dress Friday night and a three-piece suit on Saturday?
Many of my friends are somewhere in that short list. I’m in that list. We’re out there in sizable numbers, but culturally, we are not yet allowed to exist. It would be too confusing or off-putting to readers, viewers, listeners, students, employees, audiences, etc.
Politically, we are definitely not allowed to exist. To make even the tiniest strides toward justice that our easily spooked legislators will allow, our mainstream rights movement has decided it must put forth the most squeaky-clean, non-threatening, easiest-to-“fix” representatives of our community.
Think back to that “acceptable trans* narrative” we all know. Is the person a white, middle-class, decently educated trans woman who passes so-so and is somewhere between 30-65 years old? If it wasn’t that, I’m betting it was the other “acceptable trans* narrative” that’s emerged lately: a cute, white, middle-class decently educated trans* child who has insisted since a very young age that they were in the wrong body. Why is that?
How about the rest? The sex workers, the poor, the racial minorities, the homeless youth, the genderless, the intersex, the genderfuckers? They are invisible, voiceless. They cannot be understood by the cis, heteronormative mainstream, not in the way the “acceptable trans* narrative” can.
I don’t wish to suggest that those who do fit the “acceptable trans* narrative” are unworthy of help. On the contrary, they deserve it. But there are countless trans* people out there whose voices you never hear, and I would like to suggest that maybe the reason we never hear their voices is because they are the very people who need the most help.
In those cases, we cannot just sit and listen. Because there’s nothing to hear. We have to go find them.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t pass one if the opportunity arises; I’m not even saying that we shouldn’t devote some of our resources to their promulgation. But it is imperative that we recognize that all this legislation does is treat symptoms of much larger systemic problems rooted in how our culture teaches us to read certain polarized meanings into and onto our bodies, our actions, our words, expressions and affectations, and into the bodies of others.
We Can Be More
To act like this is male. To look like that is female. To have this body part is male. To have that body part is female. To play this game is male. To wear that shirt is female. This is a systemic problem – the polarized gender binary – legislation can do a lot of good, but it won’t begin to touch that. The real problem. Not the symptom, but the disease itself.
This sounds discouraging, but I’ll also suggest that it doesn’t have to be. It just depends on how we choose to look at it. Consider this: with legislation, our goal is gated off; we must pander to cis legislators for the approval we seek. But with our narratives, our culture, our social interactions, we are in charge every minute of every day. All it takes is a decision and a little effort to stay mindful and aware of the institutions of power that silently control our perceptions of gender, of race, of class. And then, we must act accordingly.
There’s a famous quote from Gandhi that says, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Bullshit, Gandhi. It is not enough to simply be. It is not enough to embody change internally. We must do. We must act. We must exemplify the change we wish to see in the world, because change and social progress are wonderfully contagious.
When we encounter subtle racism or bigotry, or even catch ourselves acting out of prejudice (we all do it sometimes), we need to address it and start respectful conversations about what happened and how it happened. When we hear someone use hurtful language, we must talk to the person, politely, about the effect it has on us and others we love. Our children must be taught to welcome people’s differences. When we encounter political ignorance, administrative exclusion, media bias… we can’t be afraid to talk about the impact on real, disadvantaged people.
Cis and straight allies especially can be great agents of change for trans* issues because (sadly,) people are more receptive to them — they hear what is said about us when we’re not around. We have to seize these opportunities. We have to exemplify change. We can all be leaders in the fight for justice by our actions every day. That is how we expand the narrative. That is how we begin to empower the marginalized — from the gender-nonconforming to homeless racial minorities. It is not the answer for the totality of our multifaceted struggle, but it is how we must begin.
It’s not easy to do these things. It requires discipline to maintain such mindfulness, and it’s a little intimidating, sometimes even scary, to broach these subjects. But I will say, from experience: We can do it. And every time we do it, it’s easier. It even starts to feel good.
These difficult conversations become something to look forward to, because it becomes clear just how much they matter. I will say, again, from experience, that seeing the difference these conversations make in friends and family is profoundly moving, and there is an immense pride in seeing those loved ones then start to lead by example as well.
It feels like we’re part of something larger than just ourselves and just our immediate community. Because we are.
Or rather, we can be, if we want to be.
This piece originally ran on Bilerico in 2013.