A good friend linked to an amusing little story the other day: Cissexuality as a Default. It’s a parody of “sympathetic” articles about trans people that turns things around somewhat. It’s not too long and I highly recommend taking the time to read it.
It made me think a little about how trans people tend to be portrayed in the media. I feel it’s often positive for trans people to have a media presence: after all, prejudice and fear often arise from ignorance, and it’s quite dispiriting to feel like you’re some lone freak rather than someone with a trait that you share in common with others. However, a good deal of trans media appearance probably do more to erase our identities than anything else.
This might seem paradoxical at first, but you’ve got to ask yourself about the nature of the trans stories you see in the UK media (when those stories exist at all). They’re usually about trans women: white, middle-aged, middle-class trans women with “feminine” interests. Occasionally, we’re presented with a young, white, middle-class trans girl, but this is a bit more rare. Sometimes our trans woman might even be from a working-class background, but this is even more unlikely. I can’t remember the last time I saw a non-white trans girl or trans woman in the media…unless we’re talking about murder victims. It’s not so surprising that some more blinkered radical feminists link being trans with economic and/or race privilege.
Moreover, the story told is usually the same, as Cissexuality as a Default deftly demonstrates. Our brave trans woman (old name highlighted) is “different” throughout her childhood but struggles to come to terms with herself, goes through a low period, and finally decides to buy loads of make-up and come out. If this story is in a magazine, she probably also had a (single) partner to come out to as well, who will either have dumped her or slowly come to terms with the change.
This narrative accounts for the lives of many, but by no means the lives of a majority, let alone the lives of all. It’s dangerous because it often seems like the only narrative available to many trans people, and it therefore actively erases the identities of those who don’t fit the story from public conciousness.
According to this narrative, trans people are always transsexed (except when they’re cross-dressers, who usually have erotic motivations anyway). They usually conform to gender norms. They “always knew” they were trans. They’re monogamous! They are/were always “straight” or “gay”…bisexuality (let alone pansexuality) seems to be a no-no. And so on, and so forth. If you’re genderqueer, you don’t exist. If you’re a feminist, you don’t exist. If you’re a trans man, you probably don’t exist, unless you’re Stephen Whittle* (and even then you’re likely only to make a token appearance). This goes for some of the most positive and progressive trans appearances in the media as well as the more obviously regressive.
No wonder then that it’s that much harder for people to understand the concept of non-binary genders. No wonder that some are surprised to hear that trans men even exist. No wonder that many feel that they’re “not trans enough” to be taken seriously because they weren’t stereotypically feminine/masculine enough during their childhood, or they weren’t depressed enough during their teens.
The thing is, this isn’t just something the media does through ignorance or stupidity. It’s an active process. In Whipping Girl, Julia Serano writes about how TV producers in the USA insist that trans women in documentary features stick to the script: we’re talking about an appropriately feminine presentation, maybe a video of them getting dressed or applying make-up, and a suitable story. Serano’s account rang true for me, as it reminded me of my own experience with a magazine that wanted to write a story about myself and my partner of the time.
We had to tell our story to a writer, who had to adapt it to the cloyingly sickly “house style” of the magazine…fair enough, I thought. I didn’t tend to go in for all “my heart leapt as soon as I saw her” business, but I’m cool with a bit of embellishment as long as the story stays true to reality. Sadly, the story didn’t stay true to reality in any way. We were asked to revise the story again and again to fit the script. No way could we have met whilst dancing to rock music. No way could I deviate from stereotypical femininity. No way could I transition for any reason than wanting to be a soft, fluffy, pink girl.
I gave up with trying to achieve any kind of honest compromise with the magazine, but I’m pretty certain they just went out and found another trans woman who would tell them the story they wanted: the media-friendly story of being trans which can be safely consumed without any worrying deconstruction of cis-normativity or sexist ideals of womanhood taking place.
Maybe things are slowly changing. I’m beginning to see somewhat decent stories about trans children appearing in the media (although interest in trans kids can have deeply unpleasant consequences if not handled with extreme sensitivity) and stuff like the recent Guardian series in which Juliet Jacques may fit all the requirements for a trans media appearance, but at least has the decency to point out how diverse trans people really are. Meanwhile two long-running teen dramas – the UK’s Hollyoaks and USA’s Degrassi are both introducing young trans male characters. Still, we have a really long way to go.
I’m not saying that white trans women should feel guilty about telling our stories: we shouldn’t. We should, however, be ensuring that our stories are the ones that are actually getting told, and we should helping to promote the stories of those who suffer most from this narrative erasure.
* For the record, I think Stephen Whittle is awesome. I don’t agree with everything he’s ever done, but seriously, this guy has done so much to lay the groundwork for the modern trans movement in the UK and academic understanding of trans issues on a worldwide scale.