(Guest Post) #TransStonewall: Uncovering White Trans Laziness

This post was written by Jade Fernandez, who has given me permission to cross-post.


It’s true, I’m a defector. I’m turned in my Racial Badge for a slightly-less-radical badge that reads ‘Unapologetic Stonewall Sympathiser’, and I’ve torn up my Radical Trans ID that I specifically use to get into Radical Trans Events.

I took part in the #TransStonewall meeting, and I liked it. Sue me.

What was refreshing was, to put it lightly, the lack of trans wankery. What, I hear you ask, is trans wankery? It’s the inter-community shitstorm that bubbles up every time we try and organise something even a little bit outside of our comfort zones. Let’s face it, trans people trying to organise something of this magnitude with Stonewall would be like dumping cats into a bag and giving it a kick. With CEO Ruth Hunt’s guidance, oratory skills, and calm professional aura, the meeting was free from drama, ended on time, and we reached some clear, profound points for moving forward at the end. Had a bunch of trans people organised it solely, we would have been talking about the past 25 years of grievances for 25 hours and I would have burst into tears.

There were issues with diversity – of course, there will always be diversity issues within any group of people with one common experience. Intersectionality is a buzzword white trans people like to throw around to impress their equally white mates. Intersectionality, white trans people think, means complaining that no or limited amounts of trans people of colour are present at a meeting, while doing eff-all to improve the situation yourself.

I mean, thank God we’re going to get a separate meeting, because Lord knows that room was a 50-person mayonnaise-fest. It was like walking into a Hellmann’s conference.

But the thing is, the reason why it was particularly creamy as fuck is neither solely the responsibility of trans people, ‘The Trans Community’, or Stonewall. We can’t point fingers at Stonewall while ignoring the fact that white trans people dominate every conversation taking place around trans stuff.

White trans people – lend me your ears: you have a duty of care to make sure trans people of colour are included at all times, and you need to signal boost stuff specifically notifying trans people of colour. Tell your friends. Blitz it out to your social media connections and to your ‘real life’ connections. Make it a numero uno priority. If I see you complaining about trans meetings or events being white, and you didn’t lift a finger to even attempt and make trans people of colour feel welcome, then you can shut your mouth and remove your hands from your keyboard. If I see you pointing fingers at events organisers without first pointing the finger at yourself and asking “Hey, could I be any use apart from using my impressively long repertoire of SJ buzzwords to annoy people?”, then politely go far away from me.

I’ve been transitioning since I was 15. I’m now nearly 22. I’m young and there’s been so much white trans people drama in this small island that I already feel like a battle-scarred veteran of some ongoing bullshit.

You see, white trans people are in prime position to invite trans people of colour to events that are going to be organised and facilitated by people who need some extra help. I don’t think anyone at Stonewall knows about our hidden or closed Facebook groups. Who might know about the perfect people to invite who’d be well up for it, and who are also people of colour. But you – you, my dear white friend – know of these secret communities. Or at least know a friend of a bloody friend, come on.

The result of White Trans Laziness? And now, I’m not letting off Stonewall and the organisers, but this article is holding white trans people to account. But the result of this was that there were four out of fifty trans people who were people of colour. Two of them were afterthoughts. One of them experienced a pretty upsetting racial microaggression on the day. That’s your stat breakdown.

While the consensus from the people of colour who did attend was that it was positive, it was draining and exhausting to be in a space with a load of white trans activists. Though we didn’t talk a great deal about individual experiences and opinions, you just get dragged down a little bit in that kind of space. It was good that a lot of the discussions highlighted that any of Stonewall’s work has to include trans people of a lot of varying diversities and experiences – something that Ruth agreed on wholeheartedly. But you know, I felt like a token. Actually – I was a token. I was there to bring up the diversity quotient. And you know who made me feel tokenised most of all? That’s right: white trans people who did eff-all in the first place complaining that there weren’t more people of colour there, throwing out comments about ‘diversity’ in a smug way like it’s fashionable to point it out.

We’re not fucking elves. Magical people of colour don’t pop up when you say ‘Wow, we (of course, not meaning ME, because I’m a Good White Person) need to do better!’ If you want to magic us up for your conference or event: 1) Provide a spread. Food does wonders. 2) WORK ON IT. PROACTIVELY.

And actually, that’s what Stonewall is doing. Which is heartening. I hope it’s a good one. And free from inter-trans-people-of-colour-community drama, which is ten billion times more upsetting than the paltry Twitter shit white people could ever come up with (‘But that’s none of my business Kermit.jpg’).

I was going to write about how trans people of colour can work with Stonewall in the first instance, but this turned into a rant about white people – which, you know, is kind of relevant. Because if white trans people don’t start pulling their finger out, if we can’t fix the White Trans Laziness in our own little bubble of a world, then there’s really no point of any sort of unity with Stonewall.

Statement of trans-inclusive feminism and womanism

Several individuals have been working hard over the past couple of weeks to put together an international statement supporting trans inclusion in the struggle for women’s rights. The publication of this statement comes as the inclusion of trans people within feminist and womanist groups is once again under question, and as trans concerns gain an increasingly public profile.

I was honoured to be asked to sign this statement. I feel it provides a timely response to the aforementioned issues, as well as a recent radical feminist statement on trans exclusion, and the forthcoming publication of Sheila Jeffreys’ new book.

I stand fully behind the statement, and am also heartened by its international scope. As I write this post, the statement has been signed by 150 individuals and 8 organizations — from 13 countries.

However, I feel it is worth noting the anglo-centric nature of the statement. That is somewhat inevitable given that this is a debate happening largely within the English-speaking world. Still, it would have been good to see signatories from the United States and United Kingdom note their country of origin; at present, I feel that signatories from outside these countries are singled out as unusual through the highlighting of their national location. I hope that this disparity and US/UK-centrism might be addressed in future efforts.

I have reproduced the statement below, and encourage others to disseminate it further.

 

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

The ‘West’ has much to learn from India’s anti-rape campaign

I’ve seen a lot of blatant racism around anglocentric portions of the Internet in the wake of India’s horrific rape scandal (if you haven’t read about it already, there’s plenty of information on this Wikipedia page – trigger warning for graphic description of sexual violence).

There are those who attempt to thinly disguise their racism by expressing a generalised horror at things that happen in other parts of the world. There are those who are more honest in their bigotry, suggesting that countries such as India are necessarily savage and backward. I even came across one sickening comment from an individual who suggested that the human race would be better off if most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East were simply wiped off the world map.

This kind of blinkered claptrap suggests a divide between “us” and “them”, the civilized “developed” world and the barbaric “developing world” – a divide in which the so-called West sets the agenda for women’s rights.

Of course, the reality is far more complex. This is not India’s problem – it is an international problem.

Yes, rates of sexual violence are horrifically high in India, but things aren’t exactly rosy in the rest of the world either. For instance, in a study of 33 countries it was found that the United kingdom has the lowest rape conviction conviction rate: only 6.5% of reported rapists are convicted, with an estimated 95% of rapes going unreported. By contrast, in India around 25% of rape cases that go before a court result in a conviction.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that these statistics don’t exactly match up – e.g. the UK figure of 6.5% rape conviction is so small in part because it takes into account that many cases do not go to court. The Times of India reports that police file chargesheets in 94% of reported rapes, but of course this does not mean that all of these cases go to court. Moreover, there are no doubt many more rapes that are never reported, just like the UK. Nevertheless, the implication is that – once a case eventually gets to court – a rapist is somewhat more likely to be convicted in India than in the UK.)

In the aftermath of the latest high-profile rape victim’s tragic death, Indian newspapers are highlighting the intersectionality of rape: the way in which individuals from marginalised groups are more likely to experience rape and less likely to experience justice, the fact that perpetrators are most likely to be family members rather than mysterious men on the street, the idea that consumer culture and political indifference play a role in enabling rape. Campaigners and journalists alike are suggesting that rape can be best addressed through cultural change. It’s utterly tragic that this discussion is taking place in the wake of a horrific attack, but it’s difficult to imagine a similar level of introspection in the UK mainstream media. Instead, victim-blaming remains the norm here.

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Of course, the wealth of thoughtful articles in the Indian media can’t simply be attributed to the individual initiative of journalists. The issue of rape came to mass attention and retained mass attention over the last few days because of ongoing protests for change. Thousands upon thousands of demonstrators have remained resolute in their demand for an India free of rape, a non-sexist police force that consistently supports women, and a political class who actually give a shit.

In the West we have so much to learn from the power and tenacity of this movement. The mass  protests have continued as politicians promise change and police respond brutally. The sheer unyielding resolve of those involved is incredibly inspiring.

In spite of this, I’ve seen some discomfort amongst Western commentators in response to a demand for the death penalty for rapists from many protesters. To this I have two responses: firstly, it’s not our job to tell campaigners in India how to fight their battle. And secondly, the Indian anti-rape campaign speaks with a plurality of voices, not one voice – see, for instance, this argument against the death penalty from a number of women’s groups.

I’d like to finish this piece by quoting a powerful article from The Hindu. Urvashi Butalia argues that rape culture is all-pervasive, and that in order to destroy rape culture we need to make changes on every level of society.

It is important to raise our collective voice against rape. But rape is not something that occurs by itself. It is part of the continuing and embedded violence in society that targets women on a daily basis. Let’s raise our voices against such violence and let’s ask ourselves how we, in our daily actions, in our thoughts, contribute to this, rather than assume that the solution lies with someone else. Let’s ask ourselves how we, our society, we as people, create and sustain the mindset that leads to rape, how we make our men so violent, how we insult our women so regularly, let’s ask ourselves how privilege creates violence.

It is important we raise our collective voice for women, but let’s raise it for all women, let’s raise it so that no woman, no matter that she be poor, rich, urban, rural, Dalit, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, ever, in the future, has to face sexual violence, and no man assumes that because of the system and people’s mindsets, he can simply get away with it. And let’s raise it also for men, for transgenders, for the poor — all those who become targets of violence. Let’s not forget that the young rape survivor in Delhi was accompanied by a friend who too was subjected to violence and nearly killed. Let’s talk about him too.

Butalia’s approach reflects that of intersectional Western feminism: in particular, some of the ideas popularised through the Slutwalk and Reclaim The Night movements. This does not mean that Western ideals are the “best”. Instead, it suggests that rape is an international problem to which we must seek international solutions. We in the West would therefore do well to listen more to our sisters in India and beyond.

Boosting the signal: support CeCe

For various reasons I can’t make it down to the Free Cece solidarity demo in London today. So here’s a post to let you know what you can do if you, like me, won’t be there.

CeCe was recently jailed for manslaughter following the death of a man involved in an attack upon herself and her friends. If you haven’t yet come across the case, background information can be found on on the Support CeCe McDonald site (trigger warning: description of racist and transphobic violence), and in this video.

Needless to say, the situation is a sad reflection upon the impact of multiple inequalities faced by individuals who experience intersecting oppression, particularly black trans women.

If you want to support CeCe through writing to her, sending books or anything else, there is plenty of information on how to get involved on her support site.

It’s likely that further UK actions (e.g. a letter-writing campaign) may follow the London demo, so I’ll endeavour to post about that if it happens. A Leeds-based working group can be found on Facebook here.

My Cissexist Summer

Channel 4’s latest trans documentary has certainly achieved an impressive amount of commentary from within trans communities. Like it or loathe it, we all have something to say about My Transsexual Summer. I suppose that’s because this particular programme – running unusually as a series rather than a one-off show – has been really pushed by the broadcaster. You can’t really miss that it’s happening, and as such many people are painfully aware of how likely it is to shape the general public’s perception of trans lives and trans issues.

That level of public consciousness has no doubt shaped the fury emerging from some quarters. I’ve seen outrage at the employment of numerous cissexist tropes (as Paris Lees noted in the Guardian, anyone playing the Trans Documentary Drinking Game whilst watching My Transsexual Summer is guaranteed to get utterly sozzled very quickly), the dodgy narration from a clueless cis woman, and the frequent use of the word “tranny” by documentary participants. The latter issue in particular has predictably reignited debates about whether or not (and how) offensive language can be reclaimed.

Others (including Lees) have welcomed the show as a positive step forward. I agree with those who point out that the show breaks new ground in enabling trans people to speak for themselves in a public/media setting. The best parts of episodes one and two do tend to involve group conversations in which the show’s participants have the rare opportunity to discuss their unique challenges within the safety and comfort of a trans space (other good bits included Dr Bellringer’s justification of genital surgery and the revelation that some trans men keep their clitoris post-phalloplasty…imagine, a functioning penis and a functioning clitoris! Dude!)

My own problem with the show is that these moments of brilliance are inevitably compromised by the ciscentric, cissexist editing process. I’ve already mentioned the narrator: the show would be a considerably stronger, warmer portrayal without the presence of her patronising, occasionally transphobic twaddle. Then there’s some of the things the participants are required to do. In the first episode, they’re expected to take pictures of one another (an activity some are clearly uncomfortable with), leading to this gem of a comment:

The photographs are ready. Now they’ll be able to judge themselves, and each other.

Congratulations Channel 4: you’ve managed to touch upon everything that’s wrong with internalised transphobia, judgemental “more stealth-than-thou” attitudes within trans communities and the cissexism within the wider world in one fell swoop!

The worst part of the editing process though is the identity erasure undertaken for the sake of telling a safe, easily digestible story to a cis audience. Maxwell – the jolly Jewish fellow from the show – has written about this process extensively on his blog:

What I see is the inevitable privileging of narratives that do not challenge dominant paradigms of normative gender. What I see is programming that will make you think “oh I feel so sorry for them, maybe I might think about how those people get a tough ride”. What I don’t see is anything that is going to make people think or feel any differently about what gender is or how it limits us all in one way or another.

What we see are lovely endearing transsexuals (who I still consider to be my good friends) struggling though ‘typical’ transitions and don’t get me wrong these stories are hugely important, I do not underestimate how important these stories are but where are all the queers!?

These narratives are totally valid but I believe they need to be seen in context and juxtaposed with a more diverse representation. A representation that was there in the house but somehow didn’t make it to our television screens.

Where is Fox talking about being mixed race, about his art and about how he sees himself as two spirit?

Where is the exploration of Donna’s male and female identities as she navigates the personal relationships that mean so much to her?

Where is the discussion about how I reject gender binary and sexuality and still live an observant Jewish life at the same time?

The film-makers’ approach also ensured that the word “tranny” was employed in a deeply problematic context:

The responsibility was not on us to act or behave in a certain way- our job was to turn up and be ourselves. TwentyTwenty and Channel Four bear the responsibility for broadcasting footage without providing any context whatsoever. Donna ‘I’m pretty manly for a Tranny’ is a superbly articulate young woman who’s reasons for using the T word were not broadcast, instead they used endless footage of her and the other women putting on make up.

Maxwell and the other participants have been attacked extensively for their use of the word, with detractors arguing that they should have been more careful. Maxwell is now wondering if he did the “wrong thing”. Yet I’m inclined to agree with his initial assessment: if the editors had any sense, if they listened to the numerous community members they corresponded with, if they gave a shit, then they would have thought quite seriously about how they used the small amount of footage in which the word is uttered.

I can understand why some feel that My Transsexual Summer represents a step forward, a positive move in spite of its failings. I see hope in the brave, strong participants, and in the few moments when their voices are heard loud and clear. If we’re to have a truly decent, representative mainstream trans documentary though, those voices have to be centred rather than sidelined. We’ll continue to see poor programmes produced as long as cis filmmakers have the power to re-contextualise our stories whilst erasing our gender(s), sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity.

The Trans Narrative

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.