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Friday, November 16, 2012

Transverse: Trans Awareness Week! Sundance's New Series, and the "Sex-Change Sweethearts"

Posted By on Fri, Nov 16, 2012 at 7:30 AM


As we wrap up Trans Awareness Week it's important to note that most of the focused "awareness" rests, understandably, on our most basic struggle: increasing attention regarding systematic and individual violence inflicted on trans bodies. LGBT centers, nonprofit organizations, and student groups across the country have worked hard to spotlight key issues like healthcare and discriminatory laws, releasing alarming figures regarding suicide, imprisonment, and medical barriers. 

However, I'm interested today in noting a different kind of violence: The restriction of narratives and lack of visibility of trans folks in media -- a well-timed topic this week (stay tuned, I'll get there in a second). 

See also:

Transverse: Lana Wachowski and the Importance of Pronouns

Transverse: Healthy SF Removes Restrictions on Transgender Care

First, the good news: Trans visibility is growing exponentially, with powerful LGBT advocacy groups like the not-always-so-trans-aware HRC beefing up trans-advocacy (perhaps most powerfully demonstrated by the choice to award director Lana Wachowski the HRC "visibility" award), and The Advocate swiftly becoming the go-to, relatively mainstream source for transgender news, respectfully reported, with correct pronouns, and sensitive language (sadly still a rare thing, indeed).

But we still rarely speak for ourselves, and when we do so, we're generally subject to the same rehashed narratives (born in the wrong body, et al) many of us have internalized for years -- though the new twist is one I call the "magical trans" story. After we almost kill ourselves due to our tragic bodies, we inevitably rise up like phoenixes, paragons of authenticity, thus providing an example for non-trans folks everywhere.

I mean, I am a paragon of authenticity -- don't get me wrong. But hopefully so are you. Tthese limited stories drive me nuts, mostly because I struggled so much pre-transition to understand myself within their claustrophobic scope, and I know some future man or woman or gender-nonconforming adult is currently a child who grew up, like I did on a diet of stories that don't add up and, seeing their body painted in such broad, sub- or super-human strokes, can't locate anything that looks familiar.

It's exhausting to view yourself only through the lens of difference: of being alien, someone heroic or pitiful or both. My sense is the more our stories diversify and multiply, the better off those kids will be. As my sister, a social worker, once told me, "We want our role models to look like us."

So with that in mind, I keep a watchdog-eye on media portrayals of trans bodies, and since it's Trans Awareness Week, let's turn our awareness to some new developments.

click to enlarge article_2230658_15f11188000005dc_313_634x511.jpg

I guess people have been pretty excited about this story from the vaguely sleazy UK rag, The Daily Mail. For a tabloid story, I admit it takes a new tack: Soft-focus photographs of Kate Hill and Arin Andrews, two transgender teens from Oklahoma (why a UK outlet is interested in their story is a testament to how crazy they feel this is) who (SHOCKING) are dating each other. 

Though I suppose it can be argued that the Internet/reality TV culture that makes us all celebrities ("I'm gaymous!" friends have been saying for years) often means relatively normal folks in extraordinary situations are given high-profile treatment, the root is clear to us all. We may pretend that the feel-good story about two teens finding love isn't coming from the same sensationalized place as our hunger to track whatever toxicity we've manifested culturally to create the Kardashians, Octomom, the men of Jersey Shore, or those pageant children -- but come on.

Besides reiterating tired narratives (which -- given the meta-story of Arin discovering the word "transgender" through reading a profile of Katie in the local paper -- you must wonder if these familiar themes are as true a representation of trans experience as it is media shorthand for folks who aren't trans), the paper focuses on the zaniness of their relationship. They both wear the same size clothes! You don't have to look past the headline to get the "othering" narrative, loud and clear: "The sex-change sweethearts: How a pageant princess and colonel's son fell in love after BOTH had transgender treatment." Ultimately, at least, they let Katie say she's sharing her story so other trans kids don't feel "so alone" -- an honorable and worthwhile goal. Too bad the newspaper, in sensationalizing, however gently, their relationship, misses her point.


Here's something I don't know how to feel about: The Sundance Channel, with producer Ira Glass, is developing T, a show about transgender man in the process of transitioning. Given that, as far as I know, Glass has only ever produced two This American Life segments about trans folks, and given that the writers of the show are the same that did In Treatment and are (as far as I know) not trans, I'm curious as to how this will turn out. Though I'm all for creative license, and I do believe there are some experiences that are pervasive enough culturally for a non-group member to envision (a woman writing a male character, for instance), I'm trying to remain optimistic about this show, but question -- as everyone always does -- why trans folks couldn't be involved in writing it.

That being said, Boys Don't Cry -- the 1999 film starring non-trans actress Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, produced and directed by lesbian duo Kimberly Peirce and Christine Vachon of indie-powerhouse Killer Films, did a beautiful job illuminating the universality of Brandon Teena's story. It can be done, even by folks outside of the trans experience. Ultimately, that's my point: it's less about rehashing or authenticating some sort of monolithic narrative but, in fact, breaking down the idea that trans people are anything but a group of diverse individuals. If our bodies are strange, they are made so through the stories other people tell.

I wish Glass and the rest of the team involved with T the best of luck, and I really hope the show will be a considered portrait of the deeply complex experience transition is. I hope it will highlight the ways trans folks lead incredibly considered lives, how our understanding of humanity often comes from a place of deep optimism -- our leap of faith enormous, our trust in the people and culture around us a gamble. We are still here because we believed: in ourselves, yes -- but in you, too. That's the truth you rarely hear over the din of "shocking" headlines, and if the statistics about suicide and bullying prove anything, it's that dehumanization leads to violence, and even death. Maybe it's a little trans-magical of me, but I believe truth is universal, and I'm doing my part to see myself in everyone. I just hope someday everyone else does too.

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Thomas Page McBee


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