‘It’s an interesting question, a kind of thought experiment, to go back and think what I would feel today as an out trans* person, if I had never seen any representation of myself in the media. On the one hand, I might not have ever internalised that sense of being monstrous, of having fears around disclosure, of seeing myself as something abhorrent and as a punchline and as a joke. I might be able to go on a date with a man without having the image of men vomiting. On the flip side, would I even know I’m trans*? If I had never seen any kind’ve depiction of transness and gender variance on screen.’
I was speaking to a friend today, about our first experiences with transness (as cis-women). She told me that when she was at school, her Physics teacher had transitioned from male to female, and although my friend was never taught anything about the trans* community or trans* history at this school, all students were advised that it might take them some time to adjust to said Physics teacher after her transition. Apparently, they were even offered counselling in case people were confused or upset by it. Upon hearing this, I was the one who felt confused, and disgusted, and it got me thinking…
Imagine how it would feel, if teachers were to warn students that they might need counselling as a result of your existence? How would I feel, for example, if someone else labelled my cisgendered body as so abnormal in comparison to everyone else, that it might trigger a psychologically damaging reaction? I quickly realised, however, that I could never imagine this, because it would never happen. My cis-women’s body is entirely normalised within society and is not perceived as something which poses a threat to anyone. I also thought about how I would react if I was a child at this school, and if it had been my teacher that had transitioned and preferred to identify as female now rather than male. I thought, although it might have felt a little awkward and might have taken a little getting used to, referring to my teacher as ‘her’ now, instead of ‘him’, wouldn’t have affected me at all…and it certainly would not have caused me to need counselling. This idea was placed there by someone else, this person stigmatised by other adults, and these kids taught in that moment that transness was strange. Did anyone stop and think – what does it do to trans* individuals to tell them that their very existence warrants counselling for cis-people?
‘Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege’.
When I think about my first experience with transness, it was the news that Bruce Jenner had transitioned to become Caitlyn in 2015 (when I was 18 years old). Even then, I don’t think I really knew what this meant. I had never learnt about gender non-conformity or trans* studies at school and I hadn’t met anyone who identified as anything other than cis-gender. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I resided in a position of extreme privilege. I occupied a space where I had never been exposed to transness…it didn’t affect me, so I didn’t know about it.
These examples of initial trans* exposure speak to the harmful representations of transness as abnormal, shameful and taboo. They also exemplify how little trans* existence is actually acknowledged until it is experienced in everyday life. It seems that trans* identity is only spoken about when it needs to be, when cis-people are forced to be confronted with it. But we need to ask – why? Why isn’t it spoken about or deemed as something worth knowing/learning, and what does it mean when people in positions of extreme privilege and power get to choose whose bodies satisfy normality and whose cause confusion?
‘Being trans is seen as a stigma — you should be ashamed of being trans, you should be ashamed of being queer, you should be ashamed of loving a person of the same gender. You should be ashamed of contracting HIV/AIDS and living with that. We’re told constantly to just be quiet, to go live in the dark, to be secretive about who we are. And if we step forward, we’ll only be punished.’
One of the reasons why cis people seem so sceptical about transness and generally misunderstand trans* existence is due to the problematic ways it has been continuously represented, and often misrepresented, on screen. A major issue within trans* representation is ‘transface’ – when cis-actors are cast to play trans* characters in films and TV shows. You’re probably familiar with Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of ‘Lili Elbe’ in The Danish Girl, for example, or Jared Leto as ‘Rayon’ in Dallas Buyers Club. ‘Transface’ has been a prevalent practice within Hollywood and the media for decades now, and seems, only recently, to be actually acknowledged as problematic.
‘Transface’ is extremely damaging to the trans* community for a number of reasons. Firstly, it strips trans* actors of the opportunities to portray trans* life and to be the authors of their own stories. The consistent use of ‘transface’ has meant that there has been an absence of trans* actors in the media, which has led to the lack of trans* visibility in the media and the erasure of transness altogether. As well as this, when trans* individuals are not at the centre of trans* storytelling, it leads to inaccurate and messy representations, which, more often than not, lack nuance and complexity and often creates offensive stereotypes. Unlike cis actors, trans* actors have the ability to depict transness in a way that is authentic to their lived experiences, and struggles, and – believe it or not – triumphs. It takes a trans* actor to be able to implement this in their portrayal in a way that does them justice. As Jen Richards claims, ‘if I am playing a trans* character, I don’t have to play the transness of it’. And if cis people take on trans* roles as a way to challenge themselves as actors, then why is this opportunity not given to trans* people? Why have trans* people historically been excluded from any consideration of playing cis roles?
‘It lends itself to this idea that we are just comedy, we are just some kind of freaks, that we are just playing dress-up in order to make other people laugh.’
The trans* community are disproportionately abused, violated and murdered every year, with more than one in four trans people having faced a bias-driven assault. When cis-men play trans* women and when cis-women play trans* men in roles, it perpetuates the idea that trans* people are just men and women in dress-up, and you can take the clothes and the costume off at any time and the game is up. But trans* people can’t take their transness off, because it isn’t a costume or play. It is real life, and they are the ones who face the real-life consequences when, at the end of the day, they come face-to-face with hatred in the street, at a bar, or at a bus stop.
In the US, the ‘Trans-Panic Defense’ is a space in the law which allows people to be ‘partially or completely excused from crimes such as murder and assault on the grounds that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction’. When allowances for hatred, abuse, violence and murder are literally written into the law against trans* individuals simply because they are trans*, then surely it seems vital that we get the representation of transness right? When people watch TV shows and films where cis-actors are playing trans* roles and there is a clumsy representation, it reinforces the idea that a trans* woman is just a man in dress-up. This makes it more likely that when people or violent men are confronted with a trans* woman in real-life, the reaction will be a mocking, abusive one… rather than one of neutrality and understanding.
Jen Richards, a trans* actress and activist, suggests that ‘part of the reason that [cisgender] men end up killing trans* women…is [because] their friends, the men whose judgement they are fearing, only know trans* women from media, and the people who are playing trans* women are the [cis] men that they know’. She maintains that, ‘this doesn’t happen when trans* women play trans* women…because it deflates this idea that [trans* women] are somehow men in disguise’.
Nick Adams, the director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, suggests, ‘for decades Hollywood has taught audiences how to react to trans* people, and sometimes they are being taught to react to us in fear, [and] that we are dangerous, that we are psychopaths, that we are serial killers, that we must be deviants or perverse, why else would you wear a dress if you’re a man?’. Laverne Cox has also said that ‘for a very long time, the ways in which trans* people have been presented to us on screen has suggested that we are not real, have suggested that we are mentally ill, that we don’t exist…yet here I am, yet here we are, and we’ve always been here’. According to a survey carried out by GLAAD, ‘80% of Americans do not actually personally know someone who is transgender, so most of the information that Americans get about who transgender people are, what [trans*] lives are about, comes from the media’. I believe that this fundamentally proves that there is a strong correlation between the representations of trans* people that we are shown through the media, and the subsequent treatment of trans* people on the ground.
‘Seeing trans people loved, uplifted and well regarded in film and television can endear you to step in when you see a trans* person being harassed on the street, and to make sure the trans people in your life are supported in ways that affirm their humanity. But when all you see reinforced is violence, we are put further in harms way.’
We must identify the media, now perhaps more than ever before, as a vital tool of communication with a monumental amount of influence, and the ability to educate people on transness and the intricacies of trans* life. When the media talks about transgender issues – it is imperative they get it right. A positive change in the ways trans* people are represented across all forms of media would directly impact the treatment of trans* people and their bodies on the ground. It is vital if we are ever to relieve the plight of trans* individuals living in a society that has been constructed to exclude and punish them. In order to be good allies to the trans* community, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and invest our support by watching films and TV shows like Pose, where trans* actors are at the forefront of telling their own stories, and question cis actors who take on trans* roles. If we all think back to our initial experiences with transness, to those often flawed points of reference we hold, and challenge them – we are taking little steps to reduce stigma. Those little steps eventually amount to a lot, and hopefully will build greater allyship for a community bursting with life, love, and stories to tell.
‘How many years has it taken people to realize that we are all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take people to see that? We’re all in this rat race together!’
Marsha P. Johnson
- Paris is Burning
- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
- Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, dir. by Sam Feder.
- GLAAD, GLAAD Transgender Media Programme (2020) <https://www.glaad.org/transgender> [accessed 9 August 2020].
- National Centre for Transgender Equality, Anti-Violence (2020) <https://transequality.org/issues/anti-violence> [accessed 6 August 2020].
- ‘When a heterosexual man is charged with murdering a transgender woman with whom he has been sexually intimate, one defense strategy is to assert what has been called the trans panic defense. The defendant claiming this defense will say that the discovery that the victim was biologically male provoked him into a heat of passion causing him to lose self-control. If the jury finds that the defendant was actually and reasonably provoked, it can acquit him of murder and find him guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. The trans panic defense strategy is troubling because it appeals to stereotypes about transgender individuals as sexually deviant and abnormal’. Referenced in, Cynthia Lee and Peter Kwan, ‘The Trans Panic Defense: Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and the Murder of Transgender Women’, Hastings Law Journal, 66.77, (2014), 77-132 (p. 77).
 National Centre for Transgender Equality, Anti-Violence (2020) <https://transequality.org/issues/anti-violence> [accessed 6 August 2020].