The Rhetoric of Trans According to Popular Culture

Trigger Warning: This post discusses suicide and violence toward trans people.

This week the Williams Institute at UCLA released further analysis from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted a couple of years ago with the National Task Force (formerly NGLTF). The point of analysis? Transgender suicide attempts, which the survey found had occurred in forty-one percent of the more than 6,000 responses. This would mean that suicide ideation—thinking about suicide or considering suicide—would be even higher (but these data weren’t captured in the survey itself). The Williams Institute analysts, Ann Haas, Philip Rogers, and Jody Herman (a dear friend of mine), looked at other correlations in the data in order to find any drivers for suicide attempts. You can read their full analysis at the link above.

In the context of this month’s completely inappropriate article in, in which an aspiring sportswriter outed a trans woman and in which that outing led to her suicide, it was declared by Bill Simmons, Grantland’s Editor-in-Chief, that they should have known better than to run the article in part because trans people have “an appallingly high rate of suicide.” I would argue that these carefully analyzed data show the reverse emphasis to be true—that transpeople are exposed to repeated instances of rejection, alienation, harassment, threats, and violence, and that suicidal ideation and attempts are a direct consequence of such stress. In other words, transgender and gender non-conforming people suffer from an appallingly high rate of abuse, including invasive journalism, as it turns out.

Given these data, I feel compelled to trace out some of the narratives and rhetoric around transition and about the trans community that lend to this sense of disrespect, vulnerability, and hopelessness. I see them all the time expressed in popular culture and by well known figures in the media. Of course I’m not going to come up with every dispiriting sentiment that negatively affects transpeople, but I’m sure readers can add more in the comments. And I welcome that.

Transition as Betrayal—To the person trying to be a friend through someone else’s transition, the announcement itself can be surprising, of course. You’ve known someone one way and with one set of expectations, and now they’re signaling that some basic qualities you’d taken for granted are changing. Too often this shift is discussed, especially in popular culture, as a betrayal. Cisgender lesbian and gay men and bisexuals have received this kind of response, too. It goes past popular culture, and affects our material lives. It’s behind the logic in the gay panic defense, for example, meaning: I was so shocked to learn of this person’s sexual orientation or gender identity that I felt compelled to kill them. This “panic” concept has reached new lows in its use against trans women of color, and is often intertwined in the defense of perpetrators as a justification for their actions. I would argue it was also at work in the case of Tyra Hunter, who was receiving medical aid from Washington, DC paramedics until they realized her trans status, after which they mocked her until she passed away in the street.

Certainly not every instance of “betrayal” is this horrifying. But in the context of microaggressions, and in light of this recent study’s findings that chronic stress and alienation push trans people into depression and suicide, maybe we could watch out for the following kinds of statements and questions:

  • “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me before.”
  • “How long have you known this and not shared it?”
  • “But I’m so used to you this way.”
  • “I just don’t know if I can be friends with you after this.”

Transgender as Liar—There’s a subtle difference here from the betrayal stance, which is that trans people in general aren’t trustworthy because they’ve shown they’re so good at hiding the truth from others. Law & Order: SVU covered this concept almost to the extreme when it told the “story” of a trans woman as she testified about being sexually assaulted. Well, if you lie about your body, what else are you lying about? is the line here. Again, in this instance the responsibility is put on the transgender person to explain why there’s been such a cover up in their personal life. Please, we have enough anxiety about whether we’re honest people, we don’t need so-called allied or friends to pile on the liar bandwagon.

Trans, the Embodiment of Patriarchy—When headlines blared about the first transgender homecoming queen, responses from the public included the sentiment of “but homecoming queens are unfeminist!” I’m not here to argue the merits of homecoming parades or high school sporting events, but to caution well intentioned folks to remember that individual trans women may have a different relationship to the tropes of femininity than their cisgender counterparts. To put it another way, some trans women (even/especially young trans women) may not actually have the option of wearing their hair short or wearing raggedy jeans, lest they be read as male. For other trans women, feminine clothing, makeup, and the like may help them feel the most at ease in their skin. I enter the conversation here at survival. We can debate the limits of femininity once we’re clear of the whole getting through transition and finding necessary support phase. Trans women are not the patriarchy, and harping on their appearance is very often reductive and hurtful.

Trans Cheaters—Transitioning from one gender to another is full of strange circumstances, like the time a bank manager told me I had to have “Jenifer and Everett here at the same time.” We have to prove ourselves again and again to the state when we seek new paperwork, and we have to list our name changes in our local newspapers in order to prove we’re not trying to get out of a debt to a creditor. Although we jump through these hoops so many times every time we see a physician, a therapist, an employer, there are still ideas out there that we’re somehow gaming the system. What system? Of gender? Well, I’d argue some of us think the gender game is screwed up all on its own and we’re just doing out best. But statements like “You can’t get out of your gender, you know,” just sound like defeatism. Trans people tend to be extremely aware of the deficiencies of our bodies, so by and large we don’t need anyone else pointing that out to us. And we’re not “cheating,” we’re repairing.

All of this is to say that the negative ideas about who transfolk are can feel overwhelming when everyone in our lives feels entitled to chime in. Such rhetoric is on full display in that Grantland article when the author writes that, as he discovered Dr. Vanderbilt is trans, “A chill ran down my spine.” Why is that his reaction? He was so wedded to his expectation of her gender when he hadn’t even met her? Why was that a part of his article? Was it newsworthy in some way? Only if we live in a world that defines it that way. Let’s walk away from sensationalizing this community, one sentence at a time.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, ponderings, Pop Culture


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One Comment on “The Rhetoric of Trans According to Popular Culture”

  1. April 23, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    Reblogged this on Trans and Genderqueer Literature at UA.

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