The Single-Story of Trans Experience

Yesterday’s post may prove to be a jumping off point for an exploration of how to tell my own story. It’s been on my mind since the events that led to me penning that piece and quite fortuitously when reading through Border House Blog I came across a link to one of the best TED talks I’ve seen in quite a long time. It’s worth taking the time to listen to this woman’s words.

What Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful lecture makes clear is a point that has relevance for many oppressed, marginalised, or othered communities. It is a powerful rebuttal to the insistence of the privileged that they wield no power. Oftentimes you find people writing the most baroque, intellectual arguments against the idea that power, as we often describe it when regarding Kyriarchy, even exists. Yet Ms. Adichie’s stories make one thing powerfully clear: a story itself contains power.

Is your story told? Are the stories of your people valued? Do people outside of your community hear those stories? Who tells the stories? How often? Why are they told? What’s in the stories? All of these questions have some measure of urgency for the trans community, I believe, and this lecture has sent me thinking about my own relation to this larger puzzle. Yesterday I spoke of the Progressive Coming Out Story, a liberal-leaning tale that is designed to be comforting and simplified for an audience that otherwise couldn’t relate to LGBTQ people. It seems that, for many of us, this is the single-story that Ms. Adichie warns us to avoid.

Too often, the stories trans people are allowed to tell are designed to fitted into that single-story, or the narrative, as I called it.

When I recently criticised radical feminists for their assault on the dignity of trans people, and trans women in particular, I made a point at the end that asserted they could not feel as they did if they truly knew us. I stated that transphobic ‘feminists’ seem to be working on stereotypes garnered from the media and funnelled into gender studies academic writing. It is a different sort of single-story that they’re working from: the myth of the trans woman as an invasive parody, or as a drag queen. This tale has reared its ugly head multiple times in the media down the decades and it’s as corrosive as ever. It is a story of trans women as seen through the cruel eyes of certain cis people.

Just as Ms. Adichie shared with us how John Locke looked at Africans and imaginatively saw people with their heads in their chests, so too have cis people looked at us from afar and seen only what they wanted to see, building a narrative on top of that grainy image that became a story none of us ever asked for.

We have been the victims of a single-story about trans people for far too long. Curiously, however, there is evidence of an evolution of that story. Among conservatives, radical feminists, and traditionalists their single-story is that of the illegitimate trans man or trans woman who is a caricature and a deceiver; among more liberal minded people, the Progressive Coming Out story takes precedence. The latter story at least no longer sees us as villains but it still does not reflect us. It’s only one story. To the extent that many of us relate to it, we know it’s only formed a part of our lives. Just one thread in a much larger and more vivid tapestry.

Yet too often, among liberals it seems to be the only story we’re encouraged to tell; it is the definitive story.

It isn’t that I don’t see a bit of myself in that narrative, it’s that I see only a bit of myself in that narrative. As Ms. Adichie said about certain stereotypes: it isn’t that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete. Too often people mistake such ideas as representing the totality of our experience, and the precious few bits of media that tried to get it right for us only ended up reinforcing those tropes and those stereotypes. Transamerica was the closest thing to a decent film about us that hit the big time, very, very relatively speaking. In real terms, it was a bad, almost offensive portrayal of trans people. Yet this is the ‘best’ there is.

In watching it with my mother I did see bits of myself and my own experience in it. But I also knew that large swathes of it were predicated on cis-centered or cis-friendly perspectives. The free use of terms like “genetic girl” to describe cis women were part of that. But the spine of the narrative was built on the Progressive Coming Out Story. Things were bad, then I came out, then I dealt with some bigots, then I got the surgery, and happily ever after!

Our lives are about more than transition. Even those parts of our lives that are directly related to our being trans are not all connected to the process of physical transition that so obsesses cis people. That’s another dimension of that single-story, by the way. The body. In both the conservative and liberal version of the single-story of trans people the body and its appearance, as well as its history, are central. The “change” and “transformation” are most profoundly marked by what surgeries we’ve had, what drugs we may have taken, and are considered central and essential. For many cis people I am “becoming a woman” as we speak because I’m still in the throes of physical transition. They don’t understand me as always having been a woman. Biographies of trans people that follow the format of “In 1970 Johnny was born and he did this in his teen years; then in 1990 she became Jane and she went on to induce nuclear fusion, she’s a real peach today” indulge in the same idea. The physical transition is the fulcrum on which gender rests, the dividing line between he/she or she/he.

My story, however, would hold that I’ve always been a woman. Transition is the process by which I discovered and began to seize that on my own terms. That includes changing my body. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of why my body is undergoing certain changes. If I say because it makes me feel right and true to myself, that ought to be enough. Being true to one’s self is part of that progressive narrative, of course. But it always felt incomplete to merely leave it at that, and at times I wonder if I ought to get my story out there to counteract the oppression of the single-stories that bear down on us every day.

There is no true single-story of trans people, no singular “transgender experience.” There are millions of stories of trans people, and they deserve to be heard.

3 thoughts on “The Single-Story of Trans Experience

  1. Timo January 21, 2010 / 5:16 pm

    Nice post.

  2. rivercitymongrel February 7, 2013 / 5:20 pm

    Reblogged this on This Mongrel Land and commented:
    A great post about the importance of telling our stories and dismantling the One True Trans Narrative.

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