Invisible Women

Visibility matters. To be sure it carries with it various risks; to be known is certainly not always to be loved. For example the type of visibility transsexual women “enjoy” in society is of perhaps the lowest order; stereotyped, parodied, and exploited- this is what our visibility in the mainstream media usually accounts for. Which is why it’s all the more frustrating to take note of where we are not visible. Recently various trans and women’s websites have been blowing the lid off of a particularly egregious episode of appropriation. By now most people have heard of the beleaguered and persecuted “gay couple” in Malawi who have just been sentenced to prison terms in an inhuman miscarriage of justice. What far fewer people know, however, is that they are not quite a gay couple per se. Indeed, one half of that couple understands herself quite firmly as a female.

Questioning Transphobia among others have taken a look at this issue, and as per usual Skip The Makeup has an excellent overview of the problematic media coverage. It is erasure writ large. I will not rehash (much) the details nor the criticism of why so much of the coverage has been, at best, condescending, borderline racist, and erasing when others have done this so well. What’ll concern me this afternoon is responding to the criticisms of people who feel that the trans community is making a mountain out of a molehill. Many, including within the cis LGB community, have suggested that it doesn’t really matter how Tiwonge Chimbalanga identifies or what her life experience is, and that what matters is that folks care about two people being persecuted for loving one another.

It’s a seductive argument, certainly, and adheres to the ever enticing liberal equalism that asserts difference only gets in the way.

The problem is that those same people- especially the cis gays and queers among them- would not let this excuse wash if some other human rights issue that got wide press omitted the fact that one of the people being attacked, maligned or disenfranchised was gay, and this would be a perfectly valid response. Why? Because explicating how various forms of discrimination operate and bear on a case like this is elucidating; it highlights the struggles of groups of people to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe that discrimination is a thing of the past. If something bad happens to a member of your community, wanting to raise hell about it is a natural reaction.

Secondly, it ought to be obvious why it “matters”: because Tiwonge Chimbalanga says she’s a woman and bloody well lives as one. Does it not strike these people, especially the cis LGB folks among them, as more than a little rude and disingenuous to simply ignore that and condescendingly wave her off? That is really what is at issue here with the media coverage, including the New York Times’ cringe inducing speculation that society had repressed Tiwonge into merely being deluded about being a woman. It smacks of the same cis LGB attempt to colonise and claim trans people as merely extremely gay individuals, regardless of what we say about ourselves. Or the attempts by those same people, and some particularly tone-deaf feminists, to cis man’s burden us by asserting that our identification merely marks us as particularly battered victims of the gender binary.

The perpetuation of such beliefs, the privileged right to define us, are the consequences of this kind of erasure.

The other response to this critique- that quibbling over identity is a mug’s game- is twofold.

  • For one, the uncomfortable question has to be asked: Would this case have courted such international outrage had Tiwonge been identified as a transgender or intersex woman from the start?
  • Two, to consider the difference between being publicly regarded as a man as opposed to a woman, a mere ‘quibble’ over labels for transgender people is to display a rather saddening lack of empathy. It is pretty damn important to us.

Another argument I’ve heard floated is from some savvy liberals who say that these distinctions are a western invention and that by imposing the label of trans on Tiwonge, we are the ones erasing her. This is what I call ‘hipster privilege’, left wing constructions of privileged statements that use emancipatory language to express marginalising ideas (you can also file feminist transphobia under this). Everything I’ve read from trans activists and feminists who’ve called out this erasure has been based on Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s own expression of her identity as quoted many times over (and then usually redacted by many mainstream media organisations). I’m not imposing this on her. She, time and again, has called herself a woman.

Now let’s look at a different sort  of erasure for a moment, and how this type of erasure has a very bad habit of silencing women in the most patriarchal ways possible.

In Australia much brouhaha has been ginned up by conservative whites- mostly men- in power and in the media who are seeking to ban the burqa, a ban which mainly targets religious dress like the face-covering niqab. Recently a Sydney talkback radio programme on station 3AW hosted a rather roudy roundtable debate on the matter. Most of the callers were openly hostile, one woman brazenly declaring herself a racist, another bemoaning the loss of “Australian culture,” we’ve been here before, these shades of Islamophobia and racism are nothing new.

What was rather interesting was what happened when a Muslim woman and community representative, Sherene Hassan, who is the VP of the Muslim Council of Victoria, was called in to participate in the debate with three white men in the studio. She would be on the phone, speaking with presenter Darren James, and the two panellists, liberal Nick McCallum, and right winger John Michael Howson. At least that’s what was supposed to happen. After being kept on hold for over twenty minutes Ms. Hassan was finally told that she was not wanted on the show as Mr. Howson refused to speak to her. Whatever perspective she had to offer, as a  Muslim woman professional and community activist, was effectively silenced.

What was Howson’s justification for this?

“Well it was another propagandist coming on. We know what we’re going to get… I’ll tell you what it is Nick. They are well skilled propagandists who come on at a moment’s notice with their rote and we’ll get the same thing.”

You really do have to listen to the recording to hear the sneering behind these words.

And so, there you have it. Three white men hosting a debate to a primarily white audience, ginning up racial resentment, taking calls primarily from said white audience, all about a political issue that surrounds a law which if passed explicitly targets Muslim women. But an actual Muslim woman’s opinion on the matter? Shut down from that discussion. Mr. Howson does not seem to think very highly of his listeners’ ability to take it. An actual Muslim woman becomes a “propagandist” unlike the ostensibly neutral Mr. Howson who knows what’s best for women of colour.

This is the real problem with erasure: it compels people from minority groups to stay out of these debates, even in ostensible democracies and free presses, and to let the dominant group hash out their future. The charity of white liberals like Mr. McCallum must be relied upon and obstacles are thrown in our way if we try to stand up for our own rights.

The erasure of Tiwonge Chimbalanga’s identity has a similar effect in marginalising and silencing trans voices, including that of Ms. Chimbalanga’s herself, despite the pretensions of so many to care about what happens to her.  For the New York Times, BBC, and countless cis LGB activists to say they know her identity better than her (and that’s okay anyway because they’re trying to save her) has particularly colonialist overtones that can’t help but marginalise. Trans people need positive visibility and above all our voices must be heard, not second guessed, buried on page A12 followed by a challenge to our self-knowledge, but heard.

Respect need not be mutually exclusive with advocacy.

The Trans-feminine Mystique

When I first began writing this journal/blog thingy I wondered in my very first post if I should come out or not; if I should restrain myself from letting that little dirty secret slip into a Google-searchable journal. In the end I realised something rather important, so I just said “fuck it” and wrote that into the very first post. I knew I couldn’t hold that back. It’s in the DNA of this journal’s name, as the first post explained.

But what I also realised is that there are still so precious few outlets for trans people to get the message out there. There are certainly more than ever. The Internet has been a remarkable help in this regard. Many books are now on the shelves that are autobiographical, political or both, and that’s a wonderful thing. Yet even so, none of us can name a really good movie that portrayed a trans person sympathetically, seriously, and non-stereotypically, much less a TV show.

We are shown as crude caricatures, or with our high heeled legs pointing up out of a dumpster, or as cruel temptresses who will defile unwitting young men with our secret sausage. Trans women are those crude and cruel mockeries, trans men don’t even exist at all in the media, save for the needed telling of some tragic tales like that of Brandon Teena. But beyond those sad true life stories, we do not hear much about trans men or trans women- certainly not the triumphs of our every day lives, nor do we see any beautiful pictures painted on screen depicting the realisation of our simple dreams.

Transamerica came closest but even that film, despite having had several trans women consultants like Andrea James whose life story would make a damn fine movie on its own, blew chunks in its portrayal of us. Felicity Huffman’s character was portrayed as a hyper feminine almost wanna-be character that stumbled in her high heels. That’s bollocks, for one thing. You adapt to high heels pretty quickly. Her character is years into transition and that stumbling does little more than assist the audience in not taking her seriously as a woman; as if to say walking in heels is some arcane art of women that cannot be imitated by trans women because of their knobbly bits.

There are countless moments like this, such as the portrayal of her putting on her makeup and spending a tremendous amount of time ‘putting woman on’ which reinforces the idea that she has to put on a costume and deceive. Unlike an actual woman, is the implicit message, intended or not. This belies the countless stories of real trans women who roll out of bed in a tank top and jeans and get groceries in the morning without spending two hours putting on makeup.

What was particularly annoying about this portrayal was that it tapped straight into a deeply othering meme that infects the wider media. Showing trans women spending lots of time putting on makeup. Even in sympathetic news or talk show outlets that have shown positive stories about us, like Oprah or Vermont’s CBS affiliate, there’s always that money shot of the trans woman putting on makeup. It reinforces this asinine idea that our womanhood is artificial and revolves around the rituals of cosmetics and wigs and stuffing our clothes in the right places. The idea becomes very much implicit in all of this: we’d not be women but for that artifice.

This is insulting to trans women and it’s insulting to women as a whole. I am taken seriously as a woman despite not wearing much in the way of makeup. The most I ever use is a little lipstick because I happen to like what it does to my face. That’s not a crime. But I sure as hell don’t spend hours in front of the mirror using layers of foundation to “make myself a woman.”

In an earlier entry I remarked that trans people were an excruciatingly de-voiced group. These examples highlight the consequences of this. When the powers that be deign to cover us or give us a very filtered voice, it must always be channelled through the filter of their own definitions and biases. This has profound consequences and also explains a particular aspect of what I might call a little ironically The Transsexual Mystique: the fact that we’re all things to all people.

To Christians, Muslims, and other religious conservatives we are sins against nature whose very existence flies in the face of God. To liberals we are diversity chits to showcase their tolerance but not to be taken too seriously as ‘actual’ men and women. To macho, patriarchal men, we are incredibly gay sissy guys who need a beatdown and also a place for them to project their worst misogynist fantasies. To some feminist women, we’re sleeper agents of the patriarchy itself, men in drag who denigrate womanhood by being parodies of it. To psychiatrists we are their social experiment and a place to project their personal ideals so that we might be moulded into them. To some gays we’re merely deeply closeted gays and lesbians unable to grapple with our own latent homosexuality.

You may note that many of these stereotypes are trans woman-specific. This is because trans men are thinly regarded at all by society in this. Their existence puts lie to some of those stereotypes and is thus inconvenient.

The only way this happens is because who we really are isn’t part of the narrative. They know we exist as transsexual people but they don’t know what to make of us. So they project their fears, worries, and fantasies onto us. We are blank slates on which they may write their values, and in so doing they merely rationalise us into some role that buttresses their worldview. Because we sure as hell aren’t being allowed to do it. So few of us can stand up and say “this is my life, I’m a human being and here’s my experience…” So we simply become MacGuffins for everyone else’s political ballgames.

When we are allowed to speak, we always have our words edited by the demands of commercial media and parsed by psychiatrists who allegedly know us better than we know ourselves. Our experience is forever qualified by the desires of others.

So I’m telling this story. My story, and my observations. I don’t pretend it applies universally, but it’s part of the true tapestry of the lives of all trans people. What can be done to fix and redress the media portrayal problems? A good place to start looking and see what the future might look like is Venus Envy, a webcomic by Erin Lindsey that deals with the lives of trans people in a small Pennsylvania town. It can be a little soap opera-ish, but what matters most is that I identified with the main character, Zoe.

She wasn’t a caricature, she wasn’t a cardboard cut out, and she wasn’t comic relief. She was a fictional character who was going through what I went through with the same thoughts, worries, fears, hopes, and some experiences that I had. It matters so very much to see and I ate that comic up, finding hope in Ms. Lindsey’s excellent and heartfelt storyweaving.

One of the other main characters is a trans man as well, and their issues are handled so deftly and expertly that I never felt condescended to. I just felt like this was a reflection of my experience. Trans people as a whole were being taken seriously in this artwork. Lindsey knows how to make us laugh about our own foibles and some of her earlier comics make great play of that. But the joke is not on us, it’s on the absurdity of the situations society leaves us in. That is a critical distinction.

This is why I get so annoyed at people who decry “affirmative action” on television and in films, like some morons at the University of Connecticut’s Young Republican club who actually denigrated Star Trek: Voyager for being such a thing. To hell with you. There is a very distinct power to seeing a reflection of yourself in the media. It makes you feel like you’re part of the society and that your stories and experiences matter enough to be reflected into the general public. I can empathise with white characters and with cis-women characters, and even the odd male character. But it makes my heart sing with I see a trans woman I can truly identify with.

Because the trans part of my womanhood is a very specific and very involved set of experiences that are not easily replicated in other demographic groups. Zoe Carter as a character matters a lot to me because of that. Erin Lindsey truly Gets It. It’s no surprise then that she’s trans herself. But we all need to tell our stories, and in her way this is how she tells hers.

I also added a link to the blog roll to Lady Jade Lioness’ Den, a good friend who is writing a wonderful piece of erotic fiction starring a trans woman who, aside from being elegant, strong, and intelligent, can kick some serious ass and knows how to use a pair of daggers to deadly effect. In a word, a badass I can empathise with. It matters to have those sorts of heroes and see them portrayed positively and sympathetically.

It matters not just because we need to feel less alone or because seeing ourselves reflected positively is empowering. It is also because we need to stop being all things to all people and instead be ourselves.