Friday, December 9, 2011

Transpeople: Don't Just Dance, Start a Movement!

By Jayne Henson

Why would anyone want to be transgender? As my granddad would say, "there's no future in it." This statement has been supported in the past by media portrayals of transgender people as sexual deviants, tragic jokes, or lives that ends in violence and definitely not success. With these kinds of images being all that one sees, it is easy to understand why many trans people seek to transition, pass, and "go stealth" as quickly as possible.

I myself remember tears in my mother's eyes as I told her that her son was really her daughter, after which she replied with a string of reasons why this "could not be," as well as her fears for my safety. The certainty in my mother's mind that my life as a trans woman was doomed to tragedy was asserted when I told her that I would be moving to New York City to pursue a career in HIV prevention, to which she replied, "I might as well be shipping you off to Afghanistan." Now, part of this statement could be the result of living in rural Kansas for all of her (and my) life, but what I heard echoed in that statement was the societal belief that trans people are not successful or respected.

But is that still true today? I reflected on this as we felt the digital fallout on blogs and message boards across the country, where people responded to ABC's announcement that Chaz Bono would be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Here we had a very visibly out, transsexual man whose family ties to pop icon Cher caused his transition to be thrust into the spotlight. This media onslaught landed him an Oprah special and documentary (nominated for three Emmy Awards), numerous book deals, several speaking engagements, and a future reality TV show and painted him as the representative and poster boy for trans people everywhere -- not to mention also bringing him a host of horrible, hateful things said about him in such media outlets as Chelsea Lately and FOX News, as well as countless independent blogs and message boards. It seems that the Internet remains the last bastion of anonymous slander and defamation in our society, especially toward the disenfranchised.

I commend Chaz Bono for his courage to transition in the public eye, thus making society at large confront the issues of gender identity and transsexuality and letting the world know that trans people are part of the fabric of America. Though it came as no surprise to me, I was hurt by the lack of sensitivity and hate displayed so excessively by today's media in response to Chaz's coming out. But this is where my lavishing praise upon Chaz Bono ends, and where I ask, why him? Why is he the face that represents me and my kind to the world? What will Chaz Bono spinning and cha-cha-ing on Dancing with the Stars do for trans people in America, aside from providing more media fodder?

To be clear, Chaz Bono does not speak for me. To me he represents an ideology and rhetoric surrounding trans identities that only serves to further stereotypes that make it easier for conservative-minded cis-gendered people (i.e., people whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth) to grasp the concept of transsexuality. This ideology is the notion of becoming a man or woman through medical intervention (and a very stereotypical and misogynistic man, at that).

There are several reasons why I find this problematic. For one, it is not accurate. When I decided to transition from male to female, I never felt as though I became a different person. In reality, I felt that now everyone else around me could see and acknowledge the person I always had been. Furthermore, the thought that trans people must exist in two different lifecycles (pre- and post-transition), as opposed to having a linear existence that embraces both our past and our future, is what keeps us from feeling pride in our existence as trans women and men.

This notion of "becoming" through transition is prevalent throughout all of Chaz's endorsed media ("Becoming Chaz" and "Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man") and is an underlying theme that saturates its messages. I am tired of dialogue that insists that I must become a certain ideal of what a woman is, and that someone else gets to decide what that is and when my identity is valid. I'm tired of trying to make the world think trans people are "just like everyone else," because we're not; we're different, and that's awesome! What I want is an ideology that allows us to be proud of our trans identities and be excited about being trans, and value what that means in today's world, instead of viewing trans identities as diseases that need to be cured so that we can become valid.

Trans women have been shown in the media time and time again on Jerry Springer, Law and Order, 20/20, Dirty Sexy Money, 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and many other shows. However, almost none of these portrayals is a positive image of what it means to be a trans woman. In fact, 2010 marked a monumental year when trans woman Amanda Simpson was appointed to the presidential cabinet, making her the first out trans woman to serve in the White House. Yet there were no Oprah specials for Amanda, and about the only acknowledgement she got was jokes made about her on The Daily Show.

The fact remains that in our society, the voiceless rarely get to choose who represents them, and too often that responsibility is taken over by the media. Yet in a market that is dominated by ratings, poignant, smart, positive dialogue often takes a back seat to sensationalism and mass appeal. To those of you reading who view trans people as some kind of mystified species seen on National Geographic, I want you to know this: we are more than Jerry Springer specials, cheap jokes, mistakes of nature, sexual fetishes, and abominations. We are strong, powerful men and women. We are everywhere. We are in your office, on the subway, in your high school class, behind you in line at the bank. We are firefighters, pilots, computer programmers, musicians, actors, dancers, authors, reality TV stars, doctors, lawyers, farmers, and even HIV counselors. We face a host of dangers and challenges every day for existing in a world that treats us as less than human and would rather that we just fade away. Yet we do it all in pursuit of what many of you take for granted every day -- a sense of sovereignty over our body, gender, and identity -- and we aren't going to disappear anytime soon.

To my transgender brothers and sisters reading this, I want to say: we have to stop thinking that any representation of us in the media is better than none. We need more than a line in a Lady Gaga song and a jitterbugging child of a gay icon. We need to start making our own voices heard. Grab a mic, write a blog, write a poem or novel, make art, make a scene, hold a protest, fight back, take up space, start a movement! Our future depends on it.
Jayne Henson is HIV counselor and outreach worker in the GMHC Center for HIV Prevention.  Her article was originally published in The Huffington Post on December 5, 2011.

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