What we talk about when we talk about trans people

Earlier this year, a professor at my university invited me out to drinks with herself and a visiting scholar. I don’t drink, but I went anyway because I was interested in the visiting scholar’s work on identity in games. When it came time to share what I researched, though, I grew worried.

“Transgender representation,” I answered.

“Oh, I’m a part of a Facebook group you’d love,” the visiting scholar answered. “It’s for feminism in media, but there are a lot of trans people. They have really long posts and talk about their lives and transitions. It’s really cool.”

I nodded and continued to sip my drink. Her response was caring, and her intent was in the right place, but as other trans writers have pointed out, intent can’t be magic. The academic’s response — and responses like it — are an insidious form of transphobia that is often invisible. What we talk about when we talk about trans people so often amounts of an autobiographical story with transition at the centre. While these stories are good for promoting visibility, especially for cisgender understanding and empathy, the immediate reaction to talk about trans people in this way poses the silent question: why has the transgender person become transgender?

In other words, it asks the trans person: why do you exist?

The dynamic of the conversation shifts after this moment. As soon as a transgender transition narrative is brought up (by cis or trans people), the rest of dialogue takes on a plea for trans existence and acceptance. It does this because conversations like this position transgender people as the object of the conversation, not the subject. Though it may seem like transgender people telling a story about their lives is putting them at the forefront of the conversation and giving them voice as the subject, the audience for this story matters, too.

As Davey and Gage remark in their post on Feministing for the film Boy Meets Girl, the audience for this particular transgender love story is cisgender people — to the point where others like Scott Elliot see the film as a “learning opportunity” for them to understand transgender issues. Movies and TV shows tend to suffer from the cisgender audience effect heavily, as Casey Plett also notes. But this turning towards a cisgender public has become so coded in our culture that it even happens in everyday conversations about trans people. For the visiting scholar, when she described a Facebook group she thought I’d love, it was because trans people talked about themselves; she effectively offered me a research area where trans people gave away their stories as objects of study. They were “texts” to her — and she wanted to share them with me.

My research is not about transgender people as texts but it is about understanding how and why people are represented like this, especially in areas of academia. Julia Serano has pointed out the bias towards treating transgender identity as a metaphor or artefact to study, zeroing in on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in particular. This issue goes far beyond the ivory tower of the academy, though. When Laverne Cox appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah earlier in February, she made a really key observation: transgender people have always existed. But now they have visibility, and must struggle for the right to exist in public space.

Being visible in this manner is being vulnerable; it means being an object and needing to offer up intense, personal details in order to obtain the right to exist in public space

When someone stops a trans person from using a particular bathroom, it’s easy to see how that’s transphobic. But cis people often have unknown and invisible conditions that govern the nature of their public space, including their cyberspace. While some areas online like 4chan and Reddit are known discriminatory grounds for those who are different, that feminist Facebook group still had conditions as well: trans people were definitely allowed, but they needed to be visible — in other words, they needed to tell their story, which was effectively amounting to asking why they were here.Trans women have notoriously been singled out in feminist or LGB groups as vulnerable targets, and often told to offer up their stories or be barred membership.

The transgender autobiography, as a genre, has always been about explaining the ‘why’ of transgender existence. As UK writer Jay Prosser has noted in his research, though, those memoirs are often heavily influenced by the doctor’s narrative of transition. In order to perform the surgery, doctors need a motive behind the action, so transgender people must become “arch storytellers” and concoct a narrative that will satisfy doctors. There is an inherent risk in this form of storytelling: if the trans person doesn’t get the ‘right’ story, and anticipate their ideal (cisgender) audience, their procedure will be taken away.

Finding the ‘right’ story doesn’t stop once the doctor has approved surgery. As Prosser notes, the structure of the ‘approved’ story has been embedded into the memoir genre itself, and can even be seen with more modern examples like Chaz Bono’s work Transition. Even Caitlyn Jenner’s transition served the same function as the earlier memoirs: to explain herself and her existence, both before and after surgery.

Now, thanks to “the transgender tipping point” and media attention, everyday transgender people have become minor celebrities for telling their stories. And, again, while having visibility is an important part of empathy and understanding, especially when the US has a president so obsessed with taking away their already precarious rights, the newfound visibility for trans people is coded with the same pitfalls as it was in the doctor’s office 70 years ago. If transgender people don’t become the ‘right’ type of man or woman, they will not be recognised. Since trans people inhabit an identity that is contextual based on whether or not people get it right for them (through pronouns, name choices, and the like), they are always vulnerable in a cisgender society. So when a trans person doesn’t ‘pass’ by cisgender standards, their autobiography is the next thing they can count on as a plea to exist and take up public space.

They are not “brave” for telling their story. Being brave is to mistake a condition for survival as a personality trait. In reality, transgender people, as Laverne Cox says, merely want to exist in public space under their own terms and conditions. Not as an object, but subject of their lives.

In many ways, I see the trans autobiography as the updated version of the question: have you had the surgery yet? In the past, Cox has shut down Katie Couric for asking such a thing because it dehumanises the transgender person by objectifying the transgender body. To ask whether or not a trans person has had the surgery is to ask them about their genitals, which is quite appalling: it undermines their identification as woman or man and puts the transgender person on display. It’s also the type of question that links the transgender person to medical discourse directly.

We don’t — or at least shouldn’t — ask this question anymore. But to demand a story from a transgender person, or to insist on needing to hear how they’ve come to be transgender, invokes the same medical discourse as asking the surgery question. It still puts the transgender person on display, but instead of objectifying their body, it’s their life, their mind, and their future that’s called into question.

What we talk about when we talk about trans people is quite simple: we’re actually talking about the doctor’s ideas of transgender people. The easy way to stop doing this is not to stop telling stories, or to stop listening to trans people as they tell them when and if they are comfortable enough to do so with you. The way to prevent the cisgender audience effect is to flip the typical script.

When we call trans people “trapped” in their bodies, that’s the doctor’s perspective. It’s how a transgender person explains it to a doctor by privileging the doctor’s point of view. If the trans person is trapped, it’s something that the doctor can fix by excising the trans person underneath while the trans person is passive and waits. But what if it was the doctor — and cis people as a whole — who were the ones who were trapped in their perception of what it means to be transgender?

Then the narrative becomes something of poet Ollie Renee Schminkey’s perspective: “I’m not trapped in my body. I’m trapped in other people’s perceptions of my body”.

At that moment, the next question dictating the conversation isn’t why does a trans person exist? Instead, it’s what are those perceptions? And more importantly, how do we change from there?

Changing perceptions comes right down to language itself, the stories we tell, and the types of conversations and questions we engage in. I hope that the next time I sit in a bar with an academic, I can talk about transgender people like me, like my friends and other trans academics, and not the image that’s trapped them.

Featured image: By Ladynylon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped to fit.


Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, and Bitch Magazine. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD Waterloo University. Follow @evelyndeshane for more info.