In Visibility We Trust: The Pros and Cons of Trans Visibility

Image credits: Brian Gratwicke via Creative Commons

Image credits: Brian Gratwicke via Creative Commons

CN: Cis privilege, mention of tokenization

The advent of shows such as Orange is the New Black and Transparent, production of films such as Tangerine, and recent out-pour of media attention on celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have ushered in loud calls for increased trans visibility. Ironically, however, the groups advocating visibility are not usually those who understand the complex nexus of issues that surround it. Having reflected on the need to learn from others’ lived experience at the trans allyship workshop earlier in Trans Awareness Month, I took the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on the pros and cons of visibility, in order to form a better understanding of the topic.

Loosely structured as a discussion followed by a Q+A, the panelists covered a wide range of topics, from the difficulties of coming out (often twice – first as LGB+, and then as trans) to family and friends, to tokenization within the media (i.e. producing and portraying a character for the sake of highlighting a certain aspect of their identity), and from the different ways societal perceptions define personal presentation, to the consequences of the hypervisibility of certain trans individuals (particularly trans women and transfeminine people).

I found the discussion of ‘passing privilege’ to be particularly thought-provoking, given that this ‘privilege’ allows for certain trans people to, as a result of their appearance, enter and ‘fit into’ certain spaces that are dominated by white, cis men. Although this may be seen to be a useful way of subverting and transgressing the gender binary, the panellists disagreed about whether or not this could really be considered a type of ‘privilege’, given that to have ‘privilege’ generally also means implication in the oppression of other marginalized groups, and that being assumed to be cis often leads trans people to be read differently than who they actually are. Ultimately, however, cis ‘passing’ was recognised as a way of ensuring one’s safety – frequently one that trans people end up forced into, for this reason. As a cis person, I had never realized the primacy of the safety concern, having always advocated representation within the media – “the more the merrier” – and having always assumed that social trans visibility could do nothing but good for the community, given its potential for upholding marginalized voices. The reality that people have to consciously subject themselves to self oppression (in terms of suppressing their identity) in order to feel safe on the streets was one that I had never truly considered, and that caused me to reflect on my own entitled views as a cis person: how could I possibly ask trans individuals to put themselves out there, in the media and in real life, when their lives are literally put at risk upon doing so?

The discussion that followed, about interrogative engagement and the difficulty of being a ‘banner carrier’, emphasized that safety was not just a concern in terms of presentation – trans individuals who feel responsible for raising awareness and educating people are in danger of overexerting themselves, often for entitled cis people who, in reality, have no right to demand any explanation or justification from trans people who just want to ‘be’. Identity is individual, but expressions of identity are socially determined – in a world where trans identities suffer constant erasure, even within the LGBT+ movement itself (see Mariah Hickman’s article: “Support the T: On LGBT+ ‘Solidarity’”), can representation be the answer? Or is it more important to protect and platform the voices of those who need to be heard, and to make our categorical imperative the securing of individuals’ safety, first and foremost?

The idea of palatable narratives was another point that struck me as particularly important. Early in the discussion, the panellists discussed the two primary stories that accompany trans individuals in the media: the sob story and the inspirational story. This brought me back to the allyship workshop, in which we identified the dangers of creating a monolithic set of stories that are supposed to map onto every trans individual’s life – in the panel, this idea was fleshed out, with this binary narrative being argued to be extremely harmful to wider understandings of trans identity. Celebrity, too, was considered, particularly in the case of famous personas in the media. The panellists concluded that although it can be inspiring for trans individuals to watch the success stories of those who are able to “successfully” transition socially and physically, this type of representation is dangerous as it may lead people to doubt their own identities, exacerbating an already difficult process of navigation.

Clearly, trans representation is much more nuanced than cis people generally acknowledge. This panel demonstrated to me that we cannot map the same ideals onto different communities located on different intersections of oppression. It is a mistake to believe that visibility will do for the trans community what it could do for, say, the cis, gay, white community – it is dangerous to attempt to haphazardly use the same means of awareness-raising for communities that are still struggling with safety concerns. Representation extends beyond media, and encompasses trans visibility within our communities; however, this poses challenges on those who are forced to become banner carriers, who are given the exhausting mandate to educate, often in oppressive systems that are already skewed against their favour.

Having challenged my views on the need for trans representation in media and in social life, this event, as part of Trans Awareness Month, showed me just how narrow-minded I was, and allowed me to critically reflect on my position on this issue. For this reason, I must thank the Make No Assumptions campaign again, for giving me the opportunity to listen and change my opinions – the opportunity to learn to see.

Jun Pang (Get Real. contributor)

One thought on “In Visibility We Trust: The Pros and Cons of Trans Visibility

  1. As a trans woman, I really like this. Thank you for taking the time to flesh this out. I’ve spoken about “passing privilege” before, and how it’s quite the double edged sword. It seems that, the better someone “passes” the more visceral the reaction if someone else finds out. I love being a voice to help people learn on the internet, but I’m not so inclined to out myself offline, because I’m scared of other people, and quite rightfully so I think. It’s hard to get exposure and understanding, when exposure too often means harm or death.

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