Just A Thought

Yesterday, I shared an opinion piece about cisgender actors playing transgender roles following up on a discussion that’d previously come up in relation to a similar discussion that arose in relation to one of the points in this piece on Trans Day Of Visibility earlier in the week. Basically, the discussion has arisen around a major point that a lot of trans writers make, especially in relation to Dallas Buyers Club, since that’s an impression that a lot of trans individuals have to live with and one that a lot of cis people have actually seen or are at least aware of. I didn’t really set out to write this. But since this is one of the more talked about topics I have shared, or at least a conversation I seem to keep having with my friends, let’s talk about media portrayals, the power therein, and the complications of exposure and whether it’s worth it. And it seems worthwhile to at least put that in a central location, so here you go.

One of the larger discussions out of Dallas Buyers Club in the trans community has obviously been focusing on the role of Rayon, how we feel about that, and what it means going forward. That opinion piece is an example of one that I think covers a lot of that ground. Lots of people have written lots of smart pieces on it. Parker Marie Molloy touches on a lot of what’s below in this pretty great piece which has started its own firestorm…but one at a time). If you didn’t click over, here’s my distillation of a lot of those points. As I see it, there are a few intertwined discussions going on here: there is the fact that it does not appear Rayon was originally written as a trans woman and what kind of effect that has on the role; irrelevant of how one feels about the quality of acting, does the trans community really need another portrayal of trans individuals like this; what impact does a role like this have on actual trans individuals who are struggling to find their place in our society; how does a role like this influence the views of cis people who see it in terms of how they see the trans community, trans individuals, etc.; if (already minimal) opportunities to play trans roles don’t exist for trans individuals and they certainly don’t seem to be getting cis roles (at least as open trans individuals as far as I am aware) then what exactly are they supposed to do? That’s most of the discussions I’ve been having, and a lot of what I’ve been reading has been from a trans perspective, so it has been educational in the past few days to bring it back to a larger audience that is not trans and have that conversation.

One of the primary points that was made is that we should stop being so hung up on anyone’s gender. Which I agree with. But since my life is a living laboratory of just how far we are from that idea (and I’d argue most peoples’ lives, irrelevant of whether they are trans or cis, are like that), it feels easy to say and hard to figure out how to head toward. Of course it’d be great if there were trans characters in media for whom being trans was just a part of them. I mean, that’s how I feel at work, at least until the next time I pick up the phone. The fact that I’m trans has no bearing on my ability to do my job, most people respect that, and it’s really not particularly an aspect of myself I bring to my job. I rarely talk about that part of who I am at work, even though it’s obviously a huge aspect of who I am, because I rarely need to. It just has no bearing on my ability to detect money laundering. Unfortunately, finding places that are like that still feel far more like exceptions than rules for trans individuals. But it also seems like that’s still a concurrent struggle in regards to gender identity as a whole, irrelevant of whether one is cis of trans, and looks to continue to be for a long time yet to come. It certainly seems progress is being made, but there’s still so much more work to do. Of course that’s where we should be. But how are we getting there? And is something like a cis man playing a trans woman a sign of progress? To me, irrelevant of how well acted it may or may not be, no, it’s just falling back on old tropes and older problems. To me, it’s symptomatic of the fact that in 2014 there’s still a hell of a lot of progress to be made, not a sign we’ve progressed so far that anyone can do anything.

Second, there was a lot of talk of advocacy. It’s hard work. It’s a lot of work. Advocacy is not just walking through the door and being counted as present. So I don’t think just having a role and playing it for all the world to see is really something that counts as advocacy. I actively question myself in terms of how I am an advocate, and actively feel that I am not doing enough. I do not know if I really am a very good advocate, I certainly don’t feel like it sometimes, and I’m living the experiences. Now this isn’t to say that everyone has to be an advocate. But it’s a lot of work to do it, a lot more work than it is to say. I don’t say that to denigrate anyone. I say that as a reminder that advocating for any lived experience that’s not your own involves a lot of self-reflection, a lot of listening, and a lot of work to understand a perspective that you will never totally appreciate. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be asking questions. I appreciate the conversations I have with my friends, and their candor in terms of discussing their perspectives. I don’t say this to discourage them from having these conversations with me. I like having them. I am, of course, only a single trans perspective among many, and even if it’s frustrating at times, I do like having the conversations. These aren’t issues of right or wrong frequently, but issues of perceptions, what work needs to be done, and how to go about it. But I think the main goal, the main thing to remember, is that it’s constant. Advocacy is an ongoing process, a continual challenge. So I don’t feel like a role in one film along with some occasionally obtuse references to trans women’s challenges when accepting a few awards is really advocacy. Visibility or exposure to some degree, sure, but definitely not advocacy.

Third, what is exposure worth? One of the themes that came up as well is how exposure is a good thing. Which I mostly agree with. But I’ll fall back on a different area of expertise like I did last night to discuss this issue, music. Another friend in a totally separate discussion talked about the value of exposure when making music (or really any art) and how we shouldn’t necessarily give certain things away for free. Of course the argument being made there was that exposure doesn’t pay the rent, which is somewhat different than just the concept of visibility and awareness, but I can bring this back to something Janet Mock said when I saw her talk last week. She spoke about how she was learning to turn down some interview offers and media opportunities because not every opportunity is necessarily a good one. Some of that was informed by her experience on Piers Morgan based on her comments, but some of it was also informed by the idea of whether or not that exposure, that opportunity was worth it, whether it provided value. Given the paucity of any trans characters out there, certainly, having something counts, and perhaps I’d feel less ambivalent about it if a trans actor also got that opportunity. I can get behind the work Laverne Cox is doing, because, well, damn, she’s Laverne Cox, she’s a bad ass, both on and off screen. And I’m glad that it at least seems that a lot of people are having discussions about Rayon. But haven’t we had these conversations before? Isn’t this just the same kind of trans character that crops up time and time again, and the same sort of portrayal? Is that exposure worth it? Not if we’re still having the same conversation five years from now, still dealing with the same misconceptions, and still generally at the same place in terms of exposure. I think it’s a complicated subject. I think plenty of good can come out of something even if that something is itself not the greatest. We can’t change the past in regard to that event. What are we doing about the future? So if we are having these conversations and they lead to substantive changes, perhaps we can assign worth, or say it had value that we cannot necessarily ascribe right now. But frankly, I’d rather be spending that energy on other portrayals of trans characters, on the work of other trans individuals. Where’s that exposure? Even if this leads to it, I’m not sure that I’d ultimately say that it was a good thing as much as I’d just acknowledge that it’s a thing that happened.
Four, what are the impacts on trans people seeing these roles? As someone who’s out and has been for several years, it still has an impact, but it’s obviously different now that I’m out. What about what kinds of impacts these roles have on people who are still trying to figure out their authentic selves? I can’t really pinpoint the first trans role I saw. I honestly saw nothing like me anywhere. That’s in the Parker Marie Molloy piece as well, not seeing yourself reflected in the media. And I understand that no one truly ever sees the totality of themselves reflected in that manner, but what if every portrayal of who you are is as a joke, a prostitute, a drug addict, a dead body, a psychotic individual? It took me a long time personally to come to terms with the fact that being trans didn’t change what I liked or who I was, that there was this path that existed where I could still watch lots of hockey and see a lot of shows and play a lot of board games like I’ve always enjoyed. Furthermore, those sorts of portrayals gloss over the realities of why some trans people do end up doing sex work, or our pathologizing of sex work as a society and the effects that has on people who do it, which is a really complex subject. But setting all of that aside, I saw this certain image that was reflected back of what it means to be trans. And like I said, I get it, not everyone sees all of themselves that way, but I either felt like I was going to eternally be a punch line or had to be stealth (something that never felt realistic to me at first because of hang-ups and later because I did not like the idea of discarding my past) to make life work for so long. Where was my nuanced portrayal of trans womanhood to look up to? Nowhere that I could find. I still don’t see it now in media, though I am certainly much more aware of the places that they exist now, those stories, those woman. And those are just my experiences as a binary trans woman. What of non-binary individuals who are looking for role models in that regard, or even trans men (still racking my brains trying to come up with portrayals…still not coming up with much)?

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts I had. I hope I did not grossly misrepresent anything, and if I did interpret something in such a fashion, please let me know. That is definitely not my intention. But it certainly got the wheels spinning. And while I wrote a lot of other words on it, in my mind last night, as I was lying in bed, I kept looping back to a single question. Perhaps it’s a bit disingenuous to ask that, but I really am curious: how would people feel about a cis man playing a cis woman? Just something to think about.

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