Trans visibility was the topic last night, but then again, when isn’t that the topic?
For people whose trans hearts have been shamed, marginalized, stigmatized and pounded into the closet, visibility is always the issue. How do we want to see ourselves reflected in the world, how much do we want to keep hidden? How exposed and vulnerable are we willing to be?
Two producers from the Golden Globe winning “Transparent” were in town last night to talk at a local university. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst are celebrated trans artists who helped create a visible trans world in the series, from the iconic title sequence to casting over 100 transpeople, 15 with speaking parts.
I knew walking in that there would be very limited trans visibility in the theatre, my expectations affirmed by an MC who seemed to define transgender as a sexual orientation, rather than understanding sexual orientation as a component of gender identity. He just didn’t have the words or concepts to talk about transgender in the world.
This is the one of the same challenges that Jill Soloway faced as she wanted to tell a story inspired by her own parent coming out as trans. The blast wave around transgender emergence, as the walls hiding secrets begin to fall and deeper truths are revealed is at the heart of Transparent, as a family feels conventions and expectations crack away and they are forced to do the work of seeing the world in a more open, more responsible and more queer way.
As transpeople, every media representation of who we are is a sensitive issue. We know that they set the expectations of the wider world about who we are and who we should be, know that they set the tone for the conversation. Humans use shared analogies to communicate, which is why purging the world of visible trans models was such an effective way to erase and silence transpeople. What there are no words, symbols or images for is very, very hard to communicate.
We know immediately when we don’t see ourselves reflected on screen in the way we want So much of coming to a trans identity is less about knowing who we are and is more about knowing who we are not; not a transwoman, not a drag queen, not a crossdresser, not a man and so on. Wrong is easy to see, but right is much more complicated, especially because when we the reflection is too right it can make us squirm.
How do we find images that we can point to with pride, that we can recommend to our family and friends as useful to understand if they want to know more about our life, our views, our world? How do we trust that images are not just cheap, sensational, exploitative and appalling?
Getting to truth is a key part of the transgender journey. It isn’t primarily the truth of words, rather it is emotional truth, the truth of the heart. It is this kind of truth that Rhys and Zackary deliver to Transparent, drawing from their art, but it is this kind of truth that can be so easily erased in an academic discussion abut transgender.
The power of trans is in desire, in Eros, in the heart, but that power is so very hard to show as legitimate in the world. We search for words, concepts, images that help us justify the choices we make from our inner knowledge.
So often that means trying to use the concepts of binary gender to justify and rationalize our choices: I was never that, but now I am this. Identity, though, is always about the tension of a matrix, how all the points that make up who we are, from class and cultural history to deep desires create a unique pattern that is us.
So much of who we are, of what makes us special is inside of us. How much of this do we choose to show in the world and how much stays in our own inner narrative? It is easy to look at transpeople and see their surface, which they have worked hard to make attractive and blendable, even as we know that the way we see the world is so very different to other people who haven’t had to walk through cultural walls to claim their own heart.
Doing the work to claim what makes us unique in the face of social pressures is always heroic. Facing addiction, trauma or other internalized challenges as we struggle to find healing and a more integrated and authentic way of life is compelling. It was this determination to do the work and reveal herself that puts the character of Moira at the heart of Transparent.
It is also this determination that makes her so much of a change agent, a shit-stirrer, a disruptive force in a family that has pigeonholed her as “Dad.” If you do change right, with power and vulnerability, you can warp the way people see the world and who they are in it.
For me, last night was a moment where I chose to be visible because I knew that there were people in that room who were open to the possibility of seeing the world in a different way. I knew that there were artists there who are playing the long game, striving to create not only new images but more importantly to empower transpeople with the training and connections to make many more compelling images in the future.
I wasn’t sure that I was going to speak up last night. While I am glad I did, I know that when I walked out of the building that I became invisible again, alone in a world where smart, crisp thinking about freer and more empowered ways to be in the world is less valued than most other measures of success, from money to appropriate relationships. The queer power of seeing into individual hearts recedes into suburban convention.
Our visibility is such a fleeting and momentary thing. We do the work to create a spark, but without others doing the work to see those sparks, to value and be tinder for them, our flame often stays just an ember inside of us.
One step at a time we expand the range of what people can see as trans, learning that if we want to be seen and valued we must learn to see and value the contents of other queer hearts. Zackary and Rhys brought that value to an important media project and they brought it to a university last night. A little more visibility was offered.
The work of making nature past binary convention visible has to be done in in a shared way, some standing and showing, some standing and seeing, together building an expanded range of beauty for all of us.
One small step at a time.