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The Nature of Being

rethinking the facts of life

Visibility, Representation and Trans Identities

While visibility and diverse representation are important parts of, they’re not the end of the story. How and what is publicly presented and depicted about transness is an important aspect, too. It has already been touched upon the normative ideas that come along with transness and how they do harm to people who live up to them, as well as the coinciding in/visibility and also hypervisibility and how they relate to violence and harassment.

All of these are important to discuss in a mainstream that is adamantly interested in accurate representation. It seems only logical that trans people should also have a say in cultural productions about trans identities, e.g. newspaper articles, movies and art, as has been recently pointed out by Reina Gossett. She did extensive research on Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans activist in the Stonewall Riots, and created a documentary about Marsha’s life (“Happy Birthday, Marsha!”). In the meantime, another film producer, David France, published a documentary “The life and death of Marsha P. Johnson” on Netflix. Gossett accuses France of having used parts her material and research and hired her staff as producer for his film. France denies this and points out that both have been in contact to secure that their films are sufficiently different from each other. Put aside what really happened, these kinds of situations happen so often, that one cannot but see a structural element to this. Marginalised persons too often do not get the chance to tell their stories. Thus, it remains important not only that trans stories are depicted and told but that they get the chance to tell them themselves, as reporters, artists, film makers, producers, authors etc. In an interview, conducted in 2015, Gossett says :

 ‘We’re in this moment where so much of trans representation is not written by us, or the stories that cis people tell are designed for a cis audience. We’re never the intended people in the movie theatre. ‘

 

Gossett’s statement highlight how the intended audience is also vital for cultural productions, and following her argument, it is also not enough that trans people are depicted ( often actually by cis people, instead of trans actors) in a way that matches expectations of cis people. Or worse, further fostering and stabilising normative assumption on transness. This development, cis people (or generally more privileged people) capitalising on trans stories and experiences (or other marginalised, underprivileged positionalities) for other cis people, is downright harmful and also very much connected to modern ideas of art production, as Grace Dunham puts it very plainly:

 ‘For a long time, a bunch of old assholes acted like the artistic position was one of distance and removed objectivity. But the work of so many radical trans artists and women of colour artists has shown us that so often, we can’t separate who we are from the art we make.’

 

This idea, that those who are affected by some form of discrimination e.g. cannot provide an informed, interesting perspective on their reality, in scientific or cultural productions, delegitimises these people and their work and is a common misconception of objectivity that is especially nonsensical in art and culture. (Also following that line of argument, only cis white heterosexual men could ever be objective, also: can there ever be a perspective that is purely objective?) We delve into love stories, we are touched by personal accounts of history and experience, so why not put those in charge that actually live them?

 

All quotes are to be found in this article: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/28653/1/happy-birthday-marsha-say-her-name

More information on the case of Reina Gossett:

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/reina-gossett-marsha-p-johnson-op-ed

https://www.colorlines.com/articles/icymi-filmmaker-reina-gossett-says-death-and-life-marsha-p-johnson-director-stole-her-work

http://www.newnownext.com/david-france-marsha-p-johnson-death-life/10/2017/

 

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Invisibility and hypervisibility: trans identities

Diskursiv, a queer Austrian research collective, titled their 2001 paper ‘Where have all the trannies gone…?’ and consequently this is a question very applicable to nowadays’ discourses on trans matters, especially in mainstream discourses. The paper outlines the various ways in which trans movements in Austria were founded and dissolved over fundamental questions and precarious structures in activism, mainly. As I have outlined before, reporting about trans people has found its way into public discourse, e.g. Chelsea Manning’s case, but this neither purely positive, nor do these help all trans people in the same way.

Not only are certain trans identities, especially those that do not fit the criteria of the good trans person, erased and ridiculed, there are rigid double standards at work when it comes to how trans people are supposed to present. Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender nonconforming artist and performer, talks in his performances about the violence and harassment they face as a trans femme. Yesterday they published a post reporting an incident (from a year ago), where a white man assaulted them on public transport. They write:

“He screamed: “i am okay with gay people but you are too much!” and then he got off on the next stop. i do not say anything. i am still, quiet. i want to be invisible. i want to disappear. “

Alok goes on to explain, how they receive quite some attention in left, queer, progressive sourroundings but this does not protect them from being stared at, assaults and constant harassment in public. They add:

“gender non-conforming transfeminine people are only permitted to exist on a screen, in a photograph, on a stage — something staged, never real. how people still understand us as parodies and costumes that only exist to entertain, to fascinate, to inspire. “

 

This is a striking feature about raising public awareness of transness: certain types of trans persons become more visible medially, but transphobia and anti-trans violence does not decline ( for both trans femme and masculine people, as this study shows). Alok also touches on another point: Admiration and praise online and for stage performances do not necessarily translate into a rushing to help on the streets. In this way trans people are more visible, but it doesn’t result in more solidarity.

 

This is also true in feminist and leftist communities, even in trans circles, there is implicit or explicit policing of gender expression, which doesn’t nurture inclusivity.

For example, a trans woman who won’t shave arm pits, legs and what not, is not as believable and real and their gender identity is immediately questioned. Which is strange when you come to think of it, no cis woman (a woman who identifies with the gender assigned at birth) is ever considered not a woman simply because she decides not to shave her legs. This is also referred to as femme-phobia. The later does not only occur generally in society, but also in WLTI* spaces (women, lesbian, trans, inter) trans women and trans femininities face discrimination and exclusion, at least suspicious looks. Their behaviour is policed, they are accused of being socialised as males and therefore are expected to stick to ‘feminine behaviours’ all the more, ironically (Faulenza, 2017). That these expectations do not help to transgress the dreaded boundaries of an oppressive binary gender system, is an overlooked and underestimated part of discourses in LGBTQIA communities and the mainstream.

 

Passing privileges individuals insofar as that they can ‘sink’ into spaces and remain invisible and can go by unnoticed, like a background decoration, they are able to fit into spaces (Ahmed, 2004). Consequently, they are evading the hypervisibility of not passing as the presented gender, which many trans people cannot achieve. To be hypervisible is then a constant experience of sticking out, every move is on public display and results in higher vulnerability to be assaulted and harassed, much like Alok’s story. Trans persons experience a lot of harassment and verbal and physical violence in everyday and virtual life. Marginalisation only adds to the risks of being subjected to violence.

 

https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2015/07/23/op-ed-trans-men-experience-far-more-violence-most-people-assume

https://diskursiv.diebin.at/index.php%3Fid=35.html

Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.

The good trans person: On being trans, non-binary and invisible

 

Gender identity is a funny thing. Many humans will never question theirs, but for some of us it is a topic of mismatch and insecurity. As with sexuality, gender norms are only ever apparent when there’s doubt, a feeling of not quite fitting in the box. In the last years, we have seen a rise in media coverage of trans identified persons. For example, Laverne Cox starring in ‘Orange is the new Black’, a popular Netflix series, has received much praise in trans communities around the world. Many stories about trans identities cover only a certain type of trans folks: those who are visibly, physically transitioning into one of the binary genders, who have had surgeries performed and take hormones. In fact, one could even argue, there is a certain narrative that’s evolved on how to be a good trans person.

 

The good trans person is ‘trapped in the wrong body’ and needs to transition badly, into the ‘other’ gender. Accordingly, there are little boys who wants to be girls and girls who are actually boys. They have known their whole life and either have been denied access or couldn’t afford it but in the happy now, they are ‘fully transitioned’. The story will go on to cover the physical process of change, how hormonal therapy changed them, how they had gender confirmation surgery(/ies) and now live their life as the ‘other gender’, passing as the ‘other gender’. Some reports won’t even refrain from showing Before/After shots, deadnaming (using a name that the person did not choose for themselves) or misgendering them (using a pronoun that the person did not choose for themselves). The good trans person is also often able-bodied, white and fully adopts the new gender as their own.

Whenever a trans person outs themselves to others, these quickly assume which steps are next in a transition, accompanied by intrusive, deeply personal questions of whether certain surgeries were performed on them, or more bluntly ‘How they look down there’. Apart from obvious discrimination and ignorance, this points to a normative idea of how to be trans. And this is harmful on many levels: There is no one way to be trans, and depicting the same story over and over again makes other ways to be trans invisible and discoursively less legitimate. Some trans people do not identify as female or male, but belong to the non-binary spectrum. They identify as agender, bigender, two- spirit, genderfluid, demiboy/girl, … (an exhaustive list of many LGBTQIA+ terms can be found here: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/#sthash.L8SIn0Zg.dpbs ). There are some trans persons who don’t experience being in the wrong body, rather they experience dysphoria linked to a certain body part for example, or social dysphoria, that occurs e.g. when others address them with false pronouns and labels. Other trans people don’t experience incongruence between their body and their gender identity at all and therefore don’t want and need any physical changes to feel comfortable. Access to physical changes, as surgeries and hormonal treatments, is given by medical gatekeepers, a fact that also plays a role in who seeks out medical treatment and who doesn’t (or can’t).

Public perceptions also find their way back into the community, numerous people question whether they’re even allowed to claim trans as their label, because they cannot fit all or some criteria the ‘good trans person’ narrative imposes on them. These normative assumptions work against an originally very inclusive term and leave some vulnerable and out in the open, left to wonder where they belong, or worse, excluded on grounds of ‘not being trans enough’.

Though being trans means simply that a person cannot identify with the gender they have been assigned at birth, there are many societal expectations exceeding this definition. These, among general discrimination, violence etc. contribute to the invisibility of the multitude of genders and gender expressions. Additionally, normative imaginations of transness hinder political organisation and solidarity among trans and gender nonconforming people.

Resources:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/connorkemuo/honest-comics-for-the-queer-soul?sub=3067165_2575772&utm_term=.av89y3QrgW#.ts8r4B7PGk

Stone Butch Blues

My last post is not going to explain how we categorize but rather talking about consequences people must face when they do not fit into one sex category. I was inspired to write about this after reading the book “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg.

The story takes place in the 1950th and 1960th in the US. The main character is called Jess Goldberg who is a girl but looks like a boy and runs away from home when she is 15 years old. Keep in mind that at this time homosexuals and transgender people suffered a lot social and legal discrimination and violence against them. For example, there was one law which stated that as a girl you must wear at least three female clothes otherwise the police is allowed to arrest you.

There were many passages that stayed in my mind but I will only talk about two of them which I consider suitable for this post. One of them is that Jess always tries to avoid public toilets. The reason is that because of her rather male appearance women inside the woman toilet stare at her in disbelief or even tell her to leave the toilet or that she is a freak. This is very humiliating and to avoid these encounters she tries to just use the toilet at home or in places she knows it is safe.

The second one is about Jess taking hormones. At one point in her life she decided to start taking hormones because she could not endure any more violence against her or any other humiliation and restriction of her life. She decided to take hormones and have a breasts surgery and try to ‘pass’ as a man. It was the only way she saw to survive in the world. Her hope was that her “world could open up“ (p.163). In some ways it did. She was not looked at when she went to the man’s bathroom and she was able to maintain a job for a longer period. On the other hand, she was more isolated than before. Since she was not a butch anymore she did not belong to the lesbian community but she also was not a ‘real’ man so she did not feel like she belonged to that group neither. After some time, she decided to stop taking the hormones because she felt like her whole live was a lie. After the effect of the hormones stopped Jess notices people staring at her again. “Before, strangers had raged at me for being a woman who crossed a forbidden boundary. Now they really didn’t know what my sex was, and that was unimaginable, terrifying to them” (p.244)

Jess experiences show that categorizing is very important for people in everyday life (e.g. choice of toilet). Not fitting into the categories of male or female made Jess feel like an outsider who did not belong anywhere. Which eventually forced her into taking hormones to get rid of social pressure.

If you are interested in reading the book here is link where you can download the whole story for free: http://www.lesliefeinberg.net/

The Movements

In this post I am going to focus on the movement of a person. As my observation shows the key ‘clues’ for assumption were his voice and the fact that the sideburns were glued to his face. Nevertheless, the movement of the person also played a role.

When I saw him from the distance it did not cross my mind that he might be the person for my observation. Simply, because his clothes (as I have described in my prior post) and his movements did not catch my attention to be suitable for my observation. He was walking slow and with confident big and wide steps towards the station. His posture was upright and his shoulders were broad. All together it looked smooth but also determined. This way of moving in combination with his look had me convinced that there is a man coming. His movements did not seem any less masculine when he came closer. I do not really remember thinking all of this at the moment since at that point I did not know he is going to be the person for my observation. Yet, when I wrote down my thoughts about this encounter, I tried to remember as best as I could what I have noticed about him. However, when he picked up his phone I was pretty sure that he is be the person for my assignment. And as I described in my observation already, the fact that his voice did not fit to my first assumption, made me look differently at him. I observed him entering the tram. He was very calm and let people get out first. I entered after him. When he sat down he only occupied his own seat and his legs were not apart but very close to each other. As I know from own experiences, some men like to sit with their legs wide apart and sometimes even occupying two seats. Whereas I have not noticed this kind of sitting with women in public places so far. So, this form of sitting supported my idea that he might not be born as a man. I kept observing him and what I noticed was that as soon as he was sitting across me he had lost his confident posture. His shoulders were bent and he was kneading his fingers in his lap as if he were nervous and felt very uncomfortable.

The movements I saw first fitted my first assumption that he was a man. His big, wide, slow and confident steps alongside with a broad posture. However, the situation had changed when we sat across from each other. There were no ‘typical male’ movements anymore. I am not sure I would have noticed this “shift” as strong if I had not been irritated by his voice and sideburns before.

Doing Gender and Categorization

In my next post I’m going to explain the importance of “Doing Gender” for categorization.

In my observation the first assumption I made about the sex of the person was because of his clothes and haircut. It was the first thing I saw from the distance and it fitted my understanding of a man’s look. Very short hair, loose pants and shirt, backpack and sneakers. After I wrote my observation I wondered about this first very fast categorization. Isn’t it the same way I dress myself sometimes and wear my hair? Yes. Am I a man? No. Then I remembered a situation with a young boy who was playing on the street. I passed by and he told his friend to move aside so that I can keep walking. But he did not just tell his friend to move but said: “Move aside so that the boy can pass … or girl.” I was amused because the boy really struggled categorizing me. I never heard anyone wonder about my sex when I was still wearing long hair but as soon as I cut my hair some people started to stare or ask me if I wanted to be a man now.

The difference between me and the person I observed is that I am a woman wearing short hair and he is using the as male known characteristics to make people see him as a man and not as a woman. This shows pretty good the concept of “Doing Gender” by West and Zimmerman. Everyone has knowledge about how a man or woman should look or behave. So, if a person does not fit into this schema he or she is not considered an appropriate man or woman. For transgender people this is an important issue. Since they do not want to live with the sex they were given by birth, they must adjust to the dress code and specific behavior of the opposite sex to be accepted by others in this category. In the case of the person I observed I am pretty sure that he was assigned female by birth. By wearing his hair very short, his choice of clothes and his sideburns he uses male criteria to express himself as a man. For me, he had me first convinced that his sex is male because he served all my ideas about men. But after a while I assigned him as female born because I noticed some “irregularities” about his male appearance. Nevertheless, this is only possible because I (we) have ideas about masculinity and femininity which are reproduced by others. If a person dresses appropriate to its sex it is only appropriate because society agreed on these specific criteria.

The observation of him combined with my own experiences showed me very good how much categorization depends on the appearance of the other person and especially how people interpret it.

 

If you want to learn more about “Doing Gender”:

West, Candace; Zimmerman, Don H. (1987): Doing Gender. In: Gender & Society 1 (2), S. 125–151

Categorization as a puzzle?

The first thing I’m going to look deeper into is the fact that I cannot stop but think that categorization is some sort of puzzle. Every piece of information I got, made me construct or rethink a conclusion until I had an end result which made sense with my concepts of gender.

The first piece was the appearance from the distance. The hair, clothes and movements fitted in my understanding of a man. I noticed his breasts but due to his bodyweight I did not pay any attention to this piece of information. The puzzle was still complete. Especially, when I saw his sideburns which fitted perfectly my conclusion.

Coming closer I noticed the breasts were rather big for a man which made my conclusion a little uncertain but I still maintained my assumption. However, when he picked up his phone I received another piece of information about him. This time it did not fit into my assumption that he was a man since the voice was rather female to me. I took another look at him, this time knowing that he might not be a man. I saw that his sideburns, which first convinced me that he is man, were not grown naturally but glued to his face. This information made me rethink my assumption at once. Figuratively spoken, I found one piece that did not fit at all. Somewhere I had made a mistake. I had to start over. The voice is female, the sideburns are glued on to the face and all of a sudden, his breasts looked like female ones and I even noticed the sports bra he was wearing. These are all information which do not fit to a categorization as a man but as a woman.

We entered the tram and I sat across him. Now I had time to take a closer look at his face. Having these pieces of the ‘new’ puzzle I saw his face in a new light. The outlines were soft and imagining it without the sideburns it totally looked like a women’s face to me. As well as his behavior fitted to a woman. All the pieces put together, I thought that he might have been born as a woman but wants to be read as a man.

All in all, I noticed that while categorizing I sort all given information to fit into one picture. However, when I observed one crucial thing that did not fit into this picture all the ‘known’ information appeared in a different light and I was able to detect even more clues about his gender. Like with a puzzle, sometimes you just need one important piece and the adjoining ones are plainly to add.

My Observation

Here is my second post and it displays my observation:

I am walking to the station. From the opposite direction comes a man. He is wearing loose jeans and a loose blue-colored T-shirt, a pair of black sneakers and a black backpack. His brown hair is cut very short. His Hight is rather short and he appeared corpulent. He appeared confident since is walking was upright and his shoulders seemed broad.

When he came closer, I could see his sideburns. But I was irritated by his chest. From the distance, I assumed his breasts were due to his bodyweight and I did not pay much attention to it. However, when he was nearer to me I was not so sure anymore. The look on his face was friendly; he was smiling. Then he answered his phone and his voice astonished me. It was not a male voice but more likely a female one. It sounded softer and higher than I would have expected from his appearance. I took another closer look at his face and this time I saw that his sideburns were not grown naturally but glued on to his face. There were many short brown hairs next to his ears but it did not look like any of them were rooted in his skin. At once, I was pretty sure that his chest showed breasts. I even might have spotted some sort of sports-bra he is wearing.

We entered the tram and I sat across from him. Knowing his sideburns were glued, I looked at his face and it appeared more female than before. The contours seemed softer and imagining it without the sideburns and maybe a little longer hair it could totally be the face of a woman. I started to feel very uncomfortable looking at him even though he was still smiling and not paying much attention to me. Since I had discovered that his sideburns are not natural, I was nervous that he might read in my face that I knew. It might sound silly afterwards but for me it felt like I had entered a very intimate domain which I am not supposed to know about. I started focusing on the rest of his body to avoid looking him in his face. His legs were not crossed but very close to each other. He also kneaded his fingers all the time while they were resting in his lap.

We sat a few stations across from each other and I do not think he had noticed anything but I was a little relieved when my destination was reached and I had left the tram.

Autoethnography – the struggle

The class I took was named “Categorizing Sex and Sexualities in (global) context”. Our assignment was to find out how we categorize people. To do this we were supposed to do an autoethnography study on one person via observation.

I really troubled doing the observation because whenever I looked at a person to find out which sex he or she has it felt wrong to do so. I felt like I am deciding which sex this person had and I kind of felt like I am insulting this person with these thoughts. How am I supposed to know which sex this person has? I did not want to be wrong about my assumption because it felt like I am deciding for this person and that is not right. So many days I sat in the tram or in cafes to do my observation but whenever I tried to figure out why I think this person is homosexual or transgender my first thought was something like “but I don’t know, he might just like pink sparkling shirts and does not care what other people think about his clothes”. I was truly frustrated.

However, after we had discussed some of our first observations in class I became aware what the importance about this assignment is. First, you should be real honest with yourself about your thoughts and not feel embarrassed by it. As long as you are aware that some of the things you assume about this person is based on stereotypes you are one step closer to understand how and why you categorize people. Second and this one was the one which helped me the most, I kind of flipped a switch. It does not matter whether my assumptions are right. The aim is to figure out which signs made me believe this or that and why.

After realizing this I was able to make a detailed observation. I am going to present it to you in my next post. Followed by a closer look at my observation on how we categorize. The fourth post will be about “Doing Gender” and how this influenced my interpretation of the observed. The next post will look deeper into the movements and my last post will display some consequences people have to face if they do not fit into one category illustrated with examples from a novel.

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