So What?

After reading all of the content on this blog, you might be wondering why it’s important to focus on the way that trans people are represented in media. After all, isn’t it just good that they’re being represented at all?

I believe that representation isn’t meaningful unless it’s accurate, positive, and consistent. By this, I mean that characters (both fictional and nonfictional) that identify with a certain group should be a realistic representation of that group and what they contribute to the world. After all, people might be learning about a certain community for the first time through the media that they consume. It is ultimately harmful to misrepresent marginalized people in popular media, because it can contribute to misconceptions and stereotypes about them. People (especially teenagers & young adults) are quick to believe what they see on television and the internet, so it is important for people putting out content to take this into consideration. Marginalized people should also be consulted in the creation of media, so that they can ensure the most accurate representation possible. Although it’s not realistic to expect a day to come where all representation is perfect, I hope that it continues improving for the sake of communities like the trans community. Better representation will undoubtedly lead to a more accepting and safe society!

Trans History: Stonewall

On June 28th 1969, there was a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City. Although the raid was in response to the Stonewall’s lack of a liquor license, the NYC LGBT community was already wary of mistreatment from police in other clubs. When the police attempted to arrest three drag queens and a lesbian, riots erupted for the sake of LGBT rights and safety. They believed, as they still do today, that gay clubs should be a safe haven to celebrate identity and solidarity. Many members of the community regard the Stonewall riots as the beginning of the call for LGBT rights and liberation.

Famously, there is controversy over who initiated the Stonewall riots. In my understanding, a black trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick. I’ve heard this from multiple sources on social media. The initiation of the riots was a hot topic back in 2015, back when the Stonewall film was released in Germany. The trailer depicted a white man leading the riots, which caused outrage in the LGBT community because it whitewashed history which is an all too common issue. Not only did it whitewash history, it also erased trans people from the narrative when they were, in fact, the leaders of the movement.

10,000 Dresses

Unlike some of the other stories I have read, 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert does not have parents that are perfectly supportive of their trans child. Bailey’s parents try to suppress her identity and force her to present as male, even though she would rather wear dresses and present as female. This story is significant, because Bailey finds support in the form of her friend Laurel who helps her make pretty dresses to wear.

A lot of this picture book is set in Bailey’s dream world, where she is able to wear all of the dresses that she dreams of. It is a pretty and fantastic world, but it’s tragic at the same time because it represents the way that Bailey can only be her true self in her dreams. In a way, she is trapped in her own head by her parents and society’s expectations of gender.

In the end of 10,000 Dresses, Laurel makes matching dresses for herself and Bailey and uses Bailey’s female pronouns. In this simple way, she validates Bailey’s identity as female. I think this is the most important aspect of the story, because it shows that there are simple and powerful ways for cis people to use their privilege and validate trans people’s lives and make them more comfortable in the world.

laurel.JPG

Lesson Plan

So, I mentioned briefly in the beginning of this blog that this is a project for a young adult literature class at MSU. In order to apply some of the pieces I have read/watched to the classroom, I created a brief lesson plan. It focuses on the performative aspects of gender, specifically in the book Gracefully Grayson and the film The Danish Girl. I chose these pieces because they both focus on trans women, but at different stages in their lives and transition. Grayson is a more straightforward piece of young adult literature, while the film is a more nuanced piece that I would want students to spend time unpacking on their own. I would also like to have students create art about their gender identities, or what they have learned from these works in general.

Here is a link to my lesson plan.

Trans Activist: Carmen Carrera

I am a pretty big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is where I first came in contact with Carmen Carrera. At the time, she was simply a drag performer like the many other contestants on Drag Race. She came out as trans in 2012 and began speaking out as an activist alongside a career in modeling. Her story is definitely interesting, because she started out in the field of drag performance. Drag is when male identifying people dress in feminine clothing or female identifying people dress in masculine clothing. Drag performers often say that their profession is empowering, because it breaks down the gender binary that is reinforced by our society. It is also a safe and outlet for those that are exploring their gender identity to present their true selves.

However, since coming out as trans, Carrera’s relationship with Drag Race has definitely become more complicated. In 2014, she commented that one of the segments on the show was transphobic. The segment was called “Female or Shemale”. Carrera talks about how this plays into the obsession with trying to determine whether or not a woman is “really” female, or in other words identifying with the gender she was assigned at birth. Ultimately, this phenomenon is dehumanizing toward trans women. This was really concerning for me as a fan of the show, because I had always thought that drag was a positive community free from gender politics. However, it is clearly more complicated than that.

Gracefully Grayson and George

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky is one of the more tragic works that I have read so far. It’s about a sixth grader named Grayson that has to make a really difficult decision that will change his life forever. He realizes at a certain point that he cannot continue living a lie and presenting as male, even though it would make him less vulnerable to bullies and other struggles that trans teens face.

The way that Grayson decides to “come out” to her peers is by auditioning for the role of Persephone in the school play, which is the lead female role. I admired how bold this move was on her part, but I knew that it would immediately have harsh social repercussions. That was really hard for me to cope with as a reader and as someone who was relentlessly bullied in middle school.

Not only is Grayson trying to navigate her gender identity in school, she is doing so without the guidance of his parents. They died when she was young. I know that not all parents are supportive, but it is clear in this novel that they would have been if they were around. Grayson’s aunt and uncle that she currently lives with are nowhere near as understanding of her gender identity.

Grayson’s bravery to choose to live her truth, despite how hard it can be, is a theme that I think is important for young readers. I know that I personally hid aspects of myself that I knew would be hard to talk about in school. However, young people should not be denied the comfort of living the way that they want to.

“White and black. Light and dark. And me, in the middle of it all. Gray.”

More info about Gracefully Grayson

Weirdly enough, I have also read George by Alex Gino and the plots are pretty similar. George is a young trans girl that auditions for the part of Charlotte in Charlotte’s web. However, she’s a fourth grader, while Grayson is a sixth grader. George’s story is also clearly geared toward a younger audience, which is why I would prefer using Gracefully Grayson in the middle/high school classroom.

Although it bears similarities to Gracefully Grayson, George is a valuable story in its own right. You see more of George’s struggles with coming out to her friends and family, while Grayson’s coming out is more public and less intimate. Since George is much younger, it is heartwarming to see her ability to understand her identity and communicate that to her loved ones.

I think that the most important thing about George is that it does away with the trope that trans people come out much later in life. This is a good book to read in concert with the picture book I Am Jazz, which I wrote about earlier. It is important to discuss how trans identities are found in all ages and are always valid regardless of when one comes out.

More info about George

Trans Activist: Laverne Cox

Everyone loves the Netflix show Orange is the New Black, right? I know I do. There’s just something about bad ass women in prison. Not to mention the representation for queer people and people of color! (I’ll admit, not perfect, but it’s better than most shows!) Thanks to OiTNB, Laverne Cox had a platform to continue doing what she does best: working toward equality for the trans community.

I had the pleasure of seeing Laverne speak back in 2015 with the LBGT Resource Center staff at MSU. She talked about her successes and failures as a trans woman, and mainly inspired the queer youth in the audience and reassured them that anything is possible regardless of the hardships you might face. I was truly inspired by her talk and I admired the way she carried herself and spoke about her experiences. Since seeing her, I have been keeping track of her in the media and seeing what she has to say about different issues.

When Trump was elected, it was clear that things would be difficult for trans Americans. Earlier this year, he repealed a bill that would protect Trans students in public bathrooms. Laverne Cox and student Gavin Grimm both spoke out about this injustice, stating that trans people can’t operate in the world if they don’t have access to bathrooms.

The main argument that conservatives have against trans bathroom protections is that people could “pretend to be trans” and potentially harm other people in the bathroom. However, Laverne Cox knows that this argument is invalid. She says,

“I heard someone say earlier, ‘What if someone pretends to be trans so they can have access to a girl’s bathroom?’ That doesn’t happen. In the hundreds of the cities all over the country where we had public accommodation protections for trans people, no one poses as trans so they can have access to a women’s bathroom so they could assault women. That doesn’t happen. And our opponents know that. They’re trying to make sure that these bathroom laws are about whether trans people have the right to exist in public space.”

Conservatives simply want to make it harder for trans people to exist as themselves in the world, and they will come up with any argument to deny it. At the end of the day, trans rights are civil rights and there are many men and women like Laverne Cox that are starting to speak out and demand equal treatment.

Happy Families

The novel Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis was a great read after watching Transparent. The themes are similar, because they both feature a father facing a transition and how that affects their families. However, Happy Families differs in a significant way because it is about a Black family.

Intersectionality is defined as “the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual.” I think that, when discussing intersectionality in the classroom, Happy Families can be a great tool. Christine, the father of Ysabel and Justin, is living in the world as a Black trans woman. American society isn’t really safe for Black trans women, because they often face violence and discrimination. Just this year, 3 women were murdered in Louisiana. However, this wasn’t brought up in the media because these stories are too often ignored. I personally didn’t know about it until just now despite it happening over a month ago. 

Although so much violence and discrimination exists against Black trans women, Christine is able to live pretty comfortably in Happy Families and focus on her relationship with her children. Not only is she going through a transition, her children are also facing many changes in their lives. So, this story is about more than just accepting someone’s identity, it is about family and compromise. I think it’s great that this story of identity is settled in with this story of family because it adds to the realism of it all. Too often, trans people (and people of color) are reduced to tragic events in the media. However, Tanita S. Davis manages to write a heartfelt and informative story about what it’s really like to be trans and navigate the world.

Since the book alternates between perspectives, it would be easy to utilize in the classroom. Teens can relate with Ysabel and Justin as they go through school and their relationships with their peers. They can also understand how they might be affected by their parents divorce and the transition on top of it all. I think that Happy Families is a great novel for young adults that might want to learn more about transgender identities and intersectionality.

Trans Youth: Jazz Jennings

I recently read the children’s book I Am Jazz, which was co-authored by a 16 year old teen and follows her childhood as a young trans girl. The book is colorful and positive, focusing on Jazz’s presentation as a girl. When you first start reading, you meet a happy and normal young girl that enjoys all of the typical things like dancing, singing, and playing sports. She has two best friends, named Samantha and Casey, that she has all kinds of fun with.

About halfway through the book, Jazz starts to delve into the realities of being trans. However, it is still light and clearly geared toward young children. I think that this book would be a great resource for parents that want to explain transgender identities to their children.

jazz

In her story, Jazz talks about how she tried to convince her parents that she was a girl at a very young age. They were very accepting and let her present herself as female at home, but not in public. It wasn’t until she visited a therapist that they fully understood their daughter’s identity.

jazz2

Jazz’s parents let her change her public presentation and they immediately readjusted and began using female pronouns. I was happy to see how accepting the family in this book is, but I know that it isn’t a common reality for a lot of trans youth. That’s why I’m glad that Jazz and other teens like her are so public with their stories, because in a way they are a beacon of hope for their peers.

However, I Am Jazz is not the only work about this young woman’s story. Jazz’s original claim to fame was her TLC series also titled I Am Jazz. She also has a book called Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen. I have always been wary of TLC shows, because they seem to be exploitative toward different groups (ex. fat people) and not always a good representation of reality. I personally haven’t seen I Am Jazz, but I’m glad that Ms. Jennings had that platform to start her career and speaking on behalf of her community.

In May of 2016, Jazz did a piece for TIME about her life and transition. She talks about the question that she gets most often, “When did you know you were trans?” She explains that she has always known, but the real issue was getting her family and others to understand. I think this is one of the most important takeaways from Jazz’s story. Trans people are not cis people that decided one day to “switch” genders, they have simply always been the gender they identify as.

More Info on I Am Jazz Book

Cis Actors Playing Trans Characters

In 2013, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Personally, Dallas Buyers Club is one of my favorite films so I was excited that it was being recognized. The film is set in 1980s Texas, a community where homophobia and transphobia are not uncommon. This is apparent when the main character, Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), finds out that he has AIDS and is ostracized and called a homosexual despite being straight. He is outraged and does not believe that he has the disease until his health rapidly declines. When he realizes that he needs help, he finds that the FDA has barred him and other AIDS patients from getting drugs that could help them survive. So, he partners with a trans woman named Rayon (Leto) and starts an illegal drug trade to help other AIDS patients. the film is based on true events and revealed some shocking truths about the FDA and American healthcare, which I found fascinating. However, I was shocked when I learned about the backlash toward Leto’s performance as Rayon. I had never considered the issue of a cisgender person playing a trans character, because straight actors play gay characters all the time. However, I have since realized that an actor cannot simply step into the identity of a real marginalized person, because they don’t have the right to those bodies and they are taking away opportunity from marginalized actors. After watching this video, I am now thinking about how egregiously wrong it is for a straight white man to accept an award for playing a trans woman.

In 2014, Steve Friess wrote an article for Time explaining why we should not applaud Leto for playing Rayon. He basically says that Hollywood believes that it is honoring different minority groups with these performances and awards, but it is clear that they hardly understand the lives that they are depicting. Otherwise, they would be casting actual trans actors or actors of color to play these roles.

Another piece written in 2014, by a trans woman named Kat, explained why the trans community was dismayed with Leto’s performance and win. Kat does not immediately address the fact that Leto is a man playing a trans woman, she discusses the fact that he wasn’t even playing a trans woman well. As Rayon, Leto does not react appropriately to being misgendered. In fact, he decides not to react at all. His body language does not even reflect the discomfort that a real trans woman would face daily. The way that Rayon carries herself in the film is, according to Kat, a mixture of different drag and trans stereotypes and not the making of an actual person. In a nutshell, Rayon is written off as a minor character or a plot device.

After Dallas Buyers Club and the surrounding controversy, I have been more in tune with trans films and television media. So, when I heard about the release of The Danish Girl in 2015 I could tell that Hollywood still hadn’t learned its lesson. In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne (one of my favorite actors) portrays trans pioneer Lili Elbe. Lili Elbe was the first trans woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, the studio that produced the film decided to cast yet another straight white man in the role.

When I saw this film the first time, I initially wrote a glowing review that focused solely on the plot and relationship between the two main characters. I did not address the issues that the film has with trans representation, but I wish I had. In retrospect, there are some huge issues with the way this film depicts Lili’s life and death, mostly because of its focus on her tragedy and not her triumph. She is written off as just a token minority sob story, which I am sure members of the community are sick of seeing.

Carol Grant, a trans film critic, wrote a piece in 2015 about the “regressive, reductive, and harmful” nature of The Danish Girl. Not only does Carol point out the issues with Redmayne’s depiction of Lili Elbe, she discusses the harm of his previous win for playing Stephen Hawking, a disabled man with ALS. Having an able actor playing a disabled character is just as wrong as having a cis actor play a trans character, because it takes opportunity from actors that are actually in the community.

Carol talks about the discomfort she faced when cis people were applauding Eddie Redmayne for his “brave” portrayal of a trans woman. It isn’t difficult or “brave” for a straight white man to step into the role for one film. The real bravery lies in women like Carol, daring to live their truth in a world that at best won’t fully accept them and at worst won’t allow them to exist at all.

Another cis actor that has been lauded for his portrayal of a trans woman is Jeffrey Tambor, the star of the Amazon show Transparent. I recently started watching the show and I was a fan of the eccentric characters and my ability to relate the Pfefferman family to my own.

Although I like Transparent, it is clear from my previous examples that casting a straight white man as a trans woman is problematic.

Although Tambor’s role is far from perfect, the makers of Transparent did manage to pull in some trans actors which is a feat considering the landscape of trans representation in TV and film. Two characters that I personally loved in the show were Dale (played by Ian Harvie) and Shea (played by Trace Lysette). The one thing that they have in common in my mind is that they put the Pfefferman children in their place when it comes to interacting with trans people. Specifically Ali and Josh Pfefferman, who reacted fairly negatively to their father’s transition. They lead pretty turbulent lives and decide to date trans people while coming to terms with living with Maura. However, Ali learns through her experience with Dale that trans men are not a collection of tropes and stereotypes that fit their gender. In one episode when she visits Dale’s home, she imagines it as a log cabin with a bear skin rug and beer posters everywhere. However, she realizes at the end of the episode that that isn’t what the house looks like at all. (It was a pretty incredible scene, if you haven’t seen the show.) Josh, on the other hand, tries to play it cool when he is dating Shea up until he realizes that he should be taking PrEP to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. Although he claimed to love Shea, once he realized she was HIV positive he broke things off. These interactions were important in the show, because it revealed some of the realities that trans people face when interacting with cis people that are often ignored.