The glamour surrounding media representations of trans people makes it difficult to shine a light on the discrimination, threats of violence and mental health issues that are ongoing concerns for many members of the trans community, write Dr Evan Hazenberg and Professor Miriam Meyerhoff
Trans is currently ‘hot’ in Western society. There are highly visible and successful trans people in the business community and in the popular media, and media discussions make trans people hot news – a phenomenon impossible to ignore.
Conservative members of society may react to the trans community in negative, confrontational or restrictive ways, as they have in the now widespread ‘access to toilets’ debate, but even this reactionary stance presupposes the existence of trans people as members of the wider body politic. This was surely inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Why trans people are so visible in mainstream culture at the moment is no doubt due to several factors.
On the one hand, contemporary popular culture has made many aspects of identity and sexuality more public than in the past and has casualised discussion of some topics that were previously taboo. The lifting of taboos applies even within normative heterosexuality, and extends more widely across public life.
For example, a 2015 interview with John Key on a morning radio show gave the public its first insight into a New Zealand prime minister’s genital grooming habits. Did he have any dick pics? What about his bladder control in the shower? When the prime minister is prepared to publicly answer such questions, it seems clear some bodily taboos are not as strong as they used to be. This creates the potential for the debate and normalisation of other previously unsayable topics.
But it’s equally apparent that trans is ‘hot’ in another sense, and this raises serious questions about the representation of trans people more generally.
In popular culture, representations of trans people tend not to focus on gender-ambiguous representations of lived trans experiences, but instead celebrate very sexy, very glamorous representations of transitioned individuals, who by virtue of this celebratory attention become representative of the trans community as a whole.
To the general public, the outside face of the trans community is, for better or worse, Caitlyn Jenner’s sultry Vanity Fair cover or Laverne Cox’s role in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. These are current examples, but they represent a well-established genre for the portrayal of trans women — a genre that Fiona Clark’s photographs contest in our new book, Representing Trans.
Health problems and violence directed at trans people are not to be celebrated – but acknowledging that these problems exist is a step toward de-exoticising members of the trans community, and, further, to de-eroticising the stereotyped, nostalgic view being peddled by celebrity representations of trans women.
These kinds of representations of ‘hot’ trans women raise a number of issues. For one, they bolster a rather dated view of what a woman should look like – largely a view that is heteronormative, white, and socially and materially privileged. Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover exemplifies exactly the kind of gender stereotyping many feminists and trans people have tried hard to undermine. These smiling, successful stories also erase the day-to-day challenges faced by the majority of trans people, as well as contributing to the overall erasure of trans men from public discourse.
The glamour surrounding these media representations of trans people makes it difficult to shine a light on the discrimination, threats of violence and mental health issues that are ongoing concerns for many members of the trans community.
These less attractive – but nonetheless critical – issues in the representation of trans people in the wider community are picked up in our book in an essay by Ahi Wi-Hongi, Adeline Greig and Evan Hazenberg. Similarly, Fiona Clark’s essay accompanying her photographs makes plain the strength of members of the trans community in New Zealand, and their difficulties in staying the distance over time.
Health problems and violence directed at trans people are not to be celebrated – but acknowledging that these problems exist is a step toward de-exoticising members of the trans community, and, further, to de-eroticising the stereotyped, nostalgic view being peddled by celebrity representations of trans women, views that suggest all desirable women are airbrushed sirens.
One of the major themes running through Representing Trans is the importance of labelling.
The labels attached to trans people – both by themselves and others – may be enabling or constraining. Within the trans community, people are very aware of this and questions of labelling drive a lot of internal discussion.
Kimberly Tao analyses how two trans people in Hong Kong decide on different preferred labels for themselves, based on their lived experiences. Evan Hazenberg and Lal Zimman also give voice to the trans community in New Zealand and the United States. Poiva Feu’u unravels the terminology used for labelling the indigenous Pacific trans categories (fa’afafine and whakawahine).
The book shows how labelling shapes many of the interactions between trans people and others. This includes the interactions trans people have with institutions that represent state interests in the individual, such as healthcare and the law.
Representing Trans resulted from a one-day workshop at Victoria University of Wellington in November 2015. We wanted to see what would happen if we brought together scholars from sociolinguistics, law and modern languages with community activists, artists and practising lawyers.
Many of the book’s authors identify as trans or genderqueer. This means that many of the representations are reflections on the self, and on personal identities; they are not representations of others.
This is an adaptation of the introduction to the newly published Representing Trans: Linguistic, legal and everyday perspectives, edited by Evan Hazenberg and Miriam Meyerhoff (Victoria University Press).