There is a prevalent idea that viable transgender actors and actresses simply do not exist. Naturally, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they never gain exposure, rendered invisible by the lack of acknowledgment on the part of directors. One can see how this is especially problematic in a video for a song entitled “We Exist.” If so, where?
It’s not hard to see why transgender people would be outraged when their rights to safety have, yet again, been deemed unimportant and discarded in order to pass LGB legislation. While the attitude behind exclusion of transgender individuals is, in essence, that something is better than nothing, the message sent is that transgender people do not matter—and that their rights are somehow controversial. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which even within an environment that is increasingly supportive of rights for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, transgender and gender variant individuals are left behind.
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I have heard a lot about parents who are not supportive of their kids in my advocacy, talking to trans people across the world, or those who read my writing and respond to it by sending me messages, etc. but I am incredibly fortunate to have a mother that accepts me as I am and who affirms my passions to inspire people, even though that career hasn’t really been very fruitful in terms of financial stability. She knows that’s not why I do it and she is proud of me regardless. She has always encouraged and nurtured my writing ability and she is ecstatic that I am using it to make a difference for people that I will never even meet. Whenever things get bad, I know that I can call her, and I have called her a lot recently. She’s been there to help me in whatever ways she can and she’s helped me to find the strength I needed to proceed many times over the past year, a year which has been very hard for me.
We didn’t always get along. In fact, we had a pretty awful relationship for a while. I think it was inevitable, me being her first child. If I ever get the chance to be a mother I don’t know how I would ever prepare or adapt to it. I imagine that a lot of our tensions came as a result of it being the first time she experienced something as life-changing as having a child, not to mention a trouble-making enfant terrible like I was. Since I came out though, first as bisexual and then as transgender, she has been not only accepting of me personally but she has become outspoken herself and has made great strides to educate herself in order that she can ensure that no child experiences the withdrawn. unspeakable torment that I did growing up, being unable to articulate my feelings and living in the fear that they would always weigh me down in secret, unknown to anyone.
Even so, I have a lot of happy memories with my mother during my childhood. I remember being afraid of the dark and her singing “You Are My Sunshine” to me and helping me fall asleep. We were incredibly poor, yet she always made sure I had food. She didn’t understand a lot of the video games I would play, but she still played them with me. I still smile thinking of the little deli we used to go to here on South Greenwood here in Johnson City that no longer exists, where we would play Mario Bros., Galaga, and Mr. Do! after eating a big basket of french fries.
I wish that during the times when we fought, I had been kinder to her. I wish that I could have opened up to her and been true to myself around her sooner. I wish that I hadn’t been as withdrawn and resentful as I used to be when I would push her away. I know that I am lucky, however, because I can write this and she will be able to read it and I can call her up as soon as she wakes up and tell her that I love her and that I am happy that she is my mom.
There are a lot of children who can’t do that. Queer and transgender youth disproportionately make up the homeless youth population, and I’ve personally heard stories of trans youth being kicked out for admitting who they were to their parents. I never will understand the kind of deep-seated hatred that would possess a parent to make them disown their own flesh and blood. I will never understand the hatred that would cause a person to disown anyone that they loved in that way. I hope and pray that the work I’m doing and that I hope to do will change minds and ensure that trans children have the kind of love and support that I have.
I haven’t been the best daughter to my mother, but every time I write an article or do something to educate others, she’s smiling. I know when people have ill will towards me, she’s got my back. I know when I feel lost, she’s there to help me find the way. If I ever have a child one day I hope to provide that same strength and nurturing to him or her and carry on my mother’s legacy of love for me.
Thank you Mom. I don’t say it enough, but I love you, and I am grateful for this life you’ve given me. I’m very blessed, and there’s not a day that I don’t count those blessings. I’ll keep doing what I can do to make you proud.
Happy Mother’s Day.
It was early morning, late January. I sat outside of the courtroom waiting for my name to be called. The day had finally come.
I saw my dead name on the docket, posted on the door. “After today, it’ll be gone,” I thought.
“No one will use it against me after today.”
I didn’t realize that I was supposed to go in the courtroom and that no one would call me in. I almost missed the hearing for my name change, but luckily, he saw me coming in and beckoned me to approach.
“Are you Kevin?” He said.
“Yes,” I said.
“For now,” I thought.
He asked me the standard set of questions. No, I haven’t committed any crimes. No, I’m not a sex offender.
“Granted.” He said.
I was overjoyed. The moment had finally come – I was Katharine, legally.
Not that I needed any confirmation, but it certainly helped to be able to use my name – my real name, the name everyone, even my parents knew me by – in legal contexts. I’d been going by my name so long that even people that I grew up with forgot my dead name. It wasn’t me. It never really fit. No, Katharine was my real name – I just had to discover it.
I’d always liked the name Katharine. I grew up admiring Katharine Hepburn (hence the spelling) and her fearlessness, her style, and her transatlantic accent. She was everything I wanted to be as a woman, before I even knew that being a woman was ever a real possibility for me. I still summon a bit of Katharine whenever I need strength. I’ve even thought about emulating her way of responding to those who misspelled her name — circling it in red ink and returning it to the person who wrote it. Maybe then people would learn to spell my damn name correctly.
My great great grandmother was also a Katharine Marie. I don’t know a lot about her, but I wish I did. I learned that when my parents were choosing names for their baby, they had settled on Katharine were I to be designated female at birth. I only found out when I brought up the subject of female names to my mother in 2010, 2 years before I transitioned. I was astonished to hear her say that she had considered giving me the name that I had always been enamored with; the name I had always wanted as my own.
I’m a woman with a pretty amazing namesake – two fantastic women. And my name is just as valid as any nickname adopted by any individual at any point in their lives. My name is just as valid as that of any Hollywood star. My name is just as valid as any woman married or divorced who chooses to adopt or discard her lover’s family name. Those names are not up for debate, however. Somehow, transgender names are.
Our dead names, vestiges of a past from which we are pressured to flee, linger around like phantoms in the ether, and we, so often, stumble in the dark, fearing their next apparition. I, too, felt this fear. The phantom of that name carried all of the trauma of my childhood – the bullying, the invalidation, the memories of searching for an identity that, try as I might, I was unable to articulate. When I eschewed it for the name which I have chosen to define me, I feared that it would haunt me when some soul by ill will or by ignorance stumbled across the remains.
For several semesters of school, I fled from it, the lingering traces in my school’s computer system, outing me each time I participated in online class discussion. I had to clarify with professors before each semester started that there was a mistake on their rolls. I feared my name being spoken, heard, or invoked. It, along with all memories of my past being, terrorized me. I just wanted to live a new life. I just wanted to finally be free.
After my name change was official, and I had tied up all the loose ends with my past existence, being legally Katharine slowly became mundane. I had reached that major milestone. I was free, or so I thought. What I had succeeded in doing was burying my past. I hadn’t yet confronted it. I had to dig it up and stare it in the face. I had to come to terms with where I had come from to fully appreciate where I was and to feel whole.
And so, during the recent months, I returned to my past. I began looking at old photos from my past that triggered painful memories of repression and shame. I tried to put myself in my own shoes at a time when I didn’t understand who I was or who I could be. I began the long process of forgiving myself for the doubt that I internalized which was imposed upon me by a world unwilling to accept my legitimacy. I dove headlong into the deep, dark trenches of my existence and carefully mapped every inch in order to chart an integral whole.
My past is necessarily part of who I am. To some, this is interpreted as a “male socialization” that invalidates my claim to womanhood. My socialization was wholly unlike that of my male friends, however. I felt distant from them, uncomfortable around them, and above all, I felt a deep discomfort with my body that divorced me entirely from the possibility of navigating socialization from the perspective that they embodied. It colored my interpretation in a way that they will never know.
It is also true that my socialization was different than that of cisgender girls. I don’t think that invalidates my claim to womanhood, either. I interpreted the world from the perspective of a girl silenced and rendered invisible, or at the least, decidedly incongruent with the interpretation that I was expected to have. I had a transgender socialization, and while it is unique, I remain more than the sum of my parts. Reducing me to those years of my life is as useful in defining my identity as would be the narrative of any arbitrary period of time in my life. They do not encompass the whole. They do not reflect my continuing evolution and still developing beauty. They cannot capture the extent of my complexity.
Why then, is it such a common belief that invoking the former name of a transgender individual can negate their entire being? What need do we have to place this hex upon transgender people? Why is summoning the spectre of a name that is no longer attached to an individual viewed with more legitimacy than a transgender person’s declared identity, regardless of legal status? Why are transgender individuals referenced needlessly by names that no longer apply to them, when such mention remains wholly irrelevant?
I believe the answer is manifold. In addition to the entitlement of hegemony that those within the dominant ranks of the status quo wield to invalidate the marginalized when they assert themselves on their terms in order to maintain the hegemonic social power structure, I believe that, to them, allowing transgender individuals validity in their names and identities is admission that perhaps their own identities are more complex than they have been led to believe. If that realization is anything like my own, it can be somewhat terrifying having to confront the aspects of ourselves that we do not wish to see.
Just as we must conquer the haunted house to conquer ourselves, they too must step outside the comfort of their discourse, that which would position gender (and, by extension, sex, as sex in that discourse serves as an extension of the gender binary) as both an immutable and all-encompassing aspect of identity. Most remain unwiling to do so, without impetus.
The end result, along with the microaggressions and hurdles that transgender individuals face in attempts to assert their identities, is a nasty reaction to those who have publicly cast off the shackles of a hegemonic discourse. An example of which happened to me last night. Unexpectedly, I was confronted with the spectre of my dead name staring me in the eyes, shared publicly by a pseudoanonymous individual on a forum dedicated to reactionary hate and puerile aggression.
My initial thoughts upon seeing it revealed were something akin to shock. I had been diligent in burying all traces of my past. How could they have known? What mistakes had I made? Soon, I realized that in blaming myself and accepting the idea that my dead name was an albatross around my neck that must be cast off and never invoked I was only giving it power over me. I was allowing it to delegitimize me. Although I wondered if the breach in privacy came as a result of a breach in trust, I decided to own my dead name. I decided to publicly declare my sense of integrity.
What followed was of course the usual nastiness that accompanies any and all posts on the dark corners of the internet – the hate-filled, violent, and reactionary rhetoric of the virulent id of humanity enabled by a sense of anonymous invincibility. Namely, attacks on my identity, threats of and allusions to sexual violence, and general abusive, dehumanizing language intended to strip me of the agency that allows me to define my evolving being. The constant invocation of my dead name was meant to shame me and give me fear by forcing me to gaze upon my past uncovered and in their hands. It was, in short, the same behavior that our cisnormative society condones – the stripping of transgender narratives from those who live those narratives, and the theft of those narratives by hostile individuals whose positionality gives them unearned entitlement to dictate whether or not those narratives deserve validation.
Rather than become dispirited at their relentless abuse, I found that embracing the entirety of my narrative while refusing to concede my articulation of that narrative removed it from their hands. I saw this particular attack on my identity as a microcosm of my continuing quest to reconcile my traumatic past with my present. Just as I have in that journey, I realized that I could accept the trauma as a reality that nevertheless failed to compromise the entirety of my being. It was an experience that I had, but it was not who I was. As they continued to level a name at me that was no longer my own, I realized that they could not define me, only call to mind a definition that was once imposed upon me. Even when I had lived subject to that definition, there was an essential part of “me” that longed to cast it off and find another.
This is, at least in my interpretation, something akin to what Laverne Cox meant when she said that “misgendering trans women is an act of violence.” Misgendering is the willful reimposition of trauma upon the traumatized. I would extend the imposition of dead names to that category. As my experience illustrates, this imposition is maintained through violence, or at the least allusions to violence in violent rhetoric. It involves violation of privacy and exposure to harm. It is intended to cause pain.
While I think I’ve largely come to terms with my trauma and “worked through it”, it is important to understand the purpose and mechanism of these attacks, and to deconstruct them as attempts to reimpose a hegemonic discourse upon those who dare to transgress its boundaries. The trauma of our pasts is something that we all revisit on our own terms, and at our own rate of healing we confront and conquer it. When that trauma and the shame associated with it are wielded against us, it can end violently, with attempts on our life by ourselves or others.
I thought that the date of my name change was the final confrontation with my past. Instead, it was really only one stage of a confrontation with that past that is ongoing and which continues to shape my identity. Most people have to confront their past and square it with their present at some time in their lives. What is important to remember, though is that most people are not pressured to compartmentalize and distance themselves from their past in order to preserve their safety. With minor incongruencies, they are privileged with an unbroken narrative of self that is beyond reproach. This is why assertion of identity — current identity, whatever that may be — is crucial for trans people. It is as much self-preservation as it is self-determination. That assertion should be respected.
There will always be the negators of the world out there to remind us that our past indeed happened, as if we could ever forget. Their reminders should not be given the weight of invalidation, however. If our society accepted the multitudes within us as trans individuals (to paraphrase Walt Whitman) in the same way that the complexity of cisgender individuals’ identities were accepted, it would cease to be an issue. For this reason I have come to accept my dead name as one of my multitudes. My past is one chapter of my beautiful story, but it is not the entirety of it.
I am a woman named Katharine who was once called a boy named Kevin. If you find that contradictory, very well.
I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes within my name.
“This is a colonial view of gender, and by that I mean that those who deviate from our designated gender at birth are only valid through the gaze and assessment of the dominant groups in society that determine that designation. For transgender people — and as a transgender person, I can certainly attest to this — there is a pressure to concede our identities and articulate them on the terms of those who colonize our identities. We are denied alternative discourses. When we assert who we are, there always remains an eternal and unassailable check on that assertion to which we must submit; “Well, yes, I am biologically such-and-such, but…”
Like a lot of trans women, I get excited when I hear about one of us making an appearance on national TV. I get excited because I see opportunities to spread awareness of trans issues, call the prevailing discourse about transgender people into question, and to seize control of our narrative with millions of people watching. This kind of advocacy is important because we are a community that has so long been pressured to remain invisible under the threat of violence or social ostracization.
That is unfortunately not what we got when Janet Mock recently appeared on Piers Morgan Live.
To summarize, Janet Mock went on Morgan’s show to promote her new book, Redefining Realness, and during the interview, Morgan referenced Mock’s past as the time when she had “been a boy” and referred to her by her dead name (the name assigned to her at birth). “Had I not known anything about your story,” he said, “I’d have never known you had been a boy – a male.” He also seemed to imply repeatedly that it was the act of sexual reassignment surgery that was the moment at which she became a woman, rather than her first moments of self-identification as a woman, summarizing Mock’s story as the “story of a woman who was “born a boy and remained that way until the age of 18.” A lot of transgender people, Mock included, took offense to this, and made Piers Morgan well aware that they didn’t approve of his handling of the interview via Twitter.
Personally, I think some of the response was a bit harsh and unwarranted, because Piers’ mistakes seem to be ones born of sincere ignorance rather than malice, but it was his handling of the criticism that caused the whole thing to take a turn for the worse. Rather than listen to what people were saying and make an effort to understand (the role of an ally, which Piers describes himself as), he painted the response as irrational, referring to his critics as “dimwits”. When an entire community of marginalized people tells you that they have an issue with something, it’s probably for a good reason.
After the firestorm of criticism, Morgan scheduled a second interview with Mock. I was hoping that he would address some of the points brought up by some of the individuals criticizing him, and that he would lead a civil discussion with Janet in an effort to reach a greater level of understanding. Instead, Piers conducted the uncomfortable segment more like a trial than an interview, demanding to know why she had stoked the coals and instigated the transgender community to victimize him. This is not only an inaccurate summary of what happened (the trans community took umbrage at the interview before Mock had anything to say about it) but it is not an angle that someone who claims to support transgender rights should be taking. Allies listen first and put their own feelings aside when criticized, working with the people who bring issues to their attention to make the situation right. They don’t delegitimize the emotions of those for whom they advocate or claim persecution when offered opportunities to improve.
There could have been a very productive dialogue about the ways in which we impose the gender binary and gendered expectations onto the designation of sex. I’d have loved for Mock and Morgan to unpack some of that and discuss the effects that it has on transgender individuals. For example, while many act as if “biologically male” is an objective, impartial scientific reality, this insistence in practice serves as a means for larger society to negate the identity of transgender individuals. As a trans woman, I’m expected to simply accept that I’m inescapably male, even if others deign to acknowledge me as a “male woman”, and act as if there are no gendered connotations in this designation. What I hear when people insist that I acknowledge that I am male is that I can only ever aspire to be a woman to a point. No matter what lengths I go to to legitimize my identity, there will always be an external check in place to make sure that I know that the best I can hope for is being a woman with an asterisk. In other words, I can pretend to be a woman all I want, but “objective reality” will always say otherwise.
Perhaps if Mock had been able to articulate this instead of having been put on the defensive, Piers Morgan might have had a greater understanding about how the persistence of the male designation affects us, and how being referred to as male at any stage in our lives brings to mind the very real effects of this supposedly “objective” definition in our every day lives. I live as a woman, I am perceived as a woman, I have a legal name that is deemed to be a woman’s name, yet every time I look at my identification I am greeted with an M, a scarlet letter to remind me that this is the state sanctioned identity that I have to defy to achieve legal recognition as who I am. This is a difficult thing to do short of a prohibitively expensive surgical procedure.
Piers Morgan also noted that Mock herself had allegedly referred to herself as male in her article “I was born a boy”. As she noted, however, article titles are often editorial decisions designed to get pageviews. It is difficult to unpack the complexity of transgender identification in an article title. It would take another article entirely to explain that complexity, and how the prevailing narrative of transgender identity – that we are born in the wrong body, defined by our genitals, and that we are the gender we are assigned corresponding to our sexual designation until we have genital reconfiguration via surgery – is an oversimplification that is not reflective of the personal narrative that shapes many transgender individuals’ understanding of themselves. It’s difficult to articulate the pressure that we feel to concede to this simplistic narrative in efforts to explain ourselves in a way that will be understood even on a basic level. To be even half-accepted, half-understood, half-acknowledged, we have to cater our narrative to others, and if we dare to venture outside of their lines we face invalidation and ridicule.
This could be easily avoided. If we decided to acknowledge the self-identification of transgender individuals as a valid reality, rather than a superficial, subjective, and flimsy role, and if we didn’t insist on the primacy of a sexual designation that is anything but objective (chromosomes are not readily visible indicators of gender, rarely tested, and operate in ways far more complex than most people acknowledge, making designation by medical professionals in effect an educated guess) then perhaps transgender individuals could be more easily accepted as who they are. I personally shun the “male” designation, and I prefer to think of myself as an individual appraised to be a likely carrier of an SRY gene, objectively speaking. In any case, my sexual designation has little to do with my lived reality outside of a few medical situations. It is, for the most part, completely irrelevant, and I’m pretty tired of having it used as a trump card to invalidate me. Those who criticized Morgan likely shared in this frustration.
Piers Morgan could have educated himself prior to the initial interview, and focused on Mock’s journey rather than her past. He could have made an effort to understand how important it is for transgender people to not feel inextricably tied to the identity that was imposed upon them at birth. Yes, Janet Mock could have stopped him, and corrected him, but we are conditioned to accept those misconceptions and oversimplifications in polite conversation in order that we are heard at all. To articulate our identities fully, we are expected to be conversant in biology, philosophy, gender theory, and the million other perspectives that people take in efforts to invalidate us. The least we can ask for is for those who profess to be our allies to make efforts to educate themselves, and to accept criticism graciously so that they may learn from it. Hopefully then we can have a more productive conversation about transgender identity – one that is less polarizing, more respectful, and more capable of bridging an understanding between trans individuals and those who wish to understand us.
(Content warning below.)
Yesterday, I came across an article in the LA Times regarding the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’s study of the elevated risk of suicide in the transgender community. To briefly summarize, the statistics are shocking:
- 41% of transgender/gender non-confoming individuals have attempted suicide, a rate of 9 times the national average
- The risk was higher for those who had suffered discrimination or violence
- For those driven to homelessness, the risk was even higher, at 69%, for those refused medical care, 60%
- For individuals who are “openly” transgender, or more often read as transgender, the risk is higher
- Even transgender individuals at “low risk” have attempted suicide at a rate of 30%-40%
- Suicide rates were lower in families that “stayed strong” after transgender individuals came out
Part of me finds these statistics shocking. They are, after all, appalling, and certainly unacceptable. However, as a transgender person, and one who is quite open about it (by choice, since I am privileged to not be read as trans, and because I am a transgender advocate), I am not surprised. In fact, before I transitioned, I too, wanted to die. I thought about how I would kill myself daily. I would pray to be hit by a truck as I drove to the store. I wondered what the most painless way to do it would be. I stopped eating and engaged in self-harm. I really, truly wanted to die. This was before I even faced much discrimination due to being transgender – I wasn’t even out yet – but even so, knowing the road that lay ahead I was terrified. I was terrified knowing that the world would hate me for wanting to be myself.
I am very thankful that I got past that point and that I sought help. I am thankful that I began hormones and started transitioning. Since that low point in my life, I am much more at peace with myself and my body, and I have become a much stronger, more well rounded individual. I feel like a person. Even so, there is a prevailing attitude that being transgender in of itself is equivalent to mental illness. In other words, the problem lies within transgender individuals, and their desires to achieve self-actualization are misguided, and ultimately, futile, attempts to cure a disease that causes them to irrationally transgress socially prescribed normative gender identities (those which correspond to one’s designated sex at birth). One need only look to the comments section for evidence of this attitude:
It doesn’t matter to these people and to our society that the actual “reality” of the situation (one that transgender people know quite well and have faced on a deeper level than these internet commentators could imagine) contradicts exactly what they are saying a few paragraphs above their ignorant attacks on those that they refuse to understand. It is a symptom of the real disease at play here: transphobia. Like with other social ills, transphobia is a disease that causes those affected to stigmatize those whose body, gender identity, and presentation defies their preconceived notions of normalcy. I mean, after all, how would one explain the following comments about my gender identity?
(I could go on and on here; I’ve received no shortage of hatred like this.)
Yes, the problem in our society is CLEARLY transgender people and not those who attack us, even when we are total strangers.
This sort of thing is not uncommon in other forms of related social prejudice. Pathologization of Otherized identities by inferring sickness or disability is an age-old practice. Quoting Tobin Siebers in Disability Theory:
“The pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status.”
(Siebers 2008, 6)
It’s easy to see this pathologization at play with regard to an individual’s transgender status – the bizarre fixation on an individuals adherence to a socially constructed notion of “healthy” genital configuration congruent with one’s designated sex. The rhetoric of “mangled” or “mutilated” genitals (words chosen for their connotations of deformity, words not chosen to describe other surgeries) that pervade the discourse surrounding transgender individuals, regardless of whether or not they have even had any sort of surgery to modify their genital configuration. Many have not, due to the prohibitively high cost of what is commonly known as “sexual reassignment surgery” or “gender reassignment surgery” – which is on average $20,000 for transgender women (who some refer to as “male-to-female”) and up to $80,000 for transgender men (who some refer to as “female-to-male”). This cost is even steeper when you factor in the high rate of unemployment and poverty in the transender community, and their lack of access to adequate health insurance. Even with health insurance, transgender health care is often denied as a necessity and described as cosmetic, despite being long established as necessary treatment for gender dysphoria. The depathologization of gender dysphoria (formerly referred to as Gender Identity Disorder) is itself a recent development that long reinforced the societal association of transgender identity to pathology. Like homosexuality and wandering uterus, also known as hysteria, it is the perception of deviance that creates the pathology, not the behavior that is perceived as deviant.
This perception prevents transgender people from being accepted in society, let alone understood. It prevents us from equal access to necessary healthcare. It prevents us from equal economic opportunity, and as the survey shows, it prevents us from equal access to a healthy, happy life. We are defined, as Siebers says, as inferior human beings. Our existence is not the result of pathology and should not be stigmatized. If there is an illness we must combat, it does not involve transgender individuals attempting to achieve self-actualization. It is the socially communicated intolerance and hatred of bodies and identities that deviate from the status quo. It is that illness that plagues our society. It is that illness that is killing my transgender brothers and sisters, not our efforts to assert ourselves against the onslaught of violence we face for daring to affirm who we are.
If we wish to address statistics such as those in the survey, and if we wish to save lives, we must deconstruct our normative notions of only certain bodies and identites as acceptable and prerequisite to full personhood. We have to recognize the discourse surrounding transgender individuals and the negative representations of transgender identity as symptoms of a systemic intolerance of perceived deviance that deligitimizes, marginalizes, and even kills. If we don’t, things will not change. The only outcome that will result from forcing transgender individuals to conform to an identity that is not their own is a life of misery or death, as the statistics indicate. If those spouting ignorant hatred of transgender individuals were truly concerned about their mental or physical health rather than their own comfort with the status quo, they would advocate the same thing that every reputable source in healthcare advocates for transgender individuals – acceptance in society, affirmation of our identities, access to our healthcare, and the same opportunity to achieve self-actualization as anyone else.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
As a transgender person, my relationship with mass media hasn’t always been the best of relationships. Every single day, when I watch television, or a film, or read news articles, or books, or even twitter, I feel like I’m walking through a minefield. Inevitably, I will step on one and be onslaught with some horribly insensitive comment or dehumanizing portrayal of a trans person. The systemic view of trans individuals as non-people is too ubiquitous, and the lack of understanding of our struggles coming to terms with our identities has created a mythologization of our lives with little concern for our perspective.
Like any other mythology, the transgender mythology relies on cultural tropes that help to structure narratives around it, which appeal to a shared sense of reality. This reality, however, is one told from only one perspective – that of cisgender, or non-trans people. Thet are the heroes, the polloi, the Hellenes. We are the monsters that the hero must battle, the exotic and shameful lust that the hero must resist, or the riddle that the hero must solve. This mythology can serve as the foundation of both tragic and the comedic narrative, from sophomoric frat boy humor to the epic tale. Regrettably, this mythology even manages, from time to time, to seep into the realm of journalism.
At the heart of much of this mythology is the theme of deception. Mainly, that transgender individuals, by living in the gender with which they identify, are doing so with intent to deceive, as if there were some inherently ulterior motive in their assertion of their own identity. This assumption is especially problematic in a society where transgender women are referred to as “traps” and face the threat of violence if their transgender status is discovered.
Enter Caleb Hannan. On January 15, Hannan published an article in which he investigated the history of a peculiar golf club that he learned about via YouTube. Such an article wouldn’t be the most enthralling subject to anyone who was not a golf enthusiast, but when used as the vehicle for a commonly understood mythology wrapped up in all the trappings of a mystery, on the other hand, that is interesting.
As Hannan detailed the aspects of Dr. V’s story that, in his mind, didn’t add up, I could only imagine that he saw himself as a hero serving the will of the gods of investigative journalism. Dr. V, the golf club’s mastermind, was, on the surface, merely an eccentric genius with a brilliant product, but like any reporter doing their job, he couldn’t to rely on appearances alone. He began to investigate, and indeed, he found inconsistencies in her credentials which cast doubt on the science of the golf club. Hannan didn’t seem to focus on the perceived inconsistencies in her credentials, however. Instead, he crafted his narrative around the perceived inconsistencies in her gender, a matter wholly unrelated to the golf club or the science behind it, and elected to draw upon the mythology of transgender deception to undermine her identity.
Hannan described the “chill down his spine” when the monster (a human being in the form of a trans woman) was revealed to him. He described a sense of epic betrayal when reality did not conform to his assumptions. He even described the pity he felt for this monster, whose identity he pathologized as he woefully described Dr. V as a “troubled man”. What he didn’t do was humanize the subject of his inquiries. He summoned her, described her Otherness to an unsympathetic audience, described her sins of deception (to her investor as well as to Hannan’s assumptions), and vowed to vanquish her evil by “revealing the details” of her past, despite Dr. V’s requests.
As if to justify what follows, Hannan relates the “menacing” tone of Dr. V frantically pleading with him to not reveal her identity to a world hostile to her existence. Hannan refuses, and the tale reaches its tragic climax. In the end, Dr. V took her own life. Disturbingly, Hannan adopts a stoic posture, expressing a regret that rings hollow and frankly unaware of the severity of his actions.
“Although there were times when I had been genuinely thrilled with the revelation that Dr. V’s official narrative didn’t line up with reality, there was nothing satisfying about where the story had ended up. ”
The tragedy of her Dr. V’s death was written as Hannan’s tragedy, a regrettable end of a heroic epic. An epic whose moral seems to indicate that all could have been avoided had she not been deceptive. This is perhaps the most troubling inconsistency, however – namely, that Hannan’s tale was not, in fact, a fantasy. It was a reality. Dr. V was no monster – she was a person, and the end result of his dissection of Dr. V’s identity and his exposure of that identity without her consent ended in her very real death. The moral of the story for transgender individuals was a very different one – not to trust others under penalty of death.
This is sadly not an uncommon story for us. The novelty of the “trans reveal” that shocks cisgender sensibilities has little appeal to us when the end result of that mythological trope is, more often than not, violence towards us. The mythology of our deceptiveness is inconsistent with our own narratives of heroic defiance of a society that wishes to destroy us. We’re tired of our reality being viewed as mythology and the mythology surrounding our existence being portrayed as reality. Most of all, we’re tired of this mythology killing us.
I’m not accusing Caleb Hannan of murder. His journalism, however, was irresponsible. He violated Dr. V’s trust and revealed aspects of her identity that were not public domain without her consent. He did this to write a story about a golf club. What makes matters worse is that it was totally unnecessary – her gender identity did not need to be a part of the story at all, and if we lived in a society that saw our gender identities as valid and not deceptive, perhaps Dr. V wouldn’t have felt a need to keep hers hidden. This is the reality, the end result of mythology that dehumanizes us. This is not a tragedy that we can walk away from. This is our lives, and the best outcome that I can hope for is that the reality of our existence, not the mythology, becomes accepted so that tragedies like this don’t occur again.
Recently, a post popped up on my Facebook news feed about Lizzie Velasquez. I’d describe who she is in this sentence, but I don’t think I could do her justice. To me, and many other people, she has become an incredible inspiration. You see, Lizzie and I have a lot in common. No, I don’t have the same condition that she has, and I can’t imagine what she’s dealt with. She’s not transgender and hasn’t had to deal with my struggles or fight my battles either.
What she reminded me of, is that no matter what conditions we have or what circumstances we are born into, they do not define us. We define ourselves. We choose to become who we want to be. This message was the central theme of her excellent talk at TedxAustinWomen.
Now, I know what some people might be thinking. Yes, our circumstances do shape our identity, and membership in culturally marginalized groups especially can cultivate an identification with a group and greatly increase our likelihood for having similar experiences. Things are harder for some of us. That’s not what defines us, though. No matter who we are or what others say about us, we are in control of who we are. To quote Lizzie:
“Even though I’ve had it hard, I can’t let that define me.”
“You are the one that decides what defines you.”
The resonance that message has for me as a transgender woman is profound. As I’ve said, my summary of what it’s like to be transgender involves just that – trying to define yourself in a world intent on denying you the right to do so. For a long time, the ferocity with which our society denies us this self-determination kept me trapped in a state of non-being, yearning desperately to be a person. Sure, I existed – I was alive, but I wasn’t really living. There were no boundaries to contain my shapeless sense of self as I was whipped about like flotsam on a stormy sea and smashed against the rocks.
From my earliest memories of interaction with other children, I was bullied. I was threatened with violence, I had rocks thrown at me, I was physically, verbally, and emotionally assaulted by my peers, and before I knew it I had become a total recluse whose only friends were her video games and her books. Although they provided me a temporary refuge from harm, they didn’t give me any feeling that I was in control of my life or that I would ever be free from the definitions that others thrust upon me – fat, ugly, poor, weird, stupid, and ultimately, unworthy of friendship or love. I was shackled to those definitions for most of my 26 years on this planet, and I became incredibly bitter. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was that it was I who shackled those definitions to myself, not my peers.
I internalized the violence hurled at me. I hated myself, and I defined myself through the lens of those who hated me. I saw myself as unlovable, as a failure, as a stupid, fat, ugly kid that could never be seen as beautiful and who didn’t deserve her friends. I pushed people away and kept myself from flourishing. Worst of all, I defined myself as someone that didn’t deserve to live, and it almost killed me. Then at the nadir of my existence, everything changed. I decided to take the reins. I decided that a definition for myself that I thought was impossible – a woman – was the only definition that could suit me. I decided that I was going to live, and that from that day, the day of June 5, 2012, I would define myself as a woman. It was a long time coming. I finally started to see some shafts of light shining down through the dark clouds that hung over my head for so many years. I was awash in the glow of a euphoria that I never could have imagined was possible. I felt happiness. I couldn’t put it into words, but things felt right.
Even though I was more comfortable in my own skin, I kept my trans status a closely held secret, known only to my parents and my closest friends. I felt better, but I still felt insecure. I didn’t want to be seen, and constantly worried about the perceptions of others (despite the fact that to the rest of the world, I was any other tall, lanky, and slightly awkward girl). I was defining myself in cissexist terms. I defined my trans status as shameful and defined myself as flawed for not being cisgender. I told myself that the only thing that I could offer the world was what was visible on the surface, and that I was only acceptable if I kept the reality of my body hidden. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t want to be defined as a person with a shameful secret. That was, after all, what I was running away from when I transitioned. I wanted to know the real me. Slowly, but surely, I began to venture out of my shell via my blog (then on Tumblr) and my Twitter account.
The first time I defined myself publicly as transgender, I was simultaneously terrified and relieved. While a weight was lifted off my chest, I feared that definition would be used against me, and indeed, there have been times when it has been. However, I learned that when others would use that definition against me, it would be their inaccurate, ignorant, and stereotypical image of a transgender person that they were wielding against me. It wasn’t reality, and it wasn’t my definition of self. My identity does not, and cannot ever belong to them because I own who I am. Moreover, I found that the definition of me that they would try to attack me with was a flimsy and inconsistent one that took a different shape depending on their angle of attack. Often, the same person would demean me for my womanhood one minute, and accuse of being a man the very next. That didn’t change who I was, however. I remained the woman that I always was. They’d harass me incessantly, angry at the words that I said, and accuse me of being the “troll” and project their irrational anger and hate onto me. That didn’t make me a troll, it only reaffirmed that I am doing my job as an advocate.
Some very pathetic individuals (one of them, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a former member of a neo-confederate hate group) used some of these very same tactics against me recently, in efforts to intimidate me, to silence me, and to try to alter my self-perception and self-definition. They’re not the first, but just like the others, they tried to use the very same tired tactic of trying to define me by my assumed anatomy and the totality of my identity by my membership in a culturally defined, marginalized group. It didn’t work, and it didn’t work because I’m not my anatomy. I’m transgender, but that’s not all I am. I’m a strong, beautiful, smart, and capable woman who isn’t a “victim” at all, but rather, a survivor. I’ve had to overcome more in my 26 years than most will ever have to face in a lifetime, and no one can take that away from me. I’ve defined myself as a respected voice in the transgender community and in the feminist community, and I’ve done so in a short amount of time. I’m Kat Haché, and I’m a woman that I’m proud of being, and as long as that is the definition that I give to myself, that is who I am. I like how I’ve defined myself, and if I could go back in time and do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Like Lizzie, I’ve defined myself, and it is that definition, not anyone else’s, that can have any claim to an accurate description of who I am. That definition will probably evolve as I (hopefully) continue to evolve as both an advocate and an individual, but I will always be the one to decide who I am. I decided not to be a victim of my circumstances, and to become a fighter – a champion. I decided that I am the woman that I want to be and that I am deserving of love. I decided to be courageous put myself out there despite the repercussions. In the face of that reality, all of my detractors’ definitions of who I am ring hollow. They can’t contain all that I am within the narrow boundaries of their hatred. Knowing that, I’m bulletproof.