November 13, 2014

Moving the Trans Narrative Beyond Transition

A lot of trans people write coming out stories. It’s the standard trans narrative and the one that everyone seems to be interested in reading. Why not give the people what they want, right? Besides, if a trans person is going to tell their story than their transition is an obvious choice because it is literally a transformative time in our lives. It fundamentally alters the way we live.

Here’s the thing, though: most trans people honestly hate when people focus only on the transition from male to female. We want to be seen as the people who we are, not the people who were were; but when it comes to telling our own stories we so often focus on the very thing we bristle at when we see it being favored in the media.

Earlier this year, for example, Janet Mock butted heads with Piers Morgan over the questions he asked on his now-cancelled talk show. Her complaints were that Morgan focused solely on the spectacle of the male-to-female aspect of transition, including invasive curiosity about genital surgery and the use of that surgery to delineate when Mock “became” a woman. The whole line of questioning was wrong-headed and kind of creepy in spots, and I definitely side with Mock in calling Morgan out on it.

It is worth noting, however, that she was there to discuss a book that centered on her personal transition story. Her book structures her story in such a way that we follow her through her period of blossoming and self-discovery about her trans self, and her surgery is a narrative climax, the culmination of much of the story she tells to that point. Obviously, she didn’t frame it in the ignorant way Morgan did; but it is worth noting that when one goes on a show to promote a book that focuses on the transition narrative, it’s not completely unexpected for the presenter to ask questions that focus on the transition narrative.

This is the Catch-22 of telling the transition story in the media in 2014. We want people to care about our stories and to better understand us, but in doing so we feed this false narrative that being trans is all about the “change.”  In the current social environment, we struggle to thread this precarious needle. When a trans person writes a book telling their transition story, even with as much grace and eloquence as Mock did, they are unavoidably playing into that focus the public has on transition as the heart of the transgender experience.

I am not trying to discredit the transition narrative. For the past nearly-two-years I’ve written a blog whose main focus has been on the transition experience. I am not blind to the empowerment and psychological benefit of telling one’s story of becoming their authentic self, and I’m certain that at least a few non-trans people have read my story and walked away with a better understanding of being trans. [I’m not being self-important in saying that; I’ve received feedback from readers.]

And let’s also consider that the typically expected trans narrative also marginalizes the transgender experience of nonbinary individuals — people who often don’t take hormones or go through GRS but still live authentically in their chosen identities. In a public that struggles to accept Janet Mock as a woman, a person proudly declaring their third gender status and asking the media to use “zir/zie” pronouns is almost completely foreign territory for the average cis reader or viewer.

So could one conceivably talk about the transgender experience, even the process of transition, without making it “all about the transition”? I think it’s possible. Because I think there are larger truths to the transgender experience that get overlooked by cis readers when they’re given the narrative they expect. Truths that are shared by those who are on either end of the spectrum, somewhere between the two extremes, or even those who are off the spectrum entirely.

As a writer, I am compelled to tell my story. As a trans person, I am compelled to tell my story in a way that changes, rather than reinforces, the “trans narrative”. My blog has served to do the former; I think it’s time to give the latter a try.

This is, of course, a very roundabout way of saying “I’m working on a book.” More soon …


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  • Such an important question. The world will always be more comfortable with how things look than how they feel. As transpeople, we have a chance to change that a little bit. It’s like when straight men stare at a woman’s chest while talking with her and she says, “Hey, my eyes are up here.” The media is metaphorically staring at our genitals, and we need to point to our hearts and say, “Hey, the story is in here.”

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