CN: Toxic media, transmisogyny, violence against women, suicide
I first learned about girls like me by watching an episode of Jerry Springer entitled, “My Girlfriend is Really a Man!” I might have been ten-years-old.
I saw the host introduce flamboyant women who the audience immediately booed. I heard the women try to explain themselves, but get interrupted too frequently to communicate anything. I watched in horror as their boyfriends’ reacted with more violence than I had ever witnessed between two real people on television. Never on daytime television had I actually witnessed a man punching and beating another women. But I did that day. And the audience cheered him on.
I knew these women were my sisters, but I did not want them to be my sisters. I was ashamed of these women. And in that shame, buried under denial and self-loathing, was the kind of hatred and disgust you can really only have for someone that reminds you of your biggest secret.
I first heard the word “transsexual” when I was in middle school. It was a Barbara Walters special of some kind and she was interviewing a trans woman. Her name and location was changed to protect her family. Her face was never shown directly, but I watched her get dressed in the morning and it felt no different than watching my own mother. She looked like any other woman on the street! For a fleeting moment I thought of myself living this life, being this woman. I listened as Barbara asked her questions about her body. Questions I desperately wanted answered but hated myself for asking, because I knew they were answers about how to deal with my own body.
But it became clear to me these were not meant to be informative answers. These were meant to be interesting answers. Barbara explained to me over narration that this woman lived a life of tragedy, not a life I should actually look up to and aspire for. She taught me that our life expectancy was less than 30. She taught me women like us were constantly targets for violence, not just on trashy daytime TV. It was clear by the end of the show I should be grateful for not being like her. And the adult watching over my shoulder confirmed this with only two words, “How sad.”
My first full-length movie about a trans woman was Transamerica. I was a very young adult and living on my own for the first time. The movie had been out for awhile and critics could not stop talking about how well done and accurate it was. I was excited as I snuck the DVD under my jacket, waiting to watch it once my roommates were asleep. My self-hatred was at near-deadly levels, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I just deeply needed some kind of hope to cling on to, even if I knew I was nowhere near ready to take those steps myself.
But I found nothing worth clinging to in Transamerica. Only Felicity Huffman playing a man who was pretending to be a woman. She walked as though she was a little girl playing in her mother’s heels. Her makeup looked as though she had no friends who could offer suggestions or correction. She talked with a voice I simply could not take seriously. It was obvious I was supposed to be laughing at this “trans woman” and her experiences, not with her. Never with her. The only redeeming moment was a scene in which actual trans women and men interact with the main characters. I hurled the movie across my bedroom and continued to hate myself once it was done.
Many people might think the media has drastically changed since I was a young trans girl because of shows like Transparent or movies like Dallas Buyers Club. But that goes to show most people don’t understand the real problems with toxic media about trans women stem from the fact that there is almost a complete absence of media for trans women. (If they did, they might try pointing to The T Word or Transgender Dysphoria Blues as actual signs of improvement.)
Trans women are never the intended audience of our own stories. For anything. Even when it is presumably all about us. There’s a reason the name of the Jerry Springer episode is always, “My Girlfriend is Really a Man!” and never “My Boyfriend Doesn’t Know I’m a Trans Woman Yet!” There’s a reason news casters continue to use phrases like “born a boy” to describe trans women instead of “born a trans girl”, even after we correct them. There’s a reason why trans women can’t get work in Hollywood, even while Hollywood continually attempts (and fails, while rewarding itself) to tell the stories of trans women.
The media does not want you to identify with us, they want you to fetishize us.
The media does not want you to sympathize with us, they want you to pity us.
The media does not want you to relate to us, they want you to hate us.
The media does not want you to listen to trans women’s words, they want you to listen to other people’s ill-informed thoughts and feelings about us.
The media wants you to know we are deceptive, otherwise they couldn’t show our survival tactics as dishonest without you getting uncomfortable.
The media wants you to know we are unnatural, otherwise they couldn’t show trans women as “performing” gender without you getting uncomfortable.
The media wants you to know we are unlovable, otherwise they couldn’t use our relationships as punchlines without you getting uncomfortable.
The media wants you to know we are not women, otherwise male actors could not attempt to play our roles without you getting uncomfortable.
The media wants you to know we are not human, otherwise they couldn’t make intrusive stories or use us as metaphors without you getting uncomfortable.
Trans women are deceptive, unnatural, and unlovable. We are not women. We are not human. We are only interesting creatures that make for interesting stories that interesting actors can pretend to be in order to win interesting awards from other interesting and open-minded humans who are not trans women.
Trans women are not interesting. Only stories about us are interesting.
Not once as a young girl did I see a story about trans women even remotely intended for me. Not one story was even vaguely aware of the young trans girls who would be desperate for any information about the women they would eventually grow up to be. Nobody ever worries what kind of messages the media is sending to little trans girls because nobody even wants to acknowledge we exist.
It’s much more comforting to believe all children are the genders we assign them at birth, that trans women are anomalies who spring into existence as fully-fledged adults. It’s much more comforting to believe trans women were little boys who somehow got confused and decided to become women, instead of acknowledging we have always been girls who were forced by adults (however gently, it does not matter) and eventually the entire world to try to see ourselves as boys in order to survive.
But little trans girls exist.
And little trans girls are watching.
Like all girls, they are desperate to find role models for themselves. When the media decides for them that there are none to be found, those little girls can make some pretty desperate and horrible decisions about whether they should continue to exist in this world. This cruel world that does not believe they can or should be role models for children when they grow up.
I wish I could tell you I was a good little activist the day I saw Jerry Springer. I wish I could tell you I turned off the television in disgust and wrote a strongly-worded letter to the producers. But I can’t tell you any of that, because I was taught to hate myself as a young trans girl.
I wish I could tell you I reached out to that women I saw on Barbara Walters. I wish I could tell you seeing that trans woman on television gave me the courage to come out to my family and tell them I was just like her. But I can’t tell you any of that, because I was taught to fear my future as young trans girl.
I wish I could tell you I laughed after watching Transamerica the first time. I wish I could tell you that a portrayal so obviously inauthentic had absolutely no effect on how I saw myself as a young adult. But I can’t tell you any of that, because I was taught to ridicule myself as a young trans girl.
The only reason I can tell you anything today is because I learned to love myself, despite all the odds against it. And now I want all trans girls to learn to love themselves as much as possible, because I know this world is too damn deadly to survive while hating ourselves.
We are speaking out against toxic media with increasing intensity because we know the lives of trans girls are at stake. We know this because we used to be those girls.
Do not tell us what was intended.
Do not tell us to calm down.
Do not tell us how we should feel.
Do not tell us our objections are blown out of proportion.
This is about our struggle to survive in a world where the media surrounding us is as real and unavoidable as the air we breathe. If that media does not start talking to and with trans women instead of about us, more young trans girls will die. That is the cold fact every trans woman sits with when she sees toxic media. She remembers a time when she was not strong enough to stand up against it.
This is not a thought experiment for us. We are not interested in taking away your “free speech” or “freedom of expression” or “rights of the author” or “more diverse stories” or any other theoretical bullshit. We are interested in preventing the deaths of trans girls. A goal everyone should be able to agree on.
Think about those dead girls the next time you laugh when your favorite sitcom makes a casual joke about “Adams apples” or “big hands” or “broad shoulders” on the body of a woman a character is dating, but its okay because he actually likes her for this one and only episode.
Think about those dead girls when you try to defend a queer man’s right to use a slur that only targets the trans women those girls will never grow up to be.
Think about those dead girls the next time you tell a trans woman to be “grateful” for something she is speaking out against. Tell those dead girls it shouldn’t matter if they’re hurting because that wasn’t the intention of the people who hurt them.
Think about those dead girls every time a trans woman calls you out for something you think is harmless. Then ask yourself why it feels harmless for you, but not for her.
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