Let Trans Artists Tell Trans Tales

(Originally published on Skepchick!)

In the past year or two, society has seen a big shift in how trans people, and trans women specifically, are portrayed in the media. Where it was once mildly permissible to have cis actors tell trans stories because, at least we were getting something, now a cis actor playing a trans character is becoming more and more controversial. Because no matter how dedicated the portrayal is, how sincere the actor is in wanting to “get it right”, how genuinely the creators want to help the transgender community, or how much it moves their primarily cis audience, they will always get something wrong, and often they’ll get a lot of things wrong. It’s almost a running gag in the trans community at this point. I’ve had many a “trashy trans movie night” where we get together to watch Transamerica or Boys Don’t Cry and tear it to shreds over popcorn and alcohol. Where we were once happy with whatever table scraps we could get, over the last decade we’ve been creating our own art that accurately depicts our lives. We now have a slew of well known, outspoken trans activists and artists like Janet Mock, Fallon Fox, Laura Jane Grace, Carmen Carrera, Lana Wachowski, Jenna Talackova, Candis Cayne, and (my personal hero) Laverne Cox.

Which means we are no longer satisfied letting cis people tell our stories for us.

WeExist

The most common “defense” of a cis actor playing a trans character goes something like this, “So what are you saying, they shouldn’t cast an actor as an inmate unless they’ve been to prison? They shouldn’t cast an out gay actor to play a straight character?”

The problem with the first example is confusing identity with attribute. Being trans (or gay or bisexual or any other invisible minority) is a core identity. Identity is an essential part of the character that cannot be changed by the plot, rather than something the character acquires over time through circumstances. Attribute is a detail about a character that has been accumulated over their lives through circumstance or consequence, attributes can be altered as a result of the plot. To continue with our poor example, an inmate released from prison ceases to be an inmate. Now they have a new attribute, ex-con, and learning to navigate this new attribute could be the start of their character arc. A trans woman, on the other hand, cannot cease to be a trans woman through any plot device. She could de-transition and go back in the closet, she could start out in the closet and transition in the story, but she always has been and always will be a trans woman. This is a distinction that is often lost on creators who do not have that same core identity as their character, which is why people who actually have that identity need to be involved in the creative process. Otherwise, you will inevitably resort to stereotypes which will misinform your well-meaning audience.

And it’s that well-meaning audience that makes this so problematic. The majority of cis people who watch these movies are not terrible people. They are not transphobes. They want to be educated about trans people so they don’t do shitty things to trans people. They probably care about queer rights, but might not know any trans people. So they reach out to the media to inform them. And it sucks when they’ve been genuinely moved by something, only to find out that the trans community is not happy with it. So often, rather than acknowledge the problems trans people are pointing out with the film, they get defensive. Because they don’t want to be embarrassed, which is a typical response all of us engage in, but something that ultimately causes more harm to the community you were trying to help with your portrayal. They’ve gone from being curious and well-meaning to viewing the trans community as hostile and ungrateful (which is a product of privilege but that’s a rant for another day). It’s how I initially felt about movies with mentally ill or disabled characters I enjoyed, until my education and interactions with disabled people corrected my misconceptions. Owning my mistakes is embarrassing, but it has hopefully made me a better person.

So what about the second bad example of a gay actor playing a straight character? Well the problem with this comparison is that invisible majority identities (straight, cis, able, etc.) are almost never essential to the plot of those characters. When is the last time you saw a movie where a character came out as straight? Or even mentioned they were straight except as a heterosexist response to a non-straight character? (“Whoa, bro, I’m straight!”) And I’ve never even seen a movie that used the term cis to describe anyone. Instead, we are intended to resort to heteronormativity and cisnormativity about those characters unless they specifically identify as not-hetero or not-cis. There is also bisexual erasure to consider. Most assume a character is either gay or straight, depending on their gender and the gender of who they are currently attracted to in the story. So most people see Barney Stinson (the disgusting womanizer from How I Met Your Mother) as a straight character played by an out gay actor, Neil Patrick Harris, because the character’s sexual orientation and gender history are never explicitly discussed (as far as I know, I can’t stand this show). In reality, Barney could just as easily be bisexual, pansexual, and/or a trans man and it would not change his character or the plot.

UnimpressedQueerBane

Even without the problematic assumptions that all characters are het and cis unless specified, complaining about an actor of an invisible outgroup portraying a character of an assumed (but for the sake of argument, also explicitly stated) ingroup, misses an important aspect of being a member of an outgroup. The culture, media, education system, and everything else expect you to be knowledgeable about ingroups, regardless of whether you are a member of that group or not. However, members of ingroups are not expected, or maybe even given the opportunity, to be knowledgeable about outgroups. In other words, queer children grow up learning nearly exclusively about straight culture. They are expected to be straight and cis, and often become victims if they do not sufficiently learn how to “act” straight and cis. And this is a skill they will continue to use in certain situations regardless of whether they’re “out” or not. It’s a survival technique that all members of outgroups are pressured to learn. Women learn how to “act” masculine to succeed in the male-dominated business world. People of Color learn to “act” white in order to be respected by white people. We have spent a significant amount of time and resources in our lives learning how to “blend in” or at least navigate around the ingroups we do not belong to, because we must do so in order to function. Which is why a cis actor cannot even hope to know as much about trans people as trans actors already know about cis people, no matter how “method” they are or how much research they do. We’ve been studying you guys practically since birth.

 

The next objection is the easiest to cast aside. “But how are they supposed to find a trans actress who can play the role?! It’s not like they’re as easy to find as a cis actor.” First of all, not my problem. If you want to tell our stories, then you need to involve us. End of discussion. Second of all, it’s the goddamn internet age. Even if we’re ignoring the increasing number of trans actors and actresses who are having a huge influence right now, you’re seriously telling me that major Hollywood studios don’t have the resources to put out a fucking Craigslist ad or find a casting agent in L.A. or N.Y.C. who specialize in queer clients? No, what typically happens is they do less than the bare minimum so they can cover their asses by claiming they tried, then they cast a big-name cis actor so the movie gets publicity and the actor can gets some Oscar Bait.

OscarBait

Media and Culture are mirrors of one another. If you want to change the culture, you change the media’s portrayal of it. If you want to change the media, you change the culture it exists in. The reason why so many trans activists are investing in how we are portrayed in the media all goes back to that well-meaning cis audience. We acknowledge more and more cis people are trying their best to be good allies, and we want to have a say in what media tells them about who we are and what we need, so we can change the transphobic culture we are currently living in. So we’re speaking up, coming out, and no longer allowing others to silence us. We are entering a new era in trans visibility in our society where trans women are putting a stop to harmful tropes and narratives on daytime television, holding journalists accountable for sensationalizing our love life, and not allowing gay celebrities to use trans slurs without consequence. We are gaining more power, more rights, and more allies, consequently we are losing our patience when issues are continually addressed by us but continually ignored by mainstream media.

But most importantly, we want to change the media because we want to see ourselves in it, just like everyone else wants to see their own lives reflected. Although I had seen documentaries and movies about trans women, like many people I had never seen a trans actress playing a trans character until I watched Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black. The story was so authentic, so real, and so engaging that it now makes attempts from cis actors look embarrassing in comparison. And listening to Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is one of the most moving experiences I’ve had with music. Seeing our own lives reflected in the work of artists who have similar identities of our own lets us know we aren’t alone in the world. So even a baby trans girl living in the rural South surrounded by cissexist churches can visualize her future out, public, successful life respected by society. And that is something no cis artist, no matter their intention or talent, can provide as authentically as a trans artist.

 

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Trigger Warnings Are Not New

Can we all just stop acting like trigger warnings are outrageously complicated? I keep seeing scare-tactic articles from main-stream and feminist blogs trying to have a Very Serious Discussion about whether trigger warnings are warranted or have “gone too far”. And you know what? I’m not even going to dignify this “debate” by pointing out why trigger warnings are simply a reasonable accommodation for people who have been through traumatic events. There are already shit-tons of articles about it. Instead, I want to talk about how trigger warnings have already existed long before the terminology, they just went unnoticed by people who didn’t need them.

Trigger1

We’ve all watched a TV show that began with a “Viewer Discretion is Advised” disclaimer. And while I personally might think a warning about something like The Simpsons is a little goofy, it doesn’t harm me at all for them to give other viewers a heads up. I haven’t been inconvenienced by it, and by the time the episode is over, chances are good I’ll have forgotten all about it. And that’s my point. Trigger warnings (or advisory warnings or content notes or whatever you want to call them) don’t exist for the people who don’t need them. They exist  for the people who do need them.

Most forms of media have an industry-enforced and regulated rating system of some kind firmly established. Movies, television, comic books, and video games all have some kind of rating that can be found before viewing or purchasing, and most even have little details about what warrants that particular rating (although some would argue they need to be more specific, which I think is valid). So it’s no surprise that blogs developed their own form of ratings system. Most blog providers like WordPress or Blogger allow you to mark your content as “mature”, but the feminist blogosphere went one step further and began giving specific heads up when the content being discussed was something that might trigger traumatic experiences of their readers. But unlike the industry ratings mentioned, which have historically been imposed by only one organization founded by big-name publishers  and thus, carry some valid concerns about when ratings are a form of censorship to punish indie publishers, trigger warnings are voluntarily given by the creators of their blogs.

I've never seen a Very Serious Discussion about whether ESRB ratings have "gone too far".

I’ve never seen a Very Serious Discussion about whether ESRB ratings have “gone too far”.

And hey, confession time, I don’t always include a trigger warning on my blog posts. If I think my title sufficiently explains the topic at hand, I figure that’s a good enough heads up for my readers. But if one of my readers or friends says, “Hey, I think this needs a trigger warning,” then I apologize and put up a fucking trigger warning. It takes like two seconds for me to edit a post and add one. So why would I waste more time complaining and debating about it when it shouldn’t even bother me in the first place?

So now let’s talk about the latest scare going around, that trigger warnings are moving into the classroom. This is another one of those issues that mainstream media is making out to be new even though it’s been going on for quite some time. Every class I’ve ever taken, both at my feminist university and at my previous community college, has issued a trigger warning whenever an upcoming lecture was going to discuss abuse or rape. Because sadly, a significant proportion of women (who make up a slight majority of college students right now) have experienced abuse and/or rape first-hand and therefore, probably would appreciate a heads up about it.

I’ve been triggered before, and it is embarrassing and extremely vulnerable and not something I would ever want to happen in public if I could avoid it. And thankfully it has never happened from participating in a class with a trigger warning. Why? Because the fucking trigger warning gave me a heads-up so I wasn’t blind-sided!

“Oh, we’re going to discuss abuse next week? Alright, well I better build up my emotional constitution that day so I can handle it, because I want to be able to help others in that situation in the future.”

“Oh, we’re going to discuss rape tomorrow? I don’t think I can deal with that right now, so I’ll ask my friend ahead of time if I can copy her notes. Thank glob I don’t have to divulge personal information to my professor in order to not be viewed as an irresponsible student.”

One line in the syllabus, one nod from the professor before the next lecture. Not. Fucking. Difficult.

The only trigger warnings I notice are abuse, rape, and sometimes dieting/weight/body issues because those are relevant to me, but over time I have learned to include other common triggers through my interactions with others, such as suicide/depression, slurs/hate speech, pregnancy/birth, and drug use. And I think this is the root of what makes people get butthurt about trigger warnings they don’t need. In order to include trigger warnings that are not relevant to me, I have to think about how something I’m writing might affect someone negatively. And that involves checking my own privileges, which we all know makes people defensive and uncomfortable. But my discomfort from being wrong is minor compared to someone else being triggered. So I pull up my big girl panties and correct myself. Because that’s how we improve the world for everyone: admit when you’re wrong and correct your behavior.

Honestly to me, complaining about trigger warnings in classrooms or anywhere else is like complaining about wheelchair ramps or signs written in braille. It’s mean-spirited and a waste of time complaining about something that, obviously, does not concern you. So move on with your life and find something that’s actually worth debating and fighting over.

What, she gets her own interpreter? This is PC gone too far. I can hear the professor just fine!

What, she gets her own interpreter?! That’s outrageous! I can hear him just fine!

Shethinkers 39 – Safe Words

Secret Word

SecretWord

Troll

OKCupid Has Some Transphobic Issues

Bonus Troll!

MichFest Sucks Ass

Boss

Summer camps for trans/gender-variant kids!

Campu Aranu’tiq and You Are You Camp

Safe Words

Expressing Consent

Checking In

Verbal and Nonverbal

Upcoming Show: The Safe Word

Everyone’s a Critic

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is awesome from a fangirl perspective…but terrible from a feminist perspective.

Stupid Sexist Song

“One Way Or Another” by Blondie

#Bad for the movement

Dirty Nerdy here!

For those not “in the know”, I went on a twitter rant last night. Basically I saw in the course of three days multiple friends get told by others that certain personal choices they were making were “bad for the movement”. In these cases, the movements they were referencing were either feminism or queer rights, and not, as it happens, movement of bowels or a self-contained part of a musical composition.

http://www.soccershotsfranchising.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/toilet.jpeg

Although I imagine this argument originating from a bowel movement

“Girls, stop telling men you have boyfriends to get them to leave you alone…BECAUSE OTHERWISE IT’S BAD FOR THE MOVEMENT”

There are many iterations of this. Pretty much any feminist who says that a woman must stop using [insert survival tactic here] to avoid or deflect harassment is falling for the #badforthemovement argument. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of day-to-day choices that individuals have to make that could be construed as bad for whatever movement they are involved in, and I have no problem with analyzing these choices and explaining what is problematic with them and how they might perpetuate sexism. HOWEVER criticism should be extended to the system that creates these awful choices in the first place, not to those who are forced to make them.

This argument also comes from certain MRAs who espouse that lying is always wrong and should never be used, therefore women are horrible lying liars who lie to men all the time. The liars.

Heina Dadabhoy wrote a great piece exploring this particular argument. READ IT NOW!!!

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Feminists: you know you’re doin’ it wrong when your argument aligns with MRAs

“Gays/bisexuals stop playing pronoun games and be COMPLETELY OPEN about your sexual orientation all the time…BECAUSE OTHERWISE IT’S BAD FOR THE MOVEMENT”

Ok, so while the first example I gave is an argument put forth by fellow feminists (albeit still of the middle to upper-class white variety), I’ve never heard this argument from fellow queers. I’ve only ever heard this argument used by straight cis people. It’s almost always in a “you should be educating people” tone. It takes a special kind of privilege-blind ignorance to tell a queer person that they should not only be in charge of educating all those poor straight people about queer issues at all times, but that they should also do so openly as a queer person. While there *is* some research that says bigots become slightly less bigoted after being around the object of their bigotry for some time, there’s even *more* research that shows queer people (especially queer people of color, and ESPECIALLY trans women of color) are at higher risks of being violently assaulted and/or murdered when bigots find out about their queerness. Aside from the terribleness that is straight cis people telling queer people how to activist, this is just terrible advice.

This type of argument isn’t only relegated to the choices that feminists and queer people make. You can find this kind of #badforthemovement advice in pretty much any social justice movement. And pretty much every time it’s trotted out, you will hear me say: Fuck the movement. Your personal safety is more important. If anybody ever tries to say you have a “moral obligation” to the betterment of an activist movement, and that “moral obligation” will potentially put you in danger, then THEY are the ones doing it wrong. Not you. I’m not saying that we should never do anything that might put us in danger or our livelihoods on the line, but it should not be demanded of us. If somebody is demanding you do something “for the good of the cause” that directly conflicts with your personal safety (or with your personal ethics), then just run away. Run far away from that person.

If you’re interested, you can see my twitter rant on this topic by searching #badforthemovement . Fair warning: there are poo jokes


To fund more twitter rants aimed at assholes, please click the button below to donate:

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Shethinkers 38 – Single Moms (Happy Mothers’ Day!)

Secret Word

SecretWord

Troll

Occupy Protestor Sexually Assaulted by NYPD, Convicted of Felony Assault

Bonus Troll!

Arkansas Clerk Refuses to Issue Legal, Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

Troll Update!

Alaska Thunderfuck Apologizes for, and Removes, Transphobic Video

Boss

Our moms, because it’s Mothers’ Day!

Bonus Boss!

Genderfuck Drag Queen, Conchita Wurst, Wins Eurovision

Single Moms

Pregnancy Discrimination

Divorce

Custody Myths

Obstacles

Defending Single Moms

Our Moms Are Awesome

Do You Even Science, Bro?

The Laws of Thermodynamics: Why They Don’t Justify Woo

Stupid Sexist Song

“Ya Mama” by Butterfingers

5 Lessons Learned From Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day, I want to talk about how awesome my mom is. No, seriously, my mom is one of the coolest people I’ve ever had in my life and I’m lucky enough to have known her for 28 years (if we’re counting gestation). Of course she’s not perfect and, like all of us, she has her flaws. But she’s a huge part of what makes me the hardworking feminist you’ve (hopefully) grown to love, so it’s only fair to give her credit where it’s due. So to prove to you Shethinkers that my mom is the bomb, I thought I would share some of the things she’s taught me. Because everyone deserves someone as cool as my mama!


 

“Everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have.”

In short, people are good but the things they do can be bad.

ToolBox

Not everyone’s tool box at birth comes with the same tools, and if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. I believe the vast majority of people have the best of intentions, but limited knowledge, resources, and opportunities can lead us into poor decisions. I believe most “evil” people are doing what they believe to be the right thing, and pretending otherwise only makes us blind to our own rationales for bad choices. False moral superiority just isn’t my style.

“Oh, that makes sense.”

2nd best response to a loved one coming out as trans.

Absolute best goes to Grandma, my mom’s mom, “I don’t give a shit if you’re purple, why haven’t you called?”

PflagMom

My mother grew up in a Brooklyn apartment below a cross-dressing sex-worker named Bernie. So I grew up believing New York was a magical place where queer folks could be free and nobody would bat an eye at them, and my visit to NYC did not disappoint me. But even though NYC is still my dream city, my mom helped me realize a life lived freely isn’t exclusive to a 10xxx zip code. All the work I do for the LGBT community is so that some day, every kid will get the same kind of acceptance as I got from my family.

“Write like Hemingway. Say more with less.”

If you ask me to critique your writing, I will destroy “that”s, “very”s, and over-used phrases with a vengeance.

HemingwayMeme

Hemingway is my mom’s favorite writer, not mine, but  you’ve got to admire the man for not wasting your time. The longer my writing is, the more ruthless I am toward my own bullshit. As a college student, I’ve adopted this same philosophy to all of my school work. I work smart, not hard, and I try to be as efficient with my very limited time as possible. If someone in my group is trying to make things more complicated than they need to be, I will call them out and put a stop to that nonsense. Because the art of editing taught me another important lesson: You’re first idea will probably suck.

“There are two kinds of people in this world: People who masturbate and people who lie.”

If I ever write a book about sex, this is going to be the title.

If I ever write a book about sex, this is going to be the title.

My mom was a sex-positive feminist long before it was cool. She gave me my first box of condoms, my first vibrator, and did not try to police my relationships as a teenager except for the occasional reminder to be safe and smart about my decisions. And hey, what do you know, I didn’t become sexually active until later in life, just like all the research on comprehensive sex-education shows! In my interactions with the LGBT youth I mentor, I take my mom’s same approach to answering any and all sexual questions: If they’re already asking, that means they’re already interested, might as well make sure they’re informed.

“I will unleash my Yankee Bitch if I have to.”

Trust me, you do not want to see the Yankee Bitch.

BitchesGetStuffDone

This is a skill passed down from woman to woman in our family, only to be used in emergencies when some douche  just won’t fucking listen to you, usually because you’re a woman. I don’t think I’ve needed to unleash the Yankee Bitch in quite some time, but I always have it in my back pocket, ready to go at a moment’s notice. In our family, “bitch” was simply a woman who got shit done and didn’t particularly care how what you thought about her, so long as you got in line. And sometimes, only a bitch can get shit done.


 

There’s so much more awesome shit my mom taught me than this, but come on, I can’t give away all the family secrets. What would I write about next Mother’s Day? And while we’re on the subject, I’d also like to give my soon-to-be mother-in-law a shout out too. I’ve only known her for four years and our relationship started out rocky, but she raised the man I love and we surprisingly have a lot more in common than either of us might have realized. Also, my former step-mom and I helped each other survive some weird shit, and that kind of experience can’t be forgotten. Bonus thanks to my grandmothers, aunts, and other awesome women who helped raise me.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mamas, mamas-to-be, mamas of fur babies, and women who guide and teach the next generation. What moms do changes lives, and so long as they’re trying their best, I believe it can change lives for the better.


 

Don’t forget to tune in for the Secular Shethinkers “Single Moms” episode, broadcasting May 11th at 9pm Central!