From Caitlyn Jenner’s internet-breaking news, to Maura Pfefferman, the transitioning matriarch of Transparent, transgender issues were everywhere in 2015. But, asks transgender activist and academic Lexie Matheson, how much has really been achieved?
It’s interesting that one of the Words of the Year for 2015 is ‘transgender’. Helen Newstead at Collins Dictionary told us “Collins Words of the Year offers a fascinating snapshot of the ever-changing English language.” She’s right about that: alongside ‘transgender’, which saw a 100% increase in usage during 2015, are terms like ‘ghosting’, ‘clean eating’, ‘binge-watching’ and ‘dadbod’.
Lexicographers attribute the rise of ‘transgender’ primarily to the increased visibility of actress Laverne Cox and reality TV celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. Don’t be fooled. If you think we magically appeared out of Caitlyn Jenner’s capacious closet sometime around April 2015, you’d be wildly mistaken. We’ve actually been around forever. You just haven’t been paying attention.
Historian and transwoman Mercedes Allen has tracked our earliest recorded appearances to the original matriarchal civilizations of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa where male to female priestesses, some with actual body modifications, were greatly esteemed.
We’re mentioned by the great Roman historian Plutarch as having “two sexes not yet split” and sociologist David F. Greenberg confirms that we date back “to the late Palaeolithic period (if not earlier), and mostly in tribal and religious leadership roles”.
My first exposure to transgender came in about 1953 when I heard about the fabulous Christine Jorgensen. I knew, when I read that initial magazine snippet, that, like it or not, I was just like her. From then on transwomen were constantly in the popular media. Not with the frequency we are today, certainly, but we were there if you chose to look. It’s just that most people didn’t choose to do so.
In 1970 The Kinks’ Ray Davies sang of meeting Lola, who “walked like a woman and talked like a man”. Two years later Lou Reed brought New York transgender icons Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and The Sugar Plum Fairy to the wider world in “Walk on the Wild Side”. The same year, David Bowie introduced us to Ziggy Stardust and a whole new gender diverse genre was born. No longer a one-hit wonder, the fascination with what it means to be transgender has never gone away. Think of Cabaret and Mrs Doubtfire, The Crying Game and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Boys Don’t Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
You see, while this new obsession with all things transgender may have surfaced hysterically in 2015, we’ve actually been around for yonks. And such is the tantalising allure of gender difference, we’re not going away any time soon.
Caitlyn Jenner was identified as male at birth and named Bruce; she found instant fame when she won gold in the decathalon at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. The fact that she was identified as male at birth and spent decades living unwittingly in this disguise does not mitigate against who she now demonstrably is and has actually always been.
As Bruce, Caitlyn became a reality television star in the Kardashian stable. She ‘outed’ herself as transgender this year in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20 insisting, however, that she continue to be called Bruce and that she still preferred male pronouns. For many of us this seemed ludicrous, but it was her choice, so it was widely respected. For the seriously cynical – and I was one – the whole thing reeked of Kardashian and we awaited the next announcement with trepidation. This could, after all, go horribly wrong for us. And so it has.
In July, Jenner finally announced her name change from Bruce to Caitlyn in a beautifully illustrated and touching Vanity Fair cover story. It was obvious even then that Jenner was using her immense power and wealth to orchestrate her coming out and that this would impact the transgender community worldwide – and not necessarily in a good way.
This was followed by an eight part documentary series entitled I Am Cait. It’s fair to say that many in the worldwide transgender community held their collective breath even if they publically supported Jenner in finding her true self and having the courage to come out and live an authentic life. We all know what that feels like, how liberating it is. Who would deny that experience to any fellow traveller?
Sadly, especially for those of us who work extensively with new transitioners and who see, on a daily basis, the damage that coming out can exact on relationships, families, employment, housing, education and health, Jenner’s journey has not been the beacon of hope that many of us wished it would be. In truth, it’s been nothing short of a train wreck.
Sure, there has been oodles of exposure around the concept of ‘transgender’ and Jenner has milked it for every ounce of personal publicity possible, but none of it has benefited the rest of us in any worthwhile way whatsoever. I’ve little doubt she’s also turned a pretty penny from the series and, while I don’t begrudge her that, the image she has portrayed of a privileged, self-obsessed, white transwoman is so far from the truth of most of our daily lives as to be laughable. E! has announced that there will be a second series of I Am Cait in 2016 but I couldn’t care less. The ratings and viewing audience numbers in series one plummeted after the first episode and it’s now more a vanity project than anything even vaguely influential.
Laverne Cox, transwoman of colour, star of Orange is the New Black and unlikely Time cover girl, told Entertainment Weekly she was ”so grateful that [she] had the luxury of transitioning in private. Because when you transition in the public eye, the transition becomes the story”. It’s a shame Jenner didn’t note Cox’s comment and do likewise because the damage she has done has been immeasurable.
Cox, on the other hand, has become an icon, not only for the millions of fans of Orange is the New Black, but of the transgender community worldwide for the dignity and poise with which she has handled both her transition and her star status. Jenner’s astonishing comment that “the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear” is offset by Cox who says ”I think transwomen, and transpeople in general, show everyone that you can define what it means to be a man or woman on your own terms.” Cox and Jenner are polar opposites, and you don’t need to be a genius to see which one stands up better to mature scrutiny.
Just prior to the airing of the first episode of Jenner’s I Am Cait came I Am Jazz, an American reality television series about transgender girl Jazz Jennings and her family ”dealing with typical teen drama through the lens of a transgender youth”. It’s as different to I Am Cait as it’s possible to be. The stories are rich and down to earth, the situations not that different to those faced by most families with teenage kids – and it’s as charming as hell. Jazz is likeable, fun and articulate. For any young person struggling with gender issues, I Am Jazz is a fabulous place to start.
Laverne Cox, on the other hand, takes us into an illusory arena that, as a performer and a creator of performance art, is incredibly close to my heart. Like me, many transwomen and men want to see an authentic representation of the lived transgender experience in the media, and especially in mainstream fiction. Many of us believe that this experience is best viewed through a transgender, rather than a cisgender, lens. Don’t speak for me. Just shut up, free up the keyboard, cast me, give me the camera and the key to the editing suite and leave the rest to me. I can tell my own stories, thank you very much. (You see how polite we always are?)
So far, this hasn’t transpired – with the exception of Cox in OITNB – but this is surely the next step. It has to be. Otherwise all you will get is what you have now: shallow, colourless impersonations of who we really are, that are shaped, tailored and ultimately viewed through a largely heterosexual, exclusively cisgender, lens. And that’s simply not good enough, regardless of who the producers imagine their audience to be.
Orange is the New Black is an exceptional series in that it breaks down barriers for transwomen in the same way that The L Word started a similar landslide for lesbians. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a fictional presentation that has authenticity written all over it, and that’s all we ask at this stage. Not only does it promote transwomen accurately but the makers have also had the courage to cast – and endorse – a transwoman in a starring role. At this point in our evolution I, for one, can forgive the show’s minor blips in favour of applauding its guts and foresight.
When it comes to the Emmy award-winning Transparent I’m conflicted. To quote Cox’s Sophia Burset character from OITNB, the show has “some fucked up priorities” but it just sneaks by.
Maura Pfefferman, the transgender character at the centre of Transparent, is played by Jeffrey Tambor, an actor favourite of mine – I desperately want him to be good and bugger my principles. In an interview in Rolling Stone, Tambor talks about the questions Maura has, the same ones we all ask when we transition: ”If I change, will you still be there? If I change, will you still love me? Can I count on you to still be my child? Can I count on you to still be my parent if I change?”
He also reminds us of the old acting adage ”you’re stuck with the character, but the character is also stuck with you”’. And there’s the rub. Good though Tambor is, touching though the script undoubtedly is, authentic though the situations and conflicts are, there is still an abyss at the centre of the work that echoes again and again:Jeffrey Tambor, you’re simply not real.
So why is this a conflict for me? I like Transparent, I can appreciate it on so many levels, my friends like it to the extent that a colleague recorded all the episodes of the first series and gave them to me on a USB. “You have to watch these,” he said, so, out of respect, I did.
It was fun. It resonated a little with my own journey as an older person transitioning and dragging family and friends with me. What it doesn’t do, however, is view Maura’s life through a transgender lens.
Director/writer Jill Soloway, whose own father transitioned at the age of 74, would have us believe that, for this reason, her lens is authentic, but it’s simply not. How can it be? She’s not her father, and hers is a cisgender perspective. I can assure you (and her) that Solloway’s perspective is so different from how I view the same set of circumstances as to be from a different planet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s top stuff for what it is, but much of what it professes to be just isn’t.
Perhaps Tambor, inadvertently, sums it up. He says of Maura, again in Rolling Stone, ”She’s making a break for her authenticity at the age of 70, which I find sort of valiant and rather brave.” Ask any transwoman if her decision to transition was “valiant” or “rather brave” and these words won’t resonate at all. Instead you’ll find rhetoric like ”I had to do it, I had no choice” and “what would have been brave, but not valiant, would have been to remain as I was, living my privileged male life, and never being, warts and all, my true self.”
Brave and valiant, no. Liberating and redemptive, yes.
Overall, 2015 is certainly the year that transgender women have been dragged from the shadowy world of Warhol, Reed, alternative music, indie film and the street into the glare of the mainstream whether we liked, or needed, it or not. The results have been a real curate’s egg. Jenner is, so far, an unqualified pain in the ass thanks to her misogynistic internalised transphobia, focus on trivia, ludicrous objections to same sex marriage and misunderstanding of what it is to be a member of the queer community. Her oft-stated desire to be a spokesperson for the transgender community is preposterous, but her story hasn’t yet played out fully and some of us still hold out hope that she might – and it’s a very big ‘might’ – actually do some good along the way. I certainly hope so. Until that flame ignites, I for one will be calling her on every stupid move she makes.
Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and others keep us facing in the right direction while mainstream communities are seemingly ambivalent about our existence. Many of us are deeply suspicious of this ‘flavour of the month’ role that’s been imposed on us because the statistics around suicide, hate crimes and murder have gone through the roof since April, when Caitlyn Jenner came out. Coincidence? Maybe, but the jury is still out and we have no research to guide us. Let’s see what 2016 brings, and hope it’s a progression towards understanding and acceptance and that our media focus on that.
Personally, things have looked up.
After a productive 35 year continuous professional career as an actor/director in live theatre, film and television, work for me dried up utterly the moment I transitioned. It is, in fact, over a decade since I last appeared in a play and being even cast then was something on an in-joke. I played Teiresias in a University of Auckland Classics Department production of Sophocles’ Antigone, the joke being that Teiresias, born a male, incurs the wrath of the goddess Hera by smiting two of her copulating snakes and as a punishment is turned into a woman. I enjoyed both the role and the joke, but that, as they say, was that. Don’t call us, because we’ll never be calling you again. End of career.
Until recently, that is, when I was cast in an all-female production of a great classic play by a visionary male director and all the old joy flooded back: I’m to tread the boards again. I’m terrified of course, but I’m seeing this as a further sign that significant progress is being made towards some degree of transgender equality.
There are major hurdles still to leap but, all in all, it’s been a positive year for transgender women in mainstream media. I’m heartened even more when I think of how gay men were often presented on mainstream television (when they were actually visible at all) less that 20 years ago, and how positively and authentically they are presented now. It’s been an affirmative journey for them but it also reinforces the need for constant vigilance – and we will be vigilant.
While you ‘watch this space’, remember that, in all things, Bob Marley says it best – and this will remain my transgender activist mantra: ”Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up a fight.”
NB: Transparent has added a transwoman writer for season two.Click below to watch Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black and season two of Transparent.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.