Yesterday, I had an experience that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since. I was outside for a few minutes, and a kid, probably about eleven or twelve, pedaled by on his bicycle. He kept looking over his shoulder at me, and then quickly rode away. Just as I was going back inside, the kid came back around the block. As I was closing the door behind me, I heard a young voice say excitedly “I saw the homo! I saw the homo!”.
Yeah, fun times. Not that I actually care what a twelve-year-old and his friend think of me, but it is interesting nonetheless. I’ve apparently become something of a neighborhood attraction. I suppose this really shouldn’t surprise me. I go outside in all manner of gendered presentation, full makeup, no makeup, boobs, no boobs. Of course, I don’t actually go anywhere unless I’m properly put together, but I’m not going to bother just to walk to the mailbox or get something from my car. This particular time I was in full makeup, hair done, but I’d changed out of what I was wearing…all of it, including most of my bust…and was wearing sweat pants and a Josie and the Pussycats t-shirt. Oh and of course, my nails are done. In other words, I was looking about as totally genderqueer as I get. It’s a look I’m perfectly comfortable in at home or around certain close friends and family, but it’s not really something I do intentionally, by actually going for that look (anymore).
What’s most interesting to me about this is not that these kids think I’m a sideshow attraction, but that they think it’s because I’m homosexual. I resist the temptation to label this kid a bigot because I doubt he’s old enough to have any real understanding of what a “homo” actually is. Hell, he might turn out to be one himself in just a few short years. And yet, even though the ignorance of a child is surely not a reliable guide in such things, I find myself wondering if that’s part of the problem, that for the most part, despite all the political progress we’ve made recently, we’re still essentially socially and culturally invisible as transpeople in mainstream society.
I’m not talking politics here, not really. What I’m starting to wonder is if transpeople are perceived as joined at the hip with gays and lesbians because we want to be. That begs the question, of course, DO we want to be? Of course, it makes sense politically, but where is the culture that belongs to transpeople alone? Can we even say we really have one?
There are many aspects of gay and lesbian culture, especially those involving sex and romance, where transpeople often find themselves welcome to be present but not participate, or are simply excluded from. Where are the corresponding trans-exclusive spaces? They are out there, but you’ll have to search them out, and of course, that’s assuming you have a trans community in your area which cares enough to create one.
A few years ago, I co-founded a weekly trans group rap at my local Pride Center. We got a few people the first few meetings, and then…nothing. No one. After a few more, we gave up. As far as I know, the one and only trans group that still meets at the Center is the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey (GRAANJ), the political advocacy group.
There’s more to life than politics, despite how it probably feels to a lot of us sometimes. It’s wonderful that we share so many cultural spaces with gay and lesbian people. In many ways, it’s an excellent model of how other differences, such as race and ethnicity, can be all but ignored within the greater context of a community, even as many in that community will tend to divide up along gender lines socially. The problem comes in when you try to fit unconventionally-gendered people into gender-specific spaces. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it works for some but not for others.
Those of us who create media can help in that, but our impact goes only so far. We can give people a place to come together and to speak to each other through the media we create, but there’s always a buffer there, the media we use in which to get our message out. Some media, like talk radio, is personal, community-oriented, and very interactive. Other media, like the Internet or print media, is less or non-interactive but still helps tour community connect to each other. We can speak to and speak with our community on the grand, worldwide scale far more efficiently than we’re able to face-to-face, person-to-person.
Gays and lesbians generally don’t have this problem, or at least, not to the extent we transfolks do. Think fast: How many local gay bars or clubs can you name? Now, how many lesbian bars? And how many tranny bars?
I used to know of two tranny bars in Manhattan, but one got shut down during the Giuliani Administration. The other, Edelweiss, I believe is still around…and that’s it, as far I know, for the entire City of New York. Nothing in Jersey, except for a club I knew of in Atlantic City twenty-five years ago, nothing in Philly. Even the Pride Centers of these cities don’t offer a whole lot for us.
Where is transgender culture?
For transpeople, it seems that home is where the Internet is. The largest physical gatherings of transpeople almost always involve an event to which transpeople often must travel a long distance in order to attend, such as a organizational convention, and many of these events are wrapped up in political advocacy. Aside from those kinds of events, the vast majority of our intra-community socialization takes place online.
It’s not surprising, therefore , that most of our community-relevant media is Internet-based as well. Attempts have been made to bridge the cultural gap between the transgender community and the mainstream, but none have proven truly successful yet. We have no LOGO, nothing on Bravo, nothing that really serves that kind of gate-opening role for transpeople that Ellen Degeneres and “Will and Grace” did for gays and lesbians.
As someone who has made her own attempts at trying to span that divide, even after all this time I still wonder how long it will be before the mainstream media begins to get us as well and starts to incorporate us and our perspectives into the mainstream. When you’re still fighting for representation in even the mainstream media which is directly intended and marketed to your own community, hoping for real mainstream inclusion may be just a pipe dream..for now.
Where is transgender culture?
Chances are, you’re not going to find it by turning on your television or even your radio. If you’re not actually travelling somewhere where it happens to surface periodically on a regular basis, you’re probably going to find it online and in print. You can read a hundred writers and get a hundred different takes on what it means to be a transgender person. You can listen to and participate in shows like mine or Ethan’s for social and political talk and debate. You can listen to any of the many great podcasts being created by transpeople. There’s relevant trans community media out there for those who want it and seek it out, but precious little for those who can’t or won’t dig deep enough to find it.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that the reason why everyone seems to think we’re all just another variety of “homo” is because that’s what most of our popular media tells people we are, intentionally or not. We can create our own versions of virtual transgender community centers and rap groups, but it won’t be until our faces, voices, and perspectives become an integral part of popular media that we’ll begin to see that perception begin to change socially and politically in the mainstream in any real way.
Where is transgender culture?
When you really get right down to it, it’s in our hearts, in our minds, in our voices, and in our fingertips. It’s in our collective desire to reach out to each other and be a part of something far greater than ourselves. It’s in the lives we live, the media we create, and the relationships we develop with others like ourselves and those who care about us. It’s in the way we present ourselves, both to the outside world and to each other. It’s in the way we work together, play together, love together, mourn together, and fight together. It’s in how we speak up and say “We are here!”.
It’s not what others have, and maybe it never will be, but, for now, transgender culture is whatever those of us who reach out to touch each other make of it. Until we have the tools to take it to the next step, though, it’ll have to be enough. I just hope we won’t have all that much longer to wait.