Austen Crowder

This just in: transgender acceptance in its "trendy," "chic" phase

Filed By Austen Crowder | August 04, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: ABC, media, reactions, transgender

That's chloe.jpgright, folks. If we're lucky, knowing a trans person may finally edge out that tired old "I'm not bigoted because have a gay friend" excuse people sometimes march out in the name of tolerance. Chaz Bono's transition announcement tipped the scales and suddenly networks are scrambling to cover this new, sympathy-friendly subset of people with touching exposes, "you're-so-strong" talk shows, and other sorts of news coverage. ABC is took this one step further and spent prime-time television time to profile a transgender woman. There's a preview available

It's pretty typical for a human interest story - family adjusts to big change - and thankfully wasn't as painful as some bloggers thought it would be. But for trans people it's the same old narrative: excessive courage in the midst of adversity and disapproval, complete with soft piano solo accompaniment, montages of old pictures, everything. As the story unfolds according to the director's cuts I find myself even feeling sorry for myself, which is never a good sign.

Welcome to the new world: trans stories are officially the new gay sob story.

While documentaries like this may appear, at first glance, like good press, I can't help wondering what long-term impact this press will have. The documentary makes transgender struggles clear at the price of making our lives look terrible. I know from experience that transition decisions are often delayed because of heartbreaking documentaries, confusing internet website information, and a lack of knowledge concerning how transgender people live on a daily basis. Instead of our daily life, people see the extreme pressures of family, career, and society at work on a transgender person's happiness. This would be fine if there was information available to counter the idea that all trans people live life in a constant state of melancholic nostalgia, but the information doesn't exist.

It's a pretty safe bet to assume that few media stories about trans people don't revolve around the "you're-so-brave" theme so prevalent in television today. I've mentioned in a previous column that holding a person in a position of pity is, in many ways, an expression of prejudice. By showing how poor and pitiful our lives are, we encourage people to act in proposed "love" and "kindness," stepping in to save children from this horrendous and sad way of life. Take Americans for Truth, or Focus on the Family, Love in Action as examples. It's only a matter of time before they step in to keep little boys and girls from exploring their gender.

I can only hope that time quickly rubs the newness off the trans documentary world. Understanding a struggle is one thing, yes. It's important that people know what we go through just to be ourselves. However, equally important is that people see our lives as mundane and, for lack of a better word, normal. I don't spend every day wandering through old pictures, the soft, minor chords of a piano echoing in the distance, discussing tearfully the way I shook up my family tree when I made my decision to make my outside match my inside. That kind of melancholy wouldn't leave time for Colts football, or fun with friends, or, you know, living my life.

Its only a matter of time before folk like me - twentysomethings out of college - or even younger trans folk get regularly featured on these shows. Too many times we focus on the struggles of older trans folk trying to transition with added burdens of responsibility; it certainly makes for great television. I think that showing young, successful transgender people doing everyday things is a vital component of changing the popular trans narrative. The sooner we can get past the drama, the sooner we can become run-of-the-mill people.

I mean, look at the GLB side of the spectrum: where homosexuality used to be a cue for soft piano music and dramatic conversation, modern media rarely makes a big fanfare about the coming-out process anymore. The reasoning is simple: "Some people are homosexual. Get over it." There have been growing pains to get to that point, but for the most part its generally accepted that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people exist, and their existence is not detrimental to the world around them.

In the meantime, welcome to the new, trans-happy media frenzy. Let's show them all just how mundane our lives really are.


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God I remember those gay sob story human interest pieces. Some media outlets still do them, but they're less common.

I still think that a lot of gay people do miss them on some level....

I just remember a couple of Sally shows on the issue. To think that this could be the future for trans folk makes me shudder. :(

Bets on when we'll have our own version of "Will and Grace"?

My identity is woman........
I wanted to puke watching TransAmerican Love Story too.
I had a medical condition, corrected it. Transgender is an identity, it's not my identity. It is a third category, ask a cultural anthropologist what happens to third category people in binary systems.....t'ain't pretty.

So thank you but no thank you on being chic or fashionable or trendy....I'm more than ok with being an eccentric old lady


"what happens to third category people in binary systems.....t'ain't prety."

That's why it's so important to change the system.

I do share your use of Trans in the context of social identity, but it is not exclusive of other identities. It is certainly possible to identify as a woman, or a man, who is a proud member of the Transcommunity. I do.

Check my blog for a new entry in a couple of minutes
http://radicalbitch.wordpress.com

Kelly, not to put too fine a point on it but small groups do not change major social systems overnight at this level. And this is from someone who has tilted a windmills her entire life and even occasionally knocks one down.

I watched it.
I saw one totally self involved loser who had zero regard for wife and two boys.......subjecting them to those cameras.

I felt sorry for the wife.

I agree with you. However, I do wonder just how much of that spin was formed by the editing crew.

I suspect you are right about the editing bias. Prior to the show's airing, Chloe had a blog article saying she was upbeat about the interview and looking forward to its broadcast. But, yes, I thought she was presented in a poor light.

The fact that the show was part of a limited series called "Family Secrets" had me worried before I saw the episode. I think now with good reason.

I do not know Chloe personally, but my wife met her in Thailand, shortly before the show aired.

Phyllis told me what a nice girl Chloe is and how much she had enjoyed visiting with her, so we made a point to watch the show. Phyllis felt that the show did not really do Chloe and her family justice, although it certainly could have been a lot worse.

Our twelve year old daughter said that it seemed pretty obvious from the first half of the program that they are a happy family and she felt like the interview questions in the second half of the show were planned to create "drama" where there isn't any. I think she may well be correct (although we are probably biased ourselves, as we are one of those boring, normal, happy families that just don't make for good TV drama).

IMHO, that is the danger of being the subjects of a television show that is filmed over the course of time: Hours and hours of tape is cut down to fit into 42 minutes and the director and producer will cut it to tell the story they want to tell---which may or may not match up with what the subject(s) wanted to say.

You wrote, "I saw one totally self involved loser who had zero regard for wife and two boys".

I agree that what was presented definitely made the viewer (and me too) see it that way. However, I have no idea of the reality behind this presentation and I doubt anyone does except Chloe and her family. I was very disappointed in it because I've met her and have my doubts that this is an accurate portrayal. What judgments might a stranger make about your life and actions when viewed through a particular camera angle?

All of these trans-umentaries focus on one's transition phase which is that very uncomfortable period of time of adjustment for everyone involved. I'd love to see one made about a transperson 5 years after their transition is complete. I don't sleep well, so it would work great as a sleep aid!

Media portrayals make huge impressions.
Google "Time Magazine Jan 21, 1966 Essay: The Homosexual in America". I can remember reading this as a kid who was wondering all about sex. After seeing it, I was left with all kinds of fears about the future.
Although the "sob stories" seem too simplistic, at least they are not frontal attacks like the Time magazine essay was in 1966. I think that the recent Stonewall anniversary is in better context after reading the Time essay again. The fact is, the far right in America today still wants the LGBTQ community like it was portrayed in the essay.
I think that some of the "sob" moments in the current Trans stories (like the previous gay stories) don't really say how pitiful our lives are, but rather that there are lots of challenges, problems, and other issues that one must face that the straight community does not face . These stories may be helpful in gaining support for various LGBTQ legislation that the right calls " preferences". All in all, I think that the sob stories may be informative to the audiences at large. It is certainly a giant leap forward from Time in the late '60's.

Well, it's 2009. It's only fitting that we should have made a giant leap forward from the late '60's.

This was a great article for me to read today. Stories about trans people that I post online pretty consistently fail to go viral - unlike stories about same-sex marriage or DADT. A colleague and I did a little talking and, in honor of Twitter's #transtuesday, I'm going to post a trans 101 article or story every Tuesday.

The story I posted today was about a middle-aged MTF and workplace discrimination. This article is a great reminder to include the every day stories, the happy stories and stories from people of different ages and backgrounds. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

I'd love to read it, but it seems that your link didn't come through. :(

Today I shared this video from ACLU's Get Busy, Get Equal site:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEPsK_axRqo

Next week I hope to share some clips from a close friend's recent appearance on Larry King, along with some of his additional thoughts on the appearance: http://ryanscout1.tripod.com/ramble/

Should have included that in my original post - thanks for prompting me!

Angela Brightfeather | August 4, 2009 1:08 PM

Austen,

I have been a part of the media of the Trans community since my good friend, and two year ago recipient, of the IFGE Trinity Award, Cheryl Costa and her wife at the time, were the first married couple (with one Trans person) to do a show with Phil Donahue. Wow, that was a while ago.

You are right. Nothing has changed and the story remains the same from one person to another. If anything, the present trend seems to be univeristy students calling any Transgender source in their area all the time to do a paper for their class on Transgender people, in unprecedented numbers. Years ago it wa the professors who were calling us to come in and educate people.

If anything, I consider the media blitzes about Transgender people to place an unfair burden on Transexuals as opposed to other gender diverse persons in the community, which far outnumber the small number of TS's by comparison.

This has gotten so bad now that to be Transgender is to be Transexual in many minds, especially within family and friend circles. Gender diverse people who would like to come out more are scared back into their closet, because they just don't want to have to deal with the only concept of Transgender people that is shown in the media all the time.

And you are correct. This is not going to get any better until the younger generations of Transgender people either make the whole concept of prying into Trans lives "old news", by showing the positive and productive lives of young, talented Transgender people, until that becomes "old news".

My generation did what it could under terrible circumstances that destroyed many of us. From the ashes of those lives, I see younger Trans people building their lives with more honesty and success. In generations to come, people will look back and be amazed at the price we had to pay just to be ourselves. I think that is why Hate Crimes and ENDA legislation is so important to many of us. It's not so much what it will do for us any longer, it's about leaving a meaningful legacy for others, that legitamizes our lives as activists and explorers of gender diversity in society.

When some of us older set get together and talk, we all seem to agree on a few things. It's never been easy to be Transgender and out and we were born to soon. One other thing I think we all agree with, is how proud we are to see the younger generations of Transgender people who are doing remarkable things in our perspective and escalating the arguments for equality.

Many of the good things that have happened to the Transgender Community are a direct result of the support and acceptance of the GLB community.

"Too many times we focus on the struggles of older trans folk trying to transition with added burdens of responsibility; it certainly makes for great television. I think that showing young, successful transgender people doing everyday things is a vital component of changing the popular trans narrative."

Austen, I always love your posts and think you make really good points (enough that I used to sometimes follow you on Bilerico Indiana, even though I live in New York), but I did want to say something about the way you pit older trans folks against younger trans folks here. It's absolutely true that we need more diversity in the types of trans folks we see represented in the media -- more diversity age-wise, racially, in religion, class, ability, etc. Right now we're mostly seeing middle-aged trans women and young trans men, and they're mostly white, able-bodied, etc. But you (maybe unintentionally?) imply here that all middle-aged trans people's lives are melodramatic struggles and it's young trans people who are successful and have normal lives. And there are plenty of successful, cool middle-aged trans folks out there to be profile, if those were the kinds of stories the media wanted to tell. Instead, when they move on the including the stories of young trans people, it will almost certainly be the ones who are having the hardest struggle accepting themselves and getting the people and institutions around them to respect them as well.

"There have been growing pains to get to that point, but for the most part its generally accepted that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people exist, and their existence is not detrimental to the world around them."

I also want to make the point that it's not generally accepted that bisexual people exist, nor that our existence is not detrimental to the world around us. Most of the world is still stuck on "gay, straight, or lying?" and when they do admit that people behave in bisexual ways, they insist that it's a) just a phase on the way to our real identity, and b) slutty, dangerous, usually to betray someone, and harmful to everyone. I don't want to derail or compare oppressions here, but I also don't want to let that statement go totally unremarked-upon.

First off, thanks for reading! It's nice to hear that people are churning over these things.

I didn't mean to explicitly present this as an age-related problem -- on a second read I realize that the piece could be interpreted that way. Allow me to rephrase: "We need to present trans people in success instead of strife." I was trying to get at that, and I apologize for turning it into an age issue.

Indeed, the media story will remain one of strife and struggle, despite plenty of stories to the contrary. I was reading a Jezebel article titled "Why women's magazines suck" that really drove this home for me. Truth means nothing when presented through stilted lenses, and as long as a better story exists media outlets will presentit. http://jezebel.com/5324718/the-real-reason-womens-magazines-suck

As for bisexuals, I agree. I refer to bisexuals with the tongue-in-cheek moniker "bi now, gay later," but that's a joke. Bisexual people deserve better.

@Austen: These portrayals of transpeople are absolutely nothing new and not a recent phenomenon. If you look back at not-infrequent interviews in the 70s and 80s (usually transwomen), they mostly portrayed a stew of sloppy pity mixed with pathologizing and a subtext of condemnation for the absurdity of believing you could actually change your sex. Btw, most of these interviews were with young transitioners... people who transitioned under 25. The "Family Secrets" show was carefully selected to make a point. Future shows with people from your age group will also be carefully selected to make a point. Don't believe for a second just because some of you have bright stories to share that those will be the stories they decide to portray.

I also have questions about your generational characterization of old transition/young transition. The reality is, while some young transitioners have always been able to avoid certain dramas (mostly those with supportive families who had resources) many do not. A large number of young transitioners of color end up estranged from their families and communities and, not infrequently, get hooked up in sexwork to survive. Others, like Lateisha Green, had family support but were victims of transphobic violence anyway. Where are those people in your young transitioners narrative? I find it interesting a recent British interview with 16-year old post-op Kim Petras (who transitioned at 12!) basically trotted out all the same truisms about trans people the media has always sold advertising with. There are reasons the media portrays us as they do—it serves a purpose both in terms of social control and financial.

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Sara


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Rev. Donna tara lee | August 5, 2009 7:40 AM

Oh my Goddess, as a post-op male to female I am so tired of these woe is me stories. Get over it!!! People transition, or at least I did, to live life to the fullest as who we were meant to be. Yes i have been disowned by old family and friends. Their loss. They don't know the wonderful womyn I am today.
I have made all new frinds and family and what a wonderful journey that still is. to mee, being me is a whole lot more important than what others think or judge. Only I can live my life and at 61 years old I am one happy womyn these days with many friends, both trans, gay and straight. Life is great as a womyn, I don't regret transitioning and live a joyful life today. And I don't allow idiotiotic social conservatives to bother me. I bother them.
I tell a story of hope and fulfilled promises of a life of joy after transitioning. After all, why else transition. I wish I was on one of those shows. I would send out the true message; life is so much better and liberating after coming out and being who we really are. That's the story I would tell and do tell when I speak.

Great article! I'm so glad to see I'm not alone in my 'get over it' feelings. Yours, and the comments of so many sisters and brothers, is so encouraging. For years, I'd given up on 'the community' - feeling that those like me (post-op transsexuals) had been pushed out for the wave of all encompassing, politically correct 'transgender' folk. As I told my best friend, 'I feel like a push-up bra at a feminist rally!'

I've started to inch my way back in because I've realized how important it is for young sisters and brothers to have as many positive role models as possible. To see that it's possible to have a full life outside of activism and reality tv - we are doctors, lawyers, scientists, elected officials, wives, husbands, and parents - and that's what society needs to see.

Gg

Unfortunately everyone's story is not a happy one, there are still suicides and murder. Children are still disowned and kicked out of homes. Most of us will never have surgeries, either from lack of funds or health reasons.

For every trans doctor, lawyer, scientist, elected official in our community, there are those who live in poverty, as hookers or those who do not live such a simple idealistic life.

Do I want people to feel sorry for us, perhaps I do, perhaps it is easier to gain acceptance by the masses, but I also realize there will always be huge part of the population that will never accept us, just how racism still exists.

I'm happy to see shows like this one on the TV as a documentary. It shows that some of us do have families that we have created trying to be someone we weren't. I know that some say we are women who were born with the wrong bodies, in which I do believe but in trying to get from point A to point B there are some steps we have to take. Having others who stand up shows that it can be done. Granted we are not all the same so the whole dynamics do change from one family to the other. I'm really talking about me as I have transitioned and I'm in the right body now. I transitioned late in life, late forties early fifties. My life now is as normal as you can get. I'm still married, I have a job and go to work and pay bills. I'm much happier now than before but still there is the lawn to mow. For the people who are transexual and feel they were the opposite gender that was put on their birth certificate, the time that they have to put in, in the transitioning part, is hard. Learning and the physical and mental parts are very eye awakening.

great editorial austen. i am sooo tired of the "tragic tranny" stories, so exploitative. i have had some experience with media and they always want to take that angle. then later i have folks say they felt sorry for me. blehh!

"small groups do not change major social systems overnight at this level."

Respectfully, I offer this quote:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

No change happens over night, but if time has taught us anything it is that change is inevitable. Our actions, as individuals and groups, are what decide upon the direction of that change.

Gina Grahame | August 5, 2009 7:07 PM

one thing that always bothers me with these documentaries, is that they love to show 'men who became women... but stayed married to their wife'. It's like they're saying 'see, it's not really a woman, just a man in makeup - same wife, same home, same job, same same same!'

Where are the hetero post-op women?.. when did 'assimilation' become a four letter word?..

For me, the only way for me to fully become a woman was to move away and start fresh - that was the only way to truly shed the remnants of the 'old ways'. Granted, I was not married, but I knew the pull of 'trying to make old friends and family comfortable'.

Gg

The documentary about Chloe did mention that she and her life no longer had sex (her wife is not a lesbian) and that Chloe is flirting with guys and loving it. I also got the impression that Chloe was considering dating guys.

Chloe herself was somewhat upset how she was portrayed in the documentary, but that is what happens when people make a deal with the media.

I have seen lots of documentaries and not all have the woman stay in the marriage. I would say most don't. There are a lot of girls in the documentaries that go on to be hetero girls. I think most of the documentaries have been good there were a few that I didn't like but most were good. If it wasn't for all the advocacy and media, I don't think we would be where we are now. I do know that some of the girls who transitioned earlier, before all of the hoopla, have done great but there were those that we don't know of, who have died or whatever and didn't make it. How about all the botched surgeries that went on. With all of this "advertisement" (lack of a better choice of words) there have been more people seeking help and getting it. There are more surgeons now, for the people who do want surgery. Back in the 50's, how many doctors would have removed healthy breasts? So, I do like all the documentaries and I like just being.

It's a little odd that people don't think anything is wrong with dragging your family through a pit of feces like this by putting them on national media. Everyone is ok with that?

"This has gotten so bad now that to be Transgender is to be Transexual in many minds, especially within family and friend circles. Gender diverse people who would like to come out more are scared back into their closet, because they just don't want to have to deal with the only concept of Transgender people that is shown in the media all the time."

My heart so bleeds for them.

I live in a small town, and I am one of a handful of transfolk. Judging by the Trans 101 workshop/presentations I take part in, the vast majority of professionals are painfully unaware of transsexualism / transgenderism. I think that 'chic' referencing is just tabloid journalism practice, which is really just a part of the larger narcissistic nature of the 'trans' movement.

The real problem with society is what happens when people are trying to be something they are not. As Uncle Kurt said - You are what you pretend to be so take care what you pretend to be. (paraphrased) We are all pretending, sure, so the trick is first, to find out what you really are, then pretend to be that! Does that mean that so many people have decided they are narcissists, and that is what they are pretending to be? Certainly not - it is just that they can't truly see themselves. Take a little time.

Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we cannot resemble. Samuel Johnson

I really think it is up to the person and the family whether or not to bring their children in on the filming. I wouldn't do it to my family either unless I had control of the cutting. I certainly wouldn't just let anyone, like Phil, do a filming on me or my family. Because we have such media out there, we have had more people come out of the closet. Do you remember the 50's, you had to act just so, it was not the good old days. "Happy Days", hah. Girls had to wear dresses and boys had to have their hair just so, there was so much back then. Divorce, which is common place now, was look down on. I'm from a family in the 50's where divorce took place. You would have thought I had the plague. Why do you think that the 60's was the sexual revolution? A lot came out then. There were some bad things happening but somethings are common practice now and no one thinks any different. The more we are out there the more we will look like common people.

This is the very reason why I say no one represents me, none of my peers are hero's of mine, I look up to no one. This is my life, and no one's life is like mine. We are alike in so many ways but different in more.

So many of us get so excited when one of us is thrust in to the public eye, what everyone should ask themselves first..What are the intentions of the people involved? What are the chances that we will be portrayed as freaks to the public? Basically do not believe that anyone has the best of intentions for us, because all that matters to most of these people is to sell commercial time.

To many want their 15 minutes of fame, ask yourself...What is the cost of that fame?

I am not saying we should hide, we need to be in full control of our voices.

We serve ourselves better by sticking with small face to face forums i.e. churches, colleges or whomever will listen with an open mind.

Tammie, I think you said it right. I have a hard time with words and putting them together, I also have a hard time staying on track.
What is it that we want from all of this advocacy. I know for me is just to be happy and live the life of a female, the life that should have been from the beginning. I want the same laws others have and I want to be equal in every respect. I know that you can't stop bigotry even with all the laws in the world. We do have laws against bigotry towards certain people and they are still discriminated against. I know of a store manager who won't hire anyone who has a missing front tooth. How wrong is that. You just don't have to say your not hiring them because of the tooth you just don't hire them. No need for a reason. So there is discrimination out there. So, what do you want to have in life? All most people want is to live their life the way they want to live it.