There is no need to defend Lana Wachowski, who is, by all definitions, a major success in the game of life. She and her brother are so successful that they are often known simply by the monniker "The Wachowskis," most famous for creating the revered Matrix movie series. Their latest film, co-directed with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas, is scheduled for release in late 2012. Ms. Wachowski transitioned from male to female about five years ago.
Nonetheless, I found myself spending the last 24 hours arguing for Ms. Wachowski in my head over and over again, as I watched headline after headline discussing the merits of her life and identity, as if this spectacle were completely unproblematic.
Last week, promoting their new film's trailer, which looks amazing, by the way, the co-directors released a short on-camera discussion about the film. In response, I saw the following in the media:
Movie buzz: Wachowski's new identity (Newsday)
The Matrix director transgender: Larry Wachowski now Lana (San Francisco Observer)
Watch: Matrix Director Debuts as Transgender (Seattle Post Intelligencer)
Video Of Lana Wachowski, Hollywood's First Transgender Director (Village Voice)
Matrix Director Sex Change: Larry Wachowski Now Lana, Sports Pink Dreadlocks (International Business Times)
Directors cut! Matrix he now a she? (New York Post)
Lana Wachowski's quiet coming-out party (Salon)
Larry Wachowski Transgender: 'Matrix' Director Reveals Transition (HuffPo)
This is to say nothing of the vicious, angry transphobic comments placed on every site that featured Cloud Atlas, even where Lana Wachowski was not directly the topic of discussion. Lana Wachowski's transition was news five years ago. Now, it is not news, but something else entirely. It is prurient, zoo-specimen gawking of the worst type, something that trans people must endure all the time, patiently, without a trace of the irritation that I often feel. When I work with employers to assist in an employee transition, this is one of the most important elements of the work: to save trans people from the constant gawking of both detractors and well-wishers so they can do their jobs, because being a zoo specimen is hard work. It's even harder when you have well-wishers, who feel they are doing something good by pointing you out and giving you a round of applause.
Yes, I know we have a celebrity culture, and speculation about celebrities of any type is a ceaseless, unwholesome and all-consuming pursuit. Yes, I know that Lana Wachowski's story is endlessly fascinating to a certain type of person, involving as it does Hollywood, sex, divorce and money. There's no reason that a trans celebrity should expect that the gossip trash mills are going to ignore the story. But why is it important for mainstream media sources to rehash Ms. Wachowski's five year old transition simply because she gave a short interview to tout her new movie? And why is the headline about Ms. Wachowski, rather than her movie?
Now, of course, one could argue that any publicity is good publicity when you are trying to get millions of people to see your movie. And that if it would help to dress up like like a duck and quack at the cameras, it would behoove one to do so. But I don't go with this argument. While quacking involves a certain loss of dignity, it is not the same loss of dignity as losing one's human rights, to which one is entitled by virtue of being human, according to the United States Constitution and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. A person who is being treated as a specimen, regardless of how nicely the on-lookers coo and applaud, is not being accorded that inherent dignity. Of course, human history is full of instances of First Peoples (what we used to disparagingly call "natives") being treated like animals because they have different customs. While the suffering of First Peoples and Ms. Wachowski is not at all comparable, the impulse, I believe, is the same. Here is someone whose life path is different from mine, and so it is therefore my right to subject them to ridicule, praise, comment, and above all judgment, as if this were some sort of divine gift to boors.
Of course, I'm not saying I expect no mention of it to be made. But why is it the headline? It happened five years ago. If movie director Smith were disabled five years ago, would we expect the headlines about their new movie to sound like this:
Movie buzz: Smith's new disability (Newsday)
Movie director's disability: Smith now in wheelchair (San Francisco Observer)
Watch: Movie Director Debuts as Disabled (Seattle Post Intelligencer)
Video Of George Smith, Hollywood's First Disabled Director (Village Voice)
Movie Director Disability: George Smith Now In Wheelchair, Sports Pink Hair (International Business Times)
Directors cut! Smith now missing limbs? (New York Post)
Director Smith's quiet coming-out party (Salon)
Director Smith Disabled: Director Reveals Transition to Disabled (HuffPo)
It's also similar to the problem I have had explaining to my students that praising African-Americans as possessors of excellent basketball skills is a racist comment. Because if the comment is positive, it must therefore be accepted graciously by the subject. I have also had a hard time explaining this to people who tell me that they would not have known that I am transsexual if they had not been told. Or, upon meeting me in person for the first time, telling me how much prettier I am in person. Or how I am the most passable transsexual they have met. I don't even try anymore, actually, to explain the problem to such well-wishers, as it makes them feel bad, and the constant, gushing stream of apologia that it elicits is more annoying to me than the initial comment. It's best to develop a thick skin in my business.
I think writer Madison Lynn Glyttr nailed it when she talked about her "special little snowflake trans lady" face.
What do transgender people want? Sound familiar? Reminds one of the complaint from the nineteen fifties -- what do women want? (The idea that they might want to be treated as more than pets was, of course, too out there to imagine.) And what do you think people with disabilities want? And what do African Americans and Latinos want? What do Jews and Catholics and Muslims want? What we all want, of course, which is to be treated as normal human beings, since humanity includes all of these as part of normal human existence. We want neither to be cooed over nor reviled. I want someone to interact with my abilities and my personality, not their perceptions of my identity. When I meet someone in a wheelchair, I don't give a paean to the plucky disabled, and when I meet a Muslim, I don't talk about my feelings on religious freedom.
And yet we feel free to dance around and claptrap about Lana Wachowski's transition five years ago, blah blah blah sex change, blah blah divorce blah blah alleging blah blah headline fodder blah blah quiet coming out party.
My, aren't we progressive???