I want to use this article basically as an outlet for me to vent about an idea I hear aaaaaaaall the time: that trans “visibility” somehow represents social change, that just talking about trans people, no matter how we do that, somehow contributes to putting an end to violence.
As you probably noticed, for the past couple of years we’ve been in a huge visibility buzz moment pretty much everywhere. First we had Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and she’s pretty awesome, so that was good. Then, at some point, people started talking about Caitlyn Jenner, and then it started to be shit.
(By the way, at basically every trans 101-type workshop I’ve given in 2015-16, people mentionned Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. Those two are apparently the only two trans women who exist in the whole world.)
But yeah, right now is the time of celebrity-led visibility. Because yay! It’s the first time that a trans person is famous! … Oh wait, Christine Jorgens
en was famous, and that was back in the 1950s.
I know! It’s the first time that trans characters are featured in mainstream pop culture. If you don’t count Ace Ventura, because that was transphobic. And apart from the Candis Cayne character in the mid-2000s I guess. Oh and there was that Kinks song in the 70s right?
Hum… Hey, now I know! It’s the first time that a celebrity transitions while being famous, because that never happened before! … Oh damn, I had forgotten all about Lana Wachowski. Damn. Have, have trans people really been around since forever?
All this kidding aside, we are at a special moment of visibility. Not because this is anything new, it’s not, but because people are getting ready to listen, at least enough for rich cis people to think there’s money to be made off our backs. This moment of visibility is indeed helping in some ways: it makes people open to learn more about trans experiences, it pushes politicians to act about trans issues, it helps people find words to talk about their own blossoming trans lives.
And that’s kind of good. Education is a suuuuuper important thing, we really need solid material on trans issues to correct how normativity is enforced by society and institutions and to push us in new directions. We do need policies changes, and political action is important for that: if seeing Caitlyn Jenner on a Vanity Fair cover can be a reminder to public officials and politicians that yes, trans people need proper ID, that they need access to health care, that cops are harassing sex workers because of criminalization, or whatever other issue that we need to lead safe lives, well that’s good. That feeling when you see a trans person or trans experience and say that’s me, that was me along, I can finally make sense of all the things I felt for sooooo long – that feeling is amazing, and seeing more trans people helps share the news.
But this effect can be both for good and for bad. Because people can learn the wrong things, politicians can pursue the wrong policies, and exposure to unrelatable trans experiences doesn’t help people in their own path to transition.
Trans visibility reminds people that trans people exist. It increases the scrutiny everyone gets, it makes the line between being seen as trans and passing in stealth harder to cross because people are on the lookout for potential trans people. If no one knew trans people existed, it would be much easier for most trans people to pass. But since people do know we exist, and since we remind them that we do, they know we’re out there somewhere. And by seeing us on TV, they also get to know what to look for, they can know to look for the things that make us different from cis people even with hormones. The more they see trans people being labeled as trans, the more transphobic asshats can know that a deep voice, an Adam’s apple and small breast mean that that girl over there? She’s a tranny, let’s beat it up.
And no, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this year of “visibility” was also the most violent on record against trans women. It is not. Visibility comes with a backlash, and the most marginalized of our sisters are paying the price for every Caitlyn Jenner out there making reality TV shows.
It’s not a coincidence either that we’ve seen a strong push to make it illegal for trans women access to women’s bathroom in the past year throughout North America. After all, policy that takes trans people into account can mean two things : more inclusive policies, or overtly discriminatory ones. For every progressive politician out there seeing magazine covers who decides to make legal sex change procedures more accessible, there’s another one on the dark side making a plan to ban us from public spaces and to discriminate further against us.
That’s not new either. According to Viviane Namaste’s amazing book, the consequence of increasing visibility in Quebec in the late 1970s and early 1980s were increased denials of services. Because they knew trans people existed and had to be subject to legislation, the government issued a law to restrict access to legal sex change to post-op trans people and created a specific category to pay for SRS reimbursing an amount way below the actual cost of the procedures (so surgeons stopped doing it). Before then, trans people, their health care providers and their allies had been able to navigate the lack of guidelines to their advantage. The existence of clear, discriminatory guidelines put an end to accessible trans health care and created barriers to legal recognition.
Just be careful when you praise visibility, and remember that being more visible does not make us safer. Visibility is NOT the same thing as education, especially not good education, it is NOT the same thing as moving our political objectives forward, and it is NOT something we should pursue for its own sake.