Archive for July, 2012

Unpacking the Media Coverage of My WeHappyTrans Video

My WeHappyTrans video has garnered a lot of attention, and I feel now is the time to say something not just about my experience, but what my experience indicates about the way cis media covers trans bodies and lives.

Let’s examine the WeHappyTrans situation.  In this article in the Advocate, where the media attention to my video began, all of the focus is on me as an individual: my parentage, my “journey,” my gender, my sexuality.*  There is almost no talk about WeHappyTrans as a project, no mention of its creators, Jen and Noah, just the cursory explanation that it’s “a website dedicated to allowing transgender people to share their positive experiences.”  In other words, the Advocate wants you to think that WeHappyTrans exists just so that trans people can talk about our feelings.  This makes sense in the cis narrative of transness.

Vivian K. Namaste, a trans theorist, has pointed out that “autobiography is the only discourse in which transsexuals are permitted to speak.”  Cis people like when we tell stories about our struggle, but only when the struggle is confined to our subjectivity.  If we talk about the larger system of cissexism, the structural problems with the way cisnormative society defines gender–in other words, if we talk about oppression and justice–cis people do not hear us.  They certainly do not give us space to talk about these issues in the mainstream media.  They hear what they want to hear: that we are exclusively emotional beings, incapable of organizing against the threat of cis violence.

This construction of the emotionally tortured transsexual does another important job: it normalizes trans suffering.  Much of the emotional suffering that trans people have to deal with is a result of cissexism.  Lack of access to medical care, disrespect from family and peers, and constant media reminders that trans bodies are worthless and require frequent monitoring/destroying.  But if cis people create the impression through media that suffering is trans people’s natural state, they can erase the real cause of trans suffering: cissexism.

Cis writing about trans people embarks on an extraordinary discursive project: to emphasize trans people’s emotions–our human qualities–in order to reduce us to overemotional, unstable creatures, dehumanizing us in the process.  Because humans who are really human aren’t completely bound to individual subjectivities.  They can think about other people, and talk about them, and talk to them.

It’s precisely for this reason that I try to avoid talking too much about my individual experience: I know that its fodder for cissexist narratives.  And what happened when I made a video about my experiences?  Exactly what I thought would happen.  I hate being right.

All this explains why the Advocate doesn’t talk about WeHappyTrans as an organization, but instead about an individual video.  It’s impossible to talk about WeHappyTrans within a cisnormative narrative.  WeHappyTrans is an organized community effort of trans people, talking to one another, reaching out to one another to create something together.  It’s more than just a website where trans people talk about ourselves–it’s a communal consciousness raising project, an effort to destroy the idea that trans lives are exclusively comprised of suffering. Within a cisnormative narrative, this is impossible, because cis people construct us as bound to our individual subjectivities.

Cis people fear trans people who talk to other trans people.  They fear the possibility that we might build communities, organize, and take power from cis people.  So they try to pretend we don’t do it.  They try to present a version of our lives in which all the other subjects we interact with are cisgender subjects.  When cis media does show trans people interacting, they never talk about anything other than their emotions.

This is not what trans communities are like.  In my trans communities, we talk politics.  We talk oppression.  We talk intersectionality, justice, and organizing.  I’m far more likely to say to a trans friend, “Hey, are you coming to the conference next week?  I want to check out Merritt’s presentations,” than I am to start a chat about the emotional journey of my transition.  I talk about my feelings sometimes–everyone does–but like other humans, I don’t make my feelings my exclusive subject of discourse.  When was the last time you saw a piece of media in which two trans people talked to one another?  About something other than their transness?  Think of it as a harder version of the Bechdel Test.

Of course trans people need space to talk about our feelings, both our suffering and our joy.  That’s part of why WeHappyTrans exists, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this makes WeHappyTrans an apolitical project.  When trans people talk about our feelings to one another–really talk about them, not through a cis lens–we’re doing profoundly political work.  That’s why WeHappyTrans is political, subversive, and valuable.  What could be more subversive than a happy transsexual?

Then there’s another choice that the Advocate made: they picked my video, not one of the many others on the site, and billed me as “Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s Transgender Son.” , Because within a cisnormative narrative, a trans person cannot have value on their own. Their ideas are relevant only when they are connected to cis people, especially well known cis people.  News about celebrities makes for hits, and hits make for ad revenue. Obviously, like anyone, I don’t appreciate only being valued in relation to my parents–how would it feel if you were always talked about as an extension of your parents?–but it’s also insidious beyond that.

If my work is so banal that it’s only of interest because my cis parents make movies, why report on it at all?  When I’m billed as the “Transgender Son of Celebrities,” it implies that the work I do isn’t valuable or important.  After all, if it were, would you need the added draw of my parents’ famous names to click the link?  I really hope that what I do is of interest and value beyond giving people a chance to find out what Warren Beatty’s kid is up to.  I think it is.  I’m not saying I deserve the media coverage I get–that’s not for me to decide–but I do know that the way the coverage comes says something about the cis people creating it.

The media talks about trans people only in very specific contexts.  They talk about trans people when we are murdered, when we’re connected to famous cis people, or when cis writers feel the need to discuss our aberrant bodies for purposes of sensationalism and exploitation.  As you consume media, please be conscious of why these stories are the stories that get written and published.  And the next time you see an article on a trans person’s emotional journey, or any headlines that describes a trans person in relation to a famous cis person–don’t click on it.

* There’s also the silly and borderline unethical headline, which seems to imply that the Advocate interviewed me, something I would not agree to.  The video also isn’t news–I made and uploaded it months before the Advocate had what was presumably a slow news day.