Now You See Me
So we marched. The weather was good, the turnout encouraging, the esprit strong, the entente cordiale. I was left wondering what the Sunday afternoon passers-by understood we were doing. When a march passes on the street, after all, the first question is, what are they marching about? Sometimes it’s clear from the carnival atmosphere and dress that this is a cultural celebration, dedicated to spreading fun. Sometimes you need to read the banners to find out what the cause is and then you look hard at the marchers to establish what kind of people march for that cause. Sometimes it’s a protest, sometimes a demonstration of solidarity. Our TransPride March on the Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) was some of all of that and will have confused many.
The actual TDOV events happened in our Museum, in a dedicated room, and although we were present in other parts of the building we were mainly visible to ourselves which for many was a new experience. There were speeches and films and music and everybody knew the name of the game, what was going on. The event was not hidden but nor did it beckon to regular visitors to join in. The March, by contrast, was almost deliberately informal. No streets were closed off for the occasion, we marched on pavements amongst other pedestrians. There was no mayoral blessing and the police who marched were members of the trans community themselves.
There had been decisions to be made. On our own March, as opposed to our involvement in the city’s LGBT Pride March where we often provide a showy OTT display of dressed-up-ness, what do we dress to represent? Are we showing ourselves off as knowing self-parodies, or as equivalent individuals to those who might be walking that way as a simple matter of course, or in all of our fluidity and diversity? In the end it was almost inevitably a mixture, but still confusing to a neutral spectator.
The banners mentioned trans and trans themes, but it was often unclear who was trans and who a friendly supporter, and whether that intermediate “look” was a male in transition to female, or female to male, or just a quirky assemblage of clothes chosen by a supporter for its oddity. All to the good, you might say, but in terms of visibility (and in terms of the recent trans renaissance visibility is the important currency) what were we claiming for ourselves?
This also surfaced in our attempts to be loud and proud. When chanting was induced it was in the fashion of traditional marches – What do we want? (Equality, Justice) When do we want it? (Now!) – and here’s at least one trans person who wanted most of all that we had, a new style and a more incisive message, and not next year but now. Who organized this? I wanted us to be different. Because we are – and trans has a basic message which is not inevitably confrontational or victim-focused. We weren’t, on this occasion, marching for Chelsea Manning, or in memory of Brandon Teena, or to protest the fact that Brazil has the highest number of reported trans murders in the world, - we were marching for the basic right to be present in other people’s lives.
"TO OURSELVES WE WERE SAYING WE ARE HERE. AND ALL I WOULD ADD TO THIS REVIEW OF THE DAY IS THAT WE STILL NEED MORE ENCOURAGEMENT TO TALK TO EACH OTHER. "
I’m guessing that the message we left after our short sashay in the sunshine was that the trans community is active and well-supported, happy and harmless, quite general in its/our ambitions. Trans now could be anything. That’s a strength, for now – one day it will be a problem. To ourselves we were saying we are here. And all I would add to this review of the day is that we still need more encouragement to talk to each other. Whether marching or listening to speeches, we missed a lot of chances to just find out who each other was. We didn’t quite embrace our own diversity.
But while I’m here I’d like to take this as a launching point for some wider reflections on the current state of the trans experience. The first and simplest for now is that the trans community has reached the level of visibility saturation – there is now too much reference to it in the world’s media to keep track of. This is something I want to deal with another time, but it’s also a sad truth that this kind of media visibility does far less to advance acceptance of trans people than we would like.
The second interesting outcome of greater visibility is that debate has ensued about how far particular individuals qualify as transgender, - and therefore can be included in our community. Is a transwoman or transman who has not had surgery trans enough? Is someone who transitions regularly but not full-time really trans? Is an individual who identifies as trans but does not present as such sufficiently trans to…well, to what? To speak for trans people? To claim any benefits which accrue to being trans? To draw down any exemptions or permissions which we might enjoy? To fully join in?
This is all about the experiences of others and one of the essential commitments of being trans is surely to acknowledge and accept the experiences of others, in the spirit of having our own experiences acknowledged and accepted – the great humanitarian principle of reciprocity. What might follow from the idea that there is a gold standard in being trans is that it needs enforcing or at least policing. That would in some sense “purify” the public presence of trans people, but at huge cost. Without of course any social or political mandate we are in no position to enforce anything.
I have lived through a time when a commonly invoked gold standard for trans people was “passing”, the capability to present convincingly as an alternative gender. “Are you convincing?” would be a question on trans chat-sites, and the requisite answer was, yes. Absolutely, yes. But as I said in a meeting the other day, there was a time – the mid-1930’s in Germany – when your gender-presentation would be assessed as to whether you were trans enough to be killed, to be arrested and sent to the camps.
Whilst now passing is less important, except perhaps to a particular complement of sex-workers and models, we seem to be still pre-occupied with assessing ourselves or others. What, it seems to me, we need as a way of conferring integrity upon our self-identifications is to be able to say that we are “living the intention”, - or, in equality terms, striving to do so. That should be enough qualification for anyone. And it is within all of our capability to assist each other on the journey to that qualification.
"FINALLY THE VISIBILITY ISSUE HAS LED ME TO LOOK CRITICALLY UPON VARIOUS KINDS OF PRESENCE AND THEIR USEFULNESS IN ADVANCING THE CAUSE OF GENUINE AND WHOLE-HEARTED ACCEPTANCE."
Finally the visibility issue has led me to look critically upon various kinds of presence and their usefulness in advancing the cause of genuine and whole-hearted acceptance. If marching is, however informally, a strong kind of visibility in advancing that cause, features in the mainstream media are less useful although more immediately influential. They are, of course, mediated and usually by people with political and economic agendas, but they can be questioned and used as the basis for raising other issues. Where I am less comfortable is with online platforms – both pro- and anti-trans – where the “audience” is self-selected to be on-side with what is being expressed.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the threat of hate-sites on the web and some efforts are being made to counter their influence. I was however surprised and even slightly alarmed when I came across a BBC podcast series called “NB” (denoting Non-Binary). There is much I want to say another time about what is being dealt with in this aural exploration of contemporary or neo-trans experienced, but here it may be enough to flag up how much difference it makes for a radio feature to be on demand, to be available within its own demand bubble. A lot of people I know listen to a lot of podcasts – they use them the way I use a library full of books, as a way of enlarging particular areas of interest – and although I don’t I am in favour of them as a way of increasing our intelligence about a myriad of subjects. What worries me is the way they can result in interest groups losing perspective.
That is what, it seems to me, “NB” is in danger of doing. I have given it a good listen so far and I find it often cloyingly self-involved, so much so that I would worry about what a non-trans audience would make of it. I guess I’ve already said that it’s less likely that particular podcasts will be listened to by the “uninterested”, but talking to ourselves can soon reduce perspective, and narrow the reality spectrum. Do we want to be defined by our narcissism? For now give “NB” a listen anyway, and see what you think.
Overall this has reminded me that for many trans people the holy grail is still to disappear into society, to have the operation and get the hell out. To be non-apparent is a skill, still a kind of right, but it’s a selfish one if you believe that we trans people have a lot to contribute through our presence, something special, something unique, something maybe crucial to resolving the world’s difficulties.