Trans – Heroes or Villains?

VICTORIA SIN - Cthulhu Through the Looking Glass, 2017, film stillCourtesy: The artist and the Hayward Gallery, London

There’s nothing like an art-gallery for stirring up political ideas.

Last weekend I was standing in front of a very large mask. It was part of an exhibition called “Oceania”, a show of Pacific art in the Royal Academy in London. Pacific art is full of masks and images and totems and gods and this very large mask – at first I thought it was a shield – was just one among many strong facial images in the show.

As I thought about all this ritual presentation it occurred to me that these masks had a number of meanings. They were, as the exhibition emphasised, expressions of individuality, of who the wearer was, deep down. They were also designed to have an effect on the people who see them, quite often to inspire fear or emanate mesmerizing influence. Even more significantly the masks were able, the Pacific islanders believed, to draw down to the wearer certain magic powers and qualities, an entirely “other” and more remarkable personality. With all that in mind walking round the exhibition was like being confronted by all of our angels and demons combined.

So what has this to do with being transgender you ask? Bear with me – this post is about identity and our trans image in the wider world. The thought I had at “Oceania” was prompted by another exhibition I had visited that morning in the Hayward Gallery, an exhibition called “Drag” which was, as the name suggested, a celebration of many artists who had used “drag” in their work. The sub-title was “Self-Portraits and Body Politics” and the range of artists was wide, from Ana Mendiato to Robert Mapplethorpe, from Rose English to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. All had “dragged up” in some way, and all of those made-up, constructed, deliberate self-projections came back to me later when I was mind-deep in the ritual constructions of the Pacific.

> “And this thing we construct, from face, and voice, and clothes and movement, can also be our magic, our way of drawing down into ourselves the human or superhuman qualities which we have desired all our lives. “

It is, of course, easy to devote time to “drag” when considering the transgender experience. Drag is so public, and so prominent and attention-grabbing. It is also, however, provocative and it raises questions, some of which are of relevance to the transgender situation the world over. The question the exhibition raised for me was, “Who are we?” – all and any of us who identify as transgender and experience gender transition in some way. “We” all present ourselves whether or not we use make-up and the meanings of the Pacific masks seemed applicable to us. How we present may, for example, be intimately linked with how we identify, - what people then see is the deep, the authentic “us”. Alternatively our image may defend the vulnerable “us” from the “them”, as a shield or distraction, and allow us to function more effectively as individuals. And this thing we construct, from face, and voice, and clothes and movement, can also be our magic, our way of drawing down into ourselves the human or superhuman qualities which we have desired all our lives.

So this post is actually about angels and demons, or maybe, in rock n roll terms, heroes and villains. The mask, - the drag, - says that we are strong, we are provocateurs, we are exhibitionists, we are self-conscious, we are assertive, we are opinionated, maybe adversaries, but it also shows us as unselfish, as freedom-fighters and defenders and valuable critics.

This, you will say, cannot be true of all transgender people. The drag artists are just a prehensile part of the transgender experince, the sharp tip of a large iceberg of common identity. Most of the bearers of that identity seek neither visibility nor confrontation. All of which is true, but I would argue that, at this point in history, any trans person, just by existing as trans, has a political dimension. We represent change and diversity, and our perspective lines meet at a distant resolution.

The Spirit of the Gift room in the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of ArtsPhoto credit: David Parry (www.royalacademy.org.uk)

Actually those Pacific masks, and those drag images, are quite ambiguous. The smile is not always kind, the grimace not always defensive, and the reality sometimes elusive. We want to be angels, but might we be demons? Are there, among us, heroes and villains? Is everything we assert right? Are we capable of malevolence? These questions surfaced after two recent incidents which have appeared in global newsfeeds. The first concerns the groups of women who have asserted their opposition to self-identification as the basis for gender-transition. The issue is not clear-cut (what issue is these days?) but the views have been strongly rejected or rebutted, not just by trans individuals. Locally to me, in a City Council Meeting where the whole Council expressed its rejection of an anti-trans-identification petition, a standing ovation was given to the trans representatives present.

> “And if even one of us has reacted aggressively to this opposition does that make bullies of the whole trans community?”

Members of the trans community have given these opposition groups a name which is an acronym, TERF, as in “trans exclusionary radical feminist”. We name, we maybe shame, and we may even have shouted in public at TERF actions. So are we bullies? For that is what we are accused of. And if even one of us has reacted aggressively to this opposition does that make bullies of the whole trans community? Sadly we live in an era of toxic representation. The individuals and the group are deliberately conflated. Spurious generalization is being deployed to attack immigrants and migrants, and it is here being used to denigrate the trans community.

Which brings us to the case of Karen White. She has recently been transferred to HM Prison Leeds from a women’s prison after she sexually assaulted two inmates. Karen White (formerly David Thompson) is now finally undergoing gender re-assignment surgery but self-identified as female and entered the prison system as a transgender person. Her offences include rape and sexual offences against women, and she is a convicted paedophile. Everybody agrees that moving White to a women’s prison was a mistake, but the whole, as yet unresolved, situation has been used by some to support the argument against trans self-identification which forms a key component of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act.

I will return to the many issues raised by these two news stories in future posts, but after visiting the two art exhibitions I came to two conclusions. If we are not all heroes, that does not make us all villains. We all use instances to support arguments we have already adopted, but using assertive responses to trans-opposition groups or the case of Karen White as evidence to obstruct progress towards resolving our differences does not help trans recognition in society.

My other perspective is that the issue of self-identification is also about our responsibility as a society. We need to recognize and acknowledge truth, - true identification, true feelings, authenticity of existence – and to distinguish between the expressive, defensive and the transcendent faces we all deploy. As members of that society we trans people share that responsibility. We wish to belong fully to society, so, as a last thought, for now, - What does society have the right to expect of us?

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