Transgender Has Reached the Promised Land – or Has It?

Photo by Vincent Assante Di Cupillo

The tidal wave has broken over us; we are now drowning in attention.

Of course most of the mediated world gives its eyes and ears to the great attention-bullies, Trump being the most needy among them, with certain rich celebrities also claiming their share, but for the first time in modern history that thing we currently call transgender is the subject of widespread interest and speculation. We are in the Promised Land.

We needed to be in the Promised Land because the alternative was not being ignored but being victimized. We needed to come through that to the other side where understanding thrives, and where tolerance may grow. Having our patch and pitch in the attention economy is not a guarantee of success however. Whatever we say about ourselves, there will be others who have things to say about us, and these things will not always be said in sympathy and empathy.

There are now column-inches, features, interviews, radio voices, screen testimony and portrayals, posts and blogs, op-eds, and a host of images. They all say something – each of them has an angle on the wider politics, has an experience at its root which shapes bias and emphasis, each wants the world to be a certain way – but what exactly are they saying? What, also, should we do about these expressions, and what should we bring to bear upon them if they do not serve our best needs?

“I BELIEVE THAT WE NEED TO TAKE A CLEAR VIEW OF HOW TRANSGENDER IS BEING REPRESENTED IN PUBLIC, AND SEEK THE MOST CREATIVE WAYS OF MAKING SURE THINGS ARE TRUE.”

That is my interest in contributing this strand to publication. I believe that we need to take a clear view of how transgender is being represented in public, and seek the most creative ways of making sure things are true. In this first dispatch I simply want to survey the subjects and issues which are making it into the public realm. The list seems to me quite miscellaneous, but underlying it all are a few themes which are quite powerful.

Foremost among current topics seems to be transition, which is quite significant in that it implies a need to alter or correct the state of things. So much is, for all that, about not the purpose but the practicalities of transition – the legalities and protocols, the acceptable age for stages in transition, the implications for transitioners at both family, friends and society levels. This is the “How?” of transitions. Questions are also there to be asked about the relative visibilities of male to female and female to male transitions and the invisibility of other related experiences, such as intersex and androgyny. Also, how permanent could or should transition be?

All such issues are decades old and seem to need re-visiting quite often, but a new wave of questions about gender has appeared which adds what exactly? To how? Now, the binary model of transition is being challenged in terms of its categorical nature or in terms of its ignorance of indifference to fluidity and temporary status. In the wake of such questionings comes a currently heated debate about the extent to which a gender orientation is a matter of choice and self-election.

While the subject of transition is being exposed to public view there is a whole dimension of transgender which has long been manifest, and which is about being not becoming. Those individuals and groups in all parts of the world who are deliberately and committedly trans in very established ways raise all sorts of questions about the societies in which they find themselves. At one extreme are the tribes and outcasts, India’s Hijras, Nigeria’s Yan Daudu, and at the other are the drag community, an outcropping of transgender culture which has so often borne the brunt of people’s responses to gender re-alignment.

"WE HAVE DISCOVERED THE STANDING STONES AND NOW WE ARE BEGINNING TO KNOW WHO BUILT THEM – WE ARE CLAIMING HISTORICAL PRECEDENT FOR WHO WE ARE."

Within these groupings are experiences which question the nature of social acceptance, and individuals who act as exemplars and role-models, even icons of success, illustrating the new fields of eminence in which trans can be found. Within this expanding geography of trans a narrative and history is beginning to flourish. We have discovered the standing stones and now we are beginning to know who built them – we are claiming historical precedent for who we are.

All these firm identifications are effective challenges to orthodoxy, but they also raise a question about transgender’s special role in history and the special and unique capabilities which it can bring to bear on situations and events. All this in a present moment when the trans-as-mage or transgender as an emancipation from conflict-politics might be its destined significance.

And while drag has long invoked ideas of attitude and techniques of appearance in the role as licensed critics of the status quo, not least because the nature of performance destabilizes that status, the many variant “forms” of drag now have their politics and practice, and together offer a prism or lens through which we can all view ourselves. In fact transgender has now become a medium for reviewing the arts, literature and culture generally. It is now in vogue.

So all of this attention – these instances, arguments and trends – come with a price tag, but not an instruction book. Can we afford to let it develop beyond our influence and, where necessary, control? I don’t think so, which is why I am dedicating part of my attention to anatomizing that attention. The instruction book we will have to write together.

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