The Trouble with Transgender: Storytelling

The June 9th edition of Time magazine featured a fierce Laverne Cox on the cover with a declaration of trans issues as “America’s next civil rights frontier.”

Borderlands are not typically spaces free of conflict.

On Tuesday, May 20, two transgender women were verbally and physically attacked while riding the MARTA train in Atlanta. The attack was caught on tape, and onlookers can be heard cheering on the altercation.

The two women describe being followed by a group of men at the Five Points MARTA: “They were trying to find out if we are men or women,” said Tyra Woods. “I shouldn’t have to disclose who I am to an innocent person who I’m not even interested in talking to.”

As it turns out, a trans person walking on the street always seems to owe the rest of the world a story, words that juggle clumsy pronouns, words put on trial.

Trans activist CeCe McDonald also found herself harassed and attacked in front of a bar in Minneapolis in 2011 before fatally stabbing her assailant, Dean Schmitz. Accepting a plea bargain that would ensure a reduced sentence, McDonald was forced to forego her argument of self-defense.

McDonald served her time at a men’s prison.

Initial news coverage of the story ignored McDonald’s trans identity entirely, and in so doing, omitted the context for the attack itself, painting the incident instead as a random act of violence. Reporter Rachel Slavik takes great pains to emphasize her use of the pronoun “he” when referring to McDonald in this report (watch here).

Considering the circumstances and outcome of the trial, the gesture was not symbolic, but rather performative.

Behind so many narratives of transphobic violence and discrimination lies an anxious grasp for authorship and ownership, a hurried attempt to claim and co-opt self-fashioning.

The truth is laid bare that we are all telling stories all the time, a truth we must suddenly lash out at in a deeply foolish circus. This rings particularly ironic (though not surprising) in a country whose national ethos draws heavily from notions of individualism and the “self-made man.”

The self-made man sans the trans, apparently.

Another epoch fixated on the individual showed similar growing pains. Trials of identity were far more literal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Spain, when accusations of gender transitioning merited Inquisitional inquiry. Eleno de Céspedes, born Elena, faced Inquisitorial charges of sodomy, bigamy, and male impersonation in 1587 after rumors spread throughout his town of Ciempozuelos of his alleged female identity. Born a Moorish slave, Céspedes had enjoyed an entire former life as a female married to a man named Cristóbal de Lombardo, with whom she had a child. Ultimately, the Inquisition rejected Eleno’s self-defense as a hermaphrodite, and he was separated from his wife and forced to take up a female identity.

Slavik’s emphatic “he” echoes back through time and reverberates to let us know that the policing of identity is nothing new, just a fiction with delusional self-assurance and bitter material consequences.

In Time’s cover story, author Katy Steinmetz delves into various policy-specific initiatives to improve life for trans people such as health insurance for transitional surgery, more flexible gender identifiers on licenses and travel documents, fair access to everything from higher education to bathrooms, and nondiscrimination legislation. As Steinmetz points out, any and all action taken must grapple with the same basic challenge: “trans people live in a world largely built on a fixed and binary definition of gender.”

In tandem with the policy changes that will work to ensure fair and decent living conditions for those who identify as transgender, we might conceptualize this fixation as a collective confusion over story-telling: who is speaking, who is listening, and what gets told.

Amidst the demands for explanations and the haughty changes of pronouns, a counter-narrative may be found from Time’s cover girl:

During the first season of Orange is the New Black, Sophia, Cox’s character on the show, befriends a nun in the hopes of sharing hormone pills. Near the end of the episode, when Sophia implores as to why she was born with a penis, Sister Ingalls replies: “I don’t know. There are mysteries. And as a Catholic, I enjoy them.” This final note on ambiguity seals a trans-specific narrative for the viewing public that is simultaneously universal.

Though only the personal circumstances of Sophia’s struggle as a trans person could have led to the specific question, no one can deny identification with the broader struggle of asking “why” or Sister Ingall’s call to reflect upon, and accept, mystery as an undeniable facet of human existence.

Some stare down mystery in private, with four walls closing it in, while others must hold it up to a crowd to feed illusions of control and surety.

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