Beyond cute children: the new transgender conversation

Transgender is in the zeitgeist recently.  From an acclaimed episode of Four Corners on the ABC to transgender woman Captain Catherine McGregor’s appearance on Q&A to Human Rights commissioner Tim Wilson’s piece on The Drum about how ‘it’s time for the transgender talk, Australia,’ the visibility of transgender people has never been higher in Australia – a positive development for an oft-maligned community.  Or so it would seem.

Every year on 20 November, transgender people around the world gather to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual memorialisation of the deaths of transgender people by violence.  In previous years, the list has primarily consisted of brown transgender women living in South America, whose occupation is sex work.  Most years, Australia has – luckily! – no deaths to report but this year it does: that of Mayang Prasetyo, a twenty seven year old trans woman and sex worker, who was brutally murdered by her boyfriend Marcus Volke.

What happened to Ms Prasetyo, though gruesome, is unlikely to have been motivated directly by transphobia – it seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence – but what happened in the media after her death assuredly was transphobic.  Brisbane’s Courier Mail ran a front page headline that read ‘Monster Chef and the She Male’. Inside the newspaper was another slur: a sub-heading that read ‘Ladyboy and the Butcher’.

It is rare that a newspaper would refer to a murder victim by a colloquial slur. But tabloid newspapers like the Courier Mail have never been reticent when it comes to disrespectful coverage of the lives of transgender women.  Tabloid coverage of transgender women is sensationalist and dehumanising. It relies on transphobic tropes of trans women as ‘really’ men and emphasises unwanted birth names and pre-transition photos as the ‘truth’ of a trans woman’s gender – as happened with Mayang Prasetyo when the Daily Mail UK published a photo of her pre-transition passport showing her birth name.

Compare this to the sympathetic coverage of Four Corners, which focussed primarily on two transgender girls.  Presenter Kerry O’Brien called the show ‘powerfully poignant’ and talked about how the children exhibited a ‘special brand of courage that is ultimately inspirational’. Though the show did, unfortunately, indulge the cis (that is, non transgender) audience’s curiousity about the pre-transition appearance and name of Isobelle (the eleven year old who was primary focus), it ended with a compassionate and powerful call for political change – for the transition process of transgender children to be solely between them, their parents and doctors, rather than the entailing the current tortuous legal process.

It is unlikely that the ABC would ever run a piece featuring a slur akin to that used by the Courier Mail, but the disparity between the two stories still begs a question: why are transgender children the acceptable face of the trans community?

The answer, in a word, is sex. Media images of trans women, in particular, tend to be extremely sexualised – the trans sex worker of colour is a stock figure in crime fiction, for instance – as was evident in the coverage of Mayang Prasetyo’s death, which featured photos of her wearing a skimpy bikini.

At the same time, trans women are presented as a threat to the sexuality of heterosexual men.  Attraction to transgender women is pathologised as ‘tranny chasing’, as another version of homosexuality.  Trans theorist and biologist Julia Serano, author of the important book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, has a poem called ‘Cocky’ about the cultural presumptions that our society makes about trans women’s genitals. She writes:

 Because of her, every single one of my heterosexual ex-girlfriends has slept with a lesbian.  And every guy who hits on me can be accused of being gay.  Because my penis bends everyone who is straight, and she can make the most entitled catcallers and womanisers scurry away with their tails between their legs.

As trans theorist Talia Mae Bettcher puts it, transgender adults who cannot afford gender confirmation surgery (that is, most of the community) are a threat to heterosexuality because they ‘mismatch’ the codes of sex (that is, the sexed body) and gender (that is, gender performance, clothing, hair, and so on).  Our culture works by organising genitally-determined sexed bodies into those who are potential sex partners and those who are not.

Because heterosexuality is so frequently premised on its rejection of homosexuality, attraction attracted to someone with the ‘wrong’ genitals is a kind of psychic threat, which often results in violence against trans people.   Adult trans people, a distinctly underprivileged community, cannot look to Australia’s medical safety net for amelioration of this threat – there is a Medicare gap of thousands of dollars for some surgeries, while others are not covered at all – leaving the majority of transgender people in a precarious position without access to the right birth certificate and legal documents.

In contrast, trans children are culturally constituted as asexual, and their early treatment assures us that there will be no adult ‘mismatching’ of sexed body and gender performance.  Those angelic transgender children present no challenge to the sex/gender/sexuality system – yet.

But the anxiety is always there.  No wonder Four Corners felt it necessary to ask eleven year old Isobelle about her genitals, about the surgery she’ll undertake as an adult.

It is a rare thing for a television program like Four Corners to so directly advocate for the rights of the transgender community. The show’s stance is only to be applauded.  But the prejudice the entire trans community faces is enormous, as the staggering rates of mental illness show.  One study in the UK, for instance, found that up to half of transgender teens had attempted suicide, compared to 6 percent of the general population.  Add in epidemic rates of unemployment, suicide, homelessness, survival sex work, imprisonment, HIV infection – not to mention the quotidian violence that the Transgender Day of Remembrance commemorates – and it is clear that the transgender community needs much more than a ‘conversation’ or the apolitical platitudes that Tim Wilson offers.

Stories about transgender people often focus on the medical aspects of hormone treatment and surgery (with, in particular, an objectifying focus on genital surgery) rather than the social and political aspects of transgender issues raised by the unique position of transgender people in our biopolitically-organised society.  Both bigoted pieces like those about Mayang Prasetyo and sympathetic stories as with Four Corners share the same cisnormative focus on trans bodies.

We need a wholesale change to the institutional structures and everyday practices that produce transphobia. Such a change would include full Medicare coverage of surgery; reform of state legislation so that surgery was not needed to access the correct documents, legalisation of sex work; trans-friendly policies at homeless and women’s shelters; and workplace activism that links the struggle against anti-LGBT discrimination to the union struggle.

It would also include refocusing transgender stories in the media away from articles fascinated by the medical process of transition or feel-good pieces about angelic trans children to the very real social needs that transgender people face.  Transgender people don’t need ‘a special brand of courage that is ultimately inspirational’. They need justice.

Emily McAvan

Emily McAvan is an Australian literary critic and theorist.

More by Emily McAvan ›

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  1. Yes — this is the conversation we need to be having (or listening to). I hope more Australian feminists wake up and make meaningful changes to the way they engage with trans issues.

  2. Thank you so much for this very thoughtful article which places in perspective the real issue for Transpeople: justice.

    The sexualisation of transwomen in particular is such a feature of media coverage of transgender people and I think that says something about our society’s notions of heteronormativity and cis-normativity as you rightly point out.

    While I too applaude the ABC for airing the recent program, there is also a less well told and much more ignored story of older Transpeople as my own research on older transwomen is showing. Their struggle to be who they are has often faced extraordinary degrees of prejudice, hostility, and ridicule. While there is an undeniable joy in undertaking the process of transition, the fundamental underlying theme to many older transpeople’s lives has been loss. Loss of family, job, security, home, even formal recognition as a valid person.

    At the end of the day, we can’t solve every problem that such a personal transformation might create for the individual but we can at least ensure that our institutional structures give them (us) some justice to simply be who we are.

  3. A nicely written piece by Emily but I am a little mystified at finding fault with the Four Corners coverage.
    Cis people covering a subject so alien will always do or say something that is not just what we TG people would think appropriate.
    It is our job to politely educate and give credit when credit is due, such as the
    four Corners story, which to me was beautiful.

  4. Attraction to transgender women is pathologised as ‘tranny chasing,’ as another version of homosexuality.

    I suggest that “chaser” is a useful word for trans women – we developed it, we know what it looks like. Some cis men who are attracted to women who happen to be trans aren’t chasers. Others fetishise and objectify us and are chasers.

    So it’s not “pathologising” to say a chaser is a chaser if he’s a chaser. Julia Serano has suggested that we overdiagnose chasing. But I suggest that if a particular trans woman says that the behaviour of a man toward her is chasing, we back her up and say it’s chasing, rather than tut at her and say she’s just pathologising his natural sexuality. We know if we’re being treated respectfully or not.

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