*Note: The author’s title for this piece was: ‘A tale of two trannies’.
It was the best of times, it was the worst – yes, yes, I have written a slur in the very title of this piece. I know. The T word is a bigoted slur, but I would like to talk about the way it is mobilised in representations of trans women, so if you will grant me a little latitude, I’m sure we’ll get somewhere interesting.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine, looking as gorgeous as ever. Political prisoner Chelsea Manning inspired us with her dispatches from prison. Trans director Lana Wachowski directed a trans woman playing a trans character in Sense 8. And across the pond, Bethany Black was the first trans woman on television screens in a sensitively written and acted episode of Russell T Davies’ LGBT show Banana. The Time magazine article may have exaggerated the ‘trans tipping point’, but there is very definitely something in the air when it comes to trans self-representation and with it, maybe, the beginnings of acceptance for this marginalised community.
Which brings us to Caitlyn.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have heard by now that Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympic gold medallist, reality TV star and erstwhile patriarch of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, came out as trans several months ago. Step-daughter Kim Kardashian may have ‘broken the internet’ with her shapely tuchus but Jenner’s transition has captivated the tabloids for months now. And yet, strangely, Jenner did not reveal her new name, or ask for the correct pronouns to be used. Instead, Jenner went on (inter)national television to tell her story to Diane Sawyer, and allowed herself to be continued to be called ‘Bruce’.
At the time, the cynical among us may have remarked that all of this was in the name of building suspense for Jenner’s new reality show about her transition, and, significantly, not alienating her audience with anything too difficult – such as respecting a trans woman’s identity based on her say so. Some unkind people might even have gone so far as to suggest that Jenner was mobilising transphobia for her own personal ends: a reality star to the end, making bank from her difference.
Sure enough, this week Jenner emerged with a Vanity Fair spread, entitled ‘Call Me Caitlyn’. Jenner’s true gender was revealed, celebrated even, with a splashy Annie Leibovitz cover shoot. Finally, after months of tabloid speculation, Jenner has asked for her gender to be respected.
But compare Jenner’s glamourous life to London Chanel, a twenty-one-year-old trans woman from Philadelphia. Last month, the young black trans woman was stabbed to death in the abandoned house where she had been staying. A man, Raheam Felton, has been charged with her death. As NBC put the background details that led to her death:
Chanel came to Philadelphia several years ago and spent time living at Covenant House, a youth shelter and crisis center in Germantown, according to friends.
Veronica Allen, Chanel’s mother, said her daughter’s transition had taken a toll on their relationship, but that they reconnected in March and she was looking forward to her moving home.
‘She was going to go to court to change her name and then she was going to come home,’ Allen said. ‘That’s what we were working towards, but that man took it away from me.’
Like so many transgender people, Chanel was in some way estranged from her family, in and out of institutions, and sleeping rough. These are the risk factors for violence, drug use, survival sex work, and imprisonment (usually in men’s jails) for transgender women – a potent cocktail of social marginalisation that has claimed many more lives than Chanel’s young one. Indeed, Chanel’s murder was the eighth such murder of trans women of colour in the United States this year, a shocking statistic given the relative rarity of transgender in the general population.
So what is the lesson from all of this? There is a tremendous bifurcation between the drowned and the saved of the transgender community, between those women fortunate enough to afford the surgeries that Jenner has utilised and those who do not, between those with secure housing and unemployment and those living on the streets. And between those who end up dead, either by the endemic trans suicide rate or at the hands of violent men, and those who survive.
Yet, both stories show that transphobia is everywhere in our society. Jenner has a life of privilege beyond the dreams of the average person, but even she has to step carefully around prejudice, negotiating with the pervasive prejudice of her vast tabloid and reality TV audiences (as any perusal of Twitter will find).
As Julia Serano wrote in her landmark Whipping Girl, the two stereotypes of trans women are the pathetic, harmless late transitioning trans woman whose transness is immediately readable, and the ‘deceptive’ trans woman who tricks hapless heterosexual men into sleeping with her and eventually gets what’s coming to her. The figure of the tranny – not really a woman and not really a man – looms large. Both stereotypes highlighted by Serano are easily found in news coverage of Jenner, Chanel and every other trans woman who has made her way into public attention.
The issue for transgender women is that we live in a society that still thinks us men.
We know you still call us trannies, among yourselves, or in the echo chamber of Twitter – and sometimes to our faces. You still think of us as threats to your families, your relationships, your children, your workplaces, your toilets. You think it is okay that we are dying, that so many of us struggle for even basic survival. You think that even the most privileged of us aren’t worthy of the right name and pronouns.
We know how you talk about us behind our backs, because you’re not even trying to hide your bigotry.