trans identities

There’s More Than One Narrative About Trans Identities

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J Aprileo

A queer, non-binary, fat activist who can't turn their brain off for even just a second.

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One of the stereotypes that I struggle with is this idea around what a trans person’s story looks like, especially in regard to their history around gender. It always has the same general theme of the person having known since childhood that something about their gender presentation or the way they were perceived was not quite right. However, the whole “trans person knew that they were trans since they were a child” narrative is not the only one out there.

I will say, this narrative about trans identities exists for good reason – there are many trans folks out there who have experienced this exact story. And that is great! I’m so thankful that those who have felt shame/burden for so many years about their gender are now able to live their authentic truths. I’m glad that they could put the pieces together and find space to explore and discover what always was. Further, it is beautiful that they can relate to experiences being portrayed in television.

But this one story continues to be the only example of transgender identity discovery stories that we see in mainstream media. And it is most commonly a binary trans story. Why is that? Maintaining the notion that we were “born this way” is much more palatable to a cisgender majority than a story about one’s journey through gender fluidity or a non-binary identity. It pushes too hard on a gender binary that we as a society hold so tightly onto. It feels much safer to believe that there are strictly men and women on the Earth and some of those very strictly binary presenting individuals were “born in the wrong body.”

Believing gender could be fluid and change/evolve over time, or fluctuate even, for some people might be too radical of an idea. We might then have to reevaluate the numerous ways in which we categorize people in a binary fashion. Take the show Billions, for example. This Showtime series was the first to feature a non-binary character named Taylor Amber Mason, played by the a real life non-binary actor named Asia Kate Dillon! The actor was nominated for an Emmy and was given the choice between being put in the Best Supporting Actor or Actress category. This illustrates a daily struggle that non-binary folks must face. Perhaps we aren’t all trying to figure out which Emmy category we would like to be placed in, but we are continuously forced to choose which binary role we should be put into for the comfort of others. The gender binary is so deeply embedded in our culture and language, it does require some effort and getting creative. However, there are enough genderqueer and non-binary identified individuals out there and we would like to be represented.

trans identities
Asia Kate Dillon

The perpetuation of the “binary trans person who knew from birth that he/she was in the wrong body” narrative is not only doing a disservice to the vast experiences of transgender people and viewers of these shows, but it is actually harmful to trans folks. A lot of people have a hard time admitting that they might be trans if they can’t pick out key moments in their childhood that serve as foreshadowing of their inevitable trans identity. We look back at our memories and try to make sense of any gender nonconformity while trying to find peace with the fact that it took us so long to “figure out” who we were supposed to be.

When some of us struggle to find such examples, we dismiss the possibility and even feel shame for intruding on the trans community. We have heard the term “transtrender” (someone who identifies as transgender simply because they think it is cool) and we fear that we have made a mistake or have been offensive — and we go back into hiding, denying our weird gender feels until they creep up again later.

The part that we are not taking into consideration is that gender can be experienced in such vastly different ways. That’s the beautiful part about it. Some people out there have complicated relationships with their bodies that interfere with processing gender identity. In addition, there are other identities that intersect with gender on infinite levels, which impact the way that gender is experienced. Some folks experience gender intensely and some have no gender. There are people who identify as having multiple genders, all genders, this gender one day and another the next. What I’m saying is, gender is complicated. One’s racial identity, cultural background, religion, disability, sexuality, and size can play an integral role in the ways that gender is experienced. It is crucial that we see those stories portrayed in media so that not only can others gain an accurate understanding of the possibilities of trans identities that they could encounter, but trans people of all ages can feel validated in their experiences and live their authentic truths without shame.

While Glee and Transparent both have had trans characters that have unfortunately been played by cisgender actors, they were some of the first shows that I personally saw that had positive representation of the trans experience. Orange Is The New Black and Sense8 actually feature transwomen characters played by transwomen actors (which is definitely the right way to do it!). While we must always do better, these are examples of writers taking steps in the right direction and I am thankful for those strides.

trans identities
Laverne Cox

I do not believe, however, that we must blindly accept any form of representation we can find, without criticism, simply because we are desperate for it. How would we ever learn to evolve and make sure our stories are accurate? We must aim to truly embody the wide range of stories that exist. Critique often pushes us to dig deeper. This motivation to dig deeper is vital, especially when our leaders are actively participating in our erasure.