By Suzi Fox
When I was growing up there was no trans awareness. Had there been, things would have worked out differently for me and many others. If you have no awareness of something it's hard to define yourself as that, and as a child I was certainly having trouble defining myself. I wasn’t sure what I was. I just knew that I wasn't what everyone seemed to think I was.
I liked doing boy things but felt somehow, without it being a conscious thing, that I was going to be a girl when I grew up. But from about five years old I started to become aware that this was unusual. Worse, it was going to get me in trouble.
I didn’t know what trans was. I certainly wasn't aware of any trans people. And growing up as an only child in an isolated, rural English village I had no positive trans role models at all. None.
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s no one knew any trans people because they were all in hiding. So those of us who were trying to figure ourselves out would look to popular culture, to films, TV, music and books to see if we could find anyone like us.
But trans representation was appalling. All the trans characters I saw portrayed on television or in films were either criminals, like Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill (pictured below), prostitutes or the butt of the joke. Laughed at rather than with. Or they were desolate characters, created as a convenient victim. And they were all treated as freaks.
The false narrative of miserable or deceptive trans women just kept being repeated. Reinforcing stereotypical images of trans people as degenerates or pantomime characters. And propagating deep misconceptions by failing in any way to clarify the difference between trans women and cross dressers, with characters very much men dressed as women that I didn’t feel any connection with. In fact the way they were treated scared me.
Why is there always a trans panic?
In so many cases the revelation that someone was trans caused an extreme panic reaction, which presented either as violence or vomiting. Literally showing us that we make people sick, that they feel conned by us and a that natural and perfectly reasonable reaction is to become physically abusive.
Having that reflected back to you says you have nothing to look forward to on your chosen path. My reaction was to recoil into my head and believe I was alone and broken.
Every time I saw a trans person on television they were the freak show. Circus animals paraded around in front of everyone to stare at. To ask invasive, personal and dehumanising questions to on Maury, Gerry Springer or Phil Donahue.
But there was such a weird internal conflict going on while I watched those shows. On one hand I was excited to see trans people. But on the other hand disgusted at how they were being poked at and exploited.
Watching all this during my formative years left an imprint. An indelible one. As an adult I still carry that scarred history of how the world sees trans people. It became a core belief. And we know how difficult it is to change those.
Everyone clings to the rose-tinted history they’re given of their people, be it their country, race, religion etc, that paints their community as positive. The golden past that they can get dewy-eyed about.
Trans people over 40 don’t have that.
Trans Role Models
My first trans role model was Caroline Cossey. When I was 15 one of my best friends arrived back at school one term with her biography that his mother had given him. God knows why she gave it to him, but it was a revelation. I remember reading it and feeling such excitement.
She was (and still is) beautiful, poised, articulate, and suddenly I could see a person that I wanted to be. I felt elated. I understood myself properly for the first time. But her path had been a rocky one.
She was tormented, exposed in the media, driven out of the country by newspapers who saw her as a salacious story. A front page exposé in the tabloids, mocking her, regurgitating all the dirty parts of her life and insinuating her lovers were queers, at a time when that word guaranteed a man would lose his job, friends and be abused in the street.
I got used to hearing the questions she and other trans women were always asked on TV: Are you a woman or a man? How do you have sex? Where do you put your penis? How much did your boobs cost? Those degrading questions became normalised for me. To the point where later in life when they were put to me I would answer them instead of pointing out how invasive and unacceptable they were.
The constant obsession with questions about sex and our body parts objectified trans people. It’s probably why we still can’t escape from the association.
Positive change is happening
It has taken 30 years for things to change. Trans representation has increased so much and we all avidly jump on any new trans character. Hoping to see ourselves reflected back.
For a few years though, while visibility increased, many of the writers and producers were cisgendered. And they really didn’t understand what the trans experience is like, in fact it still happens now occasionally.
So there were still some damaging false narratives, just as damaging as before in many cases because this time the characters seemed real to the outside world. So many times I got excited about a trans character only to be frustrated that they behaved exactly how cis people think we should behave.
Cisgendered men and women were still being cast in gender diverse roles and in some cases with extremely problematic results. Benedict Cumberbatch in Zoolander 2 is one, and so is Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.
Leto and the writers tap into every popular misconception about trans women. The character is a trashy, drug-addicted prostitute who spends her time flirting with everyone. More drag queen or cross dresser than trans and played for laughs. A cis man's idea of how men play at being women would act. And yet he won an Oscar for it. WTAF!
But in 2014 we started to see a step change, brought about by trans writers and producers like Janet Mock (pictured right), Our Lady J and Lilly and Lana Wachowski. Finally we were getting trans people writing trans characters, played by trans actors and shows like Pose, Sense8 and Trans Parent gave us the representation we’d always longed for.
The trans actors and actresses that have appeared in the last 10 years have become iconic pioneers and role models to a whole generation, and that’s been utterly joyous. Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, Elliot Page, MJ Rodriguez and Trace Lysette amongst many others. They're showing that you can be out trans and successful. Something my mum told me would never be possible.
The open letter sent to Hollywood in 2018 by the group 5050by2020 calling for greater inclusivity of trans actors and writers was a necessary kick. It said “We believe that when trans people are empowered to help culture makers tell our authentic stories, it will improve how we are treated in the real world.” And truly that is the kind of statement we needed to hear.
But while portrayals of trans women have been improving from their problematic past, trans men have been almost invisible. It’s really only in the last couple of years that trans masculine characters have begun to appear on screen at all. And that’s a huge problem. Because there are pretty much equal numbers of trans men and women. Non-binary characters are even less visible, which is appalling given that there are more ENBY people than trans men and women combined.
It’s no wonder that cishet people think trans men are a new phenomena. That they keep repeating that awful trope that trans men are just tomboy lesbians that are forced to transition, and that trans is a contagion. We all know this is just transphobic propaganda. Because what's actually happening is that with this burst in visibility people who couldn’t understand themselves are seeing themselves reflected and being able to stand up and say hey that's me. Because if you can’t see it you can’t be it.
Trans kids are leading a revolution
A lot of the change is being led by younger age groups. You have a few pioneering trans kids coming out at school. And that works as a lightbulb moment for others to understand themselves.
Suddenly kids are looking to each other for representation rather than in movies or on television. Social media has become the driver of real people representing.
As someone who was out and proud on MySpace in the early 2000s I had no idea how many people were watching. There were very few trans women online then. I’ve been astonished that people still come up to me in clubs or DM me telling me that seeing me back was part of the start of their journey.
And now Instagram accounts for trans women like Nikita Dragun have 9 million followers, or trans men like Chella Man (pictured right) have 500k. It’s wonderful to think how many people they’re helping on their journey. And it’s incredibly liberating.
There are still some problems
But! Many of the most followed trans women on Instagram are the ones that are cis-passing. In other words they look indistinguishable from cisgendered women. And they dress in a way that plays to the extreme versions of what the patriarchal society thinks women should be.
And that’s simply not the lived experience of most trans women. Which is problematic. Because it means that anyone who doesn’t fit that narrow and rare image of trans woman as slim, sexy, perfectly made up, binary woman becomes open to ridicule and abuse.
Trans women shouldn’t have to comply with male sexual stereotypes of women just to be seen as women. But the clothes and the makeup become a mask to hide behind.
I’ve heard men say that trans women are better than cisgendered women. And it's dangerous nonsense prompted by the fact that most cis women didn’t dress like we did, because we felt the need to push ourselves to feel validated in a male dominated world. And in doing so we make ourselves into fantasy figures. To be objectified. And that’s not helping. It’s continuing the false narratives of the past. That's not to say that trans women shouldn't be able to look sexy, but we need to start championing trans women for other things.
I hold my hand up and admit that I used the aesthetic the achieve my own goals. Dressing like that on social media became a means to an end, because it got me a following that gave me a platform to reach out beyond the LGBTQ+ bubble and into the homes of straight cisgendered men, so I could tell my story in my own words. To explain what trans women go through. What we have to fight against to live our lives in the hope that it would help end the objectification. To paint us a real people instead of sex objects.
But it also gave me a chance to talk to trans people still unsure about themselves and about transitioning. To shine a light on what it’s really like so they can make informed decisions.
Awareness of real trans people is critical
My point is that trans awareness is critical. Representation of real trans and non-binary people is the only way kids who are struggling with their identity can see themselves reflected back to them and find answers.
Because if we can’t find answers then a life of mental health problems is the result. Or worse!
Trans awareness week is about much more now though. As we have become more visible, those who feel threatened by us have become more hostile. And that has provoked a tsunami of hate, lies, misrepresentation and propaganda.
So awareness is about pushing back against those lies and telling the truth about who we are. That we’re no threat to cisgendered women, and never have been. That our rights are not in conflict with womens’ rights.
Transphobic media has been incredibly damaging
The U.K. media have for a long time been institutionally transphobic. Pretty much every one. And with articles about trans people increasing 770% in the last decade it’s easy to see that the impact will be incredibly negative.
We pretty much only get support from the LGBTQ+ media, and the unfailing support from Diva, Attitude, Gay Times and QX has been amazing. Beyond that, positive articles are like hens teeth. And even the rare pro-trans story is usually written by cisgendered people. And while we’re grateful for anything positive, it’s time for us to speak for ourselves.
We don’t want cis people to speak for us. We need them to listen to trans people and amplify trans voices telling our own stories.
We already have amazing trans authors like Shon Faye, Alex Bertie (pictured right) and Juno Dawson. But you have to seek out their work at the bookshop. It doesn’t arrive on your table with your breakfast. We need them to be given space in national media.
One day we will get there. But right now we need Trans Awareness Week to present ourselves and our lived experiences properly, to tell our stories in our own words, to give young people the language and vocabulary to be able to describe themselves and to show a positive representation of trans people to the world to combat the lies being spread by those hostile to us.
Of course positive representation is not the ultimate goal. Complete emancipation of all trans people is the goal. Total equality is the goal.
Some may say that’s a pipe dream. And yes we first need to get to a point where trans people aren’t terrified to be out. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean we can’t try to achieve it.
But these things will only happen if we all work together. And the first step is for everyone to see that we’re just ordinary people, and to not feel threatened by us.
Happy Trans Awareness Week.