Time magazine may be talking about a trans revolution with its Laverne Cox cover, but are the T’s in LGBT finding greater acceptance in their own community, asks Christine Allen.
Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Sophia Burset in the popular Netflix series Orange Is The New Black has been making waves across mainstream media, shining a spotlight on the usually invisible T that makes up the LGBT acronym. Time magazine has featured Cox on its cover, which declares transgender rights as America’s next civil rights frontier.
With the increase in the number of documentaries, articles and stories featured in both print and online media, detailing the lives of transgender people and the difficulties they face, one could be forgiven for assuming that attitudes within the LGBT community towards those who are trans would be in the process of changing for the better.
However, when I sat down with a number of transgender friends to solicit their opinions on the matter, it became apparent that the lack of communication, and subsequently education around trans issues within the LGBT community, is still of great concern.
War of Words
In relation to the lack of education, one friend in particular vented her annoyance at how transgender women and drag queens are viewed as one and the same, citing the show RuPaul’s Drag Race as being “unhelpful” in this regard. She referred to RuPaul’s labelling of the show’s contestants as ‘trannies’, saying that the use of a term associated with transgender women to refer to drag queens serves only to reinforce the incorrect assumption that there is no difference between the two.
It should be noted that while LOGO TV, the network that airs RuPaul’s Drag Race, has distanced itself from the RuPaul’s comments, the drag diva has refused to apologise. The war of words exchanged between RuPaul and the transgender community also stemmed from a recently axed ‘female or she-male’ segment of the show, in which contestants were shown a woman’s body part and asked to guess whether it belonged to a “female” – that is, a cis-gender, non-trans woman – or a “she-male” – someone assigned male at birth, but presenting themselves with a feminine appearance.
Despite instances like the above, in which transphobic slurs are dropped, many within the trans community do however feel that their lesbian, gay and bisexual friends now make a more concerted effort to use “respectful language”. For example, by referring to them by their correct pronoun or preferred name. Whether this is down to an increase in the visibility of transgender people in mainstream media none can say for certain, but all agree that it is heartening to say the least.
However when the conversation swung around to that of socialising at night, many expressed fear of transphobic attitudes and behaviour. In fact, one friend spoke about the need to “gauge” premises before entering, while another relayed an experience where he was “giggled at” upon walking into the men’s toilets. Overall, the consensus is that the choice of venues in which to socialise if you are a trans individual are heavily restricted, with LGBT events being viewed as the only relatively “safe spaces”.
So, is there anything positive to be gleaned from the presence of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox in the media?
While acknowledging that the OITNB actress’s Emmy nod and Time magazine cover have been a “positive step forward in terms of visibility”, the sense of disconnect members of the trans community feel with celebrities like Cox is palpable. “Passing privilege” is a term repeatedly attributed to Cox and those like her. Not surprising, considering transgender celebrities like Cox have the monetary means to ensure that they look like their preferred gender – a luxury not afforded by many within the trans community.
The media’s relentless obsession with the genitalia of transgender people, as opposed to the “psychological aspect” of being trans/transitioning, is also a sore point for many. One friend states that the media’s fixation on the physical has reinforced the dehumanising of Trans individuals, encouraging people to continue to view them as mere “sexual objects”. In an episode of The Wendy Williams Show, which aired in May of this year, Laverne Cox was asked if she’d had breast implants. Cox declined to comment, saying that being trans is not only about surgery and transitioning.
While Williams was heavily criticised for her line of questioning, it would appear that LGB people can be just as invasive. “If it’s not, are you gay or bi, it’s do you have real breasts?” another transgender friend said. “It’s the typical pigeonholing that we as a community engage in. What people don’t realise is that not all transgender individuals want to make a full physical transition. Gender is something that can be fluid – like sexuality.”
Although the feedback I have received has been mixed, the overall consensus appears to be that the increase in the visibility of transgender people and topics has resulted in a more open and regular discussion about transgender issues within the LGBT community. Everyone I spoke to was also in agreement that the number of trans individuals that have decided to come out has increased.
However, there still appears to be a vast amount of ignorance and apathy within the LGBT community towards transgender issues. Although the coming few months will be dominated with talk of same-sex marriage in Ireland, we need to remember that we as a community are one. Trans education and advocacy must be part of the broader fight that we face in order to attain equal rights – and not just because there’s strength in numbers, but because it’s the right thing to do.
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