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Ever Open Season: Queer Identity and “Public Interest” [TW: transphobia, violence /death in some links]

by Lexi Kamen Turner (1st year Film Studies BA student, KCL iFemSoc Events Organiser)

“No qualifications should be placed on the term “trans woman” based on a person’s ability to “pass” as female, her hormone levels, or the state of her genitals—after all, it is downright sexist to reduce any woman (trans or otherwise) down to her mere body parts or to require her to live up to certain societally dictated ideals regarding appearance”

– Julia Serano, Whipping Girl

Have I had, or am I getting, The Op?

This is a question I have been asked by peers, strangers, my own family, the majority of my partner’s work colleagues… having had a solidly successful 20+ year stretch of never having a conversation with me about my genitalia, even my 89 year old grandmother asked me a question that is really only acceptable to ask if you are my partner or the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic.

When Katie Couric asked Carmen Carrera whether her “private parts are different” a few days ago, and then tried to double down on it with Laverne Cox, neither Carmen nor Laverne were unused to this question, though they may have been unused to this question being asked in front of an audience of a show whose peak ratings thus far have been 3.8 million. To be honest, though: nobody transgender watching was in the least surprised to hear that question. You could tell it was coming by the way Katie condescendingly told Carmen “you’re beautiful!” (which Carmen bravely deflected with a “so are you” response. Katie referred to her twice as having once “been a man” and, for all the smugness with which she tried to imply to everyone that this was SO not the Jerry Springer Show all over again, and she was totally not being prurient in asking a guest about her genitalia, but it was just that so many “other people” wanted to know… Well, let’s just say I knew it was coming.

A wonderful quote that arose from the Leveson Inquiry was the phrase: “it may be of interest to the public, but that does not make it of public interest.” Whilst very nice on its own when dealing with, say, the sex lives of abominably rich white cis-het men like Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant, it takes on a new meaning when dealing with trans* people – particularly transfeminine, particularly of colour. You see, “public interest” means very little to someone who is taught through hard-won experience that the public are to be feared. My transition made me re-think wearing gothy clothes, it made me re-think dyeing my hair because, all of a sudden, I didn’t want to be “interesting” as I walked down the street. Not when all I needed to do was read the paper to see what happens to t-girls to whom people take an interest. Carmen and Laverne did not need to have it cisplained to them that many people were interested – they’ve had their fair share of that interest made aggressively clear to them out of car windows as they’ve walked home many times before, I’m sure.

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The above comment found on a Huffington Post article relating to this situation espouses a view shared by many on the right wing, it seems. But what does “this is all new” mean? Gender variance has been noted in cultures dating back to Ancient Egypt at least and SRS has been on the cards since 1921, entering firmly into the public consciousness in the 1950s, so what can possibly be “new” about any of this?

Apparently, what’s new is that we are now starting to be seen, demanding to be seen for more than the surgery we may or may not choose to have. What’s new is that we are starting to be seen, demanding respect and being vocal about the problems facing us. Of course, none of this is true, either: Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall were over 45 years ago and I hope they forgive me for saying this but Riki Wilchins, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, Judith Jack Halberstam, Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark and Julia Serano are not the springiest of spring chickens (that is a wide range of ages, of course, and that is the point).

The trouble with the talk show format is that it is so regularly exploited as an opportunity to present the guests as petitioning for mainstream acceptance (which was regularly denied to us on such programs as Jerry Springer) as “real women” and indeed, “real people,” that the format has not changed. Trans* folk have been doing interviews since forever; we just got tired of doing the same type that we always have been made to do live on air, because we have to do them anyway.

Is Lexi Kamen my real name? No, like the name I was born with. Where does it come from? How long have I felt this way? Why didn’t I say anything till now? How could I have expected you to know? Oh, I mentioned it seven years ago huh? How does my partner feel about this? Is she a lesbian now? Am I planning on changing my name legally? Hormones, huh; what’ll those do? I’m not planning on having the operation, am I? Do I have any pictures of me before I changed? Wait, I’m only female some of the time?! What the hell is genderqueer?!

Before anyone asks: I did play with Action Man, growing up. A bit. I was more interested in playing with the 53 cuddlies I kept on my bed, all named, and literally anything with the prefix “Bat-“. I wasn’t terribly interested in girl’s toys because, as I remember, they often sucked. And, no: I did not know that I was trans/genderqueer at age 6. Why on Earth would I have that kind of vocabulary? I did know, however, that, whilst playing with “the other boys” at my all-boys (and me) school, I was blending in. Eventually I stopped, and now I’m me. I’m not transitioning to become like cis women; I’m transitioning to become the realest me I can be. The realest me seems to be female some of the time but a girl all of the time, ze likes Religion dresses and would commit ritual homicide if it kept hir in Tom Ford perfumes. Ze has long, purple hair right now. Ze likes Batwoman comics and listening to Burial and Les Rallizes Dénudés and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and has a genuinely impressive fossil collection. Ze and hir band Lillian Gish are releasing their third album sometime soon, ze was once almost killed by a llama at sunrise in Machu Picchu and, in Brazil, there are two characters in a musical based on hir. I like to think I’m a kinda interesting girl and I find it personally insulting – I believe anyone would – if the most interesting question you can think to ask me, to define me, to summarise who I am for you is have I had The Op. I think it is doubly insulting for Katie Couric, someone whose job it is to ask pertinent and relevant questions to her guests to ask not only such an invasive question but such a dull one, too. In asking this question of Carmen and Laverne, Katie proved to us that this was not an interview, as far as she was concerned, with a model or an actor or a human rights activist but with two tr***ies who needed to give the weepy confessional to be accepted as “real women,” displaying since-birth certainty of liking chocolate and pink glitter and Brad Pitt and a burning desire to have heteronormative PIV sex with cis men, pronto.

The transphobic cis people (serious, serious trigger warning for both the article and the comments – if you do read it, read Zinnia Jones’ comeback to feel better, after) who have been offended by the gratifyingly large response to this interview have all clearly been offended by the notion that maybe cis people are in fact not the best judges of what is and is not appropriate to ask trans* people. That by us objecting to them putting us in boxes like “pre-op” and “post-op” (binary boxes which ignore the countless people who don’t want to have surgery or are unable to have surgery due to medical issues, as well as ignoring the enormous, regularly prohibitive, cost involved in such a procedure), we are biting the hand that feeds us in allowing us to have our stories told at all. The trouble is though: it’s not our stories. It’s their stories. To quote Natalie Reed:

“[I’ve watched] so many trans women edit their life stories into “well I was always a girl” from the same basic substance that every human being has in their history. I’ve known this all along. And I’ve known this, definitely, in the constant pressure to Tell My Story: the confessional model of “coming out” and “speaking your truth”. The lie that this is what heals the survivor when it’s always the AUDIENCE who wants it, and demands it conforms to the genre conventions that make them comfortable. We are, collectively, demanding that one another’s traumas, our darkest moments, our genders, our sexuality, conform to the GENRE we expect.

It’s about stories. It’s about narratives. It’s about myths.

How do you tell your story when you know that’s exactly what your oppressor wants? But how do you tell your story when you know stories are exactly the battlefield on which it’s all being fought? But how do you tell your story when you know stories are exactly the tools your oppressor employs to maintain the cultural status quo? But how do you tell your story when the story’s power is defined exactly by the same standards of its complicity in the oppressors power? How do you tell your story knowing it’s the oppressors tool but the only means through which the oppression is maintained?”

The answer to this question is one we trans* people and, indeed, queers at large are still trying to work out exactly, because it is incredibly difficult to express yourself on your own terms in a society established on cis- and heterosexist privilege. A queer girl who some time ago cut off contact with her abusive parents remarked to me that, when it was revealed to people who’d not known them that she was no longer in contact with them, the initial reaction was invariably “is it because they’re homophobic?” Whilst this might, to non-queer (and non-survivor) eyes and ears sound like a gesture of legitimate concern and caring, it is very much the same as asking “is it because you’re lesbian?” This makes the assumption that, until she was out, her parents were utterly faultless and that it was her sexuality that instigated a sea-change and, by extension, queers are inherently leavable. Returning to my 89 year old grandmother who asked me whether I was planning on getting The Op for a second: she has been telling me recently what a “happy little boy” I always seemed to be and has been telling me that, actually, my parents didn’t throw me and my partner out of my family home, 6 weeks ago, as if she were there, and that my parents and I used to get on so well. If only this damn acceptance of my true self had never happened, we’d all have been happy…

It is forever open season on queer identity and history, it seems. My partner and i were thrown out of my family home – where we had both moved to from Brighton to try and recuperate from some of the awfulness that had been thrown our way over the past few years – because I “refused to listen to their point of view.” Apparently cis-hets’ right to a “point of view” on trans* and queer lived experience is not only relevant but trumps all.

Interestingly enough, i’ve had a large number of people asking me why I would self-identify as queer and why there’d be such thing as Queer Studies, not grasping the extent to which this term has been reclaimed and yet almost in the same breath expressing genuine surprise that I consider the word “tr***y” to be a slur. Transphobes trying to bar us from using bathrooms in accordance with our gender and cannot make up their minds if this is because we aren’t “real women” or in case they are victims to cis men pretending to be transgender. Either we are the deceiver, the psycho, the tragic clown, the sassy sidekick to rival even the effeminate pet homosexual, the “undercover MRA” or the occasional “empowering success story” to be cooed over and patronised. We all watched Katie Couric tripping over herself, unsure of which bit of the cis/heteronormative public to interest first and I think it’s time we agree that the public that still wants to hear Transgender 101 in 2014 is too stupid for us ever to assume they’ll be ready for so much as Transgender 102. I back any bill that fights for our protection. I am not interested in fighting for our understanding. I do not need to be understood to be respected. Indeed, cis-het people never need to be examined to be “understood” and nor do we.

And if the price we must pay to be understood is for you to pry into the details of our genitalia, apparently not understanding that we find that objectionable, insulting and clearly for the benefit of those still choosing to view us with an eye of salacious fetishisation…

That’s a price paid with diminishing returns.
Y’all can stay in the dark.

 

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