We’ve seen important action on trans rights and challenging bigotry against trans folks in recent years. But the past week or so has been a sobering reminder for me of how much work still needs to be done to get the broader population to treat trans women like people.
I’ve spent years now trying to get the media to cover stories of trans folks with respect, to at least get names and pronouns right, and I am by no means alone in this work. So the media reaction to Chelsea Manning’s very straightforward announcement of her name and pronouns was heartbreaking. After so many years of this being explained to mainstream media, when the big media organizations already have guidelines that tell them to respect an individual’s self-identification, we’ve still had to spend a week reading misgendering, and too often outright hateful, bigoted, ignorant articles about Chelsea. Change is happening – a number of prominent media organizations, including the New York Times, the Associated Press, and NPR reversed their position on deliberately misgendering Chelsea, though they still insist on drudging up her birth-assigned name at the beginning of articles “for clarity.” I hope this means they will cover future stories about trans folks in a respectful manner, but sadly I’m not holding my breath. Chelsea gave them clear, direct guidance on how to write about her and they still got it wrong for days. And then there’s publications like the National Review using her old name and saying Chelsea is “not a woman” in the headline of a hateful article that deploys some of the worst transmisogynist stereotypes. The New York Times did release an op-ed saying Chelsea should be able to transition in prison, which is huge. But let’s not forget it took going through this disrespectful, misgendering crap yet again to get the paper to that point.
A lot of the conversation around Chelsea shows just how ignorant people are of the issues trans women face. I’d like to think Mansfield Frazier’s Daily Beast article about how Chelsea might be the “queen bee” in prison is an aberration, but I think it speaks to some broader cultural assumptions. I’ve heard about people who think Chelsea coming out is some kind of ploy to help her case or make her life easier in prison. Which is the complete opposite of reality – Chelsea actually got caught partly because she was trying to come out (which makes the fact that her announcement is major, shocking “news” incredibly weird). Further, coming out as a trans woman means a huge deficit of privilege, facing consistent bullshit at the hands of institutions like the prison system, and possible hate, bigotry, and violence from individuals. Chelsea’s life will probably be easier in one way – coming out can mean a huge weight lifted off your shoulders. I know in this vital way transitioning has made moving in the world much easier for me. But that’s personal, that’s individual and intimate. In the broader cultural context, coming out as a trans woman still means overwhelming marginalization.
While increased representation of trans women’s stories is a good thing, I worry that some of the media representation we’re getting is contributing to this ignorance. I am so glad Laverne Cox is gaining mainstream popularity. At the same time I think it’s important to note that her character on Orange is the New Black would be in a men’s prison in the real world, like the vast majority of incarcerated trans women. Folks need to understand this reality to start to get what trans women in prison are facing.
In addition to Chelsea’s case, too many trans women have died in horrible ways recently, which is something I can say far too often. There is a global epidemic of violence against trans women of color. This is an issue on which I’m mostly speaking in solidarity – trans women in general face increased threats of violence, but it’s overwhelmingly trans women of color who are being murdered because of their genders. YouTube star Domonique Newburn was murdered just over a week ago in California. In New York, Islan Nettles was beaten to death. She was 21. As Janet Mock wrote in a beautiful, raw piece, Islan was even misgendered at the vigil in memory of her, and trans women of color who were present were told this event was not “political” and not the time to demand their sister be treated with respect in death. I have been to multiple vigils where murdered trans women of color were misgendered and referred to with the wrong name and this was considered “respectful” to family, forgetting the disrespect done to the dead, and to the family of trans women who understand intimately that they too could be disrespected like this, even in death. We also recently lost Amber Maxwell to suicide, another way far too many trans women die (please, if you have suicidal thoughts, ask for help. Someone cares. I do).
I used to blog regularly about the murders of trans women and the typically poor, misgendering media coverage they received. I stopped writing these consistent posts. I just couldn’t anymore. I’ve needed to focus on the positive, on stories of life, of victory, of how my family overcomes the hate this world throws at us. Spending too much time focused on hatred can be debilitating. But it’s also important. It’s important to remember why I have this ball of hurt and anger and rage in my gut. Why stepping out of the house is always an act of overcoming fear. Why I’m always watching myself around cisgender people, and around most trans men too, because I’m afraid I’m going to explode with frustration that they’re not doing enough, not getting it. There’s an epidemic of violence. There’s an epidemic of hate. There’s an epidemic of not fucking letting us be part of humanity.
I don’t have a nice, uplifting way to tie up this post. I want better yesterday.