When Jared Leto won a Golden Globe and then an Oscar for playing a (caricature of a) transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, I witnessed so much cis mansplaining about how Leto’s performance and award show appearances were good for trans women, because we needed visibility. Lots of folks don’t know about trans people, they argued, and Leto was educating them – plus his performance wasn’t that bad, it was accurate to how trans women were (seen by these cis men) at that time. When Laverne Cox made the cover of TIME, Andrew Sullivan responded by arguing that trans people should be willing to talk about our genitals when asked because people need to be educated – as if continuing to focus on our crotches instead of the rest of our lives would somehow be a positive thing, because all visibility is good.
Visibility is not necessarily a good thing, particularly for trans women. We are often hyper-visible, cis patriarchy’s convenient punching bag. We walk around constantly aware that we could get clocked – or recognized as trans – by someone who might target us with harassment or violence. And some visibility is deadly – so we should be thoughtful about how we prioritize visibility in trans politics. We need to be able to differentiate between negative and positive visibility, between humanization and dangerous stereotypes.
(I want to be clear that this post is not about Trans Day of Visibility. I think it’s great that we have a day to celebrate the living in our community. This is not an issue of semantics – it’s about the idea that public exposure is necessarily a good thing.)
A lot of supposed “visibility” of trans women is really just the perpetuation of tired stereotypes. I didn’t understand that it was possible for me to exist when I was a kid because none of the representations of trans women I saw were humanizing or really possible to identify with. I saw salacious clips on daytime shows and offensive jokes on Arrested Development (In fact, I can’t think of a single sitcom I’ve watched that didn’t include at least one offensive joke at the expense of trans women). A lot of it was about men “pretending to be women,” tricking straight men into sex, or jokes about genitals, but none of it had anything to do with the gender issues I was going through. These weren’t representations of what it’s really like to be trans, but stereotypes being fed to me by media makers who had themselves learned these stereotypes from transmisogynist media and culture. If anything, these negative representations made being myself seem even less possible, since they were so dehumanizing.
As I have argued before, negative visibility can have a deadly impact. Media coverage that dehumanizes trans women even in death, using the wrong name and pronouns for murder victims or writing about them in salacious ways that suggest they “had it coming,” feeds a culture-wide understanding of trans women as less than human. This in turn feeds discrimination and the epidemic of violence targeted at trans women of color. In June, when we were supposed to be celebrating Pride, four trans women of color were murdered. Then last week Mia Henderson was found murdered in Baltimore, a city that has seen far too much anti-trans violence.
These murders come at a time when trans women are actually getting some good media attention. Laverne Cox’s TIME cover story was largely positive, certainly the best educational piece about the trans community in such a mainstream publication. And Cox’s Emmy nomination will undoubtedly create more opportunities for her to humanize trans women for a broad audience. I’m most excited for the young trans girl in small town America for whom Laverne Cox can be a “possibility model” and a great alternative to the stereotypes I was exposed to when I was younger. Cox is exactly the person I want advocating for trans folks from such a mainstream platform, because she does a masterful job of lifting up important issues like discrimination and violence that plague far too many trans folks, particularly low income trans women and trans women of color. But it’s not lost on me that Cox’s rise in the media, as well as recent important trans rights wins, have been met with a negative backlash. Even positive visibility can make things harder for folks directly involved, as trans homecoming queen Cassidy Lynn Campbell learned when celebration of her win was met by bullying.
I obviously believe positive media representation is important for trans people. I wouldn’t do the work I do if that weren’t the case. Media has the power to bring attention to important cases like that of Jane Doe, a 16 year-old trans girl of color who is being abused by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families and is currently locked up in solitary in a boys facility. Media and pop culture can host humanizing portrayals of trans women, and this does happen when we’re able to control the narrative, as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have both done admirably. The impact of this positive visibility can be enormous. Sadly, mainstream media still cares more about Jared Leto winning an award than Jane Doe being locked up in solitary. Further, it’s important to recognize that even positive visibility comes with backlash while we’re working to win basic human dignity for trans folks. Conservative groups are bullying kids by fighting school anti-discrimination laws and trying to stir up panic over trans people using public restrooms. And of course there’s everyday bullying and violence, including the murders of five women just recently. It’s powerful and valuable to be out and proud in the media, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge both the personal risk involved and the temporary increase in bigotry that comes with fighting for and winning rights and representation.
It’s important to recognize, as many trans folks have said before me, that visibility won’t feed or clothe or house you. Humanization is an important part of the broader project of fighting for transgender liberation. But visibility in and of itself is not a positive value, particularly if what’s visible is just more tired stereotypes.
Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing.