Reflections on where trans women stand in this moment of contradictions

There’s still something to be said for the poignancy of brief symbolic gestures. In celebration of the 14th annual Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, a transgender pride flag was raised in front of the city hall of America’s fifth largest city; the same city where a young black trans woman—London Chanel—was stabbed to death less than a month ago.

The conference itself is, in some ways, an extended metaphor for the contradictions of this transgender moment. It brings together trans women from around North America but dramatically underrepresents them in conference programming; it’s set in a city that features both historically liberal laws on trans rights and a vibrant trans activist community but also hosts a stark divide between rich and poor, and creeping gentrification in minority neighborhoods.

Caitlyn Jenner coverCaitlyn Jenner’s coming-out provokes a similar mix of complicated feelings. She’s been met by everything from hortatory celebration on social media to the most rank and puerile prejudice to necessary reminders that her privilege is not representative of us all. Like all acts of political symbolism, from the flag raising at Philly City Hall, to PTHC’s program, Jenner’s Vanity Fair debut contains conflicted multitudes. Where do trans women stand now? How far have we really come?

The answer is, as ever, messy. Such moments as these are neither all good nor all bad, anathema to the easy pronouncements that activism so often demands. We live neither in the gauzy apolitical feel-good moment of “Call Me Caitlyn” nor in the bleak Asphodel Meadows of cynical late-capitalist exploitation.


A useful point of comparison may be to another, less ambiguous political moment: the release of Julia Serano’s pathbreaking book Whipping Girl. In 2007, Serano’s book was a revelatory wind; she helped set the terms for a 101-level course of trans media criticism that was by and for trans women, picking apart the tropes often employed by the press and mass media in dissecting and portraying our lives (and, often as not, our deaths). The landscape was less encouraging back then, of course. We only had the deeply troubling film Transamerica to hearken to, and a steady diet of segments on talk shows and local news about the “transgender lifestyle.”

Serano’s work was a clear-eyed critique of it all, showing to her cisgender, feminist readers just how trans women had unrealistic double standards of femininity foisted on us, and gave us the term “transmisogyny” to describe the particular bite of sexism on trans women—we were always judged by our bodies and appearances to a sufficient extent to justify transphobic abuse and discrimination. Too feminine or too masculine, trying too hard or not hard enough, forever everything but ourselves.

This hasn’t quite changed, certainly. What has changed is that now someone like Jon Stewart can recognize at least some of this; his recent Daily Show segment on the media coverage of Jenner smartly zeroed in on how Jenner was being objectified and picked apart like any cisgender woman might be. Such media personalities may not understand all the deeper mysteries of transmisogyny, but recognizing this pattern of the lurid cis gaze—which, in the end, is overdetermined by the male gaze—is a tremendous victory.

I was also not quite expecting the BBC to post an article like this guide to “transgender terms.” Things are changing for the better, it would seem.

And yet, the “cis gaze” is still very much in evidence. Even as warm as this coverage for Jenner has been, it’s still very much by and for cisgender people. This is not altogether terrible—stories flooding into my social media have told mixed stories with some cis folks finally seeming to “get it” even as others still descended into lurid questioning (my own father tugged my arm about whether or not Jenner had “facial surgery” for instance).

This is why women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are absolutely vital to this political era. Who they are and what they bring to mainstream discourse is something that was wholly absent when Whipping Girl was first written. “Taking trans mainstream” is something many people, mostly women, have tried to do to various degrees, succeeding in some ways, failing in others; they raise awareness about our existence. But what Mock and Cox have done is take political trans-ness mainstream. Both women interlace radical political ideas with their media work, reminding us all about the other side of trans women’s lives. Cox advocated for an end to solitary confinement, particularly as its used with especial cruelty on trans women inmates. Mock’s autobiography was unapologetic in discussing her history as a sex worker and leading the reader through a basic primer on sex workers’ rights, humanity, and activism. Both women challenge mainstream media misrepresentation, politely but firmly, and both never let cis people forget about trans women of color in our society.


As I make my way through Philly Trans-Health’s cramped, narrow hallways at the convention center, I find myself awash in historical contradictions. Living that old cliche about how we’ve come so far and yet have so far to go. Laverne Cox headlined the “transgender tipping point” during the same month an especially alarming number of trans women of color were murdered; her visibility has made her a prime target for the trans-exclusionary radical feminists who still bedevil trans women on social media, and given her an odd kinship with Caitlyn Jenner: both found their bodies expropriated by people who wanted to either cut down them down or hammer them into the mould of an extremist agenda.

Something about Jenner’s media blitz feels like it emerged from the River Lethe, after all. It’s chillingly akin to Christine Jorgensen’s “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty” debut more than sixty years ago, to say nothing of how close we still are to the unsettled and grim landscape Serano surveyed. Each moment of this nature — the safe, mainstream, “family-friendly” coming out story — is the one we hope will be the most didactic, the real turning point. But it’s not; history never works like that. The way it does work is illustrated by the differences between Jenner and Jorgensen beyond their coming out stories: that any future romantic partners Jenner may find will not be fired from their jobs for dating her, that Jenner herself will not likely be relegated to being a social pariah after this media bacchanal passes, that she can live in a few states where discrimination against her is a crime.

But what is that owed to? Lavish coming-out parties of ages past? Not quite. It instead belongs to Cox and Mock’s tradition: the long, arduous, unblinking and openly political labor of trans women of color. The hard work that transpired between 1953 and today, from the 1965 Dewey’s Lunch Counter Sit-In here in Philadelphia to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera’s street activism — it all beat swords into the ploughshares that sewed enough consciousness and understanding for women like Jenner to land softly upon. There’s an irony there, certainly, one we can now at least navigate with the aid of better community spokeswomen than we have had in a very long time indeed.

A trail has been blazed, surely, but it is not much easier to walk than it once was.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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