Fashion and pop culture only embrace transgender people who don’t look trans. The real ‘tipping point’ will come when we embrace queer beauty outside of the binary, says author Juno Roche.
Still from a film by Fox Fisher
In 2014, Time magazine put actress and campaigner Laverne Cox on the cover, and declared the moment a ‘transgender tipping point’. A point at which trans people could, and would, come out of the shadows and claim their rightful and authentic place within wider society. It heralded a time of widespread acceptance, surely, if we were now on covers of magazines, on the sofas of breakfast television and beginning to appear in ones and occasionally twos across the media spectrum. But this visibility had a catch: to be accepted, you had to ‘pass’.
"Almost all our now-visible role models have become visible not through their transness but through erasing their transness through normativity, and their transness being discovered or outed."
After my surgery, my gender realignment surgeon advised me that, to cover the scars that ran down either side of my neo-vagina, I could grow a luxuriant pubic bush. This would disguise, up close and personal, the fact that my vagina was in fact a trans space, created by upcycling my redundant cock and balls. The 1970s bush was intended to hide my transness and make me more desirable. I think the doctor meant well, because history had ordained his role, and his task was to make us trans folk look as ‘real’ as possible -- as much like cis folk as possible.
His advice saddened me, as my scars delineated both my journey and my courage to accept and make necessary changes. My scars were my bravery and my wobbly queer identity lay within the shallow welts left by the stitches. I felt that I had a dilemma: did I leave, raw and perhaps vulnerable, my transness, or did I seek comfort and even security in trying to look as cis as possible?
“Fashion is having a moment with gender fluidity, but not necessarily transness” -- Hari Nef
There were many voices around me, personal and societal, telling me that safety and success lay in ‘passing and blending’ -- that the more I looked like ‘them’, the easier my life would be. To be visibly or audibly trans would mean risking rejection, economic stability and intimacy, so extinguishing my trans fault lines would help me to have an ordinary life. Our (fairly) recent ‘tipping point’ did nothing to challenge that notion, hiding the amazing work done by the people often depicted as utterly hetero- and cis-normative.
Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and others stateside, and a small group of beautiful catwalk and editorial models, such as Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic, were held aloft as breaking a ceiling and heralding a new era of not only acceptance, but celebration. Trans lives apparently now centre stage on magazine covers, would not only be accepted but would have careers built from desire and aspiration like all others. But the ceiling was never on our terms, and if anything was broken, it certainly wasn’t sexism or misogyny. The trans community was still held up to rigorous standards of having to be realer than real to be worthy of safety and inclusion.
"The inclusion of a single trans model within a campaign rarefies them and creates an impossible standard of normative beauty for the rest of the transgender community to seek to attain."
As the brilliant Laverne Cox said following the release of her Time magazine cover, “...in certain lighting, at certain angles I am able to embody certain cisnormative beauty standards. Now, there are many trans folks because of genetics and/or lack of material access who will never be able to embody these standards. More importantly many trans folks don’t want to embody them and we shouldn’t have to to be seen as ourselves and respected as ourselves.”
You only have to examine the language used around Caitlyn Jenner at that time (and still now), and her apparent struggle to fit an itsy weeny feminine gender mould -- her scars, her past shadows of masculinity still too much in evidence for the tipping point to tip in her favour. Her politics often didn’t help her, but they were put to one side as she was thrown casually to the dogs of ‘comedy’. Her utter bravery in revealing her truth was brutally ignored as her hands, the size of her hands, was forensically and spitefully examined. So many trans women I know, and trans men, are judged on minute details they cannot change. No amount of facial feminisation surgery or vaginoplasty will change your hand size or height.
Ordinary trans folk have been held up recently and compared to catwalk models, whose beauty overrides any sense of trans authenticity. Historically, almost all our now-visible role models have become visible not through their transness but through erasing their transness through normativity, and their transness being discovered or outed. Their seeking normativity makes complete sense on many levels: One, we all want to fit in to society, somewhere, somehow; Two, historically the trans community has been so brutalised, that fitting in meant -- and still means -- safety for many; Three, not all trans people are the same, even in these slightly more open times. Some trans folk want to describe themselves as women, men, trans men, trans women, but there are a few -- a rising number -- who just want to describe themselves as trans. Placing themselves slap bang in the middle of their transness, they rally against the cis-normative model that we are often judged against.
"I never felt that I moved from one gender to another. I never felt man and I never feel woman."
Hari Nef is one model who has used her platform to speak out against this unfair use of transgender identities to become commodified without any sense of real respect or understanding towards the transgender community. “Fashion is having a moment with gender fluidity, but not necessarily transness,” Hari said in 2015. “Designers are presenting masculinity as an option for women, and vice versa. That’s not ontology, that’s aesthetics.”
The attempt to package and repackage androgyny as ‘trans acceptance’ is rife across the fashion industry, but it completely misses the point as androgyny plays with the slip-sliding between binaries and binary signifiers. Bored to death are we of seeing a woman in suit, hair slicked back by a male designer, passing her a cigarette to look more like Frida Kahlo or the inverse, a pale ethereal long limbed youth dressed in floral and portrayed as both fey femme and willing sex object. That isn’t progressing trans rights, that is doing what fashion has often tended to do, to caricature and reduce any sense of political, personal or cultural growth to its lowest common denominator. Commodified costume, trans as dress-up -- trans as a trend.
Trans women and trans men are regularly insulted, sacked and attacked for apparently seeking safety within these same characterisations on the street. It works on the catwalk because catwalks are privileged spaces. Merely upholding them through the normative lens of beauty standards isn’t challenging or creating space for us. They are making money off our backs. The inclusion of a single trans model within a campaign rarefies them and creates an impossible standard of normative beauty for the rest of the transgender community to seek to attain.
I do not need to be seen as woman, as a trans woman, as being androgynous, or even non-binary. Simply, I am happy to be seen as a trans person, born trans with a trans body capable of fluidity and change. My body, and specifically my genitals, had alchemic potential to transform into a better fit. I never felt that I moved from one gender to another. I never felt man and I never feel woman.
"Trans isn’t a motorway service station where trans people can stop on their arduous journey between one binary pole and another. Trans can be a destination itself."
I recently saw an image of the performance artist Travis Alabanza in which their trans beauty embodied, raw and untouched, spelled out a future-perfect in relation to trans safety and trans identities. Young, trans and defiantly refusing to conform, Travis creates real space, new space for others to inhabit behind them. Such acute bravery and beauty makes me ever more determined to not waste my energy or time fighting with so called ‘radicals’ for a claim to ‘reality’, when instead we could be occupying and growing our own -- incredibly empowering -- ‘radical vulnerability’.
In time, I suspect that the world will look back and see all our gender expectations for what they are truly are: limiting, controlling and, far too often, shaming. For me, being transgender is not a stepping stone, a spare room between being a ‘man’ and becoming a ‘woman’. Trans isn’t a motorway service station where trans people can stop on their arduous journey between one binary pole and another. Trans can be a destination itself. I want to spend my time within the beautiful, ever-expanding and learning boundaries of our community, seeking to explore what it means to be radically transgender without seeking any approval. Seeking safety, but safety on our terms; unjudged and accepted without needing surgery to fit a prescribed mould that we know is harming everyone, trans and cis.
Queer Sex by Juno Roche is out now, published by JKP.