what it's really like to be a transgender model
Valentijn de Hingh discusses her life as a trans model, and how we can all break free from gender constraints.
When the Amazon produced hit TV show Transparent won five of the eleven Emmy Awards it was nominated for, it was yet another milestone for transgender visibility and representation. The tragicomic series that chronicles an LA family in which the father comes out as a transgender woman and starts her transition, has given the transgender community a multifaceted identity that is deeply complex, richly diverse, and yet retains humanity, warmth and integrity. For me, as a transgender woman, the show felt like a breath of fresh air. After years of dealing with the endlessly derogatory transgender story lines on the Jerry Springer Show, Transparent finally offered a representation of trans people which felt open and honest, rather than sensationalized, violating and blatantly disrespectful. The show doesn't sugarcoat trans issues, nor does it overdramatize them.
The popularity of Transparent and the accolades the show has received, are just one more example of the momentum the trans movement has gained over the last few years. Trans activists such as bestselling author Janet Mock, actress Laverne Cox, film director Lana Wachowski, TED speaker and activist Geena Rocero, and, most recently of course, Caitlyn Jenner, have all actively opened up the debate on trans issues and continue to strive for awareness and acceptance. Meanwhile, a host of trans models are changing the face of fashion and propelling the transgender movement into even greater prominence. It was on their cover that, in 2014, Time Magazine used "The Transgender Tipping Point" to describe the major attention mainstream media were giving to trans issues. Jill Soloway, who created Transparent, referred to this Time cover in her speech after winning the Emmy for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series. After thanking her 'Moppa', as she lovingly calls her own transgender parent, who was her main inspiration for the show, she went on to explain that it is still legal in 32 states for a landlord to refuse renting an apartment to a trans person. "We don't have a trans tipping point yet," Soloway concluded, "we have a trans civil rights problem."
It was a good thing that Soloway reminded us that trans equality has not even nearly been achieved, all the more because the increased amount of airtime allotted to the trans movement can easily make us forget that all is not hunky-dory for the trans community IRL. Trans people still face institutionalised discrimination, isolation and violence every day; the suicide and unemployment rates amongst our community are generally high and 2015 has been the year in which the most murders of trans people (specifically, trans women of color) have been reported thus far in the US. There can be little doubt as to why the Time cover Soloway mentioned in her speech dubbed trans equality "America's new civil rights frontier."
Still, Soloway's speech made me wonder whether we in fact have a transgender civil rights problem. Surely, trans people's civil rights are being violated on a daily basis, so her statement was in every way legitimate and necessary. But my thoughts lingered on the word 'problem.' What exactly was the problem here? Was it merely that transgender people can be refused housing, have to fear aggression and exclusion? Or is something else at play - something deeper and more complex?
What I think needs to happen is a total shift in our perception of gender in general. The reason why the trans community is still facing very real hardships, in my opinion, ultimately boils down to the persistent notion that gender is binary in nature. The fact remains that the world is still considered by many to be divided neatly into 'men' and 'women', and that this binary is considered to be natural and normal. There's very little space left for us to move from one to the other. We are operating in a discourse that always must comprehend the trans experience as different and abnormal.
It would, of course, be nonsensical to deny that men and women are biologically different; they do have different bodies and different hormones, different chromosomes and different genes. No doubt, they even have different brain structures. However, it is what these biological differences come to mean within the sociocultural contexts we inhabit that really matters. I've always found it so strange that society not only assigns gender to our bodies at the moment we are born, but also to almost everything that exists, to things that are not even necessarily related to our biological make-up. Toys, clothes, products, behaviors, values, jobs, interests, ethics - all are things that are inherently gendered; something as simple as a dress has a strong feminine connotation. But why? Do women have a specific 'dress-gene' that causes them to gravitate to this specific garment? I think not.
Being a trans model, I have often noticed how photographers, stylists and hair or make-up artists want to portray me as either ultra feminine, enhancing my female characteristics, or androgynous, calling forth my more masculine features. It is not that I feel uncomfortable with either; I have no problem with shifting from one gender role to the other for shoots and shows. What this does prove, however, is that 'manhood' and 'womanhood' remain the only two scripts that seem to be available to us; that the gender binary is still fixed in our minds and that it is hard to move beyond it.
It is the foundation we are supposed to build our identities on, but as such it constrains us, oppresses us, and tells us what building blocks we are allowed to use.
What I have noticed is that cisgender people often regard the nature of gender as specifically problematic to the transgender community; they do recognize the difficulties trans people experience because of gender, but simply choose not to relate these issues to themselves. Everybody experiences gender dysphoria at some point and to some degree. We all sometimes fall outside the mould gender has superimposed on us, and are reprimanded by society for our transgressions.
When I think back to Soloway's statement that we have a trans civil rights problem, I do believe it isn't just trans rights that are in crisis (even though they are), but gender itself. Gender will always fail as a system, even for cisgender people because its boundaries are guarded, policed, shielded with greater and greater vigilance. It is the gender system that operates in our society that is inherently flawed, and the transgender community is merely getting the shorter end of the stick because of it.
Whilst I firmly agree with Soloway that trans equality is of the utmost importance, and that we should continue to fight for a society that is inclusive of the trans community, I fear that if this means we have to somehow fit the trans experience into a gender system that is so very limited and exclusive, we will simply fail. If we cannot fashion ourselves a new system, in which all of our identities, of trans and cis people alike, can flow more fluently, free from gender constraints, the transgender tipping point will be even further away than we might have hoped.
Text Valentijn De Hingh