Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a wonderful author who writes about feminism and visibility, was recently under fire for her discussion of trans women. I accept each person will have different reactions to what she said, but coming from my own experience as a FTM trans man, I think her idea has merit.
She said, “I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issue being exactly the same as the issues of trans women.” I understand how some people can feel hurt by what she said, as it is apparent that she’s not entirely used to talking about trans* identities.
However, even if your gender identity does not match your exterior, if you grow up as “female” or “male” you will have a different experience than what you possibly expected or desired. Everyone’s experience is different, so don’t take my words as gospel, but you can’t control how others perceive your gender. Even if you present feminine or masculine, some people go off of attributes that you simply cannot control.
No matter how many binders I wear, pronoun pins I adorn to my clothing, or how much effort I put towards deepening my voice, most people still gender me as “female”. It hurts, and it frustrates me, but to many people I’m read as female. Because I was socialized as female, and people still treat me as female, I have a different experience than someone socialized and treated as male since birth, whether they identify as male or not.
Perhaps it wasn’t Adichie’s place to say this about trans women seeing as she is cisgender, but I think she has a fair point; no matter how much it hurts or is frustrating, trans women have a different experience of the world than cisgender women.
Moving on from Adiche’s recent interview, in her well known TED talk, she discusses the danger of a single story, and how only knowing a stereotype of someone’s identity lays the groundwork for ignorance, hate, and violence.
So, what is the trans* single story? I personally believe there are a few single stories in circulation; that trans women are prostitutes, predators, or jokes, and trans men, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, and agender folks simply don’t exist.
I don’t want to stigmatize sex work whatsoever, however, there is an issue in popular media of trans women, predominately trans women of color, being depicted solely as prostitutes. Even movies like Tangerine, which casted trans women to play trans women, continued the stereotype of trans women only finding work in the sex industry.
If they’re not prostitutes, trans women are depicted as predatory people. The show CSI is infamous for its transphobic slurs and the depictions of trans women as murderers, villains, and deceivers. There’s also an example of this transphobic trope in Silence of the Lambs, where the Buffalo Bill character is depicted as a murdering, psychotic trans person.
The most common single story is that trans* identities are jokes. This one is prevalent throughout media; Bobs Burgers, Mrs. Doubtfire, Portlandia, It’s Always Sunny In Philidelphia, and Broad City to name a few.
In terms of identities such as nonbinary people, genderqueer people, and trans men, their complete lack of representation is a story in itself; they just don’t exist. Which we all know to be a falsehood, but it nonetheless is as toxic as the single stories of trans women.
Of course, for trans men, there are very few, albeit cliche and small, examples such as Max in the L Word and Dale in Transparent, the latter of which is actually played by a trans man. However, this limited visibility is only for white trans men, and follows stereotypes of anger issues and sexual aggression.
So, what can we do with this knowledge of trans* single stories? We can support shows that already have trans* representation, such as Sense8 and Transparent (even though Jeffrey Tambor’s role is still deeply problematic). We can advocate for further representation in media, and ridicule the shows and movies that continue to use these outdated tropes (I’m looking at you, Bob’s Burgers).
Inevitably, though, these decisions are in the hands of the people in charge. The best we can do is to prove that we’re not single stories by being visible and living our lives the way we want, rather than how society deems we should.