Photo by Lena Balk

“I’m a cis woman,” my friend says, smiling that smile she always does when she’s about to say something ridiculous. “I just happened to have been born with a penis.” I laugh, because that’s what trannies[1] do when one of us makes a sad joke about our gender. “I would never say that, of course,” she continues, staring into the middle distance, “but in my heart, that’s what I am. I’m a cis woman.” I laugh again, because what else is there to say? Lord knows I’ve felt much the same way. The unspoken truism hangs in the air between us: What a burden it is to be trans.

Devan Díaz, in her masterful essay on trans representation from CR Fashion Book 17, writes: “If I must be trans – and it seems I must – then let it be dangerous! Or joyous, with better dialogue and beautiful lighting. I don’t care what it means to be trans, or a woman. I want to be told stories.” Diaz is among the best trans writers of her generation and doesn’t disappoint here. In the context of the larger essay, these lines are a bold plea for greater trans representation and a rejection of assimilationist visions of representation, a sentiment surely all of us reading this essay can agree with. But one line in the above quotation stands out and, I believe, represents much of the way that my generation thinks about our transness: “If I must be trans – and it seems I must.” This, to me, perfectly encapsulates how many in my (and Diaz’s) generation of trans people view ourselves and how we must rethink our own views of ourselves and our communities.

From a sociopolitical perspective, it can often be helpful to look at how marginalised communities react to their depictions in mainstream art as a shorthand for seeing greater societal patterns. In looking at this, we can see how oppressed groups’ views of themselves often come in waves. First, a call for positive portrayals as a reaction to the intensely negative ways oppressed groups have historically been portrayed. This perspective is perfectly natural and fair but does open the door to an assimilationist politics that – as social conservatism is wont to do – eventually takes over the discourse. This, then, gives rise to a backlash against what are often condescending portrayals. This backlash begins to demand both that oppressed groups have more authorship over their own depictions and also that they not be used purely for tokenism. This backlash typically calls for more nuanced depictions that, by default, will be less strictly positive. In this, we can see a clear evolution: No longer is the demand simply representation in an unjust society (or unjust media landscape) but real and honest portrayals of people by and for our community. No longer will we accept the toothless versions of ourselves put forward by those with power in a society that oppresses us. This is a progressive instinct that illustrates a meaningful evolution in the expectations marginalised communities have of mainstream culture. Not just inclusion in an unjust society, but a demand for meaningful changes within it. This ideological shift, then, can be a basis from which to build a movement to win true liberation for oppressed groups.

However, to keep the scope of this essay to media – surely, we do not have time for a full political analysis of transness – we can look, as an example, at the ways that bisexual people have reacted to their portrayal in Basic Instinct. When the film was first released in 1992, queer rights groups protested the film, calling it biphobic. How dare you portray a bisexual woman as a psychopathic murderess, they cried. This is deeply offensive! In this, we can see that ingrained social conservatism and fear. If straight people see Basic Instinct they might think we’re all like that, and then they’ll never accept us and continue to oppress us, seemed to be the logic of some. However, watching Basic Instinct now, we see a film with a juicy, fun role for a bisexual character who has full agency over her sexuality.[2] In a modern context, Sharon Stone’s turn in Basic Instinct feels somewhat liberating, because she has power. In this evolution of context, we can see that the generations that came after the release of Basic Instinct is far less fearful of being seen as “sluts” and, in fact, can often find such portrayals liberating. What once was an offensive portrayal of bisexual people is now a powerful middle finger to respectability politics.

I bring all this up because I believe that my generation (which is also Diaz’s generation) of trans people are still stuck in the trauma of negative representation which, in turn, represents an assimilationist streak in our political identities.[3] From a historical context, this makes perfect sense. My generation – the millennial generation of trannies – came out at a time when we were still fighting tooth and nail for a place – for example, I came out as trans in North Carolina as the state was defending the anti-trans bathroom bill. We were basically shut out of all mainstream discourse and had essentially no figures in media to look to. The few examples we had were typically cis people playing trans people in some form of deep despair, usually involving some form of hate crime. Trans people were erased except for when they could either be fetishised or harmed. This led to my generation rebelling against that in the way that Diaz lays out. We wanted to reject these portrayals of our lives and just be people. The trans part of trans people was an oppressive and forced-upon adjective that we wanted to drop.

While this is a natural reaction to oppression, it has resulted in what we might call trans respectability politics. Examples like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox began to be held up to show that, See? We are just like you. This focus on cis-seeming trans folks allowed for more representation but abandoned huge swaths of our community. Sex workers, non-binary people, and those who couldn’t pass were scrubbed from the public-facing trans community because it didn’t fit into the assimilationist politics that were being pushed.[4] These trans icons were largely de-sexed and relatively apolitical outside of asking for the bare minimum of trans inclusion – a necessity for them to continue to have a platform and all the privileges that came with it.[5] These public figures had, largely, political identities that fit into the greater gender binary and were, by-and-large, non-threatening to a cis audience. They were given a platform to share the message that trans people were not threatening to the status quo of gender. This is assimilationist politics in its clearest form: These trans spokespeople didn’t want to challenge the way society viewed gender, they wanted to be accepted into it.

This all led to the development of a complex amongst many trans people of my generation where we became, at least in the public eye, largely de-sexed and passively ashamed of our transness. Gay men of the generation before me famously would argue that “being gay was the least interesting thing” about them. This is the same approach that many trans folks have adopted towards our transness. We must be trans which, intentionally or not, implies that, if being trans was a choice, all of us would choose not to be. To put this another way, it fundamentally places cisness at a position of not just societal power but moral power. Many of us have internalised that we should be ashamed of our own gender. This serves to repress our self-esteem which, in turn, leads to us taking up less confrontational political identities and, essentially, taking up a largely defensive approach to politics.[6]

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about Hunter Schafer. I’m obsessed with her, want to be her, and would give just about anything to be her best friend. We’re from the same hometown and I’m a couple of years older than her so I often will reflect on how our two experiences of growing up trans in North Carolina are different. But Schafer is interesting, for the sake of this essay, by what they illustrate about a Gen Z approach to transness.

Schafer is one of the first mainstream trans icons of my lifetime to have a public persona that embraces her sexuality. She’s, obviously, an incredibly talented and brilliant person and artist, but her public persona is someone who takes amazing and beautiful photos that don’t hide the fact that she’s drop-dead gorgeous. This empowered sexuality is also reflected in Schafer’s role on Euphoria – a show that she increasingly takes up more authorship of. Schafer’s character is sexually active and has several sexual experiences that are portrayed as positive and fun. Jules goes on dates, rolls on molly, and has normal teenage angst – while also having a full helping of transphobic trauma. In all of this, her transness isn’t erased or forgotten but, rather, a vital character trait. She isn’t a cool, beautiful, funny girl who happens to be trans; she’s a trans girl who is cool, beautiful, and funny. Her transness is present but not hyper-focused upon.

In the most recent episode of Euphoria – an episode co-written by Schafer – Jules, Schafer’s character, says: “At least for me, being trans is spiritual. You know, it’s not religious. It’s not, like, for some congregation. It’s for me. It’s mine. It belongs to me. And I don’t ever want to stand still. Like, I want to be alive. I mean, that’s what this has always been about…staying alive.”

This is a completely different way to look at one’s own transness than feeling like you must be trans. And it leads to a different political identity. If your vision of transness is as spirituality and that you don’t ever want to stand still, then you, fundamentally, will have a more confrontational political identity than someone who is trying to let the mainstream culture know that their transness doesn’t make them abnormal. Without overstating the political content of Schafer’s writing, we can see the beginnings of a more liberating mindset.

Shifts in personal perception and ideology don’t happen in a vacuum. It is a response to a changing landscape, a shifting and evolving culture. Another way we can see this evolution of the culture is in the way that trans youth behave on social media.

When I was a trans teenager, I didn’t realise I was a trans teenager. Or, perhaps, more specifically, I really didn’t want to be a trans teenager. Outside of the mainstream culture – where we existed only to be brutalised – all we had was Tumblr, where we existed to share the numerous micro- (and macro-) aggressions we had to endure. That space will always hold a special place in my heart, but there were only two options for us young trannies: rage and/or depression. I compare that now to the trans kids who are all over TikTok. For sure, rage and pain are shared often, but so is joy and humour and community. Friends will often send me TikToks of different non-binary teens cracking jokes about their gender. This is a far cry from the largely humourless landscape of Tumblr that I knew. The trans kids of today have a sense of humour about themselves, something that we were never afforded.

Recently a friend turned me onto trans Reddit, a world I frankly had no idea existed. I braced myself and joined a few of the sub-Reddits. I’ve been here before and there is only so much trans pain I can take on my timeline without needing to log-off. However, shockingly, post after post was just people talking about how empowered and affirmed they feel. These posts introduced me to a new term: gender euphoria. I’d never heard of it. I’d heard of gender dysphoria – honey, believe me I’ve heard of gender dysphoria – but gender euphoria was an entirely new concept to me. And, scrolling through all of these posts, I kept finding people sharing their examples of gender euphoria and posting pictures of themselves. And every comment was encouraging and affirming. This is a very different trans social media culture than the one I came up in.

And these kids are self-possessed in a way that basically no trans person of my generation got to be when we were young. They are dancing and wearing wild makeup and falling in love and doing all the fun, vaguely irresponsible things that teenagers are supposed to do. Being trans is no longer an automatic sentence of death or life in the prison of the binary. Increasingly, fluidity isn’t just accepted, it’s fucking cool. Harry Styles is wearing a dress on the cover of magazines and Janelle Monae is talking about how they are non-binary. Tilda Swinton, Halsey, Miley Cyrus, and Sam Smith have all come out as non-binary in the last few years and the image of transness is shifting. Pose presents a Black and brown picture of transness in a way that no other major television show has ever done before. Gen Z is growing up in a world where, increasingly being trans is cool and assimilating isn’t. Why would we ever want to assimilate when we can be this fabulous?

Again, I think it is important to underline and triple underline that there are still many, many threats to trans people, especially trans kids. But there are also a lot more opportunities and examples than existed when my generation was coming up. We don’t just have cis people in bad drag claiming to represent us while they get abused, now we have out, proud, and unique trans icons. And this is teaching the trans kids of today that being trans isn’t a curse.

There’s a quote from Allen Ginsberg I keep returning to as I think about the current generation of trans folks. Ginsberg was of the generation of gay men pre-Stonewall but went down to visit the riots as they were happening. As he left the riot, Ginsberg said: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look the fags all had 10 years ago.” Not to overstate the current moment (certainly we are not experiencing a second Stonewall), but that quote perfectly sums up how I feel reading and watching these young trans kids today. They are all so beautiful and they’ve lost that wounded look all trannies had 10 years ago. And I think that’s incredible.

This is what I want for my trans siblings. I want us to realise that our gender isn’t something to be ashamed of, a burden to wear around our necks, a thing to try and hide. I believe that one part of fighting for our liberation (but not, by any means, the only part of fighting for our liberation) is the fight to liberate ourselves from the ideology of the cissexist superstructure. We have all been forced into this society and, in order to fight against it, we must make meaningful ideological breaks with its logic. Trans pride isn’t frivolous but, rather, an important and moralising part of the fight against transphobia. We must mobilise and protest and organise for our rights, of course, but we also can’t be under any illusions that cissexist capitalist society will ever accept us. No matter how toothless we render our political identities, they will still attack and oppress us because that oppression is baked into the very system. So, then, we must ideologically break with assimilationist politics. To this, we should look to the younger generation for signs of the beginnings of that project. We must continue to rid ourselves of the same repression that our oppressors use to control us and realize that we are worth more. We are worth more than the crumbs we are offered and we are certainly worth more than these terrible attacks. We deserve full liberation. And that liberation is impossible within the current system, so we should waste no time trying to assimilate into it.

[1] Trannies is used here as an attempt to reclaim that slur from within the community. It is being used by a transfemme writer.

[2] It should be noted here that there are still many issues of the heterosexual gaze that the all-cis male creative team brings to that character and that film that gets into questions of authorship that are also outside the scope of this essay.

[3] For the sake of this piece, political identity is being used to mean the way that you publicly present yourself and your identity which is inherently political.

[4] This pushing of respectability politics was part of a larger political project of neoliberalism that sought to disconnect marginalised communities from their radical politics in order to make them less dangerous to the status quo. Neoliberalism and its impact on the development of trans identity and trans sense of self is important to discuss but greater than the scope of this essay.

[5] A fuller discussion of trans public figures and the inherent conservativism of many of their political identities during the “Transgender Tipping Point” (as Time Magazine deemed it) is needed but is outside the scope of this essay.

[6] A defensive approach to politics is one focused purely on defending against attacks and rollbacks of already existing legal/social rights rather than the attempt to win more.

Ezra Brain

Ezra Brain is a trans multi-disciplinary artist activist, and teacher based in NYC. As a theatre artist, their writing has been performed at the Tank, Literacy Theatre, Stop Pretending Theatre Project, Passaic Preparatory Academy, the New Masculinities Festival, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the Studio Theatre at Tierra Del Sol, the Art Garage, Dixon Place, and Stay True Theatre. Their play Something’s Coming (co-written with J. Andrew Norris) was a 2020 Finalist for the Jewish Playwriting Contest from the Jewish Plays Project. Ezra’s essays and articles have been published in 10 countries and 6 languages. As a filmmaker, Ezra’s work has been accepted into multiple festivals around the world. They are an award-winning teaching artist, a proud member of Ring of Keys, the Dramatists Guild, and the Editorial Board of Left Voice.

Ezra Brain is a trans multi-disciplinary artist activist, and teacher based in NYC. As a theatre artist, their writing has been performed at the Tank, Literacy Theatre, Stop Pretending Theatre Project, Passaic Preparatory Academy, the New Masculinities Festival, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the Studio Theatre at Tierra Del Sol, the Art Garage, Dixon Place, and Stay True Theatre. Their play Something’s Coming (co-written with J. Andrew Norris) was a 2020 Finalist for the Jewish Playwriting Contest from the Jewish Plays Project. Ezra’s essays and articles have been published in 10 countries and 6 languages. As a filmmaker, Ezra’s work has been accepted into multiple festivals around the world. They are an award-winning teaching artist, a proud member of Ring of Keys, the Dramatists Guild, and the Editorial Board of Left Voice.

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