Julia Serano, a Bay Area author and trans-activist who is herself trans, responded to my email interview request by making clear what she wasn’t going to talk about.
She wrote that she was open to doing interviews as long as the focus was on her
perspective as an author
“I mention this because media outlets are often looking to do ‘transgender journey’ or gender transition-focused articles,” Serano wrote. “As a trans author & activist, I have no problems talking about transgender issues and experiences, but I have no desire to participate in the aforementioned type of article.”
Got it. Loud and clear.
I went into our interview on edge. I didn’t want to seem focused on the personal and the individual — though the personal and individual is exactly what can get lost when we try to understand a group of people with only images and stories about their bodies.
By focusing exclusively on physical transitions, media coverage of trans people often ignores how trans lives and trans activism are related to the larger issues of gender in our society.
When I interviewed Serano, I asked her what artifacts or stories she would put in a museum from the career of her activism.
“I think first off, the idea of there being a museum…,” she began.
My chest seized up. Panic pulsed in the back of my throat — I waved my hands to indicate that she should disregard my question. She would, I felt sure, have a problem with talking about trans lives or trans activism as a safe, detached collection of facts that could be read the way one might peruse a museum of social history.
But then she finished her sentence: “…in the first place is good,” she said.
Part of why I worried about the “display case” way of approaching trans activism was related to societal attitudes towards trans people. In our interview, Julia mentioned an arm’s length acceptance of the trans community: many people’s acceptance ends when they feel that their own gender identities or relationships are affected by a trans person’s identity.
Serano told me that a trans activism museum would be valuable in part because trans activism has historically occurred in small, isolated groups whose work exists only in archives or has “vanished.”
Here is what Serano would include in her museum exhibit.
Display Case One: Old School Email Groups
“It’s hard to talk to people about what it was like being trans before the internet,” Serano said. “Then for a while the internet was really helpful, but everything was happening on these old school email groups. People would join an email group and that’s where we’d be getting our information, but those have closed and a lot have disappeared.”
Display Case Two: Exclusion — Trans Women and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
“I spent a lot of my early activism being involved with Camp Trans, a protest of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival trans-women exclusion policy,” Serano said. “Michigan last year apparently had their last festival…and they never did change the policy. It was one offshoot of many in trans activism, but that time has seemingly disappeared.”
Display Case Three: Caitlyn Jenner — or Things that Never Change
Serano says that every few years someone famous comes out as trans, and the media coverage of that person follows a predictable formula. Take Caitlyn Jenner.
“All the questions she [Caitlyn] was asked in her first interview are the same questions that people have been asking of trans people for the last 20 years,” Serano said.
The questions (many of which were about hormones, surgeries and how Caitlyn physically presents herself) revolved around Caitlyn’s physical transition.
Serano critiques the use of before and after pictures in media representations of trans people because they fuel a longstanding fixation on physical transitions rather than complete lives. She recalled that when Caitlyn Jenner did her Vanity Fair cover, nearly every news organization had side-by-side images of decathlete Bruce and present-day Caitlyn.
In her book “Whipping Girl,” Julia described instances when she and other trans women were encouraged by journalists to put on lipstick for an article or video. She argues that, for multiple decades, media outlets have sought out images of trans women who have cultivated, or are in the process of cultivating, a hyper-feminine appearance.
Julia describes the image of Caitlyn putting on makeup in the preview for the reality show “I Am Cait.”
“Why it is that media always wants to depict trans women in the act of putting on clothing or makeup? It feels like some things haven’t changed at all,” Serano said.
Display Case Four: Bathroom Bills, Visibility, and Backlash
During Serano’s young adulthood, trans activists aimed to overcome isolation and invisibility. In the last 20 years, the community has gained visibility, and the internet has helped with isolation.
Julia says that 10 years ago there was no organized political force against trans people, because much of society was “not okay” with them.
“With us gaining a modicum of acceptance has come organized movements to…roll back trans rights,” she said. “What we are facing right now is backlash because we are visible.”
Julia brought up the “bathroom bills” that conservative political forces have tried to enact in several states, including South Dakota and North Carolina. These bills make it illegal for anyone to use the restroom not associated with their so-called biological sex.
Display Case Five: Not in My Back Yard — Similarities Between Gay Rights Movements and Trans Rights Movements
“With a lot of gay and lesbian folks, there’s been a lot of acceptance because of, ‘Oh OK, you’re a person, and you have your own relationships and they don’t interfere with mine,’ and so a lot of the progress that has been made has been kind of based on that,” Serano said. But she brings up the fact that people still have a lot of issues with people whose bisexual or pansexual identification threatens a false dichotomy of straight and gay.
She says that people see the “gay couple in the house two doors down” as “kind of a safe thing,” but are “a little less accepting” when they find out they are dating someone who “also happens to be queer identified.”
Display Case Six: We Are All Complicit
When asked if there was something she wished more journalists talked to her about, she brought up something that she wished everyone considered more often.
“I think there is increasing understanding that trans people are unfairly mistreated,” Serano said. “People always cite statistics about violence against trans people and job discrimination, suicides and all these things.”
But she added that there’s a disconnect between those statistics and people questioning themselves.
She described shaming young boys for crying or young girls for being rough and tumble as directly connected to the harms that trans people encounter.
But the problem goes deeper than that.
“Are there ways that I’m possibly treating people differently because of how I’ve already gendered them? As someone who’s transitioned, I would say yes,” Serano said. “But I would like to see people making more of a connection between the seemingly mundane ways we all talk about gender, and the more blatant forms of discrimination that all trans people face.”