Some time in 2013 or 2014, trans women became the new “It” girls. Liberal activists started lionizing us. Cisgender male actors began playing us. Right-wing lawmakers clamored to make us illegal. To this recently out trans woman just entering her 50s, it seemed as if overnight we’d been yanked out of the shadows and cast into the spotlight (if not invited into the daylight).
This isn’t the first time we’ve received all this attention. Back in December 1952, a story about an aspiring young Danish-American photographer named Christine Jorgensen made front-page headlines around the world. Jorgensen was then finishing a two and a half year residence in Copenhagen during which she had undergone a series of psychiatric evaluations and medical treatments and procedures that we refer to collectively today as transitioning. The media frenzy over her transition continued unabated into 1953 – she was mobbed by reporters on her return to the U.S. in mid-February – and she remained through most of the rest of the decade, as future comedian Nipsey Russell observed during a recorded interview with her in 1958, “without a doubt the world’s most publicized person.”
The reasons why these flare-ups of public interest in us happened when they did aren’t self-evident in either instance. Why has the push for transgender rights in this country been spotlighted only recently, a couple of decades after lesbian and gay folks began making inroads into the American mainstream? As for Jorgensen, though she was one of, if not the first American to transition, she was hardly the first person to do so. She herself estimates in the intro to her late ’60s autobiography that “perhaps thirty” folks had preceded her (A Personal Autobiography, Cleis Press, 2000, p. xvii). And one of those predecessors, Lili Isle Elvenes, aka Lili Elbe, the “Danish girl” portrayed in the recent, highly fictionalized film of that name, kept a detailed journal during her final years that was augmented after her death and published in 1933, and quickly translated into English as Man into Woman. Why didn’t her story garner then the kind of attention that Jorgensen’s did two decades later?
While the answers to these questions are necessarily complex, a couple of basic commonalities between the two episodes are suggestive: (1) the fact that both periods (the early 1950s and the present day) feature widespread anxieties about the dangerous instability of the world, and (2) the ways in which the very existence of trans folks, in particular trans women, serve as a potent symbol both for that instability and for fears about impotence in the face of it. These commonalities point to the sobering conclusion that while in many respects our circumstances have obviously changed for the better, the needle hasn’t moved that much in the past 60 years where gut-level public sentiment about us is concerned.
Jorgensen herself alludes to the symbolic threat that her transitioning represented in a couple of observations she makes in her autobiography. The year prior to her departure for Copenhagen, she managed to obtain some estradiol, and began self-medicating (a measure still resorted to by many trans folks today). Looking at the “small bottle” she received from the drugstore clerk, she says, spurred her to the following reflections:
How strange it seemed to me that the whole answer [to my perplexities] might lie in the particular combination of atoms contained in those tiny, aspirin-like tablets. As recently as a few years before, science had split some of those atoms and released a giant force. There in my hand lay another series of atoms, which in their way might set off another explosion – one I hoped would not be a destructive force but would help to make me a whole person (p. 77).
The use of hormone replacement therapy to treat gender dissonance (to use trans theorist/activist Julia Serano’s term) is imagined to have an explosive potential analogous “in [its] way” to the “giant force” unleashed a few years before in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At this point, that potential is thought of in purely individual terms – and is an apt metaphor for the harrowing, magical ride that transitioning remains for so many of us today. After the story of her transition breaks internationally, though, she acknowledges the analogy’s public dimension when she observes, “It seems to me now a shocking commentary on the press of our time that I pushed the hydrogen-bomb tests on Eniwetok right off the front pages” (p. 133). The public’s response to this new (to them) phenomenon is implicitly linked to their anxieties about The Bomb and the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Duck and cover, here come the trannies.
All this hullabaloo over a symbol may at first seem hard to fathom. As historian Susan Stryker notes, however, the anxieties attached to the trans/a-bomb analogy were very real. Beyond the sheer “awe for scientific technology” that both phenomena inspired, she observes, Jorgensen’s transition like the bomb tapped into deep, widely held fears about the fundamental stability of the world. In Jorgensen’s case, these fears were focused on post-war thinking about gender. Her much trumpeted status as an “ex-G.I.,” for example, (though she worked a desk job in New Jersey at the end of the war and never took part in the fighting) flagged concerns about the durability of this “macho archetype.” More generally, Stryker points out, the return of a generation of young men to the home front, and of women to the domestic sphere, had raised questions about “what made a man a man, or a woman a woman, and what their respective roles in life should be.” Jorgenson’s transition profoundly complicated these questions by suggesting that they weren’t confined to the social and economic realms, but needed to be addressed at the biological level as well. The mere fact of the “blond bombshell” Christine Jorgenson, that is, seemed to threaten the stable existence not only of the protecting figure of the soldier, but of the “natural” order itself, in the same way that the atomic bomb was menacing not just the geopolitical order, but life on the planet (Transgender History, pp. 47-8).
Fast forward six decades, and it’s second verse, similar to the first. This time our push for civil rights is the nominal reason for the renewed media attention. In important ways, though, it’s the very existence of trans folks (and again, trans women in particular) that has remained the focal point of public interest, and that’s because many continue to see us less as people than as an encapsulation of many things that they feel are threatening life as they know it.
To many on the right, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we’ve become an easy target for projected insecurities about lost virility in the face of threats both domestic (“political correctness”) and global. Never mind that our nation’s military remains, the new POTUS’s nonsensical disavowals notwithstanding, a highly potent force. Never mind that trans women were found in a 2013 study to be serving in the armed forces at three times the rate of cisgender members of the populace. For since when does reliably vetted evidence trump paranoid fantasies with this crowd? We’ve been made scapegoats to the “logic” of manning up because we’re evidently far more useful as symbols of degradation than as soldiers. (The stir over former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out a couple of years ago stems from similar anxieties over another “macho archetype.”)
The fear-mongering that attends this scapegoating plays to more general, persistent anxieties about the nature of gender. The questions, What makes a man a man, and a woman a woman?, that is, remain fraught for many people besides Bible bigots and other “social conservatives.” And trans women continue to be the poster children for those anxieties.
The idea of sharing a locker room with us, for example, freaks a lot of people out, and not just those who are straight and/or cis. I’ve been challenged on separate occasions in the past year by an older lesbian acquaintance and a younger, fully transitioned trans friend, both of whom identify as socially and politically liberal, on my belief that these facilities should be accessible to us regardless of the contours of our crotches. The objection both voiced to my position was that the idea of being exposed to male genitalia in that environment made them uncomfortable – ironically the very sentiment that right-wing lawmakers are exploiting with their highfalutin (though legally shaky) appeal to “privacy rights.”
Underlying and in large measure fueling these anxieties over public policy is a far deeper and more intractable set of fears that our existence continues to provoke even in well-meaning allies.
Last spring, I attended my 30th college reunion. It was the first one I’d gone to, and the first time I’d set foot on campus since the year after I graduated. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen most of my classmates since that time, and even those attendees I’d remained in touch with hadn’t seen me since I transitioned. At a reception the night I arrived, a classmate from the latter group greeted me, and over the course of the conversation that ensued, he revealed that his teenage child had recently come out as gender fluid, and as I recall was exploring the possibility that they might be trans. The concerns I heard him express about having inadvertently inflicted suffering on his child highlighted for me the unique set of challenges that we confront parents with. “Gender dissonance,” as Serano puts it, “has always been a ‘self-diagnosed’ condition: There are no visible signs or tests for it; only the trans person can feel and describe it” (p. 159). How can you tell if your kid is trans? Answer: you can’t, until we reveal it to you. I’ve never been a parent, but I know from my own parents’ struggles with my late-breaking “news” that this is a recipe for all kinds of emotional turmoil. My mom still feels some guilt for not having recognized what I was going through as a child, even though (as I’ve assured her) I did my utmost to hide it from everyone, and though (as we both acknowledge) the trans condition was effectively unknown at that time in my little hometown. More basically, trans children threaten one of the most emotionally freighted episodes in parenting: the moment when the infant’s genitalia are revealed (whether by sonogram or the attending OB), and the question, pink or blue?, is supposedly answered.
The fact that our visibility is something that we in large measure control ourselves, however, suggests that there’s a lot more at stake here than parental angst, or even broad cultural anxieties about gender. Consider the far right’s efforts to brand trans women as sexual predators and castigate us as traitors to a toxic masculinity that supposedly undergirds American freedom. These efforts continue to be as effective as they are, I think, not only because they play to old prejudices, but also because they play on primal fears of the unseen. Those fears associate what’s invisible with imminent, serious – even mortal – danger; and a number of things currently menacing what many think of as the American “way of life” (global warming, pandemics like ebola and zika, etc.) also evoke them. The fears that people associate with us, that is, are once again timely. And it’s this timeliness, I would argue, that as much as anything has drawn the spotlight back on us in the past few years.
One such symbolic affinity is particularly potent at present, I think: the way in which our coming out as trans suggests a terrorist attack. Put another way, if Christine Jorgensen’s emergence was the Atomic Age’s gender Hiroshima, we are today’s gender ISIL.
The “logic” of this largely unconscious affinity stems from the basic question about legibility that the two share. Just as there are no recognized signs of the trans condition independent of our own words and actions, a common theme in public discussions about terrorism is the relative helplessness of military experts, law enforcement, spiritual leaders, school officials, and others to identify perpetrators beforehand. This is particularly true where “radicalized” lone wolves are concerned. How can you predict who will be a mass shooter? The answer to this question isn’t written on an individual’s form and features, as 19th-century criminologists theorized, nor is it some derivative of the person’s home life, socioeconomic class, political and religious beliefs, and/or ethnicity (which dooms meatheaded measures like the new POTUS’s proposed Muslim registry to being ineffectual in addition to morally reprehensible). The “terrorist” is a far more complex, and more often than not unknowable, product of a myriad of factors, many of them particular to the given individual. Little wonder, then, that most perpetrators are revealed only when the bullets start flying.
This affinity, in turn, fuels a lingering (and for many, unconscious) sense that the existence of trans folks poses a threat to the order of things. As in Christine Jorgensen’s day, that threat does not represent a clear and present danger to life and limb. When my mom observed at one point that I “dropped a bomb” when I came out, she was of course referring to something far other than an ISIL suicide bombing – though the zombie fiction of the sexual predator represents the right’s attempt to manufacture such a menace. Rather, the threat we pose is a psychological one. Our existence calls into question cherished beliefs about family (pink or blue?) and community, beliefs that serve as a refuge at a time when many feel their way of life is under siege. It’s this emotional safe space that we impinge upon, and that the conservative “privacy rights” argument is exploiting. If the real harm that mass shooters and suicide bombers inflict on families and communities is often impossible to prevent, moreover, the symbolic/psychological harm that we supposedly inflict isn’t. Just criminalize our access to public facilities and give the cis majority carte blanche to fire us, evict us, and refuse to protect and serve us – in short, just make us illegal – et voilà! In this sense, I think, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the right’s assault on us as a proxy war against ISIL, al Qaeda, etc.
I suggested earlier that gut-level public sentiment about us hasn’t changed that much since Jorgensen’s day. Still, it has of course changed some, and that’s because of the great strides that have been made in other respects. We’re visible now like never before. More basically, if many continue to perceive us as a threat, the cultural beliefs about gender that we threaten are far less monolithically cis-centric than they were 60 years ago. It’s true that our push for civil rights remains a legal and social frontier, and that as we continue to draw the cis majority into terra incognita, people will be made uncomfortable. Nor is that discomfort all on one side: “walking while trans” is a very real thing. The presence of discomfort is not in and of itself a sufficient reason for not doing something, though. Indeed, as the ongoing struggles over the toxic legacy of Jim Crow attest, stepping out of our comfort zones is a fundamental prereq of frontiers.
To boldly venture into new frontiers is a core part of our national mythos. What, then, could be more American than embracing trans rights?