The Perils and Possibilities of Transgender Visibility

Visibility alone does not ensure social progress or progressive social change. It certainly comes with dangers.
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This week's International Transgender Day of Visibility (March 31st) provided a great opportunity to confront the complexities of visibility for transgender women and men.

This is, of course, part of a broader and long-standing conversation about the perils and possibilities of minority visibility in popular culture. For decades, queer theorists, sociologists, media studies scholars, and others have been engaged in a conversation about the trade-offs of visibility. They have helped us understand that mainstream visibility is simultaneously fraught with danger, incredibly exciting, and potentially radical.

A generation ago, writer-activist Vito Russo wrote the foundational book on the representation of LGBTQ people in film, The Celluloid Closet. In it, Russo documented that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been portrayed in film for decades as completely pathological: homicidal, suicidal, or both; completely without community; tragic cases who do not deserve love and are incapable of love themselves; or as completely asexual, buffoonish comic relief.

Russo, speaking primarily about sexuality but also about gender, wrote that it is not the lack of visibility that is the problem but the kind of visibility that is quite dangerous: "Gay visibility has never really been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It's how they have been visible that has remained offensive for almost a century."

We are at a pivotal moment in the conversation about transgender visibility. While not nearly sufficient, the broader LGBT rights movement has begun to put trans civil rights on its agenda. And in the area of popular culture, we see some of the most exciting developments in transgender visibility and social change.

In mainstream television and film, transgender inclusion is still minimal, but it is being counted. GLAAD recently reported that of the 101 films released in 2012 by six major movie studios, just 14 films had characters that could be identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. There were no transgender characters in these films. In television, during the 2013-2014 season, GLAAD found that 3.3% of series regular characters on scripted primetime broadcast TV were LGBT. Just one series regular out of 796 was transgender: a young woman on "Glee" named Unique. Scripted primetime cable TV featured 42 series regular LGBT characters, including one trans character, Adam on "Degrassi." While too new an addition to the show to be mentioned in the GLAAD study, "The Fosters" also featured a recurring transgender teen character, Cole, played by trans actor Tom Phelan.

Last month's Academy Awards also provided an occasion for a complicated discussion about trans visibility in mainstream pop culture. Jared Leto, who took home an Oscar for his performance, was at the center of a fair amount of controversy for his portrayal of the transgender woman, Rayon, in "Dallas Buyers Club." Many lauded Leto's portrayal, finding it to be sensitive, serious, and much-needed to increase trans inclusion in mainstream creative work. Others criticized the film's writers and casting folks for many of their creative choices. These critics found the role to be dehumanizing, recklessly stereotypical, and a misrepresentation of the experience of most trans woman. They also found it problematic that Rayon was played by Leto rather than by a trans actress.

Some high-profile trans women activists also have begun to bring mainstream attention to their experiences and their politics. For some, these names are new. For many, they are very familiar. Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, plays trans woman Sophia Burset on the highly-acclaimed Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," and she has become a vocal activist for trans justice. Janet Mock, a transgender writer-activist has recently written a New York Times bestselling autobiography. Model and advocate Geena Rocero just publicly came out as trans in her March 2014 TED talk.

In sports, Fallon Fox made news last year when she came out as a transgender woman in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Kye Allums also made headlines in 2010 when he became the first openly transgender athlete to play Division I college sports. In the same year, Ironman triathlete Chris Mosier publicly came out as trans and began competing in men's races. And many people do not know that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the NCAA) took the lead on a proactive and inclusive transgender student athlete policy in 2011.

As Russo and others remind us, visibility alone does not ensure social progress or progressive social change. It certainly comes with dangers. But, in the research I do, when we interview people about why LGBTQ visibility matters, we hear them talk about the fact that visibility has the potential to eviscerate loneliness. Visibility can build community. Visibility has the power to irrevocably change hearts and minds.

For trans visibility in particular, there is something more: Trans visibility and inclusion in mainstream movies, television, fashion, and sports demonstrates the ways in which creative change can come from those who have been severely culturally and politically marginalized. It pushes important questions that we should be asking -- not just about legal inclusion and civil rights, but about what it means to be a man or a woman and to rely on this binary. It raises complicated questions about the relationship between biological sex and social gender identity. It challenges us to rethink the utility of sex segregation in sports and the accuracy of the popular stories we tell ourselves about natural distinctions between men and women. These questions go to the root of our cultural narratives and our taken-for-granted assumptions about sex and gender.

Pop culture can dangerously affirm age-old stereotypes and images that dehumanize and marginalize. It also has the power and potential to make us confront our ignorance and confront each other, ask questions we didn't even know existed, and feel with every fiber of our being. Trans visibility in mainstream pop culture really does have the power to radically transform. I am hopeful, and I am watching.

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