By Mary Ellen Dowd
Historically, any group that challenges the harsh constraints of heteronormativity, cisnormativity or racism that continue to plague our society, has been punished with a past full of suffering and disappointment. The transgender community has not been spared this violent history, leaving a network of vibrant souls left to mourn the countless individuals who have been brutalised for simply existing. Today, the Transgender Day of Visibility, gives us all the opportunity to not only remember those who have fallen, but celebrate the community.
In 2010, Rachel Crandall-Crocker, an activist from Transgender Michigan, began the day with a Facebook post and eventually earned international recognition. The goal of the day was always to recognise the resilience and accomplishments of trans folks, while also reminding members of the community that they are not alone.
In light of the day’s celebrations, femLENS will be launching its first collaboration with the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland in the form of an online photography workshop. With this collaboration, trans individuals will be given the tools to share their stories through documentary photography.
The stories of trans folks have not always been adequately represented through the media. The cinematic gaze of the 20th century largely failed to represent, and often actively misrepresented, the community. Portrayals of trans bodies in films such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) reinforced, and even created, harmful and false stereotypes about trans individuals. The turn of the century did not fully repair these types of portrayals, as television shows such as Nip/Tuck (2003) and The L Word (2004) continued to represent trans bodies from a place of criticism and judgment.
In an article entitled “Representing trans: visibility and its discontents” by Anson Koch-Rein, Elahe Haschemi Yekani and Jasper J. Verlinden, the authors describe an increase in trans representation and quality of representation during the 2010s. They write, “The L Word, for example, has just been relaunched as Generation Q featuring a greater visibility of trans masculinities. Hence, despite the ongoing precarious status of trans lives, there seems to be a proliferation of more, and more importantly, more complex, trans representations, both in narrative cinema and on TV”.
The authors go on to discuss the dichotomy that exists between contemporary representation in media of trans people and their treatment in society. They cite an anthology entitled, “Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility”, edited by Reina Gossett [Tourmaline], Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton:
“We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence. […] This is the trap of the visual: it offers – or, more accurately, it is frequently offered to us as – the primary path through which trans people might have access to livable lives. Representation is said to remedy broader acute social crises ranging from poverty to murder to police violence, particularly when representation is taken up as a ‘teaching tool’ that allows those outside our immediate social worlds and identities to glimpse some notion of a shared humanity.”
In essence, although trans media representation has continued to grow and improve, the trans community has yet to reap the promised societal benefits of this representation. This visibility and supposed normalisation has done little to improve the situation of the trans community as a whole.
Transrespect Versus Transphobia Worldwide (TvT), found that between October 2019 and September 2020, 98% of trans and gender non-conforming people murdered globally were trans women or transfeminine people. Also, 79% of trans people murdered in the United States were people of color. These numbers alone are shocking, but TvT recognises that they are not comprehensive due to the issue of underreporting.
Trans lives are not disposable, POC’s lives are not disposable, female lives are not disposable. It is clear that it cannot resolve the issues that run so deep within our society, but trans representation is still necessary.
Rachel Anne Reinke, in a dissertation entitled “Getting To Be Seen: Visibility as Erasure in Media Economies of Transgender Youth”, acknowledges much of mainstream representation of trans bodies as the work of “neoliberal media economies”. She argues that much of this representation adds to the already crushing and inherent hetero/cisnormative pressure on trans youth in particular.
Reinke writes “media economies of transgender youth visibility mobilise certain transgender youth subjectivities at the expense of erasing those positioned further from the norms that transgender youth must embody, or approximate, in order to be recognised as ‘real’”.
In place of these “neoliberal media economies”, Reinke explores the value of digital “self-representation”. She discusses how self-representation allows those individuals who did not typically have the option of visibility to express transgressive thoughts or feelings, away from neoliberal acceptance of “those in close proximity to normative youth and gender identity”.
We can see several examples of the success of this digital “self-representation” in the form of transgender Instagram influencers. Influencers, like Nikita Dragun, have found great success in self-created Internet spaces where their narrative is completely under their own control.
As such, the women of femLENS emphasise the importance of teaching individuals in the community the value of self-expression through documentary photography. At femLENS, we elevate trans voices and hope to continue to expand our operations in a way that benefits the trans community in a meaningful way.