Alice Rehfeldt was 19 and in college when she first saw someone like her. It was 2003, and blogging was booming. Out of this global network of writers came subcultures that would never have met otherwise, and among the voices, Rehfeldt found transgender writers. They were people who either identified as a gender other than the one on their birth certificate, or didn’t identify as male nor female. Alice had been considered anatomically male by default, the way most of us are pegged by gender at birth, but she had always known that something was “wrong.”
In the early 2000s, the term “transgender” was barely a T on the end of LGBT. When transgender people were mentioned, they were nearly always the butt of a joke. And as Rehfeldt puts it, a transgender person had to either stay stuck in the gender presentation their parents and culture had given them, or surgically transition and then “go stealth”; that is, find a new town, new friends, and a new job, as if part of the witness protection program.
Rehfeldt is one of the estimated 0.3% of adult Americans who are transgender — nearly 700,000 Americans, according to research released by the University of California Los Angeles. As of the most recent US Census, transgender individuals are not even acknowledged directly in the population index, leaving estimates to academics and advocacy groups. For Rehfeldt and the hundreds of thousands of people like her, the media is not a mirror, but a glimpse into a world in which she doesn’t belong. And historically, that media has been distinctly anti-trans, much as gays were once considered a fair target for journalists and “edgy” comedians. But for good or bad, as Alice was becoming an adult, a notable shift was taking place in the way trans issues were covered.
In 1999, Boys Don’t Cry had won Hilary Swank a Best Actress Oscar for her true story portrayal of a young transgender man who was murdered in his tiny town. As the film was released, the infamous murder of Matthew Shepherd brought even more attention to violence against anyone who didn’t fit into a heteronormative category. And this was the climate in which Alice was learning that she was Alice; a young woman without a tribe, or at best, a tribe of murder victims and punch lines. But at least in the victim tales, the real stories were being told. People were finally starting to care about the violence and prejudice leveled at trans individuals. It hadn’t always been that way.
When Christine Jorgensen first crashed onto the scene in 1951, much of America hadn’t heard of transgender people. Ms. Jorgensen had served in World War II and grown up in the Bronx, but quickly after finishing her service in the Army, she surgically transitioned, and emerged onto the United States media scene, a “blonde bombshell” by many accounts. Susan O’Neal Stryker, a gender studies scholar and journalist at the University of Arizona, told me the media attention may have been as much about post-war science mania as it was about her traditionally drop-dead good looks.
“Being a beautiful blonde bombshell had something to do with [the attention],” Stryker told me via email. “Also, at a deeper level, I think it had to do with the global power of the U.S. post-World War II. Jorgensen’s transsexuality spectacularized a particularly US-centric way of organizing identity.” In other words, even though Jorgensen was upsetting our understanding of man and woman, she was also reinstating it; by choosing the other side, she was still choosing a side. It would be many years before transexuals who belong to neither gender would be embraced as another part of the spectrum.
Stryker, who is also transgender, practically wrote the book on media portrayal of trans individuals. She even penned the foreword to Jorgensen’s own book,Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography when the book was re-released posthumously. It reads more like a plodding journal than an inspired personal tale, and Stryker pulls no punches in the foreword, noting “the book sometimes makes for admittedly dull reading,” but that this was necessary, at a time when trans people had to prove their own normalcy. Being boring was, in its own way, a way of proving one’s own humanity.
Jorgensen herself had been influenced by the media; reading about hormone experiments on animals had inspired her to administer estrogen to herself, then finish the transition process with professional help in Denmark. When she returned to the U.S. in 1953, a “new woman,” she recalls that over 300 reporters were there to take her picture. But still, she was seen as somewhere between a science experiment and an outcast. While no one could look away, there wasn’t always admiration in their eyes. And that attitude continued for several decades.
Like the gay rights movement, the trans awareness movement has had to lead the press by the hand, bending over backwards to allow for well-meaning reporters who don’t know (or don’t bother to look up) how to speak about transgender people and their lives. In 1980, recalls Stryker, she was just beginning to become aware of the problem. In those few short decades between then and now, transgender men and women went “from being treated like a mentally ill freak to it being more like being gay; some people are trans, some aren’t, and only the bigots care one way or another.”
A group in the United Kingdom called All About Trans is leading the fight in helping the media make that shift. All About Trans is a project devoted entirely to helping media professionals understand and talk about trans people accurately and respectfully. I spoke to Jonathan Tebble, a spokesperson for the organization, about the major challenges reporters face.
“Language is a huge issue still,” he said, noting that the phrase “sex change” is still thrown about as if sex is, in fact, something a person can change (the preferred language is “transition” or “surgical transition” if appropriate). Likewise, trans activists have struggled to get non-trans people to adopt the prefix “cis” (meaning, non-transgender), perhaps because of an internalized sense of normalness. “If I’m the standard,” the thinking goes, “why do I need a name for it?” “Being born in the wrong body,” Trebble said, is another trope that needs to die. And then there’s the big issue: being trans in the media means being forced to be a broken record.
“There’s still an element of sensationalism in [these] stories… There’s a need for… people to talk about being trans to ensure that stories in the mainstream press are out there, but rarely are there stories about trans people to do with their lives outside of that,” Tebble said. Indeed, that’s something every person to whom I spoke emphasized. When I asked Stryker what changes she would like to see in fictional media like TV and movies, she said “I’d love to a see a story that didn’t revolve around transition or surgery.”
Rehfeldt was also not ready to celebrate the new emergence of transgender characters in TV and film. “I’m personally not super enthusiastic about a lot of the portrayals that we’re seeing, even though I’m happy they exist,” she said, a little exasperation in her voice. “It seems like now we’ve entered the phase where the only trans story you can tell, in addition to one about violence, is one where the trans person is coming out, and they’re in the midst of transition. Thatis the finite point, and then after you’ve transitioned, you continue living your life.” Like Ellen’s “coming out” episode, perhaps all these movies and shows about transition will one day be passé.
Still, having positive stories at all is change from when Rehfeldt was 19 and first identifying as transgender. “It definitely seemed like all of the portrayals in most media [during her adolescence] were surrounding violence. It was either that or punchlines. Like, the guy picks up the woman at the bar, and then in the next scene, she’s standing next to him at the urinal.”
It’s no longer acceptable in most quarters to make those jokes, though a few famous exceptions exist, like RuPaul, who staunchly defended his usage of the words “tranny” and “she-male” against objections. Rehfeldt noted that RuPaul, though gay, is a cis man, and gay rights and trans rights have often been lumped together, sometimes dischordantly.
As Stryker notes, now that same-sex marriage is practically the law of the land in the U.S., trans rights “is increasingly being positioned as the ‘next big thing’ in minority rights.” Good news, right? Stryker is suspicious.
“I really think it means more access to ‘normalcy’ for fewer privileged trans people and doesn’t really address the lives of most trans people, particularly those whose lives are most precarious,” she said.
For every transgender celebrity (and there are still precious few), there will be countless transgender people living in fear of violence, or unable to express themselves even to their families. And perhaps if the media made a more concerted effort to represent trans people, both by talking about them and, more importantly, letting them talk, we could create a safer space for everyone.
As I closed my conversation with Tebble, I asked him what cis people like me — people who care and want to contribute constructively to the conversation without saying something wrong — can do.
“Loosen up,” he said. “Your job as a writer or media producer is to not talk for trans people, but to allow trans people to talk through you.”
I wrote that down.