Op-ed: Why Are Narratives Around Transgender People Always So Negative?

There are plenty of tough things about being a trans person, but it's not all bad news.

BY Lucian Clark

February 11 2014 4:00 AM ET

People gather for a vigil for slain transgender woman Islan Nettles at Jackie Robinson Park on August 27, 2013 in New York City.

There exists a commonality among most trans* narratives published by the media today — negativity.

If it isn't the story of how a trans woman was murdered, or assaulted, and there was no justice — such as Islan Nettles and CeCe McDonald — it is something else. Maybe you've read stories of how families dissolved due to transition (and how hard it always is on the partner who left), or about studies on how trans* people are prone to suicide attempts, much higher than the cis population. Negativity is pervasive.

And it's not only limited to media either. Many trans* people use words like “trapped in the wrong body” to describe our experience. Words like "wrong," "incorrect," and "painful" are prevalent in how we describe ourselves. Depression and suffering are not only things we have come to expect, but also ways we define ourselves and our experiences. Too many people do not believe that someone cannot be trans* without enduring the suffering and mental anguish that comes with feeling there is something inherently wrong about who you are and the body you were given.

Trans* has become synonymous with suffering. Media reflects this in its depictions of us. Jared Leto's role in Dallas Buyers Club portrays trans women as born out of unfortunate circumstances, and deserving to be respected out of pity. This character, in the end, is not a positive one. Too often trans women are portrayed as pathetic, weak, the butt of jokes. Sometimes we're even mentally ill. Trans men and non-binary folk? We are all invisible, but when finally portrayed the light is similar — confused, pathetic, victims of life and circumstance.

This recurring depiction can be internalized. We sometimes believe these images of ourselves that we see. Trans women take to heart the idea that they are deemed pathetic, hyper feminine caricatures of cis women or good for a laugh. Trans men feel the need to embody the hyper masculinity portrayed by the few trans men seen by the mainstream, for without being hyper masculine, we are not men. Non-binary people simply do not exist, and thus, internalize the possibility of being simply imaginary. These internalized negatives are then put back out into the community and the media, solidifying them. 

This is obviously a simplified example, since the problems are so much greater. The trans*phobia embodied by the media, especially the transmisogyny and how acceptable it is, is such a prevalent and repeated issue, only solidifying the correlation between being trans* and the negativity, the pain, and the suffering.

Positivity is not portrayed often, if at all. Even stories of triumph are tainted. They are portrayed as the one, the few, the unique circumstance of a trans* person actually making something of themselves. They are the rarity, the oddity. If a trans* person's partner does not leave them after transition, for example, the story focuses on the strife, the struggle. The story focuses on how it is uncommon. What does this tell the generation of trans* people just growing up or just coming out? That we are unworthy of love? That love will be a hard find for us? The most recent strain of articles about how there are cis people who even consider us as partners as someone worth dating, loving, and even having sex with, only further emphasizes this point. With this type of narrative, it is no wonder that trans* people feel so hopeless, unloved, and unwanted by society.

This needs to stop. Being trans* is not synonymous with self-hatred. It needs to be synonymous with self-love and self-care. Trans* people love themselves so much that they do whatever it takes to become themselves. We love ourselves so much that we sometimes risk life and limb to simply exist. Our transitions are necessity, done out of love for self and love for life.

We need to let those of us know who are stumbling and struggling that we are worth all the world has to offer everyone else. We are worthy of acceptance. We are worthy of existing in this world, just like anyone else. We matter. Our stories matter.

Loving us is not some burden. Our transitions are not done due to self-hatred. We are not reserved to pain, suffering, and a life of being pitied. We deserve basic human respect and dignity because we are human.

This does not mean those of us who experience negativity or violence need to stop sharing our stories. Our voices do not need to be muted or dimmed. It is no lie that society is extremely cissexist, trans*phobic, and transmisogynistic. It would be foolish to say anything else. To do so would be to paint the world with rainbows and unicorns, glitz, glam, and sunshine. This is sadly not the truth. Trans* people (especially trans women of color) are more likely to experience violence, joblessness, homelessness, and mental health issues. However, the focus on these and only these issues is taking major tolls in the community. The dominant voice in the community is one not only of societal suffering, but also personal suffering. It's an idea we are passing to our children, both literally and figuratively.

These are the stories we are telling trans* people who are just finding themselves. These are the stories we are giving our children to look forward to. We are telling those who will come after us that they only have pain to look forward to. This is unacceptable.

While there will be pain, there will also be happiness. There is the possibility for success. There is the possibility for a life well lived. We need these stories alongside the stories of the negative. There needs to be a balance. There needs to be sun, at least even occasionally, through the rain clouds.

Understandably, without rain there cannot be a rainbow, but we need at least a little sun for that to be possible.

While women like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Carmen Carrera are slowly changing this dialogue, we need more. No more defining ourselves via negativity. No more requiring self-hatred. No more requiring suffering. Dysphoria is something that some of us experience, but not all.

Requiring dysphoria to be trans* is requiring pain to be trans*. We are not molded merely by our suffering. We are molded by so much more. Someone being in love with their body does not discredit the pain someone else feels about their own. This pain is no less valid, it is no less traumatizing, but it is not a defining factor of the trans* experience.

Our lives are worth so much more than pain. Our stories are filled with so much more than suffering. Our trans* identities are so much more varying and unique than the harsh and shrill cry we are giving them. There is so much more depth to our existences. So much more depth to the lives we lead. We need to start doing ourselves the love we deserve.


LUCIAN CLARK is a non-binary queer writer and advocate born and raised in Southern New Jersey. His work as been featured on In Our Words Blog and the Quail Pipe as well as his own website Gender Terror.

Editor's Note: "trans*" is a term that is meant to be inclusive of all non-cisgender people within the gender identity spectrum.

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