Op-ed: On Kate Pierson, and How Cultural Misrepresentation Hurts Trans Women
I can't get Kate Pierson's new single out of my head. And that's the problem.
When I listened to the song (which she has dubbed a "trans anthem"), the title of which I won't mention because I find it dehumanizing, I heard the concept of transition reduced to tropes of dress-up and makeup, as it almost always is. I read the title, which directly implies trans women are not women. I watched the child in the video applying and then removing makeup with a look of shame on their face.
I heard Pierson sing about "being betrayed by the mirror," and that "nothing hurts when you're a beautiful girl." Those pop lyrics rattled around in my head. And then I started shaking. I felt fake. I cried. I wanted to die, to just crumple up and disappear.
Then I got angry.
Why? Because a young transfeminine person clicking on this supposed "trans anthem" would be made to feel like a costume, a fraud, worthless — as I did too in that moment, struggling to remove myself from the swirl of self-doubt and self-hatred that comes from having one's existence invalidated by inaccurate portrayals of trans lives.
Aggressions like this — ones that don't resemble physical violence yet do harm us by perpetuating messages that give others license to dehumanize us — occur constantly for trans people. These aggressions are embedded and tacitly accepted in our culture and are felt everywhere, even in large, liberal cities. Here in New York, I face them daily.
Though each individual instance may seem inconsequential to a nontrans observer, in reality they add up to, as Jamie Cooper Holland puts it in her open letter to Pierson in The Huffington Post, a "water-torture drip" of misgendering. This song is part of that.
The effects of not having one's gender treated with respect, of not being seen, often builds up invisibly, and can lead to self-harm and self-rejection. Add to this the fact that many of us don't have the resources or support to deal with these aggressions, especially those of us stifled in conservative communities, or without access to trans-focused health clinics — well, some of us don't make it out alive. And it's not for lack of strength.
Let me give an example of a common aggression. On subway platforms, I often see posters advertising Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Transparent: Made-up male faces allegedly representing my life as a trans woman. If I'm standing near one of these ads, I see people's eyes shift from me to the poster and back. I know what they're thinking, because sometimes they say it aloud: "What is that?" or "That's a man." Or they laugh. Or they just glare.
To them I am not a woman, not even human. I am a thing, an object. They see makeup, glitz, and camp when they look at me — not my honesty. The poster, in illustrating trans life this way, gives people permission to apply that perception.
And in such moments I think, uncontrollably: Am I a cheap, shabby imitation of a woman? If I live in a world that says I do not exist, perhaps I shouldn't. I have to shake this feeling off, right as the oncoming train enters the station. I have to remind myself that I want to live.
For many of us, this unending process of needing to "shake it off" is ultimately futile. Forty-one percent of trans women will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. And even those of us who do survive are in danger — a disproportionately large number of trans people are murdered every year, mostly women of color. It is a deadly cycle, and as trans Latina activist Brooke Cerda Guzmán has said, it very effectively serves "to keep us silent, to keep us from transitioning."
Stereotypes perpetuate and feed this violence long before a fist or weapon is ever raised against a trans woman. When, as in Pierson's song, images of drag, of impersonation, are projected onto trans women's lives, society goes along with it; media makes it the norm. People learn not to see us; to not see women. They see the tropes our culture has taught them to see. They see costumes of women portrayed by men, both on-screen and in real life. They see actors.
Moreover, for many trans women, Pierson's song is especially problematic because of its focus on traditional femininity. Most nontrans people do not realize that for years, trans women have been told that only the most "beautiful," the most "feminine" of us are worthy of obtaining access to the things medicine can do for us. If we do not adhere to impossible, heterosexual standards of femininity, we are not considered women. These standards — set by white, male medical doctors over the last century — determine who gets access to transition-related health care, a field that's only now beginning to evolve.
And by favoring "traditional" standards of beauty for trans women, this system also erases the lives of trans men and nonbinary trans people — just as they are absent from Pierson's video.
The all-too-common practice of lumping together all trans-ness into a generalized, dragged-up (and largely white) representation dehumanizes all trans people. Yet this attitude can shift through simple awareness. When I spoke to trans writer and Advocate correspondent Mitch Kellaway, he described the ease many otherwise good-hearted nontrans people have with using language that refers to an undefined, universal "trans" population, but added that, in his experience, "The minute allies start breaking down this amorphous 'trans community' that they're trying to support into 'trans women, 'trans men, 'nonbinary folks,' and so on and so forth, we become realer and realer as individual people that they have real responsibilities to."
There is a great liberation that comes with self-acceptance. I love myself in a way I never have, and feel centered in a way I always sought. But in that realization of my authentic self, I discovered the reality of the world, how this world sees me.
After coming so far to realize the systematic oppression of the reality of living within my authentic identity, and after so many have spoken — especially when it comes to visual media like film and TV — about the need for trans people to be portrayed accurately, to see continued inaccurate media portrayals of trans women's lives hurts. It hurts a lot. And it's killing us.
This is why there is a great responsibility for accurate representation of trans people in all aspects of art and media, which requires the elevation of trans people's own art above nontrans attempts at representing trans people.
Nontrans people have a responsibility to acknowledge this.
Pierson has an opportunity that few artists get. She can retract that song and honestly discuss wanting to learn more about trans lives. She can communicate openly with trans musicians and advocates. She can apologize for deleting trans women's criticism from her Facebook page. She can acknowledge her mistake.
In a community that very much wants her to listen, Pierson can build bridges, not burn them — something she's not yet done, despite her recent comments. In listening and learning, she would change the status quo simply by setting the example of making trans voices truly heard when they loudly and firmly say, "This hurts."
MYA ADRIENE BYRNE is a proud trans woman, performing artist, writer, and public speaker based in New York City. A multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer-producer, she just released her first solo album, As I Am. Follow her at @myadriene and listen at www.myabyrne.bandcamp.com.