Op-ed: Trans Glamour Versus Trans Activism

Op-ed: Trans Glamour Versus Trans Activism

This month 14 self-identified trans women graced a trifold cover of Candy magazine, a self-described “transversal style magazine.”

It’s gorgeous. Suggestively clad, long-legged women posed in mostly vulnerable and sexualized positions in a color-spanning panorama of stunning trans beauty. It’s the pinnacle of Western fashion and culture — and it’s all transgender women. In that regard, it’s a huge statement that unequivocally screams that trans people can do all the things cisgender (nontrans) people can do — in this case, largely modeling as well as other beauty and entertainment industry professions. We’re not inferior, lesser-than, “others,” or any number of tropes that are heaped unjustly upon the trans* community due to unwarranted stereotypes and prejudice.

But in my opinion, that’s generally where the Candy cover’s positives stop — and where my critique begins.

It is often quoted: Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. In that spirit, I would like to discuss ideas. Of course, you can’t discuss ideas without incorporating events and people. In this instance, the event is the publication of the cover itself — of which there are only 1,500 physically published copies — and the people are the 14 trans women in the pictorial and subsequent photo spread. The ideas are celebrity activism and hero worship.

Transgender celebrities have undeniably afforded the trans community a significant increase in visibility. That visibility has arguably provided an opportunity for increased education about trans people and issues to a wider population. But when does celebrity just become celebrity? Is there an even somewhat discernible line between activist and celebrity?

I believe there is. Being a famous trans person doesn't make you an automatic activist. What makes you an activist is what you do with your time, resources, and fame. And if you don't walk your talk, you're just another famous person with an opinion. The cover of Candy touts the tagline, “the glamorous women who lead the trans revolution.” Exactly which revolution are we talking about? An activist revolution? Or a celebrity revolution?

I do not begrudge any of these women their financial success or fame. They’ve worked their asses off and they deserve it. But I think it bears acknowledging the fact that only three of the 14 women featured have actively pursued serious trans activism (at least they all made the front cover): Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Geena Rocero.

And a recent Huffington Post article is going right along with it, stating these women are “at the forefront of the battle for transgender rights.” That’s simply an inaccurate statement. The majority of the women in these photos aren’t actively fighting for transgender rights. What they’re doing is showing that transgender people are talented and creative people who are capable of extraordinary things. And they’re doing a pretty great job of that!

But there remains an important difference between that and genuine activism, which leads me to my next idea: hero worship.

A significant number of trans people acknowledge this shoot for what it is — unrealistic and unattainable stereotyping that plays to an affluent hetero- and cis-normative culture. Most trans women didn’t win the genetic lottery and many will never be able to afford the intervening procedures that are generally required to attain such external beauty norms. Many trans women have physical traits that are generally considered more masculine: broader shoulders, deeper voices, less pronounced feminine curves. Showing 14 conventionally, if not exceptionally, beautiful trans women and advertising them as the leaders of the trans community only reinforces the “normality” of straight, cisgender society by pandering to the pervasive notion that your worth is intrinsically connected to how easily you can mimic the cisgender, heterosexual ideal.

As a fashion shoot, it’s damn spectacular, but I also have to address the issues from a feminist's viewpoint. Putting a woman on display as a vulnerable, hypersexualized object of desire feeds into patriarchal ideology, the concept of excluding women from power in society and government that is steeped in archaic assumptions that women aren’t strong enough, smart enough, capable enough to achieve at comparable rates to men. It says a woman’s purpose is to please men. It says, “Don’t be intimidated by trans women. They can be subjugated just like any other woman.” Some trans people would argue that any exposure is good exposure, but what good is exposure if it doesn’t accurately represent what the community actually looks like? Where are the women in dapper tuxedos? Where are the lesbian and pansexual women? Where are the women with rippling muscles and buzz cuts?

Luis Venegas is the man behind Candy. A man who, according to his website, “proves that fashion publishing has a healthy future if it serves a niche of fellow enthusiasts.” Venegas told Style that he seeks to discover new talent. But what’s so original about being straight and thin and soft and gorgeous?

Venegas said he's even more passionate about "[digging] a bit and bring back to the present some artists or works that seem to have been forgotten."

So where are all the trailblazers that don’t look like supermodels? The women with queer sexual identities? Where are their stories? What have their contributions been?

For example, Greta Martela is a trailblazer. She led a group to start a 24/7 trans suicide hotline - staffed exclusively by transgender volunteers. Or Julia Serano — the queer author of Whipping Girl, a quintessential book examining the intersectionality of transgender and feminist issues? If we’re really digging for trailblazers whose stories have been forgotten or overlooked (and you really don’t have to dig too deep), why aren’t they and other activists like them on the cover of Candy magazine instead of Carmen Carrera?

Did they not blaze deep enough trails? Or is it more that they’re not all that glamorous?

Many in the trans community are content to celebrate this as a milestone in the fight for equality. And in a fashion sense, I suppose it is. But even then it’s absolutely not representative of the majority of trans women, let alone the trans community. While it succeeds in its diversity of skin color, it fails to accurately represent the body size and shape and weight, even the sexuality, of most typical trans women, nor does it do anything to highlight how these (admittedly beautiful) women did, in fact, contribute to the fight for transgender rights.

So am I taking an unpopular stance on this? Probably. But I don’t take it out of jealousy or envy. I take it out of indignation that a boob job has somehow done more for the trans community than the people putting everything they are into helping others without the flashbulbs or, oftentimes, any recognition at all.

So let’s recognize this photo shoot for what it is: a highly successful, Westernized, heteronormative, transgender fashion statement. Let’s not conflate that with an accurate portrayal of the trans* community or its activism.

ELLE BOATMAN is a native of Ohio currently residing in Wichita, Kan. She is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a mother of two children, a feminist, and the founder and creative director of the face of trans*, a transgender social awareness and visibility project.