Why We Must Interrupt the 'Sad Trans Story' Narrative

TRANSILIENT

Anyone who has ever Googled the word “transgender” knows that it returns an overwhelming cornucopia of results. There’s an abundance of listicles that tell you how (and how not) to interact with trans folks, petitions in favor of or against trans rights, and way too many stories about trans people who have been murdered or assaulted.

Across the internet, trans people are being praised for relatively ordinary things, like becoming a prom queen, making the cover of a magazine, or transitioning at the age of 5. The vast majority of these results, however, fill countless pages featuring trans people talking about their gender identity and how they came to transition.

Eli Strong, Washington, Georgia

Eli Strong, Washington, Georgia

Broadly known as “trans stories,” these tales of personal empowerment — while valid and necessary — have helped create an almost monolithic narrative of what it means to be trans. Mainstream media, largely led by cisgender (nontrans) reporters, seems eager to cash in on the current cultural craze about everything trans, but generally does so with framing that explicitly caters to a cis gaze. In doing so, media has effectively boxed in our trans identity, lives, and struggles, without actually humanizing us. This box we are told we must exist in is so pervasive that even fellow trans people have started to believe this framing is our only means of increasing visibility and education about us.

But we are so much more than our “trans stories.” We are more than our gender identities, and I am hungry to consume media representation that actually represents us. We gain nothing from letting cis folks — or even our internal narrative — write our “trans story” before we have lived it. In fact, we run the risk of losing what makes us individual, unique, and beautiful. We risk losing what makes us, us.

There is so much beauty in the lives of transgender people. Our godliness beams out of us — and I want to capture that on camera. I want to let the world see trans people in our most natural states, talking about beautiful and familiar things, without a box placed around us. I want to capture trans people in our independent autonomy, which is inevitably why we all transitioned: We wanted to be free. I am going to let the world see our exquisite, revolutionary freedom.

Ren Buidhe, New Orleans, Louisiana

Ren Buidhe, New Orleans, Louisiana 

That’s why I and my partner, Johanna Case, have launched a project aimed at changing the conversation around trans lives and stories. Transilient is a photo-documentation project that will feature exclusively trans subjects and voices. We will be hitting the road with our dog, Yep, June 1, and traveling the country in search of transgender subjects. The photographs and interviews will not include information on how the trans folks identify, why they transitioned, what state their body is in, or what gender they transitioned from. I will not be interviewing subjects to hear about their struggles being a trans person. We want to illuminate real transgender people, highlighting the myriad ways our lives are woven into the fabric of the overall human experience. I reject the idea that our entire life, our entire sense of self, must revolve around our gender identity and history.

That’s not to say that we shouldn't embrace and support our differences — those qualities that make us unique or help us find community. I am not making an argument against all labels, identities, or shared histories. But I am saying it is high time that trans people stop being seen as vehicles for entertainment, heartbreak, or far-flung “exotic” fantasies. We are not a chapter in a textbook, nor are we your morning tear-jerk listening to NPR as you sip your coffee.

We are people and deserve to be conceptualized as living, breathing, feeling humans who have experienced many of the same things that cis people do. Above all, we deserve to be more than a sad story on your news feed or to be called upon only to only talk about our bodies, our pain, and what makes us different. We deserve to celebrate our joys, our triumphs, and yes, our failures, in whatever way feels authentic to us — without an audience asking us to relate our mood to how every trans person in the country must be feeling. We deserve to be heard and understood for the complex individuals we are — not just as a plug-and-play archetype of the “tragic trans person.”

Carmen, New Orleans

Carmen, New Orleans

In Transilient, I want to show the world that anyone you meet could possibly be trans. I want to show the world that we are more than our identities. I want to show the world that we are resilient and ever-changing.

If you’d like to help me change the narrative around transgender lives, please consider donating to Transilient.The funds will allow me to travel the country and document the beautiful complexity of our community with all the respect, empathy, and care that we so desperately deserve.  We would like to eventually expand the project and make it global.

You can follow Transilient on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.  To learn more about the project visit Transilient’s website.

BASIL SOPER is a transgender writer, activist, and Southerner who wears his heart on his sleeve. He writes for Pride.com and Bear World, and is the founder of Transilient. He wants to write a memoir eventually. He can be reached at www.ncqueer.com.

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