When Bruce Jenner recently came out as transgender in an interview with Diane Sawyer, it lit up the media on transgender awareness like I have never seen before — even more than Laverne Cox's Time cover. The quality of the coverage far exceeded my meager expectations as well. What surprised me most, though, was that despite the great coverage and how likable, open, and relatable Jenner seemed, I realized that our authentic stories still aren’t being told.
Barely a week after Jenner's nuanced responses to Sawyer's thoughtful questions on the ABC News special, the media machine of Jenner's extended Kardashian family seized on the Olympian's story. NBC's Today breathlessly aired a clip showing Jenner "bonding" with stepdaughter Kim Kardashian about nail polish, teasing a special two-part episode of E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians, subtitled "About Bruce."
One day after Jenner's coming-out interview aired, a person from my past in Ohio perfectly illustrated the ways broader society isn't interested in hearing the authentic stories about being trans — unless those include the stereotypical images of weeping families, shopping for dresses, and yes, sharing nail and makeup tips.
"We wanted to hear the things we heard last night on that program," the person who had booked me to give a speech debunking antitransgender myths at Wittenberg University in March told me. "Like what it feels like and how the struggle is personally. I still never felt like you wanted to let yourself be open.”
In short, people want what they expect, including transgender stereotypes. They want the clichés and the tearful stories. They want transgender people to expose the most intimate details of their lives for the supposed "education" of others. They want all the stuff that trans folks are so familiar with talking about in media that we've created a "transgender documentary drinking game," where you take a shot every time an interview features footage of a trans woman poignantly painting her face with makeup, pulling stockings up her legs, trying on high heels, or uncomfortably reflecting on the infamous "before" and "after" diptych.
"The media is a business, and just like any other business it is about making money," Allyson Robinson rightly explained in a recent op-ed explaining why networks give cisgender [nontrans] audiences what they want in trans stories. "It has to show pictures of a trans woman putting on mascara or doing the laundry in a skirt and heels or dramatic 'before and after' shots, because society's desire to leer at those things is what gets eyeballs on the screen."
I first witnessed this phenomenon several years ago when I was asked to review a draft of a transgender documentary. It was generally good but occasionally fell into the tropes of depicting acts of overly stereotypical femininity. I asked the producers if they could take those B-roll shots of lipstick and earrings out, and they recoiled in horror. "Oh no, we can't take those out," they exclaimed. "They're the part the focus groups liked the most!"
Which leads me to my point: We still can't tell the truth. We can't tell our stories. The only truths that seep into the media are the ones people wanted to see and hear in the first place. They want confirmation that their hunches are correct.
When I deliberately gave a university-level presentation at Wittenberg in March, one full of citations, stories, and information, people were in fact seeing the real me. I am a researcher, who writes and researches, studies and publishes, presents and lectures — sometimes even on transgender issues. I gave them the intelligent, prepared, professional woman I believe I am.
The public doesn't want that: They're looking for a train wreck to spill their guts onstage. They want to watch Hoarders for the same reason: to feel better about themselves. It doesn't matter that the material was well researched and presented. It's as though they invited Stephen Hawking to speak, then were annoyed at him for talking about physics instead of how much Lou Gehrig's disease sucks.
There is clearly a double standard at play here. Transgender people are routinely expected to bare their souls in ways that others aren't. I may be a public advocate, but there are some things I will only share with my doctor, therapist, or partner. In fact, the things I don't want to share with the public are the same sorts of things I believe cisgender people don't like sharing with anyone besides their doctors or partners either.
This desire for some minimum level of privacy and dignity isn't a transgender thing. It's a human one.
But here's the real kicker: When we do tell the truth, and it's not the one you want to hear, then people get really angry.
You don’t want to hear how the tolerance you mistook for acceptance is its own soul-crushing hell. You get incredibly angry when told your outreach efforts to the transgender community are failing, even when that failure is spotlighted by the violent suicide of a 17-year-old girl.
You don’t want to know about the costs and compromises required to make a newly minted mixed-orientation marriage work. That involves even more acceptance than you’re comfortable with, because the solutions some transgender people and their spouses find in order to survive the uncharted terrain of an entire family in transition interfere with your messaging on marriage equality. After all, pro-equality arguments at the Supreme Court last month went out of their way to avoid linking same-sex marriage with even tacit consideration of nonmonogamy.
Thank the powers that be for Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, because without them, I doubt the media would give any trans women of color a platform to tell their stories. I don't believe that's true because of deliberate malice or overt racism, but simply because the revenue-risk justification isn't there. Look no further than the comparative buzz caused by Jenner's coming-out with Cox's multi-magazine cover tour last summer. Which did you hear more about?
The stories and awareness of transgender men certainly aren’t out there either. If they were, we’d see anti-LGBT elements like the Family Research Council riling up the base about the dangers they pose to the population. As it is, the talking-points of FRC and its transphobic contemporaries like the Pacific Justice Institute fail, and they flop about like a fish at the bottom of boat when confronted with the reality of trans-masculine individuals. Nowhere is the absurdity of transphobic arguments better laid bare than in Minnesota trans man Michael Hughes's bathroom selfie campaign revealing the sinister agenda of trans people in public restrooms: #WeJustNeedtoPee.
You want the truth? The public doesn't want to see or hear the totality of transgender lives and experiences. They want the same stories, framed the same way, with the same sorts of people, repeated ad nauseum. Society's struggle is not about becoming comfortable with transgender people; it's about becoming comfortable with one very specific type of narrative and framing.
So, when confronted with narratives and framings that explodes these stereotypes, the public gets upset — and instructs us to tell our stories in a way that confirms biases and props up the pre-existing paradigms.
You want the truth?
You can't handle the truth.