Everything You Wanted to Know About Trans * But Were Afraid to Ask is an accomplished and thorough resource by trans activist Brynn Tannehill, founding member of SPART*A, and board member for the Trans United Fund. A naval aviator, Tannehill left the reserves and began her transition in 2010. Spanning trans 101 to more in-depth discussion of gender nonconformity and fluidity, Tannehill’s urgent and timely offering debunks myths and talks sex and dating, history, and legal policy in direct, accessible language cisgender people will understand.
What led you to write this book? I was writing for years with the The Huffington Post and The Advocate, and as I built up this body of work, people started to say, “You should write a book.” I didn’t know what I should make the book about; I wrote about what I saw in the media, as controversies and conversations about trans people. By 2016, I realized I could write a book about everything that is in the media about transgender people. I want this book to educate, inform, and [help readers] understand [trans people] on an emotional level. Many people have told me how hard it is to find romantic relationships as a transgender person, how stigma and isolation affect transgender people.
Media coverage does not always equate to understanding or resources. Does the media help trans people, or fail them? My mentor, Allison Robinson, wrote that the media is not your friend — it is there to make money and sell stories.The problem with media is that transgender people lose control of their narratives. The media wants to tell particular narratives that people are comfortable with and that they already understand — “man trapped in a woman’s body,” for example. This is a way the media fails us. They are trying to tell a story that people expect to hear, and that does an injustice to trans people because it isn’t telling our story. That’s not fair to the people who are trying to understand transgender people better, nor is it fair to transgender people who are trying to tell their stories honestly and openly.
Why do you think there has been such an increased presence of trans people in media? In a lot of ways, transgender people are kind of the last frontier, or the new frontier, of gender and sexual minorities in media…. Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black came 15 years after Will & Grace. This is a community that had been traditionally neglected within media and within the fight for civil rights. The religious right is resolved not to lose the way they lost on lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. They have focused in on [transgender people] in a way that is dishonest and demonizing. It borrows from the playbooks against lesbians and gays, and unfortunately, they have a lot more influence in media, more lobbying power, and a lot more money than we do.
You write that the hate trans people are facing “is a sign that we are winning.” What do you mean? Up until the Trump administration, we were winning on all fronts — cultural, legal, legislative, even economically in the sense that we we’ve had greater opportunity to engage more equally in the economy than we had before. There is more positive visibility than ever before and that leads to greater and and greater cultural acceptance. This is what I mean by winning. ...even if we lose [court] cases, it doesn’t change the fact that Americans — and particularly the younger generations — accept transgender people in a way that’s never happened before. These cultural gains cannot easily be erased. Even if we lose the legal and legislative battles today, those cultural changes dictate that we will win in the long run.
What’s your relationship to feminism? While I was at the academy, a woman in my company was sexually assaulted. I witnessed how horribly she was mistreated, how it went horribly wrong, and how the system broke — how the perpetrators and the people protecting them banded together to isolate the victim and protect themselves. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see exactly what misogyny and rape culture looked like. We’re still struggling with this today, even as we watched the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was absolutely disgusted that culturally, it felt like we’d learned absolutely nothing since I saw the exact same thing 20 years ago.
You address issues the trans community isn’t talking enough about, including sex work and immigration. The percentage of trans women who were raped while in ICE custody, even under the Obama administration, was appalling…. The immigrant transgender women put in custody are almost universally put in with men, and they are almost always raped. This is a national shame. But because they are immigrants, because of the anti-immigrant hysteria going on right now in the United States, and the lack of empathy we have towards immigrants, nobody seems to care. But the fact that this is happening to them while they are in American custody, while they’re supposed to be under the protection of the United States government — it is a crime against humanity. If transgender immigrants do not have human rights because they are transgender, you, as a transgender American, do not have human rights or civil rights…. This is why it’s something that should concern transgender people more broadly: because human rights aren’t just for Americans, they are for all people. And if transgender [immigrants] don’t have human rights and civil rights, we don’t [either].