With Trans women seemingly taking over the media, Lee Clatworthy discovers that, sometimes, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
It seems that you can’t turn on the television, open a newspaper or buy a magazine these days without a Trans woman looking back at you. Seemingly, almost without any agenda, Trans women are facing down the public perceptions, and encouraging a wider debate on gender politics.
I have to admit that when I initially saw the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover I almost screamed. Not through shock, but from joy. This was the stepfather (mother?) of America’s, nee THE WORLD’S most famous woman, and stroppy rapper Kanye West’s father (mother?)-in-law, publicly embracing her Trans female identity. Admittedly airbrushed within an inch of unidentifiable, and with the headline confrontationally plastered just above her crotch, this was a landmark moment, not just in the world of glossy fashion magazines, but in the media as a whole. Yes, we’ve had Trans fashion models, most notably Givenchy muse Lea T and Andreja Pejic, and Trans television stars – Laverne Cox from ‘Orange is the New Black’ for instance, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, but none of these, admittedly, beautiful and intelligent Trans women has broken through the gap between the culturally high-minded intelligentsia and the ordinary Sun newspaper-reading builder-in-the-street.
All of a sudden, the panel on ‘Loose Women’, Phil and Holly and Radio 4 are talking about Trans issues, and even using the correct language. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?
When I sat down with Sparkle’s Karen Richards and Beckie Fox to discuss all of this and more, I wasn’t quite expect their reaction, all sighs and rolling of the eyes, but then that was possibly my own fault by kicking off with the overly-styled, media-saturated elephant in the room. Karen her usual frank self, and Beckie Fox, in her words “fucking awesome”, a true force of nature.
Karen thought that whilst Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to make a dramatic entrance into the world was good for Trans awareness, she also felt that it was a double-edged sword, that Caitlyn was in somehow “selling her soul to the media devil…[the media] claiming a Trans person’s right to acknowledge their own gender.” Beckie makes the important point that coming out publicly as your identified gender is an ordinary part of the transition process, and that Caitlyn Jenner was no braver than any other Trans person.
My second mistake is to mention Paris Lees, a high-profile Trans activist and journalist for the Guardian and Vice.com. Beckie admits that Paris has a photogenic image, Karen in her usual forthright way admits that she feels the writer doesn’t speak for the Trans community overall, and neither does her British peer Kellie Maloney, the former boxing promoter who, in Karen’s words, is over-compensating after a life lived in an overly masculine environment. I tend to agree. Whilst Caitlyn Jenner has welcomed support from Laverne Cox and others in the Trans community, and genuinely looks blissful and at one with herself in the television reality show documenting her life, Kellie Maloney came across on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ as deeply troubled, and has had to backtrack on negative comments she made about the LGBT community during her career.
So who are Karen and Beckie’s Trans icons? Karen cites American gynaecologist Marci Bowers, a Trans woman and pioneer in gender reassignment surgery, someone who knew she was able to contribute to other Trans people’s lives. Beckie concurs, but adds Trans priest Rachel Mann and “anyone who doesn’t let being Trans hold them back, living life as a Trans person in everyday society is a success.”
Like an alcoholic in recovery stopping drinking, surgery is really only a small part of the journey. Trans patients are expected to present as their identified gender in society for two years before that point; Karen says that this is like “living a life you haven’t got the instruction booklet for” and that a Trans woman has to do three times as much as another person to justify their existence. Whilst of the public are accepting, Karen often experiences transphobia from within Manchester’s gay village itself, including door staff referring to her as male. Misgendering is the most hurtful and emotionally damaging act you can inflict on a Trans person.
On 13th June 2015 the Daily Star published an article which claimed the NHS is “splurging” to ease the backlog of gender reassignment surgeries. In it the Star also misgendered the patients, who are “desperate to follow in the footsteps of boxing promoter Frank(sic) Maloney” and quoted a number of offensive sources, including Patient Concern, who showed no concern for the mental state of Trans patients and claimed that “you would probably find a majority against “free” sex operations at a time when the NHS is so strapped for cash”, and the Christian Legal Centre, which offers advocate services to some of the most virulently homophobic and transphobic organisations, who suggested that “the NHS is following the fashionable transgender whim”. Obviously repulsive pieces like this are distressing to those Trans civilians desperately trying to live as ordinary life as possible, those everyday heroines (and heroes) that Karen and Beckie admire so much.
Society is still holding out for those heroes. Where are all the Trans men in all of this? Karen and Beckie both point out that there hasn’t been an eminent Trans male in the media since Chaz Bono, and both say they welcome more input from the Trans masculine community. With bodybuilder Aydian Dowling poised to become the first Trans cover model for Men’s Health magazine, the discussion about gender and Trans rights looks set to be blown open even wider still.