“Genderfluid is the new black”*: on the media’s non-binary moment
July 5, 2015 § 12 Comments
This week alone, three cis writers of my acquaintance have written, been commissioned to write or have appeared on the radio to talk about how gender fluidity is so in right now. The conversations inevitably centre on Ruby Rose – with a touch of Miley Cyrus for diversity. Here in the UK, we had a two page spread in the main evening paper – I’ve lost count of the online pieces from more mainstream lGbt media orgs treating gender beyond the binary as the next bang-on trend. I’ve personally had more newspaper requests for tell-all photo features on this ‘new’ story in the past few months than in the past few years.
As a trans activist, as an artist, I’ve been pushing for greater media awareness, presence, for over a decade. This should feel like a victory – albeit one of many necessary changes to be made. So why am I left feeling like we’ve substituted one problem – invisibility – for another?
Much of what is troubling here is similar to the mainstream media coverage surrounding and following Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out (detailed in Autrostraddle’s reponse here). Privileging of whiteness to the point where it becomes a pre-requisite of coverage. Ignoring any supposedly ‘complicating’ factors – in this diversity monitoring form of selfhood, genderqueer is the only box of difference you get to tick. Gendered transgression is made palatable through an aspirational model of mainstream, cissexist beauty standards. There is no mention of anything that could be deemed political: questions of legal status, legal protections, access to healthcare, rates of violence, discrimination, mental illness. Even gender neutral pronouns and titles are ignored.
These aspects would be problematic enough. Leave out part of the story and you don’t just shorten it – you distort it. But it is in and through these particular distortions that this current framing becomes more dangerous.
Gender non-conforming people are, in this telling, happy to fit themselves within a cisnormative structure of sex and gender. They alter their appearances through clothing, hair and makeup, but not through surgical or hormonal means. They talk about lack of gender options, but in a personal sense, not a structural one. My point is not that anyone should have to undertake (or disclose) medical intervention, or a set form of social transition, to prove that they’re ‘trans enough’ – we are who we say we are, and that fact doesn’t rely on an outside reading of our selves. But the media framing of this – of a ‘true trans’ that involves social and medical transition, and a ‘trans lite’ that does not – the reinforcing of this message through selective and willfully ignorant reporting – plays into already entrenched ideas of exclusion and opposition, and creates another harmful binary of its own.
In April this year I was approached by Woman’s Hour, the UK’s most prominent feminist radio programme. They said that they’d read my previous work with other feminist magazines, and asked me if I’d come on air to discuss ‘non-binary versus transgender’ in the treatment of ‘children referred to doctors for transgender’ (their wording, not mine). A frustrating couple of hours ensued – despite the many changes I’ve made to my own body in order to make it livable, they assumed that, being a genderqueer trans person, I had not, and would not want to allow others the same choice. Their belief was that ‘trans’ people slavishly adhere to traditional binary gender roles, and change their bodies and appearances accordingly, setting feminism back. On the other hand, ‘non-binary’ people were comfortable in the sex and gender they were assigned at birth, and wanted to destroy the labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a way that gave no room for anyone else. Any discussion of similarities, overlap, concrete problems that trans people of all genders and none face – these weren’t the angle they were going for (again, their words). In the end, despite advice from several trans sources that they contact the leading organizations helping trans children of all kinds, they approached instead a feminist known for her anti-trans views, because they could comfortably count on being ‘anti’ age appropriate support for trans children.
It reminded me vividly of the different kinds of abuse I and my trans women friends have received, often from supposedly liberal people. Whereas they are too frequently the targets of furious aggression, I’ve found (online at least) that my genderqueer status has me pegged as confused and traitorous, but more deserving of pity and scorn than doxxing, stalking and death threats. They’ve committed an unforgivable transgression – I’m still capable of being saved and brought back to the fold.
I believe that this is the background and reasoning behind much of the current media framing of certain types of gender variance as sexy. It’s okay, the subtext goes – these people are just playing dress up! They’re still like us, but a little bit rebellious. Not like those people over there…you know, the ones who might have had ‘the op’. It’s a toxic and hateful positioning – helpful only to journalists banking on clickbait and those who oppose justice for all trans and/or gender non-conforming people.
It’s divide and conquer of those who, in the main, have overlapping needs – sometimes, indeed, the same needs. While there are, to my knowledge, a small number of gender non-conforming people who would not feel comfortable under the trans umbrella, there are also large numbers of gender non-conforming people who are trans in many and varied ways. These truths can exist together. My own anecdotal evidence, that there is much category slippage within trans communities, particularly over time, particularly when social circles change, seems to match activist and researcher Ruth Pearce’s:
“I’ve actually been writing some stuff for my thesis recently about how unhelpful it is to have a non-binary/binary binary within ‘trans’ because of the complex reality of identity and experience. I was originally intending for my research (or maybe an element of it) to look *specifically* at non-binary experiences, but I discovered that (in the context of the kind of content-led, discourse-oriented social research I’m doing) it didn’t make any sense to separate out non-binary identities from other trans identities, both because of the massive overlaps within communities and individual experiences, and because of the stories around how binaristic norms get imposed on *everyone* are important to tell.”
Faced with a media fad that seeks to elevate a very small percentage of us, in a limited way, I think it’s even more important for those of us who aren’t (or aren’t straightforwardly) men and women to link in solidarity with those who are – and, indeed, vice versa. We can’t let cis marketing sell us an image of ourselves that sells other trans people, particularly marginalized trans women, short. We can’t let flattery at being thought desirable – or anger with that objectification – stop us from working together on the issues that matter most: transmisogynistic and transphobic/queerphobic violence, lack of housing, lack of healthcare, lack of legal rights, lack of support.
I’m not honest and open about who I am in order to be cooler than thou. I’m doing it because I couldn’t live a lie – and because I want more for every other person who knows how that feels.
 Despite the wealth of research into the role of whiteness in erasing, punishing and exploiting genders beyond a modern Western binary, both through colonialism and within its own borders and systems.
*For reasons of clarity: a reference to the fashion/style writing snowclone (see definition here), itself referenced in the Netflix programme featuring Ruby Rose, which is then further referenced by many of the current mainstream pieces on genders outside/beyond the binary that base themselves on Rose and the character she plays in OITNB.