“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[1]. 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.

 

[1] 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.

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§ 12 Responses to “Genderfluid is the new black”*: on the media’s non-binary moment

  • cicadaghost says:

    My thoughts exactly! Thank you for putting all this into words, it’s something that needed to be said.

  • vgnsocjust says:

    I feel like this is in large part to the trans narrative being created by cis people as opposed to trans gender people themselves.

  • Jude B. says:

    More a response to Ruth’s point, but, (not to mention the fact it sometimes feels people point out the “binary/non-binary binary” just to troll, which I know Ruth is not) eliding any distinction between binary trans and non-binary (whether trans identified or otherwise) obscures the problematic (I originally had ‘erases the material fact of’ but realised I wasn’t so sure) of binary privilege; — it certainly /feels/ like it’s a thing to me, as a non-binary person. But I would be interested to hear more of what Ruth is talking about.

    • cnlester says:

      I’ll send Ruth a head’s up

    • Ruth says:

      Hello!

      Yeah, I agree there are absolutely differences – very important differences! – between binary and non-binary trans experience.

      Case in point – I feel I’m a “binary” trans woman (I do know plenty of non-binary and/or genderqueer people who also identify as a “trans woman” in one way or another). Having learned from the experiences of non-binary people in my life, it’s pretty clear to me that the way in which my identity “fits” into one of the gendered boxes favoured by cis society grants me a fair amount of privilege – much of that coming with the massively increased likelihood of my gender being recognised as “real” in pretty much any part of my life.

      But these differences are more complex than typically acknowledged – as CN points out, transition is often wrongly conflated with binary trans experience. Some binary trans people do not clearly pass as one binary gender or another, whilst some non-binary trans people do (either through design or misfortune). Gender, like sexuality, can be fluid with identities changing as people have new experiences and/or gain a greater understanding of themselves.

      My point isn’t to say “there is no difference between binary and non-binary” – instead, I feel it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a spectrum of trans experience and some people don’t fall easily into one “camp” or another.

      This is particularly important in the context of my work, which is around the stories that people tell about the provision of healthcare for trans people. Sometimes it’s really important to talk *specifically* about non-binary experiences – for instance, a lot of people in my research are denied treatment due to binaristic attitudes on the part of gender clinicians. But other times, it makes less sense to draw clear boundaries when discussing the issues that people face and how they talk about these issues – for instance, when someone is coming out and figuring out their identity and experiencing challenges along the way. Ignorant family members and medical professionals aren’t interested in whether or not this person will eventually define themselves as non-binary or not, and what this means – they’re more concerned with the immediate reality of an apparent deviation from society’s gendered norms.

  • micah says:

    Thank you for this. Your perspective is well researched and adds to some similar thoughts I’ve tried to express (especially in media contacting me about this gender fluidity fad and not getting it at all).

  • Reblogged this on sanshistory and commented:
    Interesting read!

    “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.”

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