Where Are the Trans Queer Women?

Mainstream entertainment almost never depicts trans women who are unambiguously queer. A work might present a woman who begins transition while already married to a cis woman, but if anything is said about preferences, it will be that the two women have a love that transcends sexual orientation. After all, this is a message that will be more palatable to cis straight audiences. The only movie I know of that has a trans queer woman as a fictional character is Better than Chocolate, an independent film.

Why don’t we see more trans queer women in the media? I think we find the answer when we consider a couple of tropes that are common in our day. I’ll call the first Lesbians as Straight Men’s Fetish. This is pretty straightforward. If lesbianism is depicted, it is as a service to straight men. It is often the case that within a production there will be a man watching, acting as the surrogate viewer. And in an obvious case of fantasy wish fulfillment the lesbianism is temporary or superficial so that men in the audience can see lesbians who end up in committed relationships with men. (The possibility that the characters are bisexual women is never explored.) Lesbians in the media are prime examples of fetishization—objects of desire that exist for people who have absolutely no regard for the desires of the objects.

I’ll call the second trope Trans Women as Inauthentic. As many before me have pointed out, trans women are often depicted as stealthy deceivers or as comic want-to-be women. If a trans woman easily “passes”, it is because she is trying to trick a man. (In horrifying examples of life imitating art some cis straight men have killed their trans lovers and escaped murder charges by claiming that they’d been duped.) On the other hand if a trans woman is harmless, the production team will play up her masculinity or maleness in an attempt to get laughs. Because, you know, failing to blend with cis women in a society where trans women are singled out for violence is comedy gold. One way or another movies and television must say that trans women aren’t real women.

Trans queer women can’t be depicted in popular culture, because we challenge the heterosexism and the cissexism that are so deeply ingrained in our society. The target audience simply would not react the same way if a trans woman duped a queer woman or failed miserably at convincing a queer woman of her womanhood. Even if it did, presenting a woman as a deceiver or a failure would undermine attempts at titillation. If the mainstream media depicted trans queer women, something would break.

But this is not a lamentation, it is an exhortation. Let’s break things. Let’s create representations of trans queer women and put them where they can’t be ignored. Of course care should be taken when depicting trans queer women, just as it should be taken when depicting all members of oppressed groups. We don’t want to substitute new harmful tropes for the old harmful tropes. But I don’t think the possibility of getting things wrong should deter us from trying something that could go wonderfully right. For far too long we’ve been letting cissexist, heterosexist institutions tell us how to view trans women and queer women. Now is the time for us to stop viewing worlds we can’t relate to and start making a better world.

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