tl;dr It is frustrating when the “good” articles about trans people still fall into dangerous patterns of objectification.
So I want to talk about this article a bit because it’s a difficult one. It’s the challenge trans people face all the time, and I’ve faced it a lot more personally with articles about asexuality, having been interviewed and photographed for such things, but the concept is vaguely the same. When queer people, especially trans people, appear in the media, in news articles, in documentaries, thinkpieces, you have it, there is always the balance between “getting the word out” and “not being objectified by the person telling your story and, in consequence, the person reading your story”.
This is a good article. It is a necessary article. It told me about a trans choreographer I didn’t know about and that’s exciting. And that’s one of the huge necessities of being in the media – our visibility is not always for cis people, sometimes it’s the only way we can tell each other that we exist.
At the same time, it falls into two patterns that are really objectifying and kind of sickening.
This article is, like almost every article on trans people, obsessed with our bodies, but not on trans terms. The word “dysphoria” is not used a single time, instead the author euphemizes the very real pain and struggle many trans people have with their bodies, as “discomfort”. This isn’t wrong, but it shows a lack of interest of engaging with trans communities – we have a word for this discomfort, one that is widespread, and honestly pretty well-understood by the general population, why not use it? When writers choose to use their language instead of our language, it’s a sign that they want to talk about us without really including us.
And this writer really wants to talk about us, or more, our bodies. And the creepiest part about this is the way they keep mentioning “center of gravity” and how medical transition affects a person’s dancing, because this is used as a justification for the continued obsession over trans bodies and medical transition. Except, dance is not an excuse to pick apart someone else’s medical history. Dancers are allowed body autonomy and medical privacy, just like everyone else, even if their job happens to include presenting their body on stage. And it becomes really obvious what’s going on when it’s the trans dancers being presented alongside their medical history.
This is where it becomes a tangle. Because I am really not comfortable with trans bodies being such an object of fascination for cis people.
At the same time, there are so few trans dancers, that there is no information about what HRT or GRS or any gender-affirming procedure does to a dancer’s body, the way we have well-studied information on the effects of other physical changes on dancing (such as age, pregnancy…). This is the only way I, and other trans dancers, can find this information. It needs to be out there. I am so glad to know so much more about Sean Dorsey’s transition because I remember seeing him live and thinking that he was proof that only “fully transitioned” trans people (whatever that means? I was an insecure teenager at the time) could dance. This was something I needed to read because it isn’t something available to me in any other place.
And yet, it still disturbs me that I had to read it like this.
The other pattern here is this idea that trans people are the ones that break gender norms.
It’s a bit ironic because the article even ends with a warning not to include trans dancers simply for “edgy politics”, which I wholeheartedly support. And yet, the title, “What does it take to challenge dance’s gender norms?” suggests that 1) there are gender norms in dance, 2) we are interested in challenging them, and 3) the subject of the article (trans dancers) will be a way to challenge gender norms.
Which is particularly interesting, because the person that first showed me this article is a trans woman. And, her response to reading it was that she felt divided – she wanted to support this breaking of gender norms and gender neutrality and you have it, but she also felt firmly attached to being able to dance a specifically woman’s role, because it was an affirming experience for her.
Who am I to tell her she has to go off and challenge gender norms?
Who is some random journalist to suggest that her dancing has to challenge gender norms?
What if trans people don’t particularly want to challenge gender norms?
And what the hell is so challenging about a trans man dancing a man’s role on stage? It’s almost like cis people think trans people aren’t really our genders…
Trans existence is not inherently the antidote to strict, binary gender roles.
Cis people need to stop looking at trans people to challenge gender roles and start doing the work themselves.
And when I want to read an article about people like me, trans dancers, something so rare that it is easy to get sucked into a hopeless void of believing there is no one else, what I don’t need is a reminder of this expectation that I am the one supposed to challenge gender norms.
This is a good article. It is a good article because it doesn’t misgender the trans people interviewed. That’s a huge win that we don’t usually get in articles (yes, the bar really is that low). Except every trans person interviewed is binary and we are told the gender they were assigned at birth and how each one transitions.
This is a good article because it quotes trans people respectfully, because it recognizes that transition is a long, complicated, personal process, because it waits until halfway through the article to mention Caitlyn Jenner. And yet it is still clutching to recycled narratives of “born in the wrong body” and “transition is necessary for full transness” and “trans people, even binary ones, are breaking all the gender norms ever! AAAAAH!”
This is a good article because it is telling trans dancers like me that we are not alone. Because it gives us multiple role models to look towards. That makes it a necessary article. I am glad this article exists.
And yet, I am so sick of reading articles like this. I am sick of needing articles like this.
Can’t there be one article that provides the needed trans visibility without objectifying a single trans person?