tl;dr Despite knowing that cis-controlled visibility is crap, trans people are still participating it. I’ve nearly said yes, and I get why we are still saying yes, but it’s time to stop and start creating more quality platforms for trans visibility.
I’m always thinking and writing about visibility. This is probably boring by now. I still have lots to say though!
Recently, I’ve been working on a long-term project that looks specifically at transition narratives in media and there is one question I keep coming back to and struggling with.
See, when I went around asking my trans friends for their pet peeves about trans documentaries, the response I got was “I don’t watch those”. My friends and I are sensible people that understand that most documentaries about trans people are shock entertainment for cis people, or satisfying appeasement, for cis people, or pity porn for, you guessed it, cis people. The documentaries are, on the most innocent level, not for us and, in truth, deeply harmful. There’s no point in watching something like that.
Documentaries go two ways – either it’s about a child. In which case, I deeply judge any parent that would put their incredibly young child in front of a camera in such a dehumanizing way.
Or, it’s about an adult. The media can’t seem to get enough of middle aged trans women (with the token trans man mixed in) transitioning. It’s frightening.
What’s terrifying to me is that these are adult trans people choosing to participate in this.
And yes, it is necessary to understand that cis producers, directors, videographers, etc. have full control in these projects. They can edit anything to show what they want instead of what a trans person is trying to say. When I watch these things, I know it’s not a trans person opening themselves to dehumanizing, body-obsessed bullshit. It’s cis people in power manipulating, sometimes even blatantly lying to them.
But, the fact is, we all fucking know this. We know that, by this point, if a cis person’s in charge, it will probably go ugly.
And we’re starving so much for representation that we’ll accept things because they’re slightly less awful than other things (I talk about that a bit here).
But it’s still awful.
It still causes harm.
And I just can’t understand why someone would say yes and consent to it.
I recently read Juno Dawson’s pretty clear explanation of her reasoning. She argues her position well – the cis creators were sympathetic (ie. not monsters), the position of Transformation Street was good for increasing visibility, and being inside of the show meant she could direct cis people out of their more unfortunate blunders.
Can I also remind you that Transformation Street included invasive footage of surgery? It may have been sympathetic. The cis creators may have recognized that trans people are people (radical). Dawson may have talked the creators out of some terrible naming decisions. But it is still incredibly invasive and dehumanizing and multiple trans adults chose to do this. They consented to it. [Disclaimer: I have not watched Transformation Street in full, due to time and access and choosing to focus on documentaries that I can legally use in my work, please correct me if I’m pleasantly wrong!]
I can’t explain. But I think it’s worth noting that the main people featured in Transformation Street, and practically every trans documentary ever, are white.
They are white, they are rich enough to afford GRS on their own dime (keeping in mind the context of the NHS in the UK – a cheaper, but inhumanely slow option), and they fit cis expectations of what a transition should like (I talk more about that here). They are not the people that are going to be most harmed by an increase in harmful visibility.
I actually find it super interesting in Dawson’s piece how she mentions that some trans people don’t get surgery and then never really does anything about it. It’s a side comment, a box to tick to show that she understands something that’s said a lot in the trans community, but there’s no real weight behind it.
In the end, all I’m seeing in Dawson’s response and other conversations I’ve had with people around visibility is a strong focus on quantity over quality – it’s more important to get any and all vaguely sympathetic trans visibility out and seen as much as possible than it is to produce and present quality trans visibility that uplifts all trans people. You can see this in Dawson’s willingness to forget that Transformation Street (and most trans documentaries ever) completely ignores people who don’t medically transition, even after she points it out as a problem. You can see it in the fact that trans people are still saying yes to cis producers and that you can see it in the fact that trans people are still handing over baby pictures and consenting to cameras in their doctor’s appointments and surgeries (for the record, I am well aware that this is not always consensual and that is also a HUGE thing we need to address).
There’s this sense of “we need visibility, so if I do this highly visible thing, visibility will increase and then we can start talking about respectful visibility”.
About a year ago, I took part in a workshop hosted by a production company that wanted to create a documentary specifically about trans dancers. First off, in pair discussions about why it is so difficult for trans dancers, one of the producers tried desperately to get me to tell them my birth name. I fucking love my second name. I’m not going to give it off to a cis person who wants to make a documentary out of me so they can abuse its power. I was obnoxiously closed-lipped and won that conversation, but it was a great window into the perseverance and entitlement even the most well-meaning cis producer has in extracting personal details about their trans subjects.
Later in the discussion, another trans person pushed the importance of increased visibility, so I built on that statement to speak very specifically about the importance of trans involvement in all levels of creation. Looking directly at the cis producers in the room, I said that, for a trans documentary to be effective, there needed to be trans producers, trans directors, trans designers, trans video editors, trans camerapeople, trans everything…
I then asked if the person they wanted to bring in to do choreography for the project was trans.
“Ummm, I’m not sure, but she’s definitely queer!” was the response. Not good enough. If we really want to create meaningful, effective, respectful trans people, it needs to include trans people. Not all queer folks are trans-friendly and no matter how queer someone is, I would not trust a cis person with something as delicate and complex as trans visibility.
Eventually, after an email asking me to take part in the next part of the project, I informed them that I would not continue until I saw a clear plan to include trans people behind the camera as well as in front of it. I never got a response.
It was fucking hard.
I want a documentary about trans dancers. I want to see people like me on television. I want younger trans people to know that dance is an option. I want that visibility. I very nearly said yes.
But, I don’t think I would ever be able to look myself in the mirror if I had said yes.
I stalked their website before writing this post and saw that there has been no progress on that specific project. I doubt that my ultimatum had anything to do with it, but I can hope that, in wherever the process stands, the creators are deeply considering what I had to say. At least, they haven’t gone and made a documentary without trans people in production roles in the past year, and I do like to believe in people’s capacity to do good, to listen, and to do better.
But, the trans documentary is still nonexistent. I find other trans dancers in fits and bursts, like before. I end up being the only trans person in queer dance spaces. I end up being the only queer person in dance spaces. Or, I’m in class with other trans people, but I don’t “look” trans, so we don’t connect. Dance isn’t safe for trans folks, so imagine how fucking radical it would be to have a BIG FUCKING DOCUMENTARY for people to watch.
I want that.
But it feels too easy, too quick. Quantity over quality. We go big before there’s even the beginnings of local infrastructure to support actual trans dancers. We parade individualistic, struggling, lonely trans dancers across a screen and create some kind of pity porn to tug at heart stringsn which doesn’t offer practical solutions for how dance spaces can make space for trans dancers in a meaningful, effective (non-mediatized) way. No matter how big it is, what fucking good does that do?
Right now, I am making my own work. I am committed to only choreographing on trans dancers. Right now, that dancer is me. I am having conversations in my dance community so that, hopefully, someday, they will be ready to invite trans people in their space. I’m writing blog posts that sometimes people that aren’t my friends read. My platform isn’t as big as it would be if I were in a major documentary, but it is trans art made by a trans person about my trans experiences. That’s something no cis-made documentary is going to do. I don’t touch as many people, my visibility is not as widespread, but it is quality. It is rigorous, it works to consider and uplift as many trans people as possible, not just my own experiences (although that is something I fail at and am constantly working to do better). I fail, I do better.
But, I’m doing it alone, and that sucks.
A documentary would give me a chance to connect with other trans dancers, both other folks in the trans documentary and then, as a visible figure for other trans dancers to find. That’s the kind of shit we’re desperate for. I get why there are trans people saying yes.
But I’d like to encourage trans people to seriously think before saying yes to the next sympathetic cis person with a camera: Who are you harming by grabbing at the easily-offered visibility? Is it worth it?
If it is, fucking go for it!
But, if it isn’t, I can’t help but look at amazing projects like My Genderation and wonder what would happen if every trans person that considered saying “yes” to a cis person said “no” and went to work with each other to make their own platforms of visibility.
I think it would be badass. AND we wouldn’t be alone.