On Sunday March the 25th I took part in a radio-style talk show looking at how the media covers nonbinary and nonconforming gender and what we can do to make that coverage better.
Hosted by Avory Faucette of QueerFeminism.com and Radically Queer as part of Women Action Media‘s WAM!-It-Yourself events, the show featured guests with expertise in gender-neutral parenting, nonbinary identities, and media coverage of transgender issues. The discussion looked closely at some misunderstandings the media makes and how we can take action to educate and improve coverage.
During the discussion we considered topics including major media coverage of gender-neutral parenting and education in 2011, the media’s refusal to take supermodel Andrej Pejic’s stated identity seriously, and what articles on genderqueer and other identities get right and wrong. We also explored the best way to cover less familiar gender identities, how journalists can describe gender in a way that is less harmful to nonbinary or questioning individuals, and how blogs and social media are changing the conversation.
As well as speaking as an androgynously presenting nonbinary person, I also added a UK perspective and raised the differences between North American and British media coverage and activism.
Trans Camp will bring together trans* people, developers, designers and innovators to come up with ideas to improve the lives of trans* people using web technologies and the media.
In order to make sure the widest range of experiences are covered, they asked for one minute video responses from trans* people around the UK explaining their experiences of childhood, media, comedy and family. (At the time of writing, you still have a day to upload videos of your own).
The following are my responses to the four questions Trans Media Action posed for Trans Camp:
CHILDHOOD: For those of you who knew, what was it like growing up as a trans child?
I didn’t know, but I chose to talk about how I was still a trans* child:
I didn’t know I was a trans* child but I was still trans*.
I was lucky enough to have a pretty gender neutral upbringing. No one in my family really cared about gender roles and there was very little gender segregation at my primary school, so I managed to just be myself, be friends with who I wanted and was happily oblivious to just how much of a problem gender was going to become for me.
I didn’t realise I was trans* until my late teens, but I knew I was different from about age 12.
Other kids at secondary school made a really big deal about gender and I was immediately singled out for being a bit weird and not performing my assigned gender in the way that peer pressure demanded.
This had a particularly negative effect on me because I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with my body as puberty began.
For most of my teens I was an unhappy kid who desperately wanted to fit in and be normal, but everything I did to try to conform just made me feel even worse about myself.
I desperately needed to be told what transgender was, how it could be a positive thing and how it could be me.
I often wonder if things would’ve gone differently had I realised that I could do something about it when I had the revelation aged 17 that I was supposed to be androgynous, and if I’d have had that revelation any earlier if this sort of thing were talked about as normal in schools or on TV.
As it was, it took until I was 19 to realise that I was so unhappy with my body that I ‘must be transsexual’ and another two years after transition to stop struggling to live with another gender role that made me just as uncomfortable as the first.
MEDIA: How does media coverage of trans people affect you?
I chose to talk about nonbinary erasure and misrepresentation:
I’m nonbinary, that means I live as something other than a woman or a man. It also means I have next to no representation in the media.
Even in documentaries featuring trans* people with genderqueer or gender binary challenging identities or histories, like some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer, these are simplified, glossed over or completely edited out in fear of ‘confusing’ the general public.
If my life experiences are ever touched upon, they’re simplified to the point of misrepresentation. If I’m to be hinted at, it’s in the suggestion that some people are ‘in between’.
My gender and my body are not ‘between’ anything. My gender is not a balancing act. I’m not in the middle ground, I haven’t gone halfway and stopped. I am not half a woman and half a man, I’m not following two sets of sexist stereotypes. I do not ‘pick and choose’ about gender. And I’m not ‘on the fence’. And I’ve definitely not ‘de-transitioned’.
I’m a trans* person, I’m doing what I need to do to be true to myself.
Of course not all nonbinary people object to being described as ‘in between’; that’s an accurate description of some people’s gender identities. But there are many more people besides me whose experiences of being agender, bigender, fluid gender, genderqueer etc are erased by that simplification.
In my case, I experienced gender dysphoria and I did what it was necessary to do to become comfortable with my body. Doing so didn’t fix my social dysphoria though. I tried to be a ‘classic transsexual’, I tried to pretend to be a gender I didn’t truly feel I was. But I found ‘passing’ made me just as socially dysphoric as my assigned gender role had done.
It turned out that transition just wasn’t the perfect ‘package deal’ I’d been sold in the brochure, I had to go off the beaten track to find my own way to authentically express myself to the world.
When I tell people I’m trans*, comedy stereotypes often spring to their minds, but they almost always have the wrong idea. There aren’t many television comedy portrayals of androgynous or nonbinary people. Only the early 90s androgynous Saturday Night Live character ‘Pat’ springs to mind.
Comedy shouldn’t make fun of things people can’t help, but it could focus on the things they do. Trans* experiences are often funny. Barbara could’ve been brilliant satire if she was just a woman who over-shared about her transition.
Better still, comedy could focus on the often amusing ways that others react to trans* people – at their bestthe Pat skits drew their humour from the ridiculous lengths that polite people went to when unable to gender someone, of course, they never asked! – And this invited the audience to think twice about the nature of gender – something I’d like to see more!
I don’t mean to imply that the SNL Pat sketches were perfect, only what they managed to do when they’re at their best. The Pat character is hardly a positive representation (although it’s nice to see the trope of androgynous people as highly sexual and desirable completely avoided!) and the movie spinoff It’s Pat is frankly terrible.
Is Pat really a trans* character? We’ve no way to know for sure as the character’s identity is ambiguous. In fact ambiguity is rather the point. However the character clearly transgress gender roles and transcends other people’s attempts to gender them, so that counts as trans* to me.
FAMILY: How have you experienced support, or lack of, from family and friends?
I talk about having a supportive family despite there being very few success stories to point to in the media when I first came out:
My family are accepting and supportive of me, they’ve never shown any disapproval of anything I’ve needed to do to be happy and true to myself. They’ve never had a problem with using my name and pronouns of preference. In fact my parents have become adept at gender neutral language, I often find myself being introduced to their friends with ‘this is my eldest, Nat’.
I know I’m very lucky in this respect, but I also know it’s clear to them and anyone else that my ‘transition’ was undoubtedly right for me, and I’m happier, confident and more successful having resolved my gender dysphoria.
That wasn’t always the case though. When I first came out as trans* in the late 90s, my parents had to make a ‘leap of faith’. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy and loved, but unlike if I’d come out as gay, there were no obvious ‘trans* success stories’ in the media, no trans* news readers or TV presenters, no trans* politicians. I couldn’t hand them a newspaper list of Influential Trans* People or pick up a trans*-focused magazine equivalent to Diva or Gay Times.
My parents were essentially ignorant to the trans* experience and so I had to become my own positive example.
I didn’t have time during the video to make it clear that I was coming out as a classic binary transsexual the first time around, when my family were most concerned and most in need of positive role models and representation to reassure them.
When I came out as being neither binary gender and living androgynously they’d had two years of seeing that I was clearly happier with myself and able to be loved and liked by others, so they were a lot less concerned and trusted me to know myself and what was right for me.
* The asterisk at the end of ‘trans*’ denotes that this is the wider inclusive form of trans that includes all transgender, transsexual, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming people regardless of gender identity or expression.