By now, I am assuming most folks who read this blog know that Laverne Cox has been gracing covers of TIME Magazine on newsstands far and wide for the past week or so. In doing so, Laverne has become the first openly trans* person to be featured on the cover of TIME. This is no small accomplishment, and has been celebrated far and wide by trans* scholars, activists, allies, and supporters. This is as it should be, in my estimation. That Cox is (a) a trans* woman of color, (b) has continued to be a spokeswoman for trans* rights and advocacy since becoming a public figure, and (c) has an impeccable ability to counter commentary steeped in transphobia and/or genderism while not alienating those (cisgender) people who ask ridiculous questions/make ridiculous statements (be it consciously or unconsciously) (Katie Couric, anyone?) make her cover shoot all the better. Laverne is, I believe, an amazing face for the continuing trans* movement, and I know I was not the only person (trans* or cis) who made multiple trips to multiple stores to buy multiple copies of this historic magazine issue.
Regardless of the positivity of the Laverne TIMEy goodness, there were some who (again, rightly so) critiqued the cover story, which was written by Katy Steinmetz. For folks who may want a summary of what Steinmetz mucked up, Mey over at Autostraddle did a great job of this. Essentially, Steinmetz misgendered Christine Jorgensen, used Janet Mock's birth name, talk about trans* people as being 'biological males' and 'biological females' as though that isn't reducing one's gender to one's genitalia (just so we are clear, it is reductionist, and it is incredibly problematic), and give space to articulating the "anti-science, anti-logic, anti-human-decency opinion of people who 'don’t believe in' the concept of gender identity" (Mey, 2014). The article also suggests that the trans* movement just kicked off, which conveys an incredibly limited understanding of all the badass trans* people who pushed for radical change for decades, most of whom were trans* women of color.
These are problems, no doubt. They are infuriating, and I, too, wish for a world in which trans* people and our allies do not need to continually point out/react/respond to these sorts of microaggressions because people just 'get it.' I mean, wouldn't that be just the best world ever? However, as crumby as these problems continue to be, I do think it is important to think about what it means to write about topics in a complex way when the audience for whom you are writing may not be ready to hear/cannot fully understand the complexity of one's writing. Far from being a TIME apologist, I think the TIME cover story (and the ensuing critiques) allow those of us who are trans* and/or those of us who are working on trans*-related scholarship to think about how to share our lives, experiences, research, and findings with wider publics, many of whom likely will not have any understanding that, for example, gender is not innate. If this is our starting point (as it likely was for many subscribers to TIME who picked up the June 9 issue and where like, "Whaa-??"), then how are we to talk about, for example, trans* people who do not identify with any gender? Or, for people who think trans* = drag queen = gay, how do we begin to talk about the Butlerian concepts of the heterosexual matrix and the logic of cultural intelligibility. Things get real complex real fast, so instead of seeing this as an either/or argument (either we go all the way complex and condemn pieces like the TIME article for 'not getting it right' or we just sit on our hands and be happy with what we get), which is a no-win situation for everyone, I suggest a both/and perspective. In other words, I think there are ways we can and should seek to write for multiple audiences, which will require varying levels of complexity. Furthermore, suggesting that we write in more accessible ways (read: less complex) does not mean we 'dumb down' our lives, experiences, or research. Instead, it means we scaffold our claims, arguments, and findings, making sure to explain what, for many, is very new terrain. Oh, and we should also make sure to do this in a way that doesn't trigger the crap out of people or further repressive ideologies (read: we should not forgive the mistakes Steinmetz made in the TIME piece).
Writing for different audiences, and audiences with varying levels of understanding regarding trans* identities, subjectivities, and experiences has been (and continues to be) a struggle for me. I have had an ongoing conversation with my advisor about the frustration I experience regarding the need to define every single one of the terms I use (like, every. Single. Term). At my worst, I want to say (and have said a few times), "Can't people just Google it?," and at my best, I remain a bit incredulous as I shake my head while footnoting the heck out of my manuscripts. I am also working with a colleague on a manuscript where we argue the necessity for people studying alongside marginalized populations needing to constantly define terms (while our friends who study alongside normative/privileged populations don't because, well, privilege) constitutes a microaggression. I know these concerns are not new for people who have and/or work alongside those with marginalized social identities. I feel like we could (and often do) tell you'd-never-believe-what-I-had-to-deal-with sorts of stories that revolve around these microaggressions. But still, the struggle is real, and it is not easy to navigate (for any of us).
But the reality is that, in some contexts, writing in an accessible way is not 'giving up' on complexity; it's just making sure your readers will stay with you while you ramp up the complexity throughout whatever you are writing. Also, it means that although the constant need to define is indeed a microaggression that needs to be addressed (I know, I know, I'm working on it), it is something all scholars should do rather than none of us doing. And, when it gets too exhausting, it's important to find and utilize venues that attract audiences for whom you do not need to do this sort of constant definition. Thus, we can embrace a both/and approach to sharing our stories, experiences, and research findings. We can both share them with audiences who may not be ready to fully embrace their complexity by scaffolding how we do the telling and find venues where we can jump right into the complexity because people already 'get it.' Similarly, we can both write in less complex, more accessible ways and do so in a way that doesn't further the harmful narratives, myths, and misperceptions about who we are as trans* people. And when I use the word 'we' here, I mean both trans* scholars as well as our cisgender peers who work alongside trans* people; trans* people should not have to feel the burden of teaching others about us (just like other marginalized populations shouldn't have to be the sole bearers of the responsibility to teach dominant groups about themselves). Finally, I believe we can (and should) realize that we can both continue to scaffold our arguments and writing and uncover, interrogate, and problematize the sheer ridiculousness of our needing to scaffold in the first place. The critique does not mean that scaffolding serves no purpose, and vice versa.
This issue of audience and complexity has an additional impact on my own research alongside trans* college students. Specifically, I have been talking with some colleagues about the difficulty of doing resilience-based research because it may promote the sense that trans* people have arrived. In other words, if we as trans* people are resilient, then we must not struggle at all. More to the point, when we realize our embeddedness in a cultural moment that foregrounds an either/or perspective (either one is resilient or one is not), it is hard to talk about our lives, experiences, and narratives as being full of both resilience and struggle/hurt/shame/pain/frustration/enter-counter-resilience-term-here.
I am not convinced I have been able to negotiate this fully, nor have others. In fact, this is another one of my own critiques of the TIME cover story, in that it vacillates between the trans*-as-victimized and trans*-as-incredibly-successful narratives (fairly wildly at points) without any sort of nuanced understanding that these could both be realities for the same person, possibly even at the same time! It's a dang tricky negotiation to undertake, but it is a necessary one if we want to provide an accurate reflection of who we are in all our beauty, tragedy, and overall muddiness. And not knowing how to do this doesn't mean we give up the ghost; it just means that we are humble in our attempts, become comfortable with producing shitty first drafts, and, again paraphrasing the words of Anne Lamott, take it on, bird by bird.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.