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Finding a Voice: Agency and Trans Issues

It’s Undergraduate Week at Nursing Clio! All this week we are proud to bring you amazing work written by students at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY. Students wrote their essays as part a “Transgender Issues” course taught by Elizabeth Reis. Today we feature an essay by Maggie Wrobleski.


It happens every time we meet someone new. We make a choice, whether we realize it or not, because it is what we have been taught to do. All of us decide on a gender for a stranger..

We examine their bodies, their clothing, their voice, their hairstyle, every way they outwardly express themselves; we rely on stereotypes and a binary system that our society created over the course of centuries. This gender binary persists despite being historically defied by babies born with ambiguous genitalia, by different cultures, and by countless lived experiences. We presume, but in the era of the so-called “transgender tipping point,” our presumptions aren’t always accepted. So how do we respond? When we misgender an child — a girl wearing overalls, a boy in pink — or even a pet — we usually admit the mistake, laugh through an apology, and correct ourselves. Yet when confronted by transgender adults, so many of us instead insist we know better than them and start the usual interrogation: questions about sexuality, about coming out, about surgery, a whole host of questions we would never bring up in polite conversation with a cis person — or, more accurately, a presumably cis person.

Transgender — and intersex, and genderqueer, and all others who identify themselves as not being cisgender — people are objectified in the eyes of society, especially in the field of medicine. They are oddities to be examined. They are sexual anomalies who exist to be sources of information about their lives instead of human beings in their own right. The select few trans people who are elevated and given platforms to tell their stories — Lili Elbe, Christine Jorgensen, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner — are elevated precisely to be isolated, shown as extraordinary people instead of just a handful of members of a wide, diverse community. Trans people are not agents in media, able to act of their own will; they are forces to be acted upon, and they have to fight constantly to tell their own stories without becoming objects.

Within the medical community, there is an expected narrative for a person diagnosed with gender identity disorder. This narrative clears the path to sex reassignment surgery and related treatments. Naturally, this hyper-focus on surgery has a myriad of negative side effects. First, it demonstrates yet another way trans people are denied the ability to tell their own unique stories; instead, many trans people seeking medical treatment — be it surgery, hormone therapy, or mental health services — feel forced to regurgitate the “correct” narrative, or else be denied.

Second, hyper-focus on surgery is inherently classist and further divides an already marginalized group of people. Wealthy trans people, or trans people with expansive medical insurance policies, can afford to have surgery. But when considering statistics, it becomes obvious that the trans community has a disproportionately high ratio of poverty, and even more so when considering trans people of color. To be blunt, most people can’t afford genital surgery, and are thus barred from access to it. Some simply don’t feel the need to have surgery, regardless of cost. But notions about the necessity of surgery dominate the community and create a medically — defined hierarchy that is inherently inaccessible to certain people.

Third, and most difficult to process, the obsession with surgery, and by extension with “passing” as the intended gender, only enforces the gender binary and our concepts of what gender means.

The presence of extremely feminine-presenting trans women in media is proof of this: these women get attention because they can pass, because they choose to conform to standards of female beauty. This is their choice to make and they can’t be blamed for asserting femininity, because trans women who fail to pass are subject to scorn and violence. And here we see the problem. If all trans people are meant to somehow gain the “correct” anatomy and the “correct” physical appearance, this means there is a perpetuated notion of what counts as “correct.” This, in turn, dictates which genitals and appearance markers are male and which are female, and those who defy the standard end up even more marginalized. The enforcement of the gender binary is especially harmful to those under the trans umbrella who do not neatly pass as male or female — those who don’t want surgery, those who vary in their daily presentations of gender, and those who are genderqueer or intersex.

Today more people understand that gender and sexuality are two utterly different concepts, but the sexuality of trans people becomes fetishized. Again, this is a way of setting trans people apart and stripping them of the ability to tell their own stories. Cis queer people experience prying questions about how they have sex, and trans people of all sexualities do even more.

Transparent promotional ad.
Transparent promotional ad.

But, interestingly enough, representations of trans sexuality — two words, as in the sexuality of trans individuals — in media tend to go two ways: trans people are either solely sexual objects, or their sexuality is written off. Transparent is the most prominent example. Over the course of Season One, Maura, the eponymous “trans parent” and the show’s focal character, doesn’t show real sexual interest in another character, aside from brief scenes that verbally mention her sexual and romantic history, and one scene involving a kiss and implying a possible sexual encounter.

The longest of these scenes occurs before she has come out to her wife, and involves Maura requesting to wear her wife’s underwear while they have sex. This notion is later mocked. It’s notable simply that this is the most explicit discussion of Maura’s sexuality, but it stands out even more because this scene depicts Maura before her transition, when she still presented as male. It wouldn’t be so noticeable if the show’s other cisgender characters weren’t so freely asserting their own sexualities, and if the show didn’t dedicate so much time to those sex scenes. Yet the show cannot bring itself to involve trans characters in such scenes without any degree of fetishistic perversion.

Episode 7 of Transparent, titled “The Symbolic Exemplar,” demonstrates this by way of a literal fantasy sequence involving a trans man being presented and then debunked. As a comparison, trans writer S. Bear Bergman’s memoir, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, is very frank about the narrator’s sexual experiences and despair at being turned into a sexual object by so many past partners. Transparent allows its lone trans male character to voice this same complaint, but it is rendered hypocritical in light of the show’s own censorship of trans sexuality.

There is a simple solution to this trend, one that shouldn’t need saying. Treating other people as artifacts because of their differences is wrong. There is no one trans narrative; as with anyone in any other community, every transgender person has their own distinct story to tell. Letting them tell their stories is how we break ourselves out of a binary system that has legitimate consequences for those who defy it in their daily life. No matter how many magazines write about a select few trans individuals, no matter how many times the phrase “transgender tipping point” is repeated, it means nothing until we enact real change, starting with our own actions. First, we should break ourselves of the habit to presume, and instead, learn to listen.

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One Comment

Cassia Roth (@MixmasterCass)

What a fabulous post–well written and thoughtful. While Transparent did censor trans sexuality in the first season (while hyper-celebrating cis-sexuality, as you said), I think the show has begun to address this issue in the second season. Maura confronts the idea of hormones and surgery. Maura also sexually pleases her ex-wife, and the scene is poignant and telling in how she begins to think about her own sexuality and desires (Episode 2, “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump”). And finally, she has sex with a woman (Episode 9 “Man on the Land”). I think the show is beginning to interact with ideas of trans-sexuality and identity in more complex ways.

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