America is a nation built on, among other things, the idea of not being a phony.
You’ll notice that whenever pundits and politicians refer to blue-collar, Middle-America-types (read: White People™) as “hardworking” on the teevee, the word “honest” almost always precedes it. America is a nation that, for good and for ill, sees itself as unflinchingly honest and forthright, and has plenty of powerful mythologies to back it up. One of our favorite stories Americans tell our children has to do with our first president coming clean about chopping down a tree after he lied about it, for Chrissake. Hell, Abe Lincoln stayed mealy-mouthed on the question of abolition until the Civil War was nearly concluded and the body count was well over half a million , and they called him “Honest,” too.
America’s notion of itself as a nation with integrity, combined with the myth of our exceptionalism, have again, for good and for ill, made us into the most powerful nation in the world. But these things have also made “honest” Americans believe themselves are the sole arbiters of global truth, based on a narrow set of Judeo-Christian (read: White People™) values that no more reflect who we are as a nation than some Evil Queen’s magic mirror when she says “tell me I’m pretty.”
Where that narrow set of Judeo-Christian values collides with the realities of human sexuality, chaos almost always ensues. Generally speaking, anyone who doesn’t look, act, think or fuck like Republican Jesus says “honest” Americans should is an apostate, an impostor, and probably looking to bugger your children and/or your spouse. Sadly, for the coalition behind of our nation’s most colorful acronym – LGBT – this usually spells big trouble when it comes to interacting with straight society, or as “honest” Americans like to put it: society. Discrimination, violence, and death are not just common: they’re baked into the value set itself.
As you can imagine, “honest” Americans don’t like being lied to, and as far as most of them are concerned, when LGBT people tell them that being who they are isn’t a matter of choice, they think LGBT are lying. Because who would wanna betray Republican Jesus and do such nasty things like that, anyway? Dirty, filthy heathens, that’s who! Martha! Grab my Bible and my shotgun!
This goes double for the “T” in LGBT; according to “honest” Americans, men are Men™ and women are Women™; we have to ensure with absolute certainty that there’s no way to confuse one for the other, lest we stick our hoo-has in the wrong cha-chas and make Republican Jesus shed big, White crocodile tears. To them, anyone who would want to muddy the waters of binary gender expression is the worst kind of impostor, because how dare you try and masquerade as the opposite sex and make my naughty bits feel funny when they’re not supposed to. Martha! Where’s that damned shotgun?
But what kind of effect is this sort of “exposure” culture having on the trans community? Thirty percent of transgender youth reported a history of at least one suicide attempt in a 2016 study, and rates of psychiatric illness among trans men and women are staggeringly high, not to mention problems with educational and legal systems. “Honest” Americans would have transgendered people believe that such are the wages of fraudulence; if they would just stop pretending to be something they’re not, the logic follows, then there would be no good reason to ostracize them. They do it to themselves. Republican Jesus said so.
If “the world is a stage, and the people are merely players,” as Shakespeare put it, then there isn’t a trans person alive who doesn’t deserve multiple Academy Awards for giving the performance of a lifetime every. Single. Day. What’s it like to live in a world where millions of “honest” Americans, for whom pseudo-morals and good guy badges will always be a thing, think you’re a phony? To literally have your life depend on getting those same “honest” Americans, who blend seamlessly into the background because they are the background, to believe otherwise?
Often felt, yet rarely discussed openly in professional circles is the notion of “impostor syndrome,” described by Wikipedia as an affliction of “high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and…remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” The relentless commodification of all forms of labor in Western society has led the public to place incredible value on product over process, demanding cheaper and easier access to product with little understanding of the relationship between the two. Therefore, if process cannot be marketed as a product all its own, it is worthless. What’s worse, the inability of process to add value to a product renders process even more invisible, puts even greater downward pressure on the value of both.
The effect of this is that, for people whose professional lives are fraught with failure or a protracted lack of real opportunity, success, if it comes, always comes with an asterix. It’s always at the behest of someone else, or so we are taught to believe. The phrase “fake it ‘till you make it” comes to mind, but that implies that you’re still faking it after you’ve made it. Holy shit, I’m totally gaming the system, you might say to yourself. When everyone finds out, I’m a dead man. But who are you faking it for? And were you ever really faking it in the first place?
The more successful you get, the higher the stakes become, and the more you feel like an impostor. And when after feeling the Sword Of Damocles hovering above you for long enough, when it does – and it always does – it’s often more a relief than a burden. But it’s still a burden, one that can be harmful, and even fatal.
I can’t help but wonder, then, who “honest” Americans view trans people as the worst kind of impostors that could ever make Republican Jesus shed White Tears, force trans people, to grapple with their own form of impostor syndrome?
Being trans, it would seem, is much more than just an act of gender expression; it’s an act of creative expression, one that takes vision and courage and dedication to achieve. An act of labor. A process.
Switching genders is not easy, let alone doing so convincingly; it takes incredible skill, support, and access to resources that are often extremely costly, not to mention more than a little luck in the genetic lottery. Whatever end of each spectrum any given trans person ends up on will drastically affect their ability to perform the fullest expression of themselves. To what extent they are able to do so, it would seem, plays a large hand in determining their fate, to put it mildly.
Supportive friends and family, material wealth, and a malleable physiology go a long way toward putting trans people on the path to full self-expression early, and with a much greater degree of physical and emotional safety. Sadly, such a precious combination of blessings is incredibly rare, meaning that, for a great many trans men and women, the threat of exposure and its consequences are often very real, and very immediate.
When speaking against nuclear proliferation at the dawn of the Cold War, philosopher Bertrand Russell stated that “you may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for minutes; it would be unreasonable to do so without accident for two hundred years.” To live life as a trans person would seem to be an equally difficult balancing act, with the potential for equally dire consequences. Yet despite what all of this might suggest, the struggle for trans freedom has come a long way since the days of Stonewall. There is still an incredible work to be done, but in many areas of the country, trans men and women are able to live and work openly in ways that early LGBT rights trailblazers could only have dreamed of, regardless of where they are in their transitional journey.
As with the broader LGBT struggle in general, positive media representation and heightened visibility have played a critical role in trans liberation, particularly once the Internet came of age. Trans men and women around the world have been able to seize the reins of media production and begin to tell their own stories like never before, to whomever would listen. And people listened. Lots of them.
Where the audience goes, the money flows, and sure enough, stories about or featuring trans people turned out to be profitable, either in cash or clicks. There’s an undeniable “bootstrap” appeal to “coming out” stories of all stripes, even for those who tune in just to point and gawk. It’s an appeal that has proven too tempting to exploit, for good or for ill.
These stories and the people who create them have been a large part of what has slowly begun to tenderize the hearts of bigots across the country towards the LGBT community, getting them to recognize that being gay is not, in fact, a curse/disease/trick/contagion/sign of the apocalypse, and that the ‘mos aren’t coming for their children after all. It’s slowly – painfully, agonizingly, slowly – having the same effect for the trans community, as well. It would seem that most trans men and women in the public eye are tireless advocates for their community, acknowledging the privilege their platform provides in ways that few others can, and using it to their advantage whenever possible or appropriate.
At the same time, the medium is the message, and the medium requires every good “bootstrap” narrative to have a happy ending, and that the “performers,” such as they are, be appropriately photogenic, in the classic Western sense: übermenschen of the first order, beautiful, invisible, indivisible. For trans people – particularly trans women, who manage to make it into the spotlight far more often than trans men – this essentially means that, to be a star, you need to be born on what passes for third base in a society where the odds are already thoroughly stacked against you. Not impossible, but not bloody likely, either.
Caitlyn Jenner is an obvious example of the penunltimate trans woman success story, as it were; extravagant wealth, a highly public persona, and a history of athleticism have made Jenner’s transition, late in life as it was, as painless as any one would assume any trans person could ask for.
But even Laverne Cox, arguably the trans community’s most visible spokesperson, managed to catch a few lucky breaks, despite a suicide attempt at the age eleven. She managed to pursue a liberal arts college education across multiple states before getting picked up by VH1 for her first gig. Details of her childhood are unclear, but presumably she did this with the help of a supportive family, specifically a mother that “didn’t want me to dance but let me do it anyway,” as she stated in The Independent in 2014. College, after all, ain’t free.
That same family likely also had a hand in putting a good head on her shoulders, one that helped her avoid a certain degree of exploitation in the NYC club scene where she got her start. She’s undeniably wholesome, both on and off screen. Good genes (Laverne Cox is stunningly beautiful, in a classic pinup fashion) and a penchant for makeup and hair round out the rest, bam! Within a few years, Laverne Cox becomes a perfect “rags to riches” story for the New American Century: progressive, duplicable, marketable, profitable.
It’s difficult to ignore that just about every trans woman who has risen to national media prominence since Laverne Cox has had a remarkably similar story to hers, a story which mirrors the mythical formula for “bootstrap” success: with a supportive, nuclear family (at least one family member has their back, usually a parent or a sibling), “honest” American values, and a strong work ethic, you can be anything, even a teevee star.
It’s also difficult to ignore that with practically no exceptions, every trans woman who has risen to national media prominence since Laverne Cox bears a remarkable resemblance to her: tall, shapely, graceful in word and deed, impeccable, beautiful. Together, make the best impostors in the eyes of the straight world, and by having “faked it ‘till they made it,” they’ve become the least threatening to Republican Jesus, who’s actually starting to think that Carmen Carrera is pretty hot…
The moral licensing on behalf of media execs that paved the way for trans women like Laverne Cox to become a star only holds the door open for trans people whose stories and appearance resemble her own. While it’s a step in the right direction, the message to the remainder of the trans community is clear: the better an impostor you are to the straight gaze, the more the world will accept you. But transgendered people are not impostors. They are Men™ and Women™, just like you. They just became so by a different process.