Category Archives: cisnormativity

The Transgender Outing On Survivor

Two weeks ago on Survivor, one of the contestants, Zeke Smith, was forcibly outed as transgender by another contestant. It made the news, or I wouldn’t have heard about it. Outing people without their consent is a majorly uncool thing to do, and the incident prompted me to watch my first episode of Survivor in at least a decade.

Several initial thoughts come to my mind before I address the matter of the outing. I’ve itemized them.

  1. How is Survivor still a thing? Does it have any relevance today? Do people actually watch it? I see from Wikipedia that it still draws decent ratings, although they’re miniscule compared to those of the first few seasons. I don’t know that I know anyone who still watches the show, but obviously it’s still profitable. I watched Survivor faithfully in its early seasons. The season I remember best is the second one, set in Australia. I liked the aw-shucks charm of boy-next-door Texan Colby Donaldson, and had a major crush on the contestant who, sadly, later became a talking head on The View and revealed herself to be a right-wing buffoon.
    After several more seasons, the show had become so repetitive, with the tropical island watersports challenges, the predictable deal making and backstabbing, that I’d had enough. By the middle of the Aughts, I no longer watched the show. The last season I watched was the season nicknamed “Survivor: Race War,” in which contestants were sorted into tribes of white people, black people, Latinos, and Asians. For reals. Despite all the exotic locales the show has visited, it has struggled to find moral high ground.
    Apparently Jeff Varner, the wrongdoer in this recent incident, had also been a contestant in the Australia season that I remember so fondly. I have no recollection of him.

    Zeke Smith, the aggrieved party.

  1. This season is titled Survivor: Game Changers, and all the contestants have competed before. Is every season now an “all-stars” kind of thing? After 34 iterations, has the show run out of new people who are interested in competing on the show? And speaking of which:
  2. Thirty-four seasons? How ridiculous is that? Those are numbers you associate with Meet The Press or 60 Minutes, not a show that has only existed during this millennium. Does Jeff Probst aspire to do nothing else? Does he like spending two months of every year primitive camping on tropical islands that much?

I’ll say one thing for the show: it has stuck with what must be a winning formula. Even the dialogue is unchanged. Jeff Probst still beckons the tribes in to the challenge areas with “come on in, guys,” with exactly the same wording and inflection he’s always used.

The reward challenge, with some minor treat symbolizing the comforts of civilization at stake (in this episode, it was ten pizzas accompanied by cold soda), is the same as it’s always been. The immunity challenge, with immunity from tribal council at stake, also has not changed.

What also hasn’t changed is that both challenges were done and dusted before the episode was half over. The rest of the episode’s running time was consumed by the losing tribe’s members scheming, wheeling and dealing about the upcoming vote, and by the tribal council itself.

The contestants all had moments alone with several of their tribemates, including Zeke, and also some time alone with the camera. I might have followed everyone’s strategy talk better if I had been watching this season all along, but there’s really not a lot of variation in these things. There’s always a group of contestants who talk about loyalty and honesty; there are others who say all’s fair in “the game,” and that they’re “not here to make friends.” Still others act as if they’re above the politics and claim they just want to go along to get along.

Jeff Varner, the villain.

And then there’s always one guy—it was legendarily Machiavellian Richard Hatch in the inaugural season of the show—who juggles his team’s feelings like bean bags, promising everything to everyone while clearly only caring for himself.

This character was personified by Jeff Varner in this episode. Varner discussed his plans with the camera like Iago to his audience in Othello. He said he liked Zeke, but that he thought he knew something about Zeke, some secret that Zeke hadn’t told anyone, and that while he didn’t want to have to use this secret against Zeke, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it looked like he (Varner) would be on the short end of the torch at tribal council.

In hindsight it’s obvious what he meant. Not obvious is how what Varner was hinting he’d be divulging could in any way save him from being voted off the island. Was he thinking his teammates would be so disgusted by the presence of a trans person in their midst that ejecting Zeke would override any other concerns? We can only guess.

Before the vote, Varner continued to play the standard villain role. He told several of them that Zeke and another player, Ozzie (a veteran of the show starting with the Survivor: Race War season) were plotting against them, and they appeared to believe it. Again, it’s astounding that the show can still find people this naïve to be contestants. Even I, dropping in on this one episode, could easily see Varner wasn’t to be trusted. And apparently everyone on the show this season had competed before, so it’s a fool-me-twice situation for anyone who gets bamboozled by another player.

At the tribal council, Varner acknowledged that he would likely be voted out, but still tried to make the case for voting out Ozzie instead. Standard desperation ploy.

But then his argument took an abrupt turn. He told Jeff Probst:

“There’s deception here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.”

He paused then, and Probst asked him to continue, which he did.

Varner turned to Zeke, and without further ado, asked bluntly, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

I knew that outing was going to happen—it’s the only reason I was watching in the first place. And yet, I still found the outing so shocking I had to pause the episode and take a moment before continuing.

Transgender men, in general, enjoy a privilege that transgender women, in general, do not. That is, trans men are more likely to look cisnormative, which means they get to choose whether or not to live their lives in “stealth” mode. It’s up to them to disclose their transgender status, and if they keep it to themselves, no one’s the wiser.

I don’t know how Varner figured out that Zeke was trans; as a gay man himself, maybe Varner has met more transgender people in his life than people outside our community, and so recognizes subtle clues. That doesn’t make what he did in any way okay. He should know himself what a horrible act of psychological violence it is to out another person. Even worse, the phrasing of his question made it seem Zeke had some obligation to disclose his transgender status to the rest of his tribe.

Let’s be clear about this: Survivor is a game show. It requires a much larger commitment than The Price Is Right or Jeopardy!, but it’s still just a game show. While there are a small number of situations in which a transgender person could reasonably be expected to reveal their transgender status to others, none of those situations are likely to arise in the course of competing on a game show.

There are zero situations in which it’s reasonable for another person to out a person as transgender without that person’s consent.

Zeke looked shocked when Varner outed him, and he didn’t answer or respond in any other way.

To the great credit of the rest of the tribe, they immediately rose up against Varner.

“That’s personal!” one dark-haired woman said. “That is so wrong of you to bring that up!” the older Asian man shouted.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Ozzy told Varner.

To a person, the tribe rejected Varner’s premise that Zeke was in any way “deceiving” people, or had done anything wrong. To a person, they were livid.

Even Jeff Probst, who typically adopts a pose of objectivity at the tribal councils, essentially told Varner he was being a creep. It really was a sight to behold.

In the face of this backlash, Varner folded like a broken umbrella, expressed regret, wept, and begged Zeke to forgive him. He did seem sincerely contrite. I can say that much for him. But I wonder if he would have backpedaled if the tribe hadn’t been so quick to condemn him.

Prompted by Jeff Probst, Zeke turned this clusterfuck into a teachable moment about living one’s truth; he said that he had only ever wanted to be “Zeke the Survivor contestant,” not “Zeke the trans Survivor contestant.” Now that it was out, he shrugged, and said he hoped living his life “out” from this moment on, before the millions of viewers of the show, could help bring solace and courage to some kid watching who’s contemplating their own transition.

He was a class act, in other words.

Varner then left the show in a voice vote, which I’ve never seen happen on the show before. In his exit confessional during the closing credits, he told the camera “No one should ever do what I did,” then buried his head in his hands.


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Transgender characters in comic books.

alters72dpiThe New York Times recently reported about Alters, a new comic book from a new comic book company, Aftershock Comics, that’s launching in September.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”

Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.

The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.

I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simplyultra-humanite3 part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.

The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.

Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.

DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.

Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.alysiayeohcomposite

Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.

You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”

Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).

And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.

There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.

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Bathroom Laws Are About Insufficient Femininity, Not Being Transgender

Recently, in the wake of all the high-profile nonsense about restrooms in this country, a friend of mine (who is a gay attorney, just to set the table) messaged me on Facebook with this:

“I am in regular communication with lots of ‘Republicans’ and others who would self-describe as conservatives. I frequently hear people say, ‘I don’t have a problem with anyone being transgender.’ And when they elaborate, what’s clear is that their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female. And I just think that that sort of thing is:

1) classist (not everyone can afford procedures like facial feminization, etc.) and

2) not really any different than other sorts of bigoted thinking—why should it really matter what someone looks like?”

There’s a good bit to unpack in that comment. Let’s start with his statement that’s really at the heart of the matter: “their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female.”

Of course that’s true. You could even narrow the focus a little further and state that conservatives’ problem is with transwomen who look (to them) like men; it’s “men in dresses” going into women’s restrooms that conservatives care about, not transmen in men’s rooms. I presume this is due to a sexist attitude that men can take care of themselves, but dainty, defenseless women and girls need protection from burly, scary transwomen.

But it’s basically a tautology to say that masculine-looking transwomen are the ones conservatives care about, because the ones who don’t look masculine—who look like every other woman in the loo—are never “clocked” as transgender in the first place. Transphobic conservatives don’t discriminate against them because they don’t know they exist. They recognize the transwomen they recognize.

I made posts here about physical differences between men and women, both large and small. “Passing” (the term I prefer is “having a cisnormative appearance”) as one’s correct gender identity is difficult or easy for transwomen, depending on the individual. It can be achieved via:

a. Makeup. Just like cisgender women.

b. Hormone replacement therapy. Results vary, but estrogen can redistribute fat in the face to soften masculine angles.

c. Electrolysis or laser hair removal. No other single trait looks as male to most people as a beard shadow.

d. Surgeries to feminize the face and body.

Not all masculine-looking transwomen go for these therapies and procedures. They can be dangerous for some; many people have health concerns that preclude surgeries, and others risk thrombosis if they take estrogen supplements. And, as my friend surmised, the treatments are very expensive, and until quite recently they usually weren’t covered by government or employer-provided health insurance. It is absolutely correct to say, as my friend did, that discrimination against masculine-looking transwomen can be discrimination against the economically underprivileged.

However, my friend missed one very important fact. When I followed up with him, he confessed it hadn’t even occurred to him: not every transgender woman cares about “passing,” or at least, not enough to go to all the effort and expense required to do so.

Seems strange, right? When we first learn about transgender women, we assume looking and acting feminine is the whole point. But transgender women are women, and women may choose to look however they want. They may be short-haired and tall; prefer pants to skirts; own no makeup. I’m sure you know cisgender women who describe themselves as “butch.” There are transgender women who do as well. Having a female gender identity does not automatically equate to being a cartoon of womanliness.

The assertion by conservatives that women should be feminine, and indeed must be so to be allowed to participate in society, is at the heart of the “bathroom bills”; and why they’re doomed to fail. Drafted to single out transgender women for harassment, they’re certain to have their greatest effect on butch-looking cisgender women instead. It’s already happening:

  • Cortney Bogorad in Detroit is suing a restaurant after a security guard threw her out of the establishment’s women’s restroom for looking “like a man”
  • In Dallas, Jessica Rush was followed into a hospital restroom by a diligent officer of the gender laity because she was “dressed like a man
  • CNN contributor Sally Kohn is 6′ 1″ and short-haired; she repeatedly has unpleasant encounters of this nature

All three of those women are cisgender, and it’s worth noting that none of the localities where they were harassed, to the best of my knowledge, have passed any “bathroom bills.” The concept is in the Zeitgeist now, so it’s emboldened the idiots and jerks regardless of the laws. And these are just three examples; there are already many, many more. Google “mistaken for transgender” if you want more evidence, and have a high tolerance for outrage.

I haven’t seen any stories about transmen (or effeminate cisgender men) being mistaken for women yet. It may or may not ever happen; as I wrote above, the touch point for the transphobes is having to share women’s rooms with masculinity. Transphobes like former ACLU employee Maya Dillard Smith, who related this story on Fox News:

I have shared my personal experience of having taken my elementary school age daughters into a women’s restroom when shortly after three transgender young adults, over six feet [tall] with deep voices, entered. My children were visibly frightened, concerned about their safety and left asking lots of questions for which I, like many parents, was ill-prepared to answer.

The simple answer to Ms. Smith’s children, “those people are transgender,” apparently didn’t occur to her at the time. And note that she doesn’t give any reason in that story why she or her children should have been afraid of those three young adults, or how she knew for sure they were transgender.

Laws regarding who may use which public restroom are nothing new and accomplish nothing good. They’re tools of hatred and hurt people in categories far beyond their intended targets. Fight them and end them.

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Cisnormativity.

In my last post, I talked about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unfortunate statements about transgender people, in which she suggested we have a responsibility to look “authentic” and to “play a role”—in a word, to be cisnormative—in order to put cisgender people at ease. She was rightly condemned for these remarks by many opinion leaders across the Internet, because nobody has a responsibility to put others at ease by the way they look. People look the way they look, as I wrote in that post; nobody has the right to prescribe another’s appearance, and no one’s gender identity is beholden to what someone else thinks it should be.

That said, it’s also true, speaking very, very generally, that transgender people strive to look cisnormative, and furthermore, that most of us don’t look as cisnormative as we would like to. That’s simply a fact of life for most people with gender dysphoria. The reasons we feel this way probably would (and probably have) filled books on sociology and psychology, but simply put, transgender people were born and raised in a predominately cisgender society, so we’re freighted with the same biases and assumptions toward the gender binary as cisgender people. We flipped the script, but we still play by it. Maybe we shouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t make it not the case.

Which raises a fair question: what is cisnormativity? That is, when we see a new person and mentally assign them a gender, what are we seeing (or failing to see) that informs that assignment? Most cisgender people never think much about this—why would they? I know I didn’t, until 2005, when I embarked ardently on my transition. Pretty much every gender nonconforming person has given this a lot of thought. Today, and later in a follow-up post, we’ll take a closer look at the matter. It’s kind of a doozy.

Obligatory male/female sign.

Obligatory male/female sign.

In the 1970s, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe. It surveyed parts of the outer solar system (mainly Jupiter and its moons), then charged on out of the solar system into interstellar space. It carries an illustrated metal plaque containing information about our planet, in case the spacecraft is ever found by extraterrestrials (friendly extraterrestrials, we hope, although if they turn out to be enslaving monsters, don’t blame me; I voted for Kodos).

The plaque includes a line drawing of a nude man and woman standing side by side. The man holds his right hand up in a wave, as if to say, “Hello from Earth! If you’ve been receiving our TV signals, please don’t get any ideas from that ‘To Serve Man‘ episode of The Twilight Zone!”

These drawings are meant to be archetypes of adult humans. As such, they present a handy example of what we mean when we talk about cisnormativity. So let’s use them for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re outdoors on a wide, flat plain. You see the man and woman from the plaque far in the distance. They’re silhouetted against the horizon, walking toward you. As soon as they become more distinct than hazy blobs far away, you begin to notice how their bodies differ. The closer they get to you, the more gender-distinguishing features you’ll spot.

First, you’ll see that the woman is slightly shorter than the man, and she has longer hair. The man is broad-shouldered compared to his waist; his torso is roughly an inverted trapezoid. The woman’s torso has more of an hourglass shape. Her waist is much smaller than her hips and shoulders.

From just these cues you’d probably already have a guess that one figure was a man and the other a woman. But you wouldn’t be positive; every characteristic you’ve seen so far can vary widely from person to person. As the couple draws closer to you, finer distinctions begin to emerge.

"Hello from Earth!"

“Hello from Earth!”

The way they walk is different. The woman has a lower center of gravity than the man, and since she’s also shorter overall, her legs are also shorter, which gives her a shorter stride, which makes her walk look different.

Another factor: while this archetypal pair is naked and therefore barefoot, as I’ve said, most people wear shoes, and women wear high heels more often than men. This also visibly affects a person’s walk; you can usually tell if someone’s wearing high heels, even if you can’t see their feet.

So as this couple continues toward you, their movements give you information about their gender identities. After a while they’re much closer than the horizon, and you get a better look at their bodies and how they differ.

The man, due to the muscle-building effect of testosterone, has greater muscle development than the woman. Women can also exercise, lift weights and get toned, of course, but generally they don’t get the bulked-up muscles testosterone makes available to men.

Men also have more body hair than women. The Pioneer 10 archetypes are hairless, for some reason, but this is true generally. There’s usually hair on a man’s chest, and maybe on his belly as well. It may be sparse, but it may also be quite thick (as anyone who’s seen Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King can attest). There’s also hair on his arms and legs, usually sparser than that on his chest. The thickest hair below his neck is at his armpits and pubes.

2pxPioneerplaquehumansWomen have body hair too, but not as much. There’s usually none or very little on her torso, and it’s wispy and sparse on her arms. There would be wispy hair on her legs, too, but in the West women usually shave their legs. The same goes for women’s armpits. Only the pubes will have thick hair, and the recent vogue for Brazilian waxes means that may not be true either.

Speaking of the pubes, the couple is probably close enough now for you to see their secondary sexual characteristics. The woman has a vagina, although that’s not so apparent for Pioneer 10 woman, and on her chest are two nippled breasts. The man has nipples, but no breasts, and between his legs, like the constellation Orion, he clearly has a dong.

Okay, they’re only a few yards from you now. They’re so close you can see the man has an Adam’s apple, but the woman doesn’t. Finally, you have a good look at their faces.

I could devote an entire post talking about the faces. And I will! Stay tuned.


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