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Being, as entertainment

  • Posted on August 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm

There was a time when people with congenital deformities accepted that the only way to survive was to accept a place in a freak show. A woman with a lot of facial hair would be the ‘bearded lady’ and sit to be stared at, talked and laughed and wondered at, rather than try to live a difficult life in the mainstream. The circus at least meant acceptance, and probably the friendship of other ‘freaks’. She probably had polycystic ovaries.

Accepting being different, knowing being different, exhibiting being different was a response to misunderstanding and exclusion for being different. We aren’t there any more, are we?

I remember the pain of watching Little Britain, and the falsetto cross-dressing sketches: ‘Aim a laaydee! Come orn Emily, let’s do laaydees’ things!’. Long before, I remember the awkwardness of Monty Python and the very popular ‘I’m a lumberjack’ and the transvestite bit of the song. These and many similar jests were all saying to me that I could either laugh with it (and everyone else) and be a secret freak, or expose myself as a freak and be laughed at. Where was the in-between recognition that a joke was being made out of valid non-binary, non-heteronormative identity?

I recall documentaries: don’t show too much interest in wanting to watch the programme, or you might give something away. Don’t show enough interest, and there is no opportunity to introduce an aspect of yourself and have a sensible dialog. There was My Transsexual Summer, the Channel 4 series in 2011, just as I was coming out, where six people of mixed age range and stages of transition came together over a period of weeks to share their experiences and aspirations. This was unavoidable, informative, presented to retain an audience, not quite entertainment, not quite just factual. ’You don’t want to do that though, do you?’ Scary.

How many tabloid front page headlines have we seen, exposing a ‘sex-swap sensation!’? I know several people who have been that person on the page. How does this make other people feel, who have any questions about their gender identity? Safe? At risk? Normal? Bizarre? The only difference between headlines and TV series, is the duration. Last week’s headlines get forgotten because it isn’t this week’s news. A series – with personalities, celebrities, oddities – becomes part of social dialogue, workplace conversation, pub sharing with an edge of inebriation. This is the point where the trans person, suspected trans person, gender queer, ambiguously-identified person gets drawn in for comparison.

The power of social comment

It has been a good season in the media by and large, with prominent trans personalities receiving awards and accolades, and significant articles being written that situate gender identity in objective sociological contexts where it can become mainstream and ordinary. We have also just had a tabloid turn towards the better. Two tabloids were kept at bay by legal injunction from outing Kellie Maloney until she achieved a deal on her terms with another. The big difference? The media expected a real sensation as the boxing world turned on the freak man-become-woman sex-swap fantasy. Only it didn’t. Kellie was embraced and accepted, better still, supported. End of story. Almost.

Predictably, however good the story was as it rattled around, and however reassuring the story about the non-story became in the wider media, comment threads online continued to feature hatred and bigotry, ridicule and rejection. Any trans-emergent person breathing a sigh of relief over Kellie was at once confronted by obvious and unchanging social hostility. This level will take a long time to resolve, just as despite social acceptance in LGB matters has brought almost complete social acceptance, has not deterred attempts to sensationalise sports men and women coming out, nor the comments people feel obliged to leave online. Nevertheless, when it comes to LGB issues, bigots really do look like bigots. Hatred is seen as hatred. Religious intolerance is seen as sickening.

I wonder if we are anywhere near this with trans issues though. It’s back to my ‘midas touch’ theory. Anyone can defend a top sports personality, in regular conversation, and accuse a friend of being homophobic or intolerant, because they know that (a) their friends won’t respond by saying ‘oh, so you’re gay too then?!’, and (b) even if they were gay themselves, it would not matter. Joke over, sensation over. Mild surprise; end of. The trans scenario? More likely a jest about secretly wearing a dress on Friday nights.

Transsexuality, less-known as gender dysphoria, is still viewed in the popular mind as a sexual thing: fetish, intrusive, threatening. It is something that you cannot align yourself with in understanding, because you don’t. Accepting that society has a substantial peppering with trans people feels unsafe. Despite the triviality of the figures, there are always comments that ‘I hope they’re not expecting me as a taxpayer to pay for their surgery’. Ignorance is rife, objectivity is a stranger. If it isn’t this, then it is seen as a psychological disorder: wrong in the head, even if it’s getting better described in the DSM manual of diagnosis (the universal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association). Transsexuality remains a curiosity, an embarrassment by association. All of this makes the trans person in society a thing rather than a person, unlike gay and lesbian people.

‘I saw Conchita Wurst [Eurovision winner 2014], and thought of you!’

‘I see Keith, er Kellie, Maloney is on Big Brother! Isn’t that good? I thought of you.’

And the ensuing conversation:

‘Did you see Big Brother last night? And Kellie! Not surprised she’s scared. Nadia did alright though didn’t she? Still, being transsexual is a bit freaky isn’t it? Is she gay?’

‘Oh yes, and didn’t you know, that woman who works upstairs, Andie. She’s a transsexual.’

‘Oh, is she? Has she still got her bits – you know?’

‘Don’t know. The Mirror says Kellie has. You can have it done on the NHS.’

Of course it won’t happen. Of course. I don’t mind if it does. Just don’t stare at my crotch. I’ve been in hospital and away a few weeks. Work it out.

Really, I don’t mind that much, except that the chatter goes round and the focus drifts away from whether I can do a professional job without this junk going on in the background. Nor do I want you to download that plug-in, called ‘acceptance’. Do I have one for you, to accept that you are normal, cis, hetero, gay, whatever?

I’m lucky, it probably won’t happen like this at all, but what I am illustrating is that participation in the media as a trans person does not make you a good representative, or ambassador, and does not necessarily help other trans people, closeted or otherwise. Too few trans people writing and presenting reduces the perception of our natural diversity. Being young and with a stimulating back story of incarceration, drugs, prostitution, is great for people in that zone. But the ordinary middle-aged person who simply loses their lifetime of family, prosperity and love? They lost it because society is not ready for them, and the story is boring. What do you expect, sympathy? No. I just want you to know how many of us there are, who remain invisible, disadvantaged, lonely simply because all you know about us is that we are separate, different, challenging. Even knowing us, changes you. And I’m simply asking: why?

The way to change popular perception is through education, not entertainment. Unfortunately, even news has become entertainment, and I for one, was very glad when trans people walked away from BBC Newsnight, refusing to be part of an entertaining debate on the validity of the trans identity.

More fundamentally, why is any trans person, famous or otherwise, a story at all, let alone a component for entertainment? The Victorian bearded lady had polycystic ovaries. I was born with whatever caused my gender dysphoria.