The silent ‘T': are trans people to blame for our own invisibility?

The trans community feels underrepresented under the LGBT umbrella but we need to play a part in fixing that ourselves

The silent ‘T': are trans people to blame for our own invisibility?
24 October 2012

I love being part of a community. Knowing there are other people similar to yourself all around the country, even the world, is a comforting feeling.

Whether the differences between you are small or huge, having the backs of those like you is an important safety net. As the saying goes, there is safety in numbers. That’s why I am a strong believer in the LGBT community.

As a bisexual transwoman, I understand that there are differences in some of the issues that affect me when compared to a gay man. But the common similarities we all share, including the historical oppression we have all faced, are stronger than differences in health care or social standing.

Hate speech laws affect all of us, for example, with homophobic and transphobic attacks often being indistinguishable. Trans people are often strong allies in the fight for gay rights. But all too often, we feel ignored by the larger community.

I’m not alone in this; in a recent straw poll on Gay Star News, over 60% of users agreed that the representation of trans and intersex people could be more inclusive. But whose to blame for our invisibility? We could focus our anger on the larger LGBT rights organisations that continue to underrepresent us. We could also launch our own attacks on those organizations which don’t include transgender people at all.

As a transwoman who considers herself fairly political, it’s certainly something I have been thinking over for quite some time. The more I think about how we as a community are forgotten, the more angry I get. I keep feeling the need to yell out ‘Hey, we’re here as well, assholes!’

Then, I realise something; nobody is doing that. Nobody is really getting angry about how we are left out. Nobody is doing it on our behalf, and those trans people who are loud enough to get their voices heard are alone in vocalising their opinions. Unless there is a change within the trans community, they always will be.

Think about this; name some gay celebrities. This one’s easy. Even the most sheltered individual can name a few off the top of their head. And I’m not talking about D or C list celebs. I mean Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Fry, Freddie Mercury, Rosie O’Donnell, and more in a list that stretches almost endlessly.

There have been famous gay, lesbian and bisexual people all throughout history, and especially in this enlightened time we know of more than ever before.

When we try to make a similar list of famous trans people, even I struggle to think of anyone that falls into the categories of being actually famous or even relevant. There’s Chaz Bono, whose claim to fame is being Cher’s son who transitioned a few years back. Then in the UK there are Big Brother contestants Nadia Almada and Luke Anderson, both of whom won their respective series. Or how about Lauren Harris, the former child auctioneering prodigy who is now more famous for her terrible Little Britain impression on GMTV years ago.

It’s a sad state of affairs where we count winning a reality TV show as a great achievement, even if we do have a higher win rate in Britain than any other minority group.

Our other achievements are usually done by people before they transition – Lana Wachowski made cinematic history when she helped create The Matrix, but most people who have seen the film will only know her as part of ‘The Wachowski Brothers’, and won’t even be aware of her trans status. Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of Against Me!, is another example, though unlike Lana she has been more vocal about her transition.

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t prominent trans rights campaigners. Far from it – I don’t want it to seem that I undermine the work done by the likes of Christine Burns or Roz Kaverney. But these names will only be known to those in the trans community, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone outside would really care.

Whatever the case, we don’t have the advantages that LGB people have in this day and age. Everyone knows someone with same-sex attraction. If they don’t have a close friend or relative, they’ll certainly have a gay acquaintance.

But trans people aren’t quite as open. In our fight to be recognised as our true gender, we will usually not disclose our trans status to friends or colleagues for fear they will identify us as our previous gender. The more we pass, the more we live as our true selves and the more reluctant we become.

I can certainly attest to that – since moving to London and finding I can pass quite easily, I haven’t been quite so open about my trans status in public. Now that I feel I can keep it a secret, I don’t normally bring it up in social situations. I only mention it online in my video blogs. And this article, obviously.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s something all of us in this position have the luxury of doing. But it harms our visibility. People who could otherwise be our biggest allies become unaware of our existence due to our reluctance to out ourselves, and as a result they cannot hope to relate to any of our issues, so they go forgotten. Which is ultimately where our invisibility in the wider community comes from. We are rarely there for people to even liaise with. How could we possibly hope to be represented if we aren’t seen?

Not to mention that we can come down hard on those that are still learning. We hear stories that may attempt to be sensitive in the media about people undergoing transition, but the use of the wrong pronouns will attract scorn and any good work would be threatened. Even certain terms which non-trans people wouldn’t even think of being offensive, such as ‘born a man’ or ‘now lives as a woman’, can actually be quite hurtful.

Being a trans ally can be a tricky minefield even with the help of openly trans people. With us having a smaller presence, there problems certainly won’t get better. I cannot reasonably expect non trans people to represent us in the right way, especially as the nature of our very being is quite sensitive.

Whilst reading all this, I am sure one or two of you would be wondering why I am making no mention of intersex people. That’s because in a roundabout way, it’s part of my point. I’m not intersex. I admit to being ignorant on their needs as opposed to that of trans people. But how could I hope to be? I don’t know any intersex people, nor do I have a fair sense of their needs.

And that’s the crux of this argument. Trans people are a minority within a minority. Our representation within wider society is so small that even the most basic transition stories can attract national attention. So it’s important we work on our visibility. If even LGB people can’t see us, how can we complain about being underrepresented?

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