When you live openly as a transgender person, some otherwise strange things happen in your life with a degree of regularity. You get used to being a little nervous going into bathrooms, reading people’s eyes to see if they can tell you’re not cis, Being careful about how you talk about your past, etc. Some of those things you kind of expect. One thing I didn’t expect when I came out was how often I would get asked to be the subject of someone’s photo shoot, article, documentary, etc. on transgender people. These pop up more often than I’d ever thought and I have some serious reservations about them. On the one hand, expose pieces can offer visibility about a group or subject matter to people not often (or ever) exposed to it. However, done wrong they can exploit instead of educate, perpetuate already dangerous misinformation, and just overall make things worse.
I’ve seen pieces on transgender people go both ways and the ones that do it wrong always tend to screw up in the same kinds of ways. Whenever I’m contacted by someone wanting to do one of these projects, I always ask a lot of questions so I can try to determine how I think their finished product will turn out. I like helping out with these when they really have a chance of educating the public, but I don’t like the idea of having my image and name attached to something harmful. So, I figured I’d make this handy little guide to help would-be project makers determine if their transgender documentary, photo shoot, article, whatever is on track to help or hurt our community.
1 – Ask yourself why you’re doing this.
And I don’t mean just take a second to think. Really ponder and consider why this project, this subject matter, is what you’re focusing on. In my experience, people who make the best projects on a particular topics have a personal investment in it. Are you trans yourself? How about a family member? Did your spouse come out to you? Did your child? What made you want to not only know more about the transgender community but to spend time/effort/money in educating others?
Here’s the hard question: do you have no ties to the trans community at all and you just want to show off your writing/photography skills using transgender people while they still occupy that rare space between edgy and topical? Is that you? Yes? Well…fuck off. Seriously, just stop right here. Your project is going to be garbage and only serve to harm the community you think you’re helping. The only two reasons to take on this project when you have no personal ties to trans people is either this or an overwhelming sense of privilege guilt. Now, privilege guilt (i.e. I’m a straight, white male and my life is easy so I want to use my position to help the less fortunate) is not a bad place to come from, but it does make you less likely to do it right. You people don’t have to fuck off, but you do need to keep reading very carefully before you start shooting/writing.
2 – Consider the diversity of your subjects.
But Faith, I’m making a thing about transgender people, and that already makes me Captain Diversity! Wrong. Just wanting to make something about trans people doesn’t automatically elevate you to grand enlightenment. Roland Emmerich learned that the hard way when his movie about the Stonewall Riots bombed because he made it about a white guy and not the transgender women of color that really started it all. If you’re only contacting conventionally beautiful, white transgender women, you’re gonna have a bad time.
All transgender people are at high risk of violence, unemployment, homelessness, etc., but the threats posed to transgender women of color (TWOC) are astronomically higher than the rest of us. If you’re not planning to include them, you’re doing it very, very wrong. Include transgender people of various races in your pool of subjects (don’t forget trans men, too; they’re basically invisible in our society) but there’s more to trans diversity than the basic race, color, sexual orientation (oh right! You do know gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing, right? No? Maybe you need to read up more before you start your project), etc. You also need to consider how long the subjects have been in transition, how often they get to present authentically, and to what degree they pass for cisgender (a touchy topic, I know, but I’ll explain why that’s important).
Here’s the number one thing you need to be thinking about at all times when you make your documentary or whatever: this might be someone’s first or only exposure to transgender people. Everything they see and don’t see will influence their perception of the community. That’s a point that can really throw a wrench in things and make you be more careful in your decision making if you’re being genuine in your convictions. Consider the following list of unintended messages conveyed from your decisions:
- Only use white people? – People of color are never transgender.
- Only use females? – There are no transgender men.
- Only use full-time subjects? – Gender identity is only valid when the person presents as it. If they don’t dress like their gender, I don’t have to call them by it.
- Only use people who pass for cisgender? – If they don’t look like their target gender, they aren’t really trans.
That last one can be particularly damaging. After North Carolina passed HB2, a lot of memes started popping up of trans people in the wrong bathrooms with the caption “Do I look like I belong in here?”. It kinda got the message across, but also perpetuated the notion that trans people always pass for their true gender. A lot of trans people don’t pass for cis, and many never will no matter how many hormones they take or surgeries they go through. Don’t let your project make it seem like trans people are always going to blend right in. You’re going to have trans people in restrooms where you can tell they’re trans. If all the person in the next stall ever saw was cis-passing trans people like the ones in those memes (or heaven forbid, your project), things are going to end badly.
3 – Your pictures will make or break everything.
No matter what kind of project you’re doing, it’s likely going to have pictures. There’s an old saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words and that’s very true. What they don’t say is that many of those words can be unintentional. If a transgender project creator is going to royally fuck up anywhere, it’s going to be in the images. This is also where you’re going to be able to tell pretty damn fast whether or not they went into this ordeal with the right intentions.
Before you start snapping pictures, really consider what you want those images to say. What is it about your subject you want to show? I was in a conversation about this with a potential project maker a couple of days ago. He asked me about this and I told him the pictures need to show that transgender people are “remarkably unremarkable”. We don’t need pictures of how feminine or masculine we look. We definitely don’t need you to include our “before” pictures to highlight the difference.
This is another area where only showing cis-passing subjects can come back to haunt you. If you take pictures of…say…a cis-passing trans woman with no other information conveyed, those who are frightened about trans people will be thinking, “oh god! they could be anywhere and I won’t be able to tell!” You need to show subjects at various stages of transition and different levels of passing. But just showing what we look like isn’t enough.
Images of transgender people in your project need to convey normality. Show your audience that we do what they do. Show us at the bank, at work, at the grocery store. Show us hanging out with friends, volunteering, going to a party, or whatever. Convey to your audience that we’re just normal people. There’s nothing to fear when you come across us in your daily lives.
Lastly, these do not need to be glamour shots. I see this more with pictures of trans men than women, where they’re all shirtless with ripped muscles and it conveys a message of sexiness. Please, please don’t shoot your subjects like fashion models or, god forbid, porn stars. There’s already enough trans-fetish material out there. Don’t let your project get grouped into it. Normal clothes, normal poses, normal activities; that’s the key.
4 – Choose your words carefully.
Maybe your project doesn’t include a lot of text, but if it does it needs to be about the right information. Again, we’re asking ourselves what the public needs to know about transgender people and it’s still all about normalcy. Make sure your text reflects that and isn’t including shock value tabloid nonsense.
Have you ever seen an interview with a transgender celebrity? Have you ever noticed how a lot of times the questions derail into asking about very private things like genitals and plastic surgery? Have you noticed that? Well….don’t do that! That kind of stuff is no one’s business but the trans person and their doctor’s. Unless you’re specifically covering the topic of gender confirmation surgery, I’d highly recommend leaving that stuff out entirely.
So what should you include? Well, what would you type about anyone else? Where they grew up, where they went to school, what they do for a living, what their hobbies are, etc. Again, we’re trying to teach people that trans is normal. If someone is looking through your project for shock-value stuff and not finding it, that might serve as the wake-up call they need.
It’s generally okay to mention when they started transition, but there’s no need to state what they’ve had done, what kind of hormones they take, etc. And, for god sake, don’t include the subject’s birth name anywhere. This is about who they are, not who they spent their life pretending to be.
I’ve said many times that the key to transgender acceptance is visibility. People need to know us, to see us. They need to understand that we weave into the fabric of society just like they do. We’re not out on the fringe. We’re not some scary unknown that disrupts everything around us. Too many expose pieces on trans people convey the wrong message, either intentionally or not. If you’re considering taking up something like this, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that you’ve got a vision that accomplishes your goal.