The wave has been building for a while but it is now washing over all of us for better or worse. Think of it as something like a cheesy Hollywood film about a prom. For most of the film, there’s this geeky shy girl sitting in the darkest corner. she might occasionally walk across the room to go pee or whatever and be noticed in passing, sure some jerks come by on a regular visit to mock and jeer but mostly she’s on the fringes – then suddenly, for no apparent reason, she’s announced as prom queen and suddenly the spotlight is on her and everyone is looking, many happy for her, but others of course derogatory about any perceived fault and a few outright hateful that such a person could ever be the center of attention. So it is with media interest in transgender people at the moment. And just like the prom movie, there’s some danger that the superficial masks the weightier matters.
It’s difficult to say exactly when the wave started building. Certainly it was before Caitlyn Jenner made her premiere, but also not as far back as Chaz Bono’s transition (announced in 2010) which was treated mostly as a singular curiosity. Let’s loosely date it to the early days of “Orange is the New Black” two years ago this month. Laverne Cox, he trans woman who is now the most prominent in the world, with apologies to Jenner, was a largely unknown actress when the show began, best known for her brief 2010 reality show “Transform Me,” and while there had been a handful of trans actresses before her, they had mostly come and gone with only a blip on the celebrity meter. More prominent were a few well known drag queens but again, they were simply stand alone phenomena, not any sort of trend.
Parallel to Cox’s suddenly high profile, a string of positive court decisions had helped create a more receptive legal environment for attempts to enact legal equity and these attempts, along with sometimes loud objections, also served to drag trans people into the public conversation. Perhaps the spark here was Glenn v. Brumby in 2011 followed a year later by Macy v. Holder. Between them they lent an air of respectability to the everyday transperson, in the legal sense, not enjoyed before.
In the last 2-3 years, the visibility of trans people and issues has steadily increased, first in “hard news” stories then in “infotainnment” and now into the “human interest” part of the cycle. As the entertainment business is wont to do, when a potential trend presents itself, one must not be slow to jump on the bandwagon. Nowhere is this more blatant than “reality tv” – one need only note how one successful repo show leads to 5 or 6 clones, or a show set in a pawn shop succeeds in the ratings only to see 3 or 4 other pawn shop shows spring up quickly. It was not, then, stunning at all when we learn that Caitlyn Jenner is to be the focus of a reality show then other variations on the transgender them arise almost before we can get the words out.
At the moment it seems we are virtually everywhere, and there are – of course – some who don’t like it. Particularly in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, the Traditionalist Right is scrambling for a new scapegoat to fear-monger with and trans people make a ripe target. So in this “Summer of Trans” the Traditionalist types are in an uprorar. First on the ground was “New Girls on the Block” which already appeared on Discover Life, then “Becoming Us” which is five episodes in on ABC Family, “I Am Jazz” premiering any day now on TLC and finally, before the end of the month, Caitlyn Jenner’s show on E! will drop. That’s not even to mention various plotlines in scripted programs.
One Million Moms (who, big shock, don’t number anything close to one million) is a pressure group subsidiary of the American Family Association which the SPLC considers a hate group. I’m on the OMM e-mail mailing list so I can see for myself what they are in a panic about and recently three missives in a row ranted about these trans-centric shows, urging the networks to not run them and the sponsors to abandon them. Being the contrarian that I am, I used the groups own provided links to urge the sponsors and networks to keep up the good work, and to go on the recommended Facebook pages to raise my voice in opposition to the shrill harping of the people who’d rather keep us on the fringes of society.
By the way – and I may write a whole column on this in the future – if you’ve ever said to yourself “I wish I was an activist, I feel like I should DO something about how trans people are treated, that’s an option that lies right there in your lap ready to partake of – use social media, wisely, to “outvote” the haters in online conversations. Very few people actually comment online so your voice is magnified in such settings. Do NOT be angry or bitter or childish, let those non-commenters see YOU be reasonable while those on the other side say stupid things. That’s all it takes. Inform yourself, and then get into the conversations.
Back on topic – the point is that this high-profile moment won’t last, soon enough the celebrity media and the entertainment industry will move on to the next “new” thing, so while we are on the public mind, I encourage you to seize the moment and help dispel ignorance wherever you find it. We do not have time for infighting about trivialities like whether or not Jenner is too glamorous and makes transition look to easy or whatever. She, and Cox and Jazz and the rest, have created the opportunity for conversation – go out and have one.
Photo by: Quinn Dombrowski