In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Harrison Williams

Laverne Cox. Caitlyn Jenner. Rebecca Root. Bethany Black. Janet Mock. Stephanie Hirst. What do these people have in common? Yes, they are all transwomen. I wonder whether you can name a prominent transman in the media today…the most famous, I would say is Chaz Bono, son of Cher. But in the UK transmen are very much on the down-low. Why is this?  I think there are a few answers to this question.

Laverne Cox discusses trans discrimination with TIME.

Firstly many transmen seem to have the privilege of passing as the genders with which they identify. If a transman is on hormone replacement therapy, his voice will gradually break and facial hair will start to emerge. Despite many transphobic people’s beliefs that it’s easy to tell if someone is trans, many transmen are acknowledged as the men they are without anyone realising their trans identities.

By contrast, transwomen are sadly often more likely to have their trans identities outed by strangers. The voice, for instance, can be a real barrier for transwomen passing as their genders and many take speech therapy to help them overcome this. Simply sounding what society deems ‘feminine’ can help a transwoman pass more easily in day to day life than if they were to sound what society deems ‘masculine’. Moreover, transwomen do not have the privilege of using facial hair to highlight their genders in a way that transmen can. In passing as our genders, we as transpeople, can avoid the stigma and prejudice one often receives for being clocked as trans in public. Walking down the street, I’m not looked at twice and, in that way, I can experience the pleasure of cis privilege. Perhaps because of that myself and many other transmen might well become invisible and many people may not realise we exist and are in need of media representation.

When someone says the word ‘trans’, it is often associated with transwomen, so in that capacity, we as transmen do tend to become invisible as a community and in many ways to those around us. If we are invisible there will inevitably be less stories about us on TV, on film and in documentaries.

A transman was the focus of Will Young’s latest music video but transmale media presence such as this is rare.

Another answer might be the rise in transwomen’s visibility. Thanks to shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Transparent and Orange is the New Black transwomen are finally getting more representation on screen. At the moment the media seems to be focusing in on women who identify as trans and that is probably to play to society’s perception of ‘trans’, as I explained earlier. Once, we get society on board with trans life (and I think we are getting there, although great steps still need to be taken to ensure that trans people of colour get the same opportunities as trans white people) this will open the door to become more representative within the umbrella term of ‘trans’ and get transmen and gender non-conforming people out there too.

I also want to take a bit of time in this article to talk about the importance of having trans actors play trans roles within TV and Film. Don’t get me wrong, I would not be here today, writing this piece, if Hollyoaks hadn’t aired the Jason Costello Storyline in 2010 – trans representation on TV is that important – but Hollyoaks and Eastenders have both come out recently in favour of using trans actors for trans roles instead of cisgendered actors and it’s something which I highly endorse. Dominic Treadwell-Collins, a producer of the BBC, said in an interview “I would want to cast a trans actor as well. You have to – you have to cast a trans actor, but you also don’t want to mess up the story because EastEnders reaches so many people and a lot of our audience are quite traditional.” Together Hollyoaks and EastEnders have now cast two trans actors. Riley Carter-Millington has just joined the square as the recurring role of Kyle and Hollyoaks have cast Annie Wallace as the new Head Teacher of Hollyoaks High. I look forward to how these soaps are going to portray these characters and whether they will simply focus on the difficulties one faces in trans existence or develop the roles into more three dimensional characters who can have fun too.

soaps-eastenders-kyle-stacey-branning-3Riley Carter-Millington and Lacey Turner on set – image sourced from the BBC.

Despite the media’s growing, slow but growing, understanding as to why it is important to have trans characters play trans roles, I have still received some backlash when discussing the subject with cis friends. Many people have said to me, being a transactor, that ‘well if you went for a cis role and it wasn’t offered to you simply because you are trans and the other actor was cis, you’d be furious’ and yes you’re right, I would be. But at the present moment it is not about equality for trans people; it’s about equity. It’s about giving us a little boost so we are properly represented within society. Maybe in the next 50 years we might end up on the same starting block and not left in the changing rooms, trying to catch up.

None of this is helped by the fact that the trans community still seem to be the butt of ignorant and hateful comments in the media, often from famous feminists. This is such a shame, seeing as a huge proportion of transpeople consider themselves feminists. Perhaps the most notable example of transphobia from a feminist in recent media is that of Germaine Greer, who believes that transwomen are ‘not women’.

Germaine Greer – take a seat.

As ridiculous as some of Greer’s comments may seem, the sad reality is that she is not alone in her bigotry and her comments can’t be ignored. Many people still fail to acknowledge transpeople as the genders with which they identify. Many transmen are still considered women by the public at large and many transwomen considered men. As transfolk we face a wide variety of prejudice today and it can’t be ignored.

Perhaps it is in response to this, that trans issues have become such a hot topic in the media at the moment. Although we still have a way to go before trans representation in the media is actually diverse and inclusive, we’ve received more visibility than ever before – and this is in essence good. However, whilst it is great in some ways that trans identity is receiving so much attention right now, it is scary in others. It is great that we are getting out there and becoming more visible but it is scary that we’re on people’s radars and still not being accepted by everyone. You just have to look at some comments about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition to fear for transpeople. If you look at the rising number of trans murders this year, particularly murders of transwomen of colour, the outlook for transpeople is as harrowing as it is encouraging.

We need to find a way of being visible without being public property.

Harrison Williams

Harrison Williams studies music at the Birmingham Conservatoire. He loves musicals (who doesn’t?!) and enjoys even more playing for them. Harry is also an actor and graduate of the debut TransActing course at Central School of Speech and Drama, who recently helped with a single transacting workshop at Scottish Queer International Film Festival. Below is a video by My Genderation on the TransActing course at Central School of Speech and Drama.

TransActing was set up by Fox Fisher, Lewis Hancox and Catherine McNamara.

It’s a collaboration between GI, My Genderation and The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.

‘Transvision’ is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with: All About Trans.

We encourage all of our readers to donate to this season’s organisation: Gendered Intelligence.

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