Magazines like Glamour are sometimes reviled for reinforcing rigid femme gender roles paid for by businesses heavily vested in those roles. Clothes, cosmetics and feminine hygiene products are endlessly pushed in ads and editorials which reinforce a "girl lifestyle" of friends, fashion and guys. Yes, it is a very binary/gender normative space in which such publications operate, but they do occasionally dip into worlds beyond their version of norm. One such example is the May/2010 edition of Glamour which includes a long feature article on a young trans woman from LA named Amy Karn. And this trip outside the women's magazine norm is, let's just say, a rather harmless journey for their readers through mostlyvery comfortable territory.
A part of their ongoing series called Real Stories/Real-Life drama, this story announces itself with a large photo of a pretty young blonde standing in a field framed by canary yellow balloons. The title reads: Just Another Girl (who used to be a boy). For all the world, it reminded me of images I see in feminine hygiene advertising: bright colors, smiles in the face of pain and affirmation of girliness. Another image has Amy and her friends, yes, riding their bikes through wine country. It IS a tampon ad! People having their periods love riding their bikes through wine country.
What I do like about this story is how it's directly tied to that issue's theme of friendship between women. Much of the core of the story is how Amy got support from her two female college friends, Valerie and Allison. It models how friends can be supportive to one another during a transition and is subdued in characterizing the process of transition as something overly exotic or strange. The article does a good job accepting how a trans person can be a part of 'mainstream society' and doesn't have to live on freak island (eg a place where they don't red Glamour). In general, the writer, Genevieve Field, accepts Amy's womanhood and doesn't overly dwell too much on her past. What I also appreciated was the author actually used relatively up-to-date statistics on trans prevalence... 1 in 500 instead of the bizarrely high numbers you often find. She calls GRS "genital reconstructive surgery"... one of the more neutral terms for SRS, which I appreciate. Nor is it given some mythic place within transition. There is much to like in the story of Amy.
Whee, if you transition and look like this, you too
can ride your bike through wine country!
But, that said, there is also almost the full compliment of transition story cliches to be found. Her transition is "mind-blowing." (why?) Her assigned male name is mentioned almost immediately. She played with dolls (don't they all?). She came out as gay but it didn't feel right (if you're going to be a trans woman, better like guys). Her housemate Alison wasn't surprised her gay friend might be trying on makeup in private because "Amy's personality was feminine, she was more fashionable than me and she could act like a bitch." Um, okay. Womanhood distilled in 20 words or less.
Not so feminine fresh?
While the theme of supportive woman friends is empowering, there are some other threads in the piece which seem not as empowering to trans women. The cissexual friends come off as much more mature, grounded and understanding of Amy's issues than she does. Allison seems to recognize Amy is trans before Amy does. Amy falls apart when telling her friend she needs to transition while Allison is totally grounded and understanding. It's almost as if trans people don't even know what's happening to them.
Second puberty or second babyhood?
While it's certainly true there are very supportive and loving cissexual people who stand by their trans friends during their transitions, there are also a lot of people who freak and leave and even more who smile in front of you but do a lot of processing when you're out of the room. Moreover, I think it's fair to say, just because someone supports you at first doesn't mean they'll support you a year from now and just because someone initially freaks doesn't mean they won't be there for you several years later. I've heard a number of stories of "caretaker friends" who were supportive during transition but faded away once transition was substantially completed. My concern is how the story has a tendency to follow the media trend of infantilizing trans people in a way which doesn't get applied to others going through profound life-changing situations (eg, people with cancer, victims of violent crime).
There is a relatively thoughtful description of some of the drama Amy went through with her parents who basically cut her off for months and only reconnected with her after she was hospitalized for severe depression. (She was unaware of her depression and it took one of her cissexual friends to point it out). And where did parents and newfound daughter take their first trip after reconnecting? Of course, it had to be wine country! We are left to understand her twin sister didn't want to participate with the article about her trans sister, so maybe even the tampon ad butterfly world includes some uncharacteristic clouds.
Bright yellow balloons and wine country
The article does, unfortunately, dwell a bit on the trans meme of how Amy is so much happier since she transitioned. While I don't doubt that, I can also say most trans people transition more out of a need for mind/body/social congruence, not in a search for happiness. While it would be lovely if transition brings happiness, the problem comes when many people who transition are still unhappy because: a) transition is a far from perfect process; b) it can be financially overwhelming; c) loss of personal relationships can be intense; d) being trans in this society ain't easy; e) being trans continues to possess considerable negative stigmas. If being trans is supposed to bring happiness, it's all too easy for media to search for examples of trans people who are still emotionally struggling after transition and to make assumptions about whether transition was right for them because... 'they aren't happy enough, they made a mistake.'
While there are mercifully no photos of Amy applying makeup or putting on her hose (thank you Glamour), there is a prolonged discussion what she wore her first day out at work, how she had her hair restyled and wore high heels. It's also not too hard to imagine Amy's story was picked because she's quite pretty, blonde and, yes, looks passable. Once again, media proves authentic womenhood comes from looking like a gender-normative woman (and someone you might find in Glamour Magazine). Amy is cute, Amy is white, Amy is blonde, therefore, Amy is real. Someone else trans might not be cute, therefore, they aren't real. Got it?
And let's be real, when you see the photo of pretty Amy and her yellow balloons and the headline reads, "(who used to be a boy)" you're supposed to drop your jaw and go... "OMG, but... but, she looks like a guuurl not a dude." Yup, even Glamour and cutey-pie Amy can't escape the big transsexual unmasking.
Again, the article is mostly about Amy and her cissexual friends. While it offers some interesting advice about friends valuing each other's travails and not keeping score:
Never again will I tease Valerie for complaining about how hard it is to be a curvy-bodied woman in L.A. A friend does not say, 'My issues are bigger than yours.' A friend listens as long as they can and then says, 'You're beautiful, I love you—now shut up and I'll buy you a drink.'
Best Friends Forever?
While I agree it's important to support friends through their trials and not play the victim, the comparison of being a trans woman is somehow on a similar level of tribulation as being 'curvy' is absurd. Curvy women aren't murdered for being voluptuous while trans women certainly are for being trans. (although there is certainly lookist discrimination... like being mostly excluded from women's magazines like Glamour and other media, and many categories of jobs, etc.) Her curvy friend doesn't have to deal with ID and legal documentation the way Amy does. If pre-op Amy were arrested, she would likely end up in a men's jail. Her curvy friend doesn't face issues of obtaining health care or the same level of intense job discrimination Amy might face if she were out of work. I appreciate how Glamour has chosen to include a trans women's story in its issue concerning female friendship, but transitioning isn't quite yet like a feminine hygiene ad.
Note: The text of this Glamour article is now available online, minus some of the photos.