Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New York: The City Where Transphobia Never Sleeps

Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar was a 29-year old trans woman who was found murdered by stabbing in her apartment in Queens, NY yesterday. Her apartment had been ransacked and much of her possessions destroyed. Every two days, a trans woman is murdered somewhere in the world.

How did New York Media report on this horrific murder? It universally referred to her in their stories by her assigned male birth name. Many of the stories used male pronouns even though they knew she was trans. The police initially identified her as a murdered woman only to amend that statement with the information she was "a man."

WABC-TV news literally had filmed a news report on her using female nouns only to air a version where the reporter told about the updated police report and referred to Ms. Gonzalez-Andujar as "a man." So the beginning of the story explained how "he is a man" while the bulk of the story referred to her with female pronouns. Yes, news people are THIS stupid and unaware when it comes to trans people. And again, this wasn't in Idaho, this wasn't in Mississippi, this was in New York City. Remember, the place which claims to be the media capital of the United States.

And how about the newspaper which has "all the news that's fit to print" the New York Times. Well, their story also listed her in the headline as,

Man, 29, Found Stabbed to Death at Home in Queens

nor did they have literally any mention of who she was or her identity as a woman. In other words, this is not reporting, it's reproducing police blotters in as literal a way as possible.

Amanda's family wailing with grief as her body was
placed into the police van

Needless to say, Ms. Gonzales-Andujar's family is grieving the loss of a child and a daughter, not a tranny. Her death is not a reason for entertainment, nor humor, nor camp, nor posters with trans women licking blood off a knife. It does not warrant "transploitation." Just know that while some of you are waiting to be first in line to be entertained by "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives" at the Tribeca Film Festival, somewhere else in New York a family and a dead woman's friends have had their hearts torn out.

And New York, NY media, you are so "bottom of the heap" and "little town."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Comparative Studies: Charlie White and Maury's Big Reveal

One of the these is just like the other, or not.

This is the first in a series about how various photographers have dealt with trans-related issues and imagery. My interest is not only in how these photographers have presented and interpreted trans people in their work but how others have critiqued and reacted to these photos. This blog entry is about LA-based artist Charlie White, who created quite a stir in 2008 with a grouping of 5 photos called Teen and Transgender Comparative Studies . They were part of a larger project of his called The Girl Studies which dealt with various issues of tween and teenage girls (as interpreted by the artist, of course). Of all the pieces in The Girl Studies show, which included both short films and photos, these 5 particular photos were reproduced and discussed more than any of his other works.

You may have already seen them on the Internet. Each photo has two figures cropped just above their breasts. Neither figure is clothed (in what's shown to us, anyway). Both are standing in front of a gridded light blue background using what almost looks like flat, clinical lighting. Many people writing about the photos have compared them to 19th-early 20th century scientific comparative photos often found in older medical textbooks... with awkward naked figures displaying their medical conditions under harsh lighting looking more like objects of examination than portraits. Some writers have compared White's photos to those of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's series of anatomical studies.

On the left is a figure of a young teenaged girl, perhaps 13-14 years old. On the right is another female person who greatly resembles the girl but older. They seem to have similarly styled hair and appear to be wearing a certain spare amount of makeup. Both subjects have a slightly startled yet blank expression... as if they were lined up and photographed before they even had a chance to react to what was happening. What's unclear (and part of the artist's game) is are these two figures to be contrasted or bonded?

Kindly note the obvious transgender on the right.

It's just a label
Were there no caption or title and you were to ask most people what this is a photo of, I suspect they'd be most likely to say a mother and her daughter. Juxtaposed next to one another, they look similar enough and the right age balance to be identified as that. The woman on the right has the right kind of stereotypical "soccer mom" slightly haggard "I'm busy, don't bug me" look. As someone who's a trans woman and has a daughter this age (my daughter came into our family through adoption) I'm always a little surprised and bemused when we're in a store and people sincerely tell us how much we look alike. Context is everything. Titles mean a lot.

Same photo, two different worlds and histories
I recall seeing an art installation where they had two identical photos of a fairly generic looking, innocuously pleasant middle-aged man (kind of a blank portrait, similar to these) in different areas of the installation. One was labeled "dad". The other identical photo was labeled "child molester." The subtext might well have been about how dad and child molester could be one in the same, but it also could be about how the viewer reacts to each label and connects it with the photo. Seeing "dad" first you might be shocked to come upon the same image with "child molester" under it. If you saw "child molester" first you might be disgusted to come upon a photo of him labeled as "dad."

That's a maaan, Maury, that's soooo a maaan
It also reminds me of "The Maury Povich Show" (to be discussed in a future post) where they frequently play "spot the tranny." One by one young women march out all sassy onto the stage while the screaming, nearly out-of-control audience of yahoos shout "that's a guy... that's a guy Maury" or "that is one laaaady, definitely a bee-oo-tiful laaady." Maury taunts the audience with questions like "are you suuure that's a woman... don't you know the difference between a woman and a man?" Towards the end of the spectacle, the models saunter out and reveal a sign which either says "man" or "woman" accompanied by groans, high fives, howls of delight or sounds of incredulity by Maury's raucous crowd. The interesting twist is when they have cissexual women in the mix who start being identified as trans. Just knowing the show is about spotting the transwomen by their hands, feet, space between breasts, swearing they see an adam's apple... the cissexual women get caught in the same trap et voila... ciswomen, welcome to club trans and the big transsexual reveal.

Maury and his 'spot-the-man' crew of experts

White stated in a panel discussion about the show "Nine Lives" at the Hammer Museum (of which these photos were a part), "I wanted to keep the idea very pure so there wasn't any other information in the project." Curiously though, his identification of the adult women as trans brings a huge set of assumptions as to what the project is about and why the photos were taken. Unfortunately, rather than just naming them "untitled," Teen and Transgender Comparative Studies already opens up an entire can of worms and brings with it a huge set of assumptions for the viewer to have. Museum art as the Maury Povich Show.

We're becoming young ladies
The first assumption is that the series has to do with two sets of puberty... one experienced by the teen girl the other by the transsexual. Laurie Toby Edison writes in The Body Impolitic blog: "Central to this new work is a group of five photographs titled Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, which parallels two puberties: one biological, the other chemical/surgical." ARTINFO, which provides a digest of the content of art shows, describes it this way: White worked to identify teen and male-to-female transsexual subjects who, when viewed together, would create a visual bridge between female adolescence and male-to-female sexual transformation." In the LA Times story about the show, Sharon Mizota writes: "The subjects are both going through a form of puberty. As White wrote in an e-mail, 'Both are following a trajectory towards femininity, towards womanhood. One is doing this chemically, and the other is doing it biologically.'"

You make an ass out of me
These quotes and critiques make some curious assumptions about the trans women in the photos. First, they assume they're in the actual process of transition. How do they know the transition is currently happening and they didn't, in fact, transition 15 years ago? Second, they instantly apply standards of "what is real versus what is artificial." The reality is, physical puberty is totally a chemical transformation.

Not ready for adulthood
Furthermore, they instantly project the meme of how "people in transition are like adolescents" which, in fairness, many trans people repeat themselves. But the reality is, puberty is not just about body and social changes, it's also at its core about brain development and social independence. Yes, if an adult trans person transitions, there are body changes and some level of acclimating to social behavior (although, in my own experience, the latter was actually pretty minimal). But to suggest adults are going through the same brain changes which adolescents do is slightly absurd. Adult trans persons are not like a 12 or 13 year olds in terms of life experience, complexity of thought, decision-making processes and comprehension of the world. However the experiences overlap (and there is some) they are fundamentally different.

KCET TV's review of the show (the LA PBS station) goes a step further. Holly Willis writes, The series includes several photographs grouped as the Teen and Transgender Comparative Study; each photo unites a young girl and male-to-female transgender subject, inviting viewers to consider both a moment of transition, as well as the gap between what is considered the real and its copy." She instantly projects a question of real vs. copy to the photos. There may be some truth to this in White's intent. In a Hammer Museum discussion of the images, he curiously said, "we had to shoot the girls and the adults separately because, they (the adults) couldn't wear a top because their breasts weren't real. They hung too much." The exact intent of this statement is hard to figure out, but I think he meant it he didn't want to expose the girls to the naked breasts of the transgender women (although White himself never calls them women... he refers to them as transgenders). It's a revealing statement. More accurately, even with implants, most trans women do have a "non-implant" component to their breasts which are responding to estrogen, just as the teen girls' are. I'm curious if he had, say, cissexual women of a similar age, would he instantly know if their breasts were "real" and make a similar statement?

Lolita and the shemale
In some cases, the study is viewed as being very much about sex. Andrew Womack in The Morning News Blog (who really spread the photos and news of the project over the Internet) writes:
In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror.

For just as the original 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of Communism’s impending doom, and stories of men with hooks were concocted to frighten young girls from riding in cars with boys, so often have Hollywood summer comedies acted as cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward either the pubescent or transgendered woman. Because in the right skirt or the right application of makeup, each has proved alluring to our hero—or more frequently, his best man, whose idea it was to move the bachelor party to Tijuana.

So while, socially speaking, White’s subjects may represent a threat to our libido, his photos present only their innocence, and hint very strongly at a sense of our own “guilt.”
Whoa! For what is a fairly well considered arts blog, the review would have you think the photos are completely about perceived fetishism, and the forbidden nature of sexualized images and identities. Several other bloggers mentioned how the photos combine a sense of awakening sexuality contrasted with the innocence of the subjects.

Again, one wonders how they know for certain the adults are going through "awakening sexuality." These comments continue to infantilize the adult trans women into basically overgrown children who don't really know what to make of their bodies or sexuality. In the case of Mr. Womack, he's figuratively referencing the panic defense used by accused perpetrators of transphobic violence. There is an attempt to wrap this observation in irony by him mentioning "summer comedies" but since there is absolutely no reference to this in White's pieces—title or no title—it would seem this response has far more to do with the observer than the work. "Tranny" porn has made it into the consciousness of art critics.

It's there, it's really, really there!

I saw it... I swear I saw it
Another curious response is by Jeffrey Wallace from the culture blog, Leap Into the Void. He writes:

In Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #3 (shown above), it is possible to decipher the scar from a tracheal shave, an operation designed to reduce the prominence of the male Adam’s apple. White’s specimen-like depiction, which foregrounds his subjects’ pathologies, separates us from their humanity.**
It's a comment both fetishistic, and sensitive rolled into one. The scar he mentions likely wouldn't be noticed had White not first mentioned she was trans and, even looking for it, it's incredibly hard to see. (White has stated the images, other than the two figures being composited, are neither digitally manipulated nor retouched). Of all the aspects of the image to focus on, Mr. Wallace has gone "micro" and looked for signs of the subject's visible transness. I do, however, agree with his observation about the specimen-like depiction (other writer's have mentioned this as well) and he takes White to task for separating him from their humanity but doesn't take any responsibility for his own part in this action. Again, the cissexual viewer is a passive observer who believes they're forced to deal with a photo subject's obtrusive gender variance which would be better off concealed or omitted.

Wallace also observes:
For one, both his subjects’ identities—teen and transgender—occupy a liminal space between child and adult, or between male and female. The burden of understanding White’s subjects is left to the limited cultural identifiers within the frame. But even a reading of those identifiers is thwarted. We may infer that a teen girl and a transgender woman are both attempting to advance to their own ideals of femininity, but what we see are the efforts of an unseen hairstylist, make-up artist, and photographer who work in concert to reinforce similarities and eliminate individual identity and difference.

Again, Wallace mixes some astute observations framed by some crude assumptions. The trans woman isn't necessarily occupying a space between male and female—that's Wallace's own assumption (which he deflects from owning by assuming a stance of a supposedly passive, objective observer). Are the teen girl and trans woman really advancing their own ideals of femininity or is Wallace projecting that onto them? Also implied its the assumption femininity is a wholly artificial construct? What I do appreciate is his attempt to identify White's agenda in presenting the figures in a stylistically clinical, objective presentation while, in fact, very much manipulating the outcomes. Maybe it's all just part of the sideshow.

White in discussion about the 9 Lives show. The artists on
his left and right are supposedly real women although the one on the
right has suspicious brow bossing

Tangoing solo?
What I find interesting about so many of these comments is how they assume the images are suggesting something specific without analyzing their own part in the experience. In this, art critique is not that different than someone viewing trans porn. The observer objectifies and sexualizes the performer yet assumes this is coming from the performer and not themselves. What I suspect Charlie White didn't realize is how much his project's title influenced the experience of the viewing (at least, he hasn't made mention about being conscious of it). The identification of his subjects as trans and how observers relate to this information literally dominates the entire experiencing of these images, something I don't believe was the artist's intent.

It's more convenient when it comes in a box
All the more pity he didn't trust his subjects (or viewers) enough to leave his photos completely unidentified and have the viewer freely explore the images for content (which, unfortunately for some, might lead to "spot the tranny" but at least it would be entirely viewer driven). Mostly, White and the reviewers I've mentioned never really refer to the adult women in the images as women, rather continuing White's preference for displaying them as transgender specimens. White is all about involving the viewer in his own process as creep-a-zoid and voyeur. Making us just as dirty, despite his clean gridded background and bright lighting. Like Maury's show, you know it's all about spotting "trangenders" from the get-go, so it's really no longer any kind of undirected experience.

It's doubtful the term "objectification" would be a nasty word for White since he's all about exhibiting objects for clinical investigation. There's little question he displays tween girls for similar examination although he doesn't seem to understand exactly what that public display of each exactly signifies or entails. It's fair to say much of White's views of girls this age are altogether stereotypical and condescending and that he, as a 30s-ish male, has no direct experience being either a tween girl nor a trans woman. But that's really the point, it's his assumptions about what it's like. What isn't clear is whether he actually believes his assumptions to be true? It's hard to tell if he's has asked himself that question or even cares. In this, he personifies much of how power structures within society deal with women and, especially, trans women.

White, when asked in the Hammer Museum discussion whether he'd ever consider being photographed in front of the camera like his subjects, mumbled, "I don't really belong in the picture, I'm involved in the process." What I don't think this statement entirely acknowledges is that he is the picture. They are his constructed objects, and his assumptions about the objects very carefully steer the discussion about those objects even as he presents an outward framing of them as cold objective exhibits. That is his skill as an artist—to package and present his often pervy, always voyeuristic obsessions as technical studies. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced he actually understands what his attitudes are towards the transgender women in his art (and, likely, it isn't a big concern of his). In not delving into his own attitudes and then turning around and labeling them, The art project becomes not terribly different than the big tranny reveal on the Maury show.

To see all five of the photos in the series, go to The Morning News.

**I also note the possibility he might have written image #3 but meant #5. I'm ashamed to say after he pointed out the scar in his little essay, I was compelled to search for 'clues' in the other images. Thank you Charlie White for making me have to look for that!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Tranny Day of Remembrance

To all you cineastes out there, here's earth shattering news about a film breaking boundaries at the Tribeca Film Festival. That's right, the New York City festival Robert DeNiro started which is quickly becoming one of the most widely coveted and media-covered film festivals in the country. This film is being promoted as the first film at the festival featuring transgender people in transgender roles. Impressive, huh? It all sounds so empowering. And what's the name of this genre-busting film? Glad you asked, it's called "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives."

The line at the top of the poster reads, "it takes balls to get revenge." In case you don't understand, that's a direct reference to "trannies" (evidently an affectionate term all trans women use to refer to one another) having testicles and a scrotum. I'm just upset LaLuna Entertainment, makers of this statement of community pride were unable to somehow integrate the words "penis" or "cock" onto the poster but, after all, it IS going to be shown at a prestigious film festival where it will get national and international coverage.

This work of film discusses the sensitive issue of violence against trans women and the plot involves 'Trannies' extremely violent revenge against men who abused them, but you'll be happy to know it's all been done with a lot of humor. As the director stated, "I don't consider myself an advocate. I'm not really a protester or anything like that, All of my films feature comedy."

Watch a clip and see just how HEE-LARIOUS it is!

The team who made 'Trannies with Knives'
Cissexuals = 10; Trans people = 0

Home grown and authentic
Obviously, such a statement about the trans community would only be directed by someone from our community, right? Right? Well, you'll be shocked to know "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives" is, in fact, directed by a gay man, Israel Luna. I know, I know, it is indeed amazing how someone not even trans could understand our community so well as to even 'get' the lingo we use to refer to one another. Even more impressive is how Israel is connected to the Dallas Voice, the main gay newpaper in the Dallas area. How wonderful a gay newspaper is able to point to one of their own reporters as someone who can look outside his own community and represent the community of trans women with such a high degree of accuracy.

The transgenders' friend
It just reminds me how gay men have a special insight into the world of trans women since, you know, trans women are really just, *wink wink* gay men, *cough-cough* in, ladies, um, drag. Gay men understand that drag is what makes the delusion of 'transgenders' actually believing they're women all the more tolerable. Without the ability to gob on lots of makeup, wear ugly clothes no woman would ever wear and act campy, trans women would really be A DRAG. As Mr. Luna stated:
I didn't want to write about a male gay bashing victim. That's a story we've seen all too often, and I wanted to do something more modern and I thought 'Whose story do you never see on the news these days?' It's not gay men—it's transgenders."

As Mr. Luna stated in the Queerty article:

I would love for there to be an article about a guy guy who was about to get bashed but instead the basher ended up getting bashed.

How about this idea Mr. Luna... a campy, trashy film about Matthew Shepard, but played for laughs. You could call it "F*gs Fight Back" and if anyone in the gay community doesn't like it, explain to them how they have no sense of humor, two of the actors in it are actually gay and you're just trying to make something to entertain people. Perhaps you should call up Judy Shepard and run it by her. I'm sure she'd appreciate your brand of activism and not feel as if you're trying to exploit her son's murder.

Hi, I'm Bubbles, ha ha, and this film, ha ha, is about
trannies getting attacked, ha ha

In memory of Angie Zapata
And just to show how empowering this film's message is, they mention real victims of transphobic violence like Angie Zapata and Jorge Lopez Mercado in the trailer and cleverly blend that in with the story about the fun trannies with knives. At one point one of the trannies asks another tranny/hooker, "what if your client turns out to be one of those rapists?" The tranny/hooker replies (as though it would actually be great) "oh... that would be baaad." (and get this, while she's saying that she's rubbing up against a guy, ha ha). Compare that positive coverage of trans women being raped with something depressing like this where someone the local media identified as a 'male tranny/hooker' in San Antonio had the nerve to report how she was raped by an on-duty cop. Again, where's the laffs in that? They need to "La Luna" the story up and add some tranny fun, glitter and wigs.

Can't take a joke?
I'm just so disappointed some debbie downers in our community have already complained about this heartfelt exposé of trans womens' lives and the violence they deal with. The whiner was Kelli Busey, an activist trans woman who doesn't seem to understand how slathering on tons of makeup, acting hoochy and parodying women gives one power and provides many in the gay community a lot of entertainment. She had the nerve to even question the hilarious title of this cinematic work and to somehow suggest the director didn't take our struggle for rights seriously. According to a Queerty article on the film, the director rightly responded:

Luna claims that he didn't know "hot tranny mess" was a put-down; he'd heard his trans friends call each other that and thought it meant something akin to "ghetto-fabulous"—something over-the-top cool and stylish. When he realized it was offensive, he'd asked his trans-associates their opinions. A lot of them used the word "tranny" as well and found his use humorous rather than offensive. So in the end, Luna decided to stick with it. It was a catchy title and he figured anyone who'd get offended would entirely miss his film's overall message.
Well said, Israel, don't let those humorless trannies push you around. Next that angry tranny will probably try to complain to GLAAD. Haha, don't worry, GLAAD hasn't said anything about this film. After all, it was made by someone in the LGBT community... it must be okay. In other words, if you can't take a joke, then f*ck you! As Mr. Luna says, he likes to incorporate humor into his films, even into scenes where trans women get attacked. According to Queerty:

Luna's bashing scene contains some humorous elements. The lead actress, Krystal Summers, says that the bashing scene plays on her worst fears of what could happen anytime she reveals her trans identity to a potential boyfriend. Nevertheless, the scene itself still plays out with some degree of B-movie camp. While Boner's chasing down Bubbles—a tuft of bloody hair left clinging to his bat—Luna cuts to a scene where a dying transgender woman drives a lime green stiletto heel into the eye socket of her attacker with one final head-butt.
333 more chances at humor
Luna understands that anything can be made funny, even trans women getting murdered. Not like the depressing people who put out this recent study (borrring) which stated 333 trans people (almost all trans women) have been murdered in acts of transphobic violence in the past 2 years. No fake rubber boobs, no sexy gowns, no mile-high wigs in that study. I ask you, where's the fun and camp in that? Mr. Luna, with 332 murders to go, you have a lot more tranny films to make.

Hey, maybe we can show this at the next Transgender (make that Tranny) Day of Remembrance just to lighten up the dreary festivities and get some more gay male attendees! (LOL)

**My apologies for needing to resort to rabid sarcasm... it's hard to deal with something this offensive any other way.

Should you wish to express your disappointment with the Tribeca Film Festival for showing this film, you may contact: Tammie Rosen, at (212) 941-2003,

A Facebook Site has also been created to protest this film:

I might also suggest reading this analysis of the film's offensiveness and the appropriation of trans women's issues in the gudbuytjane blog.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

GLAAD Media Awards: Joy Behar... JUST WEIRD!

Joy, try not to block the sponsors!

A few days ago, Joy Behar received a GLAAD '
Excellence in Media' Award, "presented to media professionals who, through their work, have increased the visibility and understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community." Joy, in her acceptance speech thanks the gay community, which was appropriate because her attitudes about trans people obviously weren't considered when she received her award.

Take a look at this video where The View hosts discuss trans terminology and see how far from being an excellent "ally" Joy is. In it, Joy says a man wearing women's clothes is "Ewww, just weird". Thanks Joy. Right winger Elizabeth Hasselbeck is more respectful of trans identities than Behar is. In fairness, Rosie O'Donnell, GLAAD love goddess, in the same discussion refers to a trans woman character in a soap opera as a man. On another episode of The View, Candis Cayne was their guest and Joy proceeds to make some insulting remarks about her and ask ignorant questions. Sure Joy, so you're not an expert about trans people. Hopefully you're learning. But does that means you deserve an Excellence in Media award for your support of LGBT issues?

Shut up and tell jokes
I find Joy Behar to be a funny woman. Most of the time, I love her gutsiness and progressive politics. But an informed ally of the trans community she is not. Which brings up the issue, what do those GLAAD awards even honor? Cynthia Nixon, another honoree that evening, basically only mentions same-sex marriage when interviewed about important LGBT issues. Hmm, so ENDA is less important than Marriage Equality? Interesting. The GLAAD awards exist primarily as fund raisers attracting wealthy gay and lesbian movers and shakers to a glittery celeb-attended evening. Repeatedly, the term LGBT is used throughout the awards, as though these awards actually benefit the entire "coalition/community."

This is for you uninformed trans women out there.

Tyra Banks received a similar award last year because of her work for the LGBT community. Yes, Tyra does have gay men featured on her show "Top Model." (which has also won its own GLAAD award). Top Model also had bi and lesbian contestants and treated them mostly with respect. Top Model also featured trans woman Isis King as a contestant on the show, which received a huge tidal wave of media and publicity. Isis, although booted off the show relatively early, was a wonderful rolemodel for young trans women and someone I was proud to call a representative of the community. Tyra has also had various guests about trans people on her TYRA SHOW talk program. Seems like a good fit to get a GLAAD Excellence award, no?

On the left, Michael Brown, NARTH 'expert'

Transgenders on Tyra
Unfortunately, Tyra has also had a number of highly exploitive and objectifying programs about trans people. In one, she actually deigned to show a post-op trans woman how to pee like a woman. In Top Model, she said to a female contestant, "even our transgender contestant Isis looks more feminine than you." At a recent show Tyra had about Trans children, she invited a "researcher" from NARTH to "debate" Marci Bowers and Kim Pearson of TYFA. She repeatedly asked the trans children (some as young as 7) about their genitals. She continues to have a highly exploitive relationship with trans people, yet GLAAD saw fit to give her an Excellence in Media Award.

Good Intentions... agaaain?
While I understand GLAAD wants to award people for trying. That GLAAD wants to encourage mainstream media to make efforts in the direction of being thoughtful and inclusive about LGBT issues, they clearly have a low standard when it comes to Joy Behar, Tyra Banks and trans people. This year, GLAAD seriously nominated a rather pedestrian Good Morning America interview with Chaz Bono for an award. See, they wanted Chaz to come to the award show, so, therefore, an interview which consisted of a kindergartner's version of trans 101 is deserving of an award nomination? The reality is, there were Phil Donahue shows with trans people from 30 years ago which were far better and more informative than this interview.

We'll nominate your interview if you be our best friend!

What it really boils down to is LGBT (and whatever other letters you wish to add) means nothing. They want to say "gay community" but they can't do that anymore, so they emphasize LGBT even though their awards mean little to individual parts of that coalition. For instance, GLAAD nominated a trans-themed documentary called Be Like Others for an award this year, a film which, as I've discussed elsewhere in this blog, makes some very transphobic assumptions about Iran's trans community and the identities of the people seeking SRS in that country. Did GLAAD ever stop to actually examine what the film was about or to think how little documentation the film shows for its central premise? Similar to how the Lambda Literary Foundation nominated The Man Who Would Be Queen for an award and pulled that nomination after they were informed it, in fact, was viewed as a highly transphobic book by most of the trans community. Do these organizations even think for a second how any media referring to trans people might not actually be all that thoughtful nor even positive for our community? Any publicity is good publicity? No thank you.

This is GLAAD-approved... you're not!

GLAAD as an organization has a highly mixed record with trans issues. Apart from one part-time Genderqueer staffer, they have no trans people working on their staff. They have been known to back off dealing with transphobia when its source is from a corporate sponsor of theirs (like some recent offensive ads by Levis) or from someone with clout in the gay community (like Barney Frank or the producers of Nip/Tuck). When a perceived gay icon like Candis Cayne does a highly transphobic Nip/Tuck episode about detransition basically equating a trans woman as being a confused gay man, GLAAD ignores it even after being notified about complaints. Moreover, they have a tendency to take public credit for calling out and solving specific instances of transphobia in media when, in fact, they are often well behind the curve of addressing offenders (as in the recent issue of Seventeen Magazine which presented a young trans teen as a liar and similar to a drug addict).

Smile pretty for the camera
Moreover, in its yearly summary of the past year's media coverage, scant mention is even given to how few trans-related/themed programs there were, much less what types of characters were being portrayed (eg. trans prostitutes). GLAAD isn't responsible for what mainstream media does or doesn't portray. It is responsible, as a media advocacy organization purporting to represent the LGBT community, to give honest assessments of how media is representing or excluding communities within the coalition or how positive portrayals of one group doesn't necessarily mean everything is hunky-dory.

Reality check, please
It would be nice to see awards given for accomplishments, for instance, specifically to gay men, yet don't pretend they've been positive for the entire LGBT community. It's okay to award someone for the friend they've been to gay men yet not pretend it also means they've been a trans ally or someone who, therefore, supports lesbians. That's not breaking apart a coalition, that's just specificity and honesty. What breaks a coalition is when the needs of subgroups within the coalition are made irrelevant by a fantasy their needs are being met and their back is covered.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Queer Hipster Sarcasm for Frat Boys?

Funny or Die
is a sometimes entertaining website partly started by Will Ferrell. They've included a number of humorous progressive videos which supported Obama's candidacy and were anti-prop 8. They are regularly embedded in the Huffington Post and other well-known blogs. Their March 16, 2010 edition had two videos purporting to make fun of American Apparel. One was a skit which was a satire of American Apparel's owner being on America's Next Top Model and how American Apparel loves to use raunchy photos with natural-looking very young models in awkward sexy poses... as though shot by an amateur. I get the context. Funny.

But there's the OTHER one...
The other video called "Trans Am from American Apparel" (which was featured in the Huffington Post) comes at satirizing their ads from another angle. A young woman model (who is supposed to look, perhaps like a feminist/genderqueer coed one might find on campus) is salaciously posing in skimpy, not-very-attractive American Apparel ware promoting their new line of clothes. She has curly (Jewish/Italian) messy hair, noticeable fuzz on her upper lip, is curvier (aka chubbier) than your average ad campaign model and... most importantly, has a big bulge where a penis would be. Yup, must be a good 5-6" with big balls too! It's soooo funny you'll die.

At one point the self-consciously sensitive male photographer turns to the camera and says, "sometimes people need a little extra room in certain places and we want to be the first national brand to offer that." It's a challenge making out what this video is actually satirizing and who the "Trans Am" line is supposed to represent? Is it for the mythical "hermaphrodite" Lady Gaga with her penis we've heard tell about on the Internet from various 'gender experts?' (50,000,000 hits on YouTube) Is it the genderqueer dyke packing a strap on? Or is it that old standby... the shemale beloved by millions in the porn world and every guy's dirty little secret turn on?

It is just making deconstructionist fun of American Apparel's need for hip cred at any cost... in this case trans/GQ brownie points? That company will do aaannything for a buck, even sell to...ugh. How the company will be exploitive and even offensive in its need to sell to young alternative types who are always out to hook up with the latest trend?

At first it's hard to tell what the joke video is getting at, but as it goes on, it increasingly focuses on, guess what, the penis bulge. The photographer gets more and more involved with showing off his model's tool even touching it at one point. Clearly, the main concept of the video is this "this UGGLLY CHICK has A COCK" which is pretty much equivalent to "In the beginning..." for the frat boys bible of humor and laffs. Note how the Funny or Die site is advertising college basketball's March Madness right above the Chick with a Dick video. Perfect juxtaposition between the intended market and playing "knock the bottle off the freak's head."

In theory satire is supposed to be immune from charges of offensiveness by virtue of its *wink wink* ironic attitude. The idea that "we're not really getting off on this, we're getting off on making fun of American Apparel getting off on this." Honestly though, thinking about the Funny or Die demographic of young male office workers and college students, this video's intentions seem more salacious and suspect. In this case, not only is it ridiculing an "unattractive lesbo/feminist chick" and suggesting "she's practically a guy" but also riding the freak train of dude who looks like a lady. Somewhat similar in nature to the Dave Chappelle trans-bashing comedy routine defended by some as 'social satire,' it uses its audience's self-identified hipster status to assure them "you're not buying into bigotry" at the same time they having a big laff at "titty balls" (Chappelle's term) or the American Apparel model's bulging crotch. Is it great satire or just cheap sexist, mean, misogynistic, laffs at the trans community's expense? You be the judge.

Monday, March 15, 2010

TRANSform Me : Transactivism VH1 style?

Jamie, Laverne and Nina

Premiering tonight on VH1 is their new program TRANSform Me (remember, the trans in the title is capitalized) previously discussed on this blog in my post, All the Pretty Baubles. To quickly recap, it's a rather generic makeover show with one twist—the three makeover-ticians are beautiful trans women: Laverne Cox, Nina Poon and Jaime Clayton. In this first episode (available for view on the VH1 website) Laverne, Nina and Jaime head out in the Glambulance to Mobile, AL to help Nicole, a woman who's just lost 50 lbs but still doesn't have a lot of self-esteem. Most of what happens in this episode is a rehash from every other cable makeover program or Tyra episode: Laverne plays Oprah and deals with the inner beauty/inner pain (and even gets Nicole to cry!!!), while Nina and Jaime prance around Nicole's closet throwing out the "fat pants" and glittery purple eyeshadow. Nicole learns to rhumba, goes shopping with her mentors and gets to reveal her goddess at a "ladies night out" with her friends. As usual, it's all about showing off "the girls" and curves, "looking like a woman," and lengthening the line of the leg while showing off your natural beauty (of course, the words artificial or drag are verboten on all makeover shows).

Like most makeover shows, little to no mention is made of past relationships, career, self-abusive behavior and, especially, depression. In fairness, TRANSform Me episodes are a quickie 22 minutes long (including numerous shots of the Glambulance tearing down the street) so, between the standard "you're a mess scene," shopping scenes, one of two generic crying jags where the mench isn't sure she can make it, and the big reveal at the end... there isn't a lot of time left for self-realization and examination.

"I've never met people like 'you guys' before"

One of the show's hitches is they don't tell the person being transformed that three trans women are coming over, much less going through her stuff and hugging her. As Laverne said about Nicole when they came into her house, "she seemed to be visably gagging that three transgender women were at her door." It would be curious to see where the series goes with this concept and to what degree they might pre-screen contestants for transphobia or not. Obviously, part of the series concept is "at first they were uncomfortably with the trans women, but now they're like her sisters." We'll see. The series might be more interesting (and believable) if some women literally didn't want to deal with the three trans fashionistas (much less be touched by them). While it's warm and fuzzy to think "oh, they're all younger women who watch VH1, they'll be cool with it" but the reality is, looking at many of the snarky comments for shows like last season's "The Real World" when it featured trans woman Katelyn, there is plenty of transphobia and anti-trans nastiness still floating around younger generations. After it's over, they do ask Nicole what she thought about the process, but it was more about finding her inner "femme goddess" and not how she felt about her three teachers.

The TRANSform Me Boys?

Guys like you!
The show does play up the trans aspect whenever it can. At the opening of each show it displays three photos of Laverne, Nina and Jaime as little boys (fortunately, NOT as pre-transition adults). While the photos are supposed to provide inspirational fodder which proudly states "even we can transform ourselves into beautiful women" there is also a reminder how these three "women"are really a more souped-up femme version of the "Queer Eye" crew. Fortunately, Laverne Cox, for all her endless mentions of connecting her transition to Nicole's need for transformation, is relatively low-key about it. The only one who really trannys it up is Nina Poon, who seems to provide most of the quasi-drag persona and Lucky Cheng's rehash (Lucky Cheng's is an Asian trans/drag-themed restaurant in Lower Manhattan). Okay, we get it Nina, you're from New York, you're trans... enough with the drag act already.

Is it transformative?
It's hard to not wonder how weakly transformative TRANSform Me is? It certainly presents women's identities as closely intertwined with how they look. While Laverne tells simpering Nicole "you have to love yourself" no mention is made how many women who look mainstream gorgeous do not love themselves and how many women who look like what media would call "a schlub" have positive self-esteem. What it leaves is the impression of trans women being stuck in very old-fashioned ideas of womanhood and beauty (again, this IS on VH1, so...). At one point Nina looks at one of Nicole's shirts and whines, "doesn't she have something more feminine?" Yes, I gagged when I heard that. It continues assumptions some second wave feminists and queer theorists have that femme trans women are basically foot soldiers for the patriarchy or for the binary expression of gender. It tags trans women as basically shallow and, in the pursuit of an artificial beauty and approval, ultimately fake.

Moreover, I continued to wonder how Nicole felt about trans people after her experience? Would she now wholeheartedly support ENDA or, ultimately, having a trans person teaching her child in school? How would she feel about someone in her family transitioning or identifying as gender variant? These are all left as unanswered questions by TRANSform Me which likes to keep the good times rolling but I hope, at the very least, between the discussions of purple eyeshadow and size 18 track suits, some glimpses of real world attitudes will be slipped in. No comment is made about how Nicole, made over and transformed and letting her inner goddess show through, doesn't have to deal with issues of government identification, being murdered for being trans, familial/community rejection, legal inequities, intense job discrimination the way her mentors do. Nor do I doubt VH1 could care less.

Susan Stanton not long after she came out

TRANSform Me vs. Susan Stanton
This series is premiering at virtually the same time as CNN is showing their documentary about Susan Stanton's transition. It's an interesting counterpart. Laverne, Nina and Jaime were all younger (although not teenage) transitioners as opposed to Susan who was in her late 40s. If nothing else, it's good to see a trans-related show which, unlike the CNN documentary, is NOT about a trans person transitioning, putting on makeup and panty hose (or binding and shaving for FTMs), letting go of "The Man" and looking embarrassed and humiliated about making their first tentative steps out into the world. It doesn't present the three fashionistas as freaks. The TRANSform Me 3 are, at the very least, living out in the world as women, being experienced as such and are shown with no small degree of confidence about themselves.

Whatever sexist, gender regressive messages TRANSform Me might put out, at least it shows them as women who aren't sex workers, drag queens, porn stars and who aren't ashamed of who they are and their womenhood. Does it subconsciously equate passing with real womanhood? I would say yes. It also objectifies them in subtle ways as "accessory buddies/uber gay men on hormones." Great, now every cissexual party-girl will want a trans buddy until something more hip comes along—we're dressed up eunuchs. But, on a very positive note, it also exposes the young audience who watches VH1 reality shows to a non-threatening slice of trans womenhood which has to bode well for our developing acceptance in this still very phobic society. Oh yes, and the show is partly produced by Laverne Cox's production company, Complete World Domination! Indeed, one glammy, clichéd step at a time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Being progressive or queer means never having to say you're sorry

Dave Chapelle has a big rep in the progressive community as a thinking person's comedian. Someone who isn't afraid to talk about tough issues and take people to task for hypocrisy. In honor of Mr. Chapelle's need for honestly and candor about calling society on its bs, we now need to call Mr. Chapelle on his transphobic bs. Barbara Lopez, a lesbian-cis woman in the East Bay went to see Dave Chapelle a few days ago at an Oakland club called the "New Parish," a venue with a reputation for progressive politics and supporting queer performers (more about that later) . What she saw was him opening his act with a diatribe about him walking in San Francisco:

He began with a story of being in San Francisco and being approached by a "man" with "titty balls" and how weird that was and began to mock a gay male voice. He said he was trying to not look at this "man with titties." He talked about how he was uncomfortable and how he was worried about "US Weekly catching them together." He even said "I thought I was gonna walk away without his gayness offending me." He then talked about how the trans individual asked him out to lunch and he reacted angrily.
Yes, it's 'man with titties' humor. Dude in a dress funnies. Nothing like a few tranny and shemale jokes to loosen up the crowd and make then laugh, right? Ms. Lopez then told Chapelle:

"I came to hear you talk about politics and race and instead what you are saying is fucked up." He told me but you have "real titties." I told him I was a lesbian and was offended. He said "I love lesbians." I was gonna tell him to fuck off more (I was angry by this point) but by then I had security guards around me. My baby and I stated we were leaving.
She then engaged with the owners of the club about what was wrong with Chapelle's transphobic diatribe.

I was bothered when one of the owners said that they support artistic merit and he wouldn't censor artists. "Chapelle is edgy." Well...hate speech is NOT edgy. It is a type of language that breeds violence. He said he had Lesbian family members. I told them I was ready to organize against them and at that point I felt the conversation was not going anywhere productive.
Ridiculing trans women... always good for a few bucks
Ah yes, transphobia, ridicule, and hate speech towards trans women are "artistic merit" and "freedom of speech." I've heard that one many times before. Kind of like virulently homophobic reggae artist Buju Banton expressed freedom of speech and his artistry by extolling audiences to "kill faggots." And the New Parish club owners have "lesbian family members" which translates as "if I'm okay with one part of the LGBT community, I can support discrimination and ridicule against another part of the community and not be called on it. Good one, I have to remember that. It's like getting keys to the kingdom. So Dave Chapelle is the new Eddie Murphy, only he's keying in on transphobia rather than Murphy's often expressed homophobia (and we all know Murphy had, let's say, a very personal fascination with trans women sex workers of whom he was a regular client).

Rebecca Kaplan... lover of anti-trans humor: for Oakland City Council

Representing the community - hypocrite's version
But what makes this even more interesting is how a current Oakland City Councilwoman, Nancy Nadel, was also in the audience and didn't seem to have any issue with Chapelle saying hate speech. Guess if they can attract a celebrity to perform in Oakland, that gives him carte blanche. And even worse, Rebecca Kaplan, a lesbian-identified District Transit Director and candidate for the City Counsel (under the, woo-hoo... LGBT community flag) was also in attendance and seemed to have a wonderful time lapping up the transphobia. Good way to represent our community there, Ms. Kaplan. Laughs are on us.

JD Samson of LeTigre (center) Queer means being as trans exclusivist as you want

Hip Queer music in a transmysogynistic package
To make even more sense of why the club is cool with having Chapelle mouthing off, two days later, they're featuring a show with JD Samson, from the feminist band "Le Tigre" presented by "Hella Gay Live". Sounds oh-so Queer/progressive, doesn't it? Unfortunately, Le Tigre is known as one of the primary bands which has supported a policy which excludes trans women from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival—a conflict which has been going on for more than 15 years. Here's an excellent essay by feminist blogger Ciara Xyerra on the problematic nature of Le Tigre, and their best known member Kathleen Hanna and their troubled history of discriminating against trans women. Moreover, members of Le Tigre have been known to specifically make comments against the womanhood of trans women and supporting the MichFest policy. So... sounds like this is "bash trans women" week at The New Parish.

Remember Michael Richards of "Seinfeld" who did a "comedy routine" in at an LA which involved racist humor? Remember how Richards was called out on it and told, in no uncertain terms, his attempts at getting laughs using bigotry were not going to be tolerated? So I guess what Dave Chapelle said was totally different? It was about a far more powerless group of people who have a higher murder rate than any other minority group in the country. And East Bay progressives were there to laugh at Dave and share the good times and enjoy freedom of speech's finest hour—the liberty to bash and ridicule trans women and make a lot of bucks doing it.

Allies vs. wannabes
I applaud Ms. Lopez as a real ally, who is taking what might be an unpopular step and speaking out about the hypocrisy of Chapelle, the club owners and the progressives who laughed along to the transphobic comments. There are many times where, as a trans women, it's hard to feel much love from much of the LGB communities who tend to throw us under a bus at the first chance. However cynical someone like Rebecca Kaplan (and all the LGBT community who will be boogying at JD Samson's show) make me feel, Barbara Lopez gives me hope there are people from outside our beleaguered community who actually get it.

If you wish to complain to the owners of The New Parish, kindly let them know being a progressive, an LGB member or having a lesbian in your family doesn't excuse making money off the backs of trans women's lives. I suggest not supporting Dave Chapelle's numerous appearances on television until he actually understands what he said was hate speech and owns up the affects of such speech on marginalized communities.