Here’s the story you may have heard about my body: I was tragically trapped in my female form, desperate to be a regular guy, and now that I’m a real man, I no longer want to die.
Pretty compelling stuff — and no doubt for some folks, an accurate depiction. But in the two years since I began injecting testosterone, I’ve grown increasingly suspect of the fascination with the “trapped” narrative. From talk shows to The New York Times, trans children to celebrities, the idea that trans folks are tragic or even heroic saddens me, because within the pity and pithy hope they generate lies a darker reality: The sensational portrayals dehumanize trans folks by making us strange. If I’ve learned anything by living in this body, it’s that when anyone’s dehumanized, we all are.
We’re more alike than not. Here’s my story: I saw myself, like a sculptor sees a face in the stone, become clearer and clearer with each passing day. I got to work on the business of being, constructing an approximation out of Ace bandages, then swagger, then surgery, then testosterone. I grew, over time, to be the man I am; and though I’ve felt the panic of dysphoria, I mostly had the sense of evolving. I didn’t feel trapped, exactly — only a sense of becoming.
That’s me. No exclamation points, weepy parent, or cheesy newsroom graphics necessary. It bugs me that it’s still relatively rare to hear trans voices unmediated by schlock-jocks or the trans-kids-are-OK sentimentality, which is why I’m so excited about My Genderation, a documentary project concerning gender variance by trans guys Raphael Francis Fox and Lewis Hancox of the hit British reality series My Transsexual Summer.
For the uninitiated, MTS was a huge hit across the pond, and also a relatively positive depiction of the trans men and women involved. The group met up periodically for a retreat in the English countryside, where they supported one another through various surgeries, family difficulties, and explorations of manhood and womanhood — both silly and profound.
Though the response to the series was largely positive, Fox — who was in the early stages of transition when he appeared on the show — took issue with the way he was portrayed by its creators. Fox told me via email that MTS was a project “blinded with set narratives.” He felt, particularly, that the producers were interested only in very binary gender transitions. “They didn’t think the audience was ready for understanding genderqueer or gender variance,” he said.
Fox wrote on his Tumblr that he and Hancox decided to create My Genderation to “provide a window on what it’s like to be trans* in modern-day Britain, without shock tactics or upsetting the person being interviewed.”
Most trans people are nervous to speak to me for stories like this, despite the fact that I’m trans myself — and I understand why. I’ve known trans men who’ve been asked, during interviews with national magazines, for details about how they urinate; I’ve read news reports describing men in “women’s clothes” despite the insistence of friends or family that the person is a trans woman; I’ve heard sleazy voice-overs that “reveal” that the “real” man on screen was “born a woman!”
The truth can be edited or produced; and no matter whose mouth is moving, the person behind the camera or asking the questions is the one telling the story. Writer and trans advocate Janet Mock, a former People.com editor, wrote furiously about a recent episode of Dateline, “What stood out most to me is this: It took Hoda Kotb approximately 13 minutes into her segment to ask 11-year-old Josie Romero of Tucson, Arizona: ‘Do you feel trapped in the wrong body?’ Whenever this question is posed, I find it to be more of a leading statement rather than a true inquiry or invitation for a trans subject to speak about their life experience or outlook on their relationship with their bodies.”
So what would a true inquiry look like? Fox and Hancox, reality TV stars who have had the unique experience of witnessing the way their narratives were made digestible for mass appeal, now plan to create a counter-narrative voiced by an array of trans folks, in their own unfiltered words.
“I learned how important it is to manage people’s expectations, keep communicating, and remember you are interviewing a potentially very vulnerable group of people,” Fox said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to feel exploited or unrepresented.”
Why should you care about our stories when they don’t follow the pristine arc that starts with being wrong and ends with us riding into the sunset, real at last? “We all have feminine and masculine in us,” Fox offered. “Gender affects everyone.”
The truth is, trans people illuminate a crucial aspect of the human condition, not anymore salacious, tragic, or beautiful than anything else. If there’s a lesson we can share, a great truth or tragedy, it’s this: We’re living it all, right in front of you, in our bodies and our many, varied tellings.