I've talked about what happens when disabled critics take on Glee, and the general marginalization of disabled voices in feminism in general and pop culture discussions in particular. Today, I'd like to turn to another group that has experienced historic marginalization in feminism: The transgender community.
Trans writer gudbuytjane's discussion of Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' attracted a great deal of attention when it was published in March. Lady Gaga is sometimes heralded as a feminist icon, for a whole lot of reasons, ranging from her outspoken comments on feminist issues (we will be returning to this in the near future!) to her explorations of gender and identity in her music videos. There's also been a steady supply of swirling rumors about Gaga's gender, from suggestions that she was intersex to the recent kerfuffle over the connection between Jo Calderone and Gaga. Full confession: I'm a Gaga fan, but I'll be the first to say that I also recognize the troubling content in her work. Both of these facts make me interested in following Gaga's career and, yes, in critiquing and reading critiques of her work.
When 'Telephone' came out, I found myself unsettled by a lot of the imagery in the video. I was troubled by what I saw as a marginalization of the experiences of gender-variant prisoners, and I was also perturbed by the guards in the prison scene, who felt to me like caricatures of trans women. I wasn't the only person to notice this, and thus I was quite excited when gudbuytjane wrote about the video.
She put it this way:
Her anxiety at being seen as trans is clear, and her response is typical of cis privilege and trans marginalization: We're supposed to wipe our brows and sigh relief that she's actually a real woman. This is transmisogyny.
What I (and, I suspect, gudbuytjane) was not expecting was that her relatively brief post discussing Gaga's problematic history and the gender essentialism in the 'Telephone' video would circulate far and wide, first in feminist spaces and then in larger communities.
Here's where things started to get really ugly: The comments started reading like a bingo card, and I can't imagine what the moderation queue and gudbuytjane's inbox must have looked like. Cis commenters showed up to lecture trans folks about how they misread the intent of the video, or they were just looking for something to get offended about, or how the trans women resisting the narrative in the video were angry and scary. Threatening, even. Writing about her experiences for Feministe, gudbuytjane noted:
This fear of trans women expressing themselves, especially in feminist spaces, is based on seeing trans women as men, and then applying to them the cis person's expectations (while denying the lived experience of the trans woman). To suggest that trans women are in a position of social privilege which can silence cis voices is ridiculous on its face, as it is to suggest I had – as an unknown trans activist and blogger – privilege over the literally thousands of cis voices disagreeing with me.
The explosive response to her post reflected a lot of the problematic history of the feminist movement when it comes to interacting with the transgender community. Perhaps first and foremost, there is the idea that trans women have male privilege, and the attached policing of who is (and is not) a woman. Secondly, there's the use of privilege to shut down discussions while couching the demands to shut up in claims of 'polite dissent.'
The silencing of trans people, and trans women in particular, in feminist spaces isn't just limited to discussions about pop culture, unfortunately. Cis voices are centered over trans voices consistently, and sometimes very dangerously, while trans folks are denied autonomy, identity, and even our own experiences.
Trans people are excluded from women's shelters. We are denied medical care. We are told that our opinions have no worth and value and are treated as 'fakers.' It's not just the mainstream media that misgenders trans people; I see it happening in feminist spaces all the time, along with prurient speculation about whether or not trans folks have had reconstruction surgery or what their 'real names' are.
There's something key I want you to take away here:
Cis feminists should be centering the voices of trans feminists when it comes to talking about trans issues. That includes, yes, critiques of pop culture. Because trans folks know their lived experiences. They know that of which they speak. And they know the insidious and myriad forms that discrimination can take.
I trust a trans woman to call transmisogyny in pop culture when she sees it, and transmisogyny anywhere else when she witnesses it too. Because she is speaking from a space of lived experience. Just like I expect people to trust me when I talk about binarism in pop culture, because I am speaking from a place of lived experience as well.