Our world, meticulously built by heteronormative white cis men, struggles to include trans people into its long-established systems. Law and order, citizenship, healthcare, prison, and other sociocultural systems are not as well developed to incorporate the non-binary. Hence, trans* itself creates a struggle within the system by highlighting its inefficiency to address a group in the population. Accordingly, certain boundaries are drawn in order to contain trans experience within what the system can manage with its limited resources and knowledge on the subject. As a result, performance and performativity seem to be embedded in trans lives to navigate the heteronormative system. While it acts as a weapon against voyeurism towards the trans body when the “object of interest” reverses the power structure by taking control over what people look at, it is a twofold subject. The process harms authenticity and results in an enhanced emphasis on media representation and stage arts; therefore, this paper argues that trans performativity does not contribute positively to trans inclusion in society. Pointing out that performances exist on a different plane than our daily lives, the paper concludes that it puts a safe distance between trans and the heteronormative, therefore might end up promoting further polarization.
Performance is closely embedded in transgender lives as it comes up almost as a need or an obligation in multiple cases. Whereas Judith Butler claims that gender is a socially constructed performative apparatus, concluding, “if both sex and gender are constructions, then not only is there no point in making a distinction between the concepts, but, significantly, they are potentially open for change and can be ‘undone’” (Nentwich and Morison, 2017). The concept of performativity is found to be highly fruitful in terms of self-making when combined with the analytical concepts of Discursive Psychology (Nentwich and Morison, 2017). Yet, the trans-gender tends to rely on performativity on several notes disproportionately. By encouraging performing to receive proper healthcare and citizenship rights, among other reasons, the system forces transgender people to give away their authenticity to “fit in”.
In resources on gender reassignment surgery, it is revealed that the patients were expected to perform a certain way to be approved for surgery. Near the beginning of the twentieth century, the doctors were interested in scientifically rationalizing and explaining the trans, yet their means fell short for them to understand it thoroughly. Furthermore, the limits of technology and medical care cost consequently distanced the doctors to be brave with their practices. Somewhat to prove their “trans-ness,” the patients were required to act as a role model or textbook type trans during their doctor’s appointments (Meyerowitz, 2006). While such phenomena make one question how the “true” or “perfect” trans was defined in the first place, it reveals how trans people had to frame themselves a certain way in their encounter with doctors towards having a surgery which will allow them to feel comfortable in their skin. The patients had to convince their doctors that they would live a “normal” and quiet life after surgery. Another strikingly “useful” method advised among the patients was to tell the doctor they would commit suicide if they don’t undergo surgery. Performance during the gender reassignment surgery is explained as an obligation to get the treatment that the patient needs. However, it inevitably created mistrust between the doctors and their patients, further contributing to the idea of trans people being deceivers.
Transgender people have historically been forced to change themselves to become visually indistinguishable from normatively sexed people as there is a link between visibility and transphobic violence (Metzger and Ringelberg, 2020). On a similar ground, Susan Stone argues that the way trans people want to live and to be treated can only be achieved through a physical change, and their “highest purpose is to fade into the “normal” population as soon as possible” (2006). In addition to the coveted “stealth aesthetics,” trans people are encouraged to perform to “pass” in order not to be registered as a threat. Following the 9/11 attacks, Homeland Security posted that terrorists may cross-dress to conceal devices, which rendered transgender people a target as potential terrorists (Beauchamp, 2013). Accordingly, it became even more crucial for these people to blend in and live stealth to be unknown to be transgender. In this sense, visibility is pivotal for class status. Moreover, one tends to pose as a model citizen for the government authorities in order to be performatively interpreted as a good citizen. The surveillance state disproportionately targets less privileged ones, as rich and white people can reveal themselves as non-threatening more easily. Even though this is an issue for many people beyond just the ones trans-identified, it is only another aspect where performativity proves a necessity in trans lives.
On a similar note, the concept brings about questions around authenticity. Framing Agnes (directed by Chase Joynt and Kristen Schilt, 2019), notes on authenticity in trans experience while touching on the “deceptive transsexual” propagated by medicine and media. The short film is a mock-documentary with staged interviews that captures Agnes, who approached the UCLA Medical Center in the late 1950s seeking sex reassignment surgery. The title itself is self-reflexive because it points out that the “real” trans is edited and curated. What can be fathomed as an authentic trans experience when everything we see is framed and performed one way or another?
Nevertheless, performativity promises a certain kind of authority in trans narratives. Performance allows a shift from voyeurism to exhibitionism. The term “exhibitionism” is not necessarily used as the traditional meaning, “illicit exposure of genitalia to an unwilling audience” (Calvert, 2014), in this paper. Rather, the former implies the objectification of what has been looked at, and the latter suggests having control over at what people look. Yet, such reclaiming requires performativity, which in return allows the reestablishment of power relations. As a way of resistance to become objects of interest, trans people utilize performance to own what others see of them.
José Esteban Muñoz points out several queer performance artists who “offer the minoritorian subject a space to situate itself in history and thus seize social agency” (1999). For instance, Muñoz explains how Marga Gomez reconfigures the historical stereotyping of lesbians through her “over-the-top performance”. “Disidentifications” with mainstream representations in the media is considered a powerful survival strategy against the dominant eyes of the heteronormative culture. These performances are suggested to activate new social relations and contribute to the “function of a counterpublic sphere.” Therefore, Muñoz not only refers to performance as owning one’s narrative for personal empowerment but also as a resistance strategy and a political act.
Kate Bornstein is a transgender icon whose statements are found controversial and even transphobic by some parties. In Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger (dir. Sam Feder, 2014), she explains how reclaiming starts at the linguistic level. Using words like “tranny” when referring to herself and her friends, Bornstein aims to repurpose vocabulary to eliminate its offensive meaning. Identifying herself as the offensive word, she believes, takes away the power given to the word. Similarly, she claims that misusing pronouns should not be an issue, either. While many people from the trans community disagree with her, I believe her argument is relevant to owning others’ perception of oneself through the presentation, and therefore, performance. Comparably, activists wore pink “pussy hats” in the 2017 Women’s March in an attempt to reclaim the word after President Trump’s taped conversation revealed him saying, “Grab ’em by the pussy” (Bullock, 2016). Owning the vocabulary is the first step to owning the narrative.
When Caitlyn Jenner reported identifying as a trans woman, it created a massive buzz on media primarily because she was a celebrity as a former athlete before her transition. In her memoir The Secrets of My Life, Jenner explains how the paparazzi always walked around her home and that they would publish any story about her. Therefore she felt the need to own the story that will be told: “I am telling you because I believe in candor. So all of you can stop staring. You want to know, so now you know. Which is why this is the first time, and the last time, I will ever speak of it.” In her television docu-series, I am Cait, Jenner insisted on being an executive producer to have full creative control over the content (Buzz, 2015). In order to refute being a “target of cyber-ridicule,” the show became a way for her to tell her side of the story and own her narrative. The trans person creates a narrative for themselves, claiming full authenticity, which ends up being inseparable from a performance.
As a way of coping with the curious eyes on one’s gender expression, trans artists choose to embed the experience in their performance. Heather Cassils is one of such artists. In their artwork Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, Cassils records their bodybuilding and nutrition gain process over 23 weeks. While the artist’s body transition doesn’t explicitly include gender reassignment, the work refers to their trans identity in several aspects. While Cassils states that the goal was to achieve a hyper masculine body, visuals of taking steroids can be likened to taking hormones. The artist “pushes the definition of a biologically female body” (Frizzel, 2013) while including the process in their artwork to have control over not only their body but also what others see when they look at their body.
Riki Anne Wilchins’ performance art Our Cunts Are Not The Same: Transsexual Sexuality and Sex-Change Surgery invites people to examine her cervix. Addressing the ambiguity of the terrain, the artist aims to expose her “trans genitals” in order to educate people through her art. Inevitably, not all people react the same way. While some get surprised to see that it looks like a “cunt” rather than a penis, some want to make her moan and some are disgusted (Wilchins, 1997). Wilchins accepts all these reactions as a part of her performance, therefore owning both exposing and the gaze. The art piece is another example of how trans artists claim their bodies as well as the reaction towards their bodies through performance.
“I see myself exploring femininity as an artistic form, a body that can be inhabited and performed. And most of all, I explore my body as an object, an art object.” Canadian transgender artist Nina Arsenault created a body of work including photographs, videos, stage plays, writings, and “performance of the body in both celebrity appearances and daily public life” (Rudakoff, 2012). Arsenault is a performance artist whose “canvas is her body, her performance is her life” (2010). In terms of owning her objectification, political and performance philosopher Shannon Bell suggests that the artist constitutes “a subject held in the gaze of the world” (2010). Arsenault incorporates in her work more than sixty plastic surgeries she has gone through to feminize and “beautify” her biologically male body (Rudakoff, 2012). Her work is an example of how performance can be indiscernible from the trans person’s identity.
Similar to performance arts, stage arts and on-screen visibility are believed to have positive impacts against marginalization in the society as it allows trans people’s stories to be told instead of going unheard. In the past years, media institutions enhanced their efforts to represent the trans experience on-screen authentically. GLAAD Transgender Media Program establishes itself by revealing that: “Multiple polls show that approximately 20% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. Given this reality, most Americans learn about transgender people through the media. So when the media talks about transgender issues – it is imperative that they get it right.” Although numerous Hollywood projects are casting cis actors for trans roles (Bendix, 2020) therefore provoking criticism, one cannot overlook the recent progressive efforts. Three years after similar betterments in Europe, model and actor Indya Moore became the first transgender model to appear on Elle USA‘s cover page in May 2019 (Buzznet, 2016). Accordingly, various television series and films emerged to tell trans stories: “I’ve been doing a lot of auditions lately because a lot of different shows have been really eager to tell the story of transgender people,” states Nicole Maines, who is cast as the first transgender superhero to be featured on a television show (Romo, 2018).
Productions that aim to share trans characters’ authentic stories of navigating life are generally appreciated because the effort is progressive in contrast to the lack of such on-screen depiction. For instance, Pose (created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, Ryan Murphy, 2018-) handles subjects around the AIDS pandemic, which was historically omitted from the popular culture (Castiglia and Reed, 2011). As a positive image, an eleven-year-old character comes out as a transgender boy, and the exploration of gender identity is depicted on-screen hand in hand with Isaiah Stannard’s real journey in the television series Good Girls (created by Jenna Bans, 2018-). In The Garden Left Behind (directed by Flavio Alvez, 2019), the main character is a transgender woman of color who wears gender-neutral clothes and makes a living as a driver. The film casts over thirty transgender actors and is celebrated for employing its trans characters in various occupations other than sex work. Yet, enhanced representation is not presenting a solution to incorporating trans into the sociocultural systems. About their media image, Keegan argues that popular media shares stories about transgender issues assuming a cis audience (2016). Therefore, the transgender characters are looked at instead of looking at the world with them, which is another aspect of representation that ends up contributing to othering.
Transgender actress Jamie Clayton, who plays the coding genius Nomi in science fiction series Sense8 (created by the Wachowskis, 2015-16) reveals her frustration towards trans characters not necessarily suggesting to higher inclusion in a tweet: “Actors who are trans never even get to audition FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN ROLES OF TRANS CHARACTERS. THATS THE REAL ISSUE. WE CANT EVEN GET IN THE ROOM. Cast actors WHO ARE TRANS as NON TRANS CHARACTERS. I DARE YOU”. Agreeing with her point, I would also argue that these productions are just another way of containing trans in performance. As there is a tendency to perceive what people are as what they do, trans identities are reduced to their performances. While the increase in on-screen representation is interpreted as a progressive event for trans inclusion in society, I argue otherwise. Even though the characters might revive empathy in the viewer, the trans person is seen acting and performing behind the screen at the end of the day.
In line with containing trans to a performance, a particular space within the entertainment industry is created for the trans people to occupy. Especially in the conservative nations, performance is so deeply embedded in the concept that even though people are accepting towards trans on stage, the perception does not expand to everyday life. The stage is believed to enable intimate and private communication through the interaction between the performer and the audience in the personal space of the stage within the public sphere (Selen, 2012), making it problematic for them to go out of the designated area. Accordingly, these trans icons tend to conceal their trans identities outside the stage.
Turkey is a relatively conservative country that is far from progressive in terms of trans people’s inclusion. With fifty-one transgender murders recorded in a decade, Turkey has the most hate crimes against trans people in Europe (Erbulan, 2019). Nevertheless, the public celebrates its queer talents on stage. Selen argues that, such liberty is allowed on stage as a performance as “their performances are validated through a reiterative absence of queerness in their everyday lives” (2012). For instance, Bülent Ersoy is a gender-transcending icon in Turkish music that has been a celebrity through her transition process. Although Ersoy was not closeted through any of the stages, she is rejecting going through with the compulsory male-only military service, which is interpreted as her refusing trans identity (Trash, 2012). Her stance is believed to be “detrimental to Turkish queers’ existence offstage” as she is distanced and indifferent to the trans community aiming “to fit into a heteropatriarchal society” out of fear that such association would disgrace her womanhood (Selen, 2012). Comparably, the country’s several other queer icons in the music and entertainment industry restrain from expressing their gender identities in their daily lives, whereas they are allowed to cross-dress as a part of their performance on stage (Selen, 2012).
China presents a similar case with Jin Xing, a transgender icon. She is the first public figure in the country to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1995, making her the first openly transgender person in China. Xing is also an acclaimed contemporary dancer and the founder and director of China’s first independent dance company, Shanghai Jin Xing Dance Theatre. After her leg was left paralyzed, Xing began hosting television shows and became very popular. Although being openly transgender is considered taboo in China, the public accepted her gender identity as she is in the entertainment business (Cam, 2018). Arthur Tam, a former film and LGBT editor at Time Out Hong Kong, explains how entertainers in China have historically been ostracized: “Entertainers were historically treated differently in China. They had social fluidity due to their access to different social classes because of what they do, but at the same time, they’re not fully accepted; seen either as exotic or subordinate.” Therefore, Xing’s identity is accepted on stage, but not offstage. Accordingly, the icon makes controversial anti-feminist statements to go in line with heteronormative China. Xing has not only admitted that she is very traditional but “she believed in the idea that men are superior to women” (Beibei, 2017). The icon was quoted saying: “If you’re a woman, you must not try to compete with men,” and “This viewpoint has existed for so many years. It has its own logic and values and has inherently influenced who I am, so why should I reject it? … One of the values I uphold is that women should not be too outspoken.” Therefore, whereas the stage provides transgender people with a free space in conservative nations, it is harmful to the overall trans inclusion in society as the identity is not allowed beyond it. The stage and the screen put a safe distance between the trans performers and the public, which does not affirm their existence elsewhere.
While I would restrain myself from pointing out enhanced visibility of trans in performance and stage arts as the sole reason behind insufficient acceptance of trans individuals in other sociocultural aspects of life, I argue that it does not contribute positively to social inclusion. Containing trans to a performance causes most individuals to know trans people through media and their staged performances. The illusion created by performance reduces the individual to what is performed, disregarding any concealed aspect, causing trans people to occupy a specific space in the people’s common sense knowledge. National Center for Transgender Equality reports 16 percent of trans people reported losing a job due to their gender identity in the United States (Lopez, 2020). I argue that trans people face discrimination in the workplace because of the mismatch between what is presented as trans through performances and what further dimensions an actual person has. These circumstances encourage trans people outside the entertainment industry to leaning towards jobs that require less human contact and allow working more independently. For instance, many trans people choose driving trucks for a living, “where they can escape from work cultures of harassment and dismissal, if only by choosing isolation” (Balay, 2017). Nevertheless, I tend to believe that neither staged performance or isolation can have a tangible positive impact on trans inclusion in the social life in the long run, which would result in less hate violence against the community due to lessened othering.
This paper argues that everyday performativity and staged performance are deeply embedded in trans lives, which further contributes to their exclusion from sociocultural and political spheres. In contrast to them leaning towards more isolated job options, I would suggest promoting trans workers in every field so that gender-conforming people get to know trans individuals personally in their daily lives. Such inclusion would scale down the dependency on media representation, as well. A progressive system is recently implemented in Argentina through a decree published in the Official Gazette, which established a quota system in September to reserve at least 1 percent of public sector jobs for trans workers. Similarly, the information technology industry is pointed out by US tech entrepreneur and academic Kortney Ziegler as being “focused on innovation and the next big thing, [so that] there’s a lot of room for people of all identities” (Lopez, 2020). Therefore, through progressive attempts to allow trans to cross heteronormative boundaries drawn for the community, I argue that trans people will be encouraged more to be included in various aspects of cis people’s everyday lives. Rejection of containing trans to a performance will make people be compelled to comprehend the community more as complex individuals, instead of reducing them to one-dimensional staged performances.
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