It was a cell phone commercial showing a young man marrying a beautiful woman only to discover, horror of horrors, that she is a transgender woman. He is crushed. I don’t remember the point of that commercial, but it might have been something about their competitor’s deceptive fees.
There are many mean jokes that are often told about trans women. They are told in books and movies and on television. It’s the narrative that “The Crying Game” made famous, that delivers the punch line at the end of “Ace Ventura.” It’s the joke told on Jerry Springer and with only slight modification on “The Simpsons” and in the “Game of Thrones” books. Everywhere you go, it’s an “edgy” way to get a laugh.
It says that we’re deceptive, trying to trick straight men. It’s a joke that snickers at the looks of trans women, that says that the only reason a “regular” person would love or be attracted to us is if they didn’t know the truth and were lied to.
That sort of narrative is often used as defense for violence against trans women as happened in the trial of Gwen Araujo’s murders in 2008.
That isn’t the only harmful narrative about trans people, especially trans women. Trans women are regularly shown as sex workers in crime dramas and comedies. We are used as a metaphor for the rot and decay of civilization. An early episode of Dave Chappell’s show makes a joke of the harmful effects of cheap beer by showing it causing otherwise reasonable men to visit trans women sex workers as Chappell looks on screaming in terror.
It’s a story that is told over and over again that says that trans women are loathsome, monstrous, immoral, that we don’t deserve to be in relationship with other human beings or even really have a place in the world.
Watching this with my high school friends, I was the first to laugh, and the probably loudest. I glanced around looking for an expression of recognition on any of my friend’s faces, waiting for one of them to put it together that I was trans, that I was just waiting for my chance to transition and live as the person I was. I prayed that they wouldn’t see who I was, think of me as a joke or a freak.
The thing is though, the worst part isn’t the fear that people you care about will think you’re a monster. The worst part is the fear that all these jokes are right, that you somehow are this gruesome, laughable thing.
Return to Chapel Hill
I started transitioning in earnest when I returned to Chapel Hill after serving in Iraq. I came out of the military in a great rush to come out, to transition, to move on with my life.
I was shocked to find that even after all I had been through, coming out even to people who weren’t incredibly important to me was extremely stressful. I choked on my words, sometimes I almost apologized for being trans.
It was bizarre. I felt poisoned by those old stories.
The solution came through a mentor at my parish. She gave me the contact information for an open group that met once every other week. These were local North Carolina trans folks who would come together to talk about their lives. It was halfway between a support group and a social club.
I’ll admit, the first time I visited I was completely tongue tied. Here were trans men and trans women and nonbinary folks and folks still figuring it out, people of many ages and stages of transition coming together to drink coffee and talk. I had no idea what to say or do the first time.
They were just such powerfully regular people, students and insurance adjusters and artists and … well, people. Some folks talked about their romantic relationships, some about their jobs, some about stuff as esoteric as best practices for keeping rabbits as pets. They were smart and funny, occasionally angry or tired, but mainly just wonderful to be around.
When I first turned up, I think I was looking for people with all the answers about how to be trans, what it meant to be trans. What I found was better.
All those ugly narratives want to hold up a distorted caricature and tell you it’s a mirror. They want to make those dirty jokes your life, either being the butt of them or struggling against them.
The real answer, and what I found at trans talk, was that the trick is to find community, and to fight oppression without that oppression defining you, owning you. It’s an incredible blessing to exist. Why let anybody tell you how you have to do it?