Quantcast
Is Pop Culture Having a Trans Moment?

I spoke with Jennifer Finney Boylan about whether the rise of icons like Laverne Cox and the popularity of shows like <i>Transparent</i> prove that 2014 is a tipping point in the cultural acceptance of trans people.


Jennifer Finney Boylan

For years, popular culture has circled around the supposed uniqueness of the transsexual experience. While activism from pop stars and politicians have helped push for a gradual acceptance of gay culture, the last letter in the LGBT acronym has been left to linger on the cusp of cultural consciousness.

However, we've recently seen signs of a substantial shift in the way popular culture takes on the trans narrative. First we saw it in politics with  Chelsea Manning's coming​ out and new protections for trans people added to the Employment Discrimination Act. Then pop culture began to push for a change in conversation. We've seen evidence of this on television with Orange Is the New Black and Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars. We've also seen it during award-season with Dallas Buyers Club, which took Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor at the 86th Aca​demy Awards. And we've seen it thanks to the emergence of mainstream trans icons like Laverne Cox.

Even the nature of conversation saw some radical changes, thanks in large part to trans author and rights advocate Janet Mock, whose on​-air debate with Piers Morgan led to a viral video and, more importantly, an opportunity for a trans woman to tell her own story.

Still, change doesn't come without resistance. This year also saw newly sparked outrage from a surprising source, when all around love-thyself-preacher RuPaul came under fire for using a derogatory trans slur on his reality show. And that Oscar that Jared Leto nabbed for playing a trans figure without actually being one? For many, it was another example of trans people losing the opportunity to control their narrative.

To figure out if 2014 is really a tipping point in the story of trans people, I spoke with Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College, a member of the Board of Directors of GLAAD, and a publicly out trans woman. Boylan served as a consultant on Amazon's feverishly hyped original series, Transparent, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a family man coming to terms with his trans identity. The series is Amazon's attempt to break into the original streaming programming market and has already become a critical darling, but more than that, it represents another step forward to a new era of telling stories about trans people.   

VICE: Up until recently, it seemed like the closest thing the mainstream had to a popular depiction of a trans character was in 1992's The Crying Game.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: I didn't have much use for that movie. For one thing, I knew she was trans from the second she stepped onto the screen--and I wasn't even out yet. I just couldn't understand how you could be so blind to gender to not have a sense of who that character was. And then the other character's reaction to the reveal is that he is physically ill, sick to his stomach.

Did that reaction sort of trump the impact of even having that character in a mainstream film? 
Well, I guess that movie suggested that the trans experience was exotic and crazy, and I just get sick of that. Show me the movie where there is a transgender senator and nobody says anything about it. Show me the movie where there is a transgender father and it's not a whole thing. We'll know we've really reached a tipping point when transgender people can be a part of a film or novel, and the fact that they're trans is no more extraordinary than if they were Irish.

So someone like Jared Leto getting praise for playing a trans character is in the same vein?
It's always been a problem. Unless you're going for nontraditional casting, you would generally not have a white actor play a role designed for an African-American character. You would normally not cast a woman for a character who is a male. Yet when it comes to transgender roles, there is just this cavalier attitude where they'll just slap a wig on somebody and they're transgender, just like that. They do it again and again and again. And I think a case is finally being made that it's just not right to have people imitating us.

The Amazon series you served as consultant on, Transparent, falls under similar form, right? It stars Jeffrey Tambor.
Well, there are times when having a non-trans actor playing a trans part is appropriate. If you're talking about a character who is not on the transition track or who is in a very early point in their transition or emergence, then sure, I think it makes more sense.

What do you consider to have been the catalyst for this sudden cultural interest in the "true" trans experience? What prompted it?
A number of things have sort of happened at once. Orange Is the New Black is definitely part of it. Laverne Cox, to her tremendous credit, is a big part of it too. She is simply a very gifted actress. I think that her storyline [on the series] has given people a chance to see a trans person's experience in a dramatic fashion as opposed to a sensationalized talk-show format.

Do you think narrative storytelling is making more strides than any other format?
I think dramas are always going to be more helpful than interviews, because they show people rather than lecture them. There's been a few interesting and groundbreaking talk-show interviews. But if you're looking for the sea of change, it sort of begins with Laverne.

Was there widespread excitement from the community that a trans person was being depicted on a significantly hyped series, or was there still a lingering concern?
I think at first some people in the trans community thought that, although the character Laverne is playing is a wonderful character, it's still someone who is incarcerated for credit-card fraud. Initially there was concern of, Oh great, here's another example of a trans character on TV who's a criminal. But the surprise turned out to be how much grace and dignity that character has. It's kind of breathtaking, really. And she's been one of the guardian angels of the series.

The series shifts the framework away from daytime talk shows, but a lot of conversations have still been had on the talk-show circuit.
Right, well the other key moment I would consider also involves Laverne Cox, in which she was seen with Katie Couric and [trans supermodel] Carmen Carrera. And Couric was doing what people always do with transsexual women on television, which is to start to ask about their medical history, their private parts. And it was really interesting to see the two of them just say, No, we're not going there. And not just that they said no, but that we're not going to talk that way anymore.

That they weren't going to continue this very specific element of the narrative?
Yes, exactly. When I was on The Oprah Show, they insisted that they film me putting on my makeup. It's the biggest cliché in the world. I said, "You're not doing that," and they said that they had to do it because they insisted that they had to tell my story. They always insist on the before and after. I've been in feuds with lots and lots of people who I know were good-hearted but who refused to tell my story or my family's in the dignified way that we see ourselves.

Has this focus on, say, wanting to unveil the presumed "strangeness" of the trans experience made it so the larger discourse has stayed stagnant?
I've been on four Oprah shows, two Larry King Live episodes, on the Today show twice, and so many one-off talk shows and documentaries over the last dozen years. And I've never been able to get through one without wanting to break into tears. Ten years ago, at least for me, I found it was impossible to push back against that narrative [of cosmetic procedures and makeup].

What were some of the most difficult on-air interactions?
When I was on the Larry King Live, he turned to me and said, "You've lost something," and it took me some time to understand what he meant, and he was referring to my surgery. And I said, "No, I haven't lost something. I've gained something."

And this is why the push towards serialized, episodic storytelling is important, because it gives a sense of agency back?
A big roadblock for the trans community has had a lot to do with the fact that we're not telling our own stories, but it also is about sheer numbers. The challenge for trans people is that our numbers are so small in comparison to the rest of the population. We've always been seen as a minority, but now people are beginning to see in the trans experience the universal experience.

Would you say that the experience of living trans is being normalized for the public?
Well, it's not our job to normalize our lives for anyone. In reality, it's everybody else's job to catch up with us.

Is that what you see happening now? 
Well, I think we definitely saw that with Janet Mock having her showdown with Piers Morgan, in which the discourse was elevated above the usual.

The discourse being how Janet Mock was speaking to Morgan?
Right, I mean Mock talking fairly sophisticated gender theory, and I wouldn't call her radical, but she's certainly speaking in a very sophisticated way about the nuances of gender. And she's didn't put up with the traditional boloney.

What makes these events most notable is that the medium, and the way they were largely shared and digested, was through the internet. Is it easier to change to the narrative when the medium itself has yet to be fully formed?
It may be that these new forms are less conservative than traditional network television. And you're right, it's probably not an accident that all these things are taking place on something other than the three or four traditional networks. However, I am old-fashioned enough to say that there is the simple thing that the writing is better [on shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black.] To me, it goes to the writing and to the characters.

So it's the quality of these stories being told more than it is that way they're being seen?
The writing for Laverne's character on OITNB is very good. Janet Mock is a talented writer, and her book is very good. And that's what makes the difference. It's the written word, the stories themselves, and the language being used to tell these stories--that's what's changing. But also, not every trans person is going to be Janet Mock or Laverne or Carmen. Those are three drop-dead gorgeous women, and it's wonderful to have them signifying for us, but it is also true that there are plenty of trans women who struggle to pass in the world.

RuPaul came under fire for his use of a transphobic slur on his reality show, RuPaul's Drag Race. What does it mean when a show with as inclusive a tilt as that is still not able to participate in the conversation surrounding transphobia in a progressive manner? 
I won't speak for Ru or for Janet, but the great thing about drag is it's theatrical, performative exaggeration. It has a life-affirming comic energy. But it has almost nothing in common with the real lives of trans women, whose lives are not a party, whose dignity is not a cartoon. If people short on clues watch Drag Race and think it represents any reality of trans women's lives, that's a real problem.

Does the recent RuPaul's Drag Race trans slur perpetuate some sort of an already existent disconnect between the gay community and the trans community?  
There are always going to be fissures when you try to sustain an alliance of differently minded people. In the 1970s, there was a real question as to whether gay men and lesbians, for instance, shared a common goal. It is natural for allies to be at serious odds now and again. In time, the dream of a more just world always brings people together. 

So what will it take? Where does progress go from here? If 2014 is such banner years, what is next?
Trans people write memoirs every day of the week. And I can tell you that because they send them to me every week. There's a reason these stories are getting through, and it's because of the power of good storytelling. We all struggle to be known as the people we know ourselves to be. And there is no more effective an agent for cultural change than storytelling.

Follow Rod Bastanmehr  on T​w​itter.