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First person

The radical power of transgender stories

By September 12, 2020No Comments

Having got through the beginning of her gender transition and a new name on her passport, Soula Emmanuel was ready to start a new life in 2020. However, lockdown meant that she had to write about her experiences and consume the stories of other trans people rather than live them, highlighting the importance of transgender stories…


It wouldn’t have been like me to beat the drum of self-improvement while a global pandemic raged. Collective traumas were there to be survived, muddled through, duvet day by duvet day. I knew that. But somewhere along the way I became one of those people: the type who decides that even a few thousand excess deaths shouldn’t keep them from upskilling, pushing the envelope, blue-sky thinking, and all the rest of it.

I had an excuse: the interminable wait for life to get going was something of a default mode for me. I spent 2019 in the first primal gasps of a gender transition, and 2020 was supposed to be the year I truly began to live. My updated passport arrived in the middle of February, and by the end of March it was useless, the borders closed to all but the most urgent traffic. The familiar, unwelcome feeling of restraint, tempered by the knowledge that others had it worse, sometimes much worse.

April – remember April? – seemed to pass by almost unnoticed. The initial shock of restricted movement had worn off, and the rules became routine. I was in my element that month, and found myself writing again. Confinement forced words out of me, first in dribs and drabs, then a great pour of thought.

Reconnecting with myself in this way was like renewing the acquaintance of an old friend. Transition is often about the shock of the new, but it’s also about bending the old into radical yet strangely comfortable shapes, and that’s part of the joy of it – and so I spent three months writing a novel about a trans woman on the boundary between then and now. I wrote those experiences, you might say, in lieu of actually living them.

Trans lives are often lived on social media. That might seem an advantage in lockdown, but when you’re cheek by jowl with what feels like a million trolls, all of whom are just as bored and listless as you are, it begins to resemble a curse.

Writing, for me, was a form of conscious escapism: a way of leaving my box-room, cutting myself loose of my Wi-Fi connection and choosing instead to exist in a world where I had power and agency, where I could love and be loved, at a time when the only thing I was allowed to hug was my dog. It was a coping mechanism – my equivalent to a sourdough starter or sitting-room yoga. But it stood for something bigger, because even without the pandemic, the need for escape would still have been there.

One pitfall of trans people’s online existence – and I’m guilty of it myself – is a tendency to obsess over the exploits of public figures, the question of who is and is not an ally, to the exclusion of issues more resonant with our daily lives. Twitter has a way of turning discourse into a soap opera, with heroes and villains, but soap operas are not real life, and the forces that hold us back are more often obscure and faceless.

There was, I thought, an irony in the world’s most famous living fantasy author wading into The Debate over Transgender Issues on the side of an ersatz hyperrealism. You don’t have to believe in magic to recognise the ability of human beings to transcend the circumstances of their birth, to be more than the sum of their parts, to shrug off the labels that are used to dismiss them. I felt sorry for her, and sorry for us.

I felt quietly vindicated, too, because I started to recognise that what we lacked were stories of our own. To be trans online is to be constantly on the defensive, at the mercy of other people’s questions and assertions, your life experience weighted equally with someone else’s half hour of research. It is not a winnable game – indeed, it’s designed not to be.

It was a tonic, then, when the Netflix documentary Disclosure was released in June. The film, which chronicles transgender representation in film and television from Judith of Bethulia to Pose, is not a feel-good story – indeed, it is seriously upsetting in places. But it is a rare thing: an opportunity for trans people to discuss our place in the media landscape on our own terms, and to ridicule the tropes that have bedevilled it: the big reveals, the ironic twists, and tragedy after tragedy, all presented for the entertainment of a cis audience.

What is palpable in the documentary is the unmet desire of a generation of young trans people to see themselves depicted in media, which led them to latch onto what, in hindsight, were exploitative portrayals: doomed or mendacious characters and gawped-at talk-show guests. Trans people don’t get to choose our heroes – the spotlight isn’t big or comfortable enough to allow for that – so we seize on individual depictions, good, bad, or indifferent, with an enthusiasm that can only ever lead to a kind of hollow disappointment.

The same narratives that are used to reinforce popular prejudices around transness and gender non-conformity end up being internalised by trans viewers, even when the characters portrayed are not explicitly identified as trans. Cross-dressing has a very long history as the butt of humour, going right back to the early years of film – and, as Disclosure reveals, it overlapped with depictions of blackface almost from the start, a convergence of racial threat and humiliation through femininity. A recurring thread in more modern portrayals of transness is victim-blaming: that trans characters deserve retributive violence for “deceiving” cis characters – and, by extension, the audience.

All of this contributes, undoubtedly, to keeping people in the closet. It moulds a sense that for a closeted trans person, there is no good option: by disclosing ourselves we risk awakening the rage, fear and ridicule of others. We must, therefore, exist in hiding – ostensibly to avoid being victimised, but really so that we do not become perpetrators of society’s discomfort.

Progress has been made, but there is still a way to go. Firstly, to ensure that a wide range of stories are told: crafting empathy through art must mean going beyond portrayals of young, thin, white, cis-passing trans people. There must be space for trans men and non-binary people to speak on their own terms, too. And there is a need to ensure that the conversation is global. Neither film nor television – nor publishing – on this side of the Atlantic have done as well at fostering trans narratives as their North American counterparts.

Even where positive portrayals do exist, the narrowness of the spotlight can preclude proper storytelling – because representation is so scarce, trans characters end up carrying the burden of advocacy and inspiration, and are not able to exist as they are: flawed and human. In short, then, as the actor and writer Jen Richards says, “there is a one-word solution to almost all the problems in trans media: we just need more.”

In a world where most people still don’t know a transgender individual personally, the likelihood is that most trans stories will never be heard by a wider audience. They exist, then, purely for us, as a way to will a different world into existence: one in which we matter, one in which our material needs are met, one in which we are starring roles and not bit-parts.

Art is, by its nature, ambiguous, and visibility alone is not the harbinger of liberation. Trans people will have achieved equality when our lives as they are lived can be made into art: challenging and colourful and essentially human, posing more questions than it answers. We’ll get there, eventually.

As for me, all I’m left with is a graceless first draft, no literary agent, and the dubious promise of 2021: the year when my life will finally begin.


Photo of transgender flag by Lena Balk on Unsplash