This post is part of our online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability.
The past decade ushered in a substantial rise in visibility of the lives and experiences of transgender people in America. From television shows like Orange is the New Black to movies like Tangerine, the visibility of transgender people continues to foster discussion about their lives and continuing experiences with discrimination. While, on its face, increased visibility facilitates discussions about the plight of transgender people, it also heavily relies on the narratives of a select group of transgender individuals. In the case of transgender women of color (TWOC), popular media representations over the past few years produced a collective representation of TWOC that does not accurately reflect their lived reality. Relying nearly exclusively on the narratives of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, the media continues to produce a narrative of TWOC that both obfuscates the cultural trauma many TWOC experience on a daily basis and concurrently produces a definition of transnormativity—a process shaped by adherence to respectability politics, heteronormative aesthetic standards (specifically grooming, beauty, and sartorial practices), and class privilege.
I acknowledge the significance of Mock’s and Cox’s regular presence in mass media in a nation where racist and transphobic violence are commonplace. Both women promote invaluable education regarding the plight of trans people in the US. However, the media uses Mock and Cox to not only represent black transwomen, but all transwomen of color. This is problematic because it assumes that black transgender women have similar experiences and does not allow space for nuanced representations of the particular experiences that Asian and Latina transwomen face on a daily basis. Thus, when considering these representations, it is critically important to investigate the experiences of TWOC besides Mock or Cox.
Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham asserts that a key aspect of respectability politics is its relationship to structural racial reform through strategic discourse that implored the individual to adopt certain behaviors and attitudes. Shaped by dominant hegemonic structures, the attitudes and behaviors adopted by black women in Higginbotham’s book perpetuate hegemonic values of white America and ultimately truncate the potential for radical structural reform despite the women’s intent. Mock and Cox deploy respectability politics in two primary ways: a reliance on heteronormative beauty standards and an emphasis on heterosexual womanhood. During a panel discussion, Mock refuses “to take on any man’s issues about my identity, about who I am. I am a woman. I happen to have been born a boy, and that’s just what it is.” Cox agrees. Their refusal establishes boundaries for conversation about their identities in a way that naturalizes their womanhood and creates space for them to also assert their heterosexuality. Mock and Cox remind viewers that “Men are attracted to women” and “Men are going to be attracted to me” in a manner that distances them from their identities as transwomen and provides them with a sexual orientation that falls outside of heterosexuality. While Mock and Cox’s appeal to heteronormative womanhood creates space for transwomen within dominant society, it simultaneously produces a definition of transnormativity in which transgender people are led to believe that they too can integrate into dominant society by situating their gender embodiment, grooming practices, physical appearance, sexual practices, and sexuality (heterosexual, preferably) alongside heteronormative standards and respectable behaviors.
Regarding heteronormative beauty standards, various media outlets highlight Mock’s physical beauty in a similar manner that enabled previous transwomen to achieve recognition and inculcation into dominant society. During a dialogue, bell hooks asked Cox whether she was “feeding into the patriarchal gaze with my blonde wigs?” Cox defended her aesthetic choices by asserting that her strategic aesthetic negotiation ultimately prevents her disappearance. Cox’s aesthetic choices also rely on markers of respectability (blonde hair, heels, dresses, etc.) that perpetuate sexual scripts, the coercive nature of sexual fields, the importance of erotic capital, and also make clear her role in the coproduction of a definition of transnormativity. While transnormativity itself can be understood as strategically negotiating various systems of oppression, it also marks as deviant or abnormal those who refuse to engage in transnormative politics. This move reproduces a kind of exclusionary politics in which transgender people are always already excluded. Further, transnormativity creates even greater difficulty for those who are gender nonconforming, genderqueer, bigender, or agender—and are often subsumed under the term “transgender.” Taken together, transnormativity does little to dismantle existing gender binaries and thus cannot sufficiently address the specific challenges that gender nonconforming, genderqueer, bigender, or agender people face on a daily basis.
Shifting our focus away from Mock and Cox, TS Madison is a black transwoman who engages differently with the media. She is an entrepreneur, sex worker, musician, and media personality who became a viral sensation through her unforgettable use of the now defunct social media platform Vine. TS Madison disrupts transnormative respectability by continuing to participate in sexual economies and failing to adopt dominant realness (aesthetic) standards among transgender women. In her pornographic films, Madison is not exclusively the receptive partner when on set with cisgender men, as is the case for women in many normative pornographic films; she often directs films and tells the other performer(s) how to pleasure her in addition to being the penetrator. She also enjoys receiving fellatio and ejaculating on the other performers’ faces. In doing so, Madison disrupts and transgresses dominant sexual scripts assigned to women—including TWOC—under heteronormativity. Further, scholars have argued about how the collusion between sex/gender and exploitative capitalist regimes produces a compulsion to present the transgender body and identity as economically productive in a manner that always disavows participation in sex work. Responding to the constant onslaught of disapproval of her engagement in sex work, Madison justifies her employment by pointing to how pornography enables her to access several basic human physiological and safety needs, which allows her to reject the moral and social stigma that sex work carries. This assertion places Madison in conversation with scholars who illuminate how sex work—through its flexibility and high income—allows black women to engage in self-care and secure resources to enable their material survival.
Madison’s relationship to realness—a theory of quotidian gender performance that aims to minimize or eliminate any sign of deviation from heteronormative gender/sexual norms—differs from Mock and Cox. In fact, she makes few strategic attempts to deemphasize or eliminate discontinuity between her gender identity and sex assigned at birth. Madison’s question in this video illustrates the extent to which she is not concerned with neatly aligning herself with gender norms and expectations associated with dominant heteronormative society. Although my analysis of realness positions Madison at its margins, I do not suggest that Madison herself disavows all heteronormative ideology. In fact, another video suggests that she is not only concerned with her physical appearance, but also articulates a standard by which she judges the physical appearance of other women. Madison’s emphasis on aesthetics complicates her relationship to realness because it does not appear to prioritize safety, as is the case for many TWOC who employ realness as a means through which they access safety and evade transphobic harassment, violence, and discrimination. Madison’s assertion highlights one characteristic that exposes her definition of realness, thus reminding us that she too—in her productive disruption of the representation of TWOC—is not exempt from perpetuating heteronormative ideology.
While this blog post meditates on the media representation of TWOC in the production of transnormativity, I cannot ignore the prevalence of the subhuman representation of TWOC. The cases of Gwen Araujo, Zella Ziona, Lakyra Dawson, and Meagan Taylor reflect how dominant society situates TWOC: inauthentic, monstrous, predatory, and disposable. Such a portrayal often justifies behaviors that kill TWOC, thus perpetuating the denial of their humanity through an appeal to fear and the symbolic “threat” to public safety that the existence/presence of TWOC elicits. These cases illustrate the harsh reality that many TWOC without access to mass media or careers as actresses, entertainers, writers, or media personalities must grapple with every day. For many, the combination of a lack of access to media and other material resources—chiefly reliable employment, healthcare, housing, and income—render them exceptionally vulnerable to being assaulted, raped, or murdered. Yet, transnormative representations of TWOC in mass media suggest that those within this community currently enjoy unprecedented levels of success, access, and inclusion in a manner that elides the often-bleak reality for TWOC. In closing, I return to the Combahee River Collective assertion published over 40 years ago: “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” Taking their assertion a step further, I hope that this post makes clear that everyone else can be free only when transgender women of color—especially black transgender women—are free.
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