A Week of Trans Representation Problems in Cisiety

The last week has seen a yet another flare up in the long term struggle between trans and cis people over both the memory of people who, through every possible means at their disposal, expressed a preference for living outside of their assigned gender and how trans challenges to documentation of the same in present day life now are being received by The Cis. Meanwhile, the British Press in the last week quietly retracted and then redacted a 2 year long run of stories claiming that one of the country’s most hated child killers had decided he was going to become a woman. One of the things this week has rendered crystal clear is the ways that trans representation is something which is incredibly important to cis people, so long as it is in the interests of cissexist norms, fantasies and interests.

Image for post
Image for post
Dr James Barry posing with an (unnamed) servant and his dog Psyche

The Inspirational Gender Bender (or the conservative git)

The most strongly contested of these has been regarding ongoing attempts to directly contravene the expressed gender preferences of pioneering surgeon and military officer James Barry [cn: linked letter does this]. Of course trans people experience this as an attempt to both deny the incidence of people like us in history, and with concern that if it continues to be accepted practice to re-gender a man who left strict instructions not to inspect his body, who made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be remembered as a woman, then the same could happen to any of us.

Nevertheless, it appears the appeal of Barry as a feminist aspirational figure — as a ‘woman’ refusing ‘her’ lot in life and instead taking matters into ‘her’ own hands to do what ‘she’ damn well pleases, is so great that actually taking the simplest possible interpretations of Barry’s actions — that he died as he lived, as a man, because that was what he wanted is unacceptable.

Never mind that when he was revealed to be a man, the main response of contemporary women who’d had contact with him like Florence Nightingale was disgust and anger that he’d been so imperious, brutish and (it certainly seems to be implied) misogynistic towards women he worked with.

Others have pointed out that there is explanation in the fact that it was not possible for women to become doctors at the time, or that maybe he was attempting to avoid ending up being shamed after his death because of the prevailing mores of the time, but while this may seem appealing at this distance, it should be noted there is a very long history of women cross-dressing temporarily to join the military and then returning to life as women outside of war. For instance, far from being ashamed of it, Hannah Snell who fought all over the Empire in the British Army for 5 years in the 18th century, was wounded in service many times (and taking the risk of having a bullet removed from her groin by a maid instead of the regimental surgeon to avoid being uncovered), before eventually outing herself to fellow soldiers, and retiring from the army to go make money selling her story and running a pub called The Female Warrior to see out her retirement. The telling thing about many of these stories is that typically, where biographical details exist, the vast majority of the time women pretending to be men in order to go to war wouldn’t carry on the charade afterwards, whereas we have plenty of biographical information about James Barry, who journalled, and was several years retired when he died and his body was revealed.

The lesson: Far better to celebrate a hero of British Imperialism, a “brute” and a “blackguard” as a woman, in the name of feminism (some feminism!) than to recognise him for a trans person in history and not necessarily one we ought to celebrate at all.

Childbearing Dads

In this case veteran Anti-Trans campaigner Julie Bindel has written in the Telegraph warning that a trans man who has given birth and wishes to be recorded as the father of his child rather than the mother is somehow engaged in child cruelty. Again this issue of representation rears its head. According to Bindel if this man’s wish is granted, the child will have no idea how they were born.

There is of course absolutely no indication that the trans man plans to bring up the child unaware that he was a child bearing father. There’s no reason why we should deny the existance of (uncommon, but far from non-existent) child bearing trans men at all, in fact. Bindel is advancing a worldview where it’s necessary to overpower and erase the truth of this man with the full power of the governmental bureaucracy, purely because society prefers to pretend trans men don’t exist, or have babies and therefore it might become unclear in the documentation that he bore the child somehow. Where is this trans man in the story? Nowhere to be found, the standard acceptable level of representation for trans people in the media, which is a shame given that there’s doubtless many ethical hypotheticals which would be cleared up by talking to him.

The lesson? Trans people, and representing us honouring how we would like to be perceived is nothing but a source of problems for cis people (that never seem to be balanced by a concern for the problems their refusal poses to us).

The Mythical Trans Monster

Last but certainly not the least in terms of significance is the revelation that 2 years of stories in at least 5 newspapers about a confirmed monster actually being trans were actually just a fabrication. Not to mention the countless times this was invoked by anti-trans campaigners as proof of the dangers of allowing trans self-id legislation.

Coincidentally I’ve recently been reading Kate Manne’s study of the internal logic of misogyny, Down Girl. In Chapter 6, she makes a convincing analysis of the ways that himpathy and misogyny interact resulting in third parties regularly exonerating the perpetrator and indicting the victim with no concerns as the vast majority of aggressors pass in society for “normal people” — that we live in a society which is itself misogynist and violent and where men’s violence is frequently excused or explained away as normal by people who know the accused. To quote:

But the trouble is, virtually no one will seem like “that person” to people who know them, especially their family members and friends. (Recall Brock Turner’s friend’s conviction that he was not a rapist: “I know for a fact that Brock is not one of these people.”) “These people” are pictured as unlovable, invulnerable, and as having no past beyond their crimes, no life of their own to date, and no valuable future to miss out on. “That person” is not a socially situated, morally mul tifaceted, and sometimes talented human being. Rather, they are a caricature; or, again, a monster.

Far be it from me to suggest serial rapist and murderer Ian Huntley wasn’t already firmly in the monster camp for most people, but every aspect of the claim that he was claiming to be trans was confected for maximum impact.

  1. According to the story, adopted the mother’s name of one of the children he had killed.
  2. He was “demanding” women’s clothes and stockings (the Daily Star included a picture of an apparent half-dressed transvestite as an illustration of this aspect of the story for their viewers gratification)
  3. He was “planning” to change sex in order to be moved to the women’s prison estate (an incredibly unlikely prospect as one of the country’s most famous and hated prisoners).

This may seem to have less relation to the other two stories as Huntley was never trans. However the problem remains the same — one of trans narratives on significant platforms which are created by and for cis people, to suit their own purposes, against us. The fact that Huntley isn’t trans is immaterial. In fact, some journalists with a track record for anti-trans content immediately doubled down on the underlying point they were trying to make when spreading the Trans Huntley story: that, trans people are sex threat monsters, that our civil rights movement harbours paedophiles and rapists.

Looking back at the quote from Kate Manne above, it’s clear, at least to some extent why this sort of reasoning has become so important for anti-trans campaigners — there is an investment in the monstering of threats, and in assigning threat status to outsiders rather than recognising the endemic and normalised sexual abuse with is built into heterocentric society. Trans women are quite likely around 60–70 of the ~80,000 British prison estate (~4000 of whom are women). Some (quite dubious) claims suggest that as many as half of those trans women are in prison for sex offenses. To compare, the number of sex offense convictions in the UK in 2015 was well over 6000, and it is widely acknowledged that there are many more partner- or familial-abuse incidents which are either never reported or never prosecuted. Yet so called feminist organisations have been extensively canvassing against trans self-id around (among other things) fictional incidents such as the claims that Huntley was planning to transition to get access to more victims.

In this case, trans people serve as a bogeyman to deflect from the widespread and widely neglected issue of the rate at which women are subject to sexual abuse, both in institutional settings and the wider world. Meanwhile, trans women in prison are uniquely vulnerable and treated mainly as a problem because of dying so frequently as to unsettle otherwise stable figures regarding deaths in prison. This latter issue is very well known to be related to the rate at which trans women suffer sexual abuse and harrassment inside, but in the representation battle, their suffering matters as little in cisiety as the honest representation of the vast majority of rapists.

is a trans woman, sometime activist and researcher of cis studies.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store