As the fantastic 2020 Netflix documentary “Disclosure” highlights in harrowing detail, mass media depictions of trans people have long been rooted in monstrosity and the idea of failed womanhood (and manhood). From the unhinged mother-impersonating murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to ’90s talk shows (“My boyfriend is really a girl!”), gender diversity — common throughout human history — has largely been portrayed as either the sinister stuff of nightmares or shocking tabloid fodder.
Learning to tell a story that didn’t begin with “born in the wrong body” and to acknowledge the rich, long history of trans experience would become as much a part of my transition as the synthetic hormone that I hoped would broaden the muscles in my back and deepen the sound of my voice. I was confident that the otherworldly, threatening narrative ascribed to my body in the popular imagination wasn’t the truth. And I began to realize that my experience offered a view into the way gender operates on all bodies.
We are, all of us, in a constant stage of negotiation with the political and cultural forces attempting to shape us into simple, translatable packages. Trans people, by necessity, are more aware of these forces; that fluency is a strength, and it has afforded us an opportunity to question the stories about the “biology” of gender that are so foundational to American culture: Do we all really want to co-sign the notion that a uterus, and thus reproductive potential, is how we define womanhood? When a nonbinary person births a child, why must the birth certificate dictate that the person who gave birth is a “mother,” and what does being a “mother” even mean, exactly? What might it mean for all parents if “mother” and “father” were not such distinct categories in child-rearing? Who benefits from their continuing separation?
Despite the growing interest in our lives over the past decade, being the trans flag bearers of the “future of gender” usually made us the subjects, not the authors, of our narratives. As we became more visible, trans people showed up in glut of news stories with headlines such as “Transgender Love: When Husband Becomes Wife.” These tended to focus less on our experience as trans people and more on the supposed plights of our parents and partners. Our families were pitied for their bad fortune or celebrated for the enduring strength of their love, while the trans person in question was casually dehumanized. (“Don’t look at them as a monster,” suggested the wife of a trans woman in a network TV news story.) The widespread and anthropological interest in otherwise ordinary trans lives felt less about us and more about a broader gender anxiety — for better or, usually, for worse.
While much more recent three-dimensional portrayals of trans people are certainly a balm, it’s also crucial that we not underestimate the effects of those more disturbing takes. Today, only three in 10 Americans say they know a trans person, and experts and advocates twin the continuing epidemic of violence against trans people (especially Black trans women and other trans women of color) with those dehumanizing portrayals of our lives.
By 2015, a year after that Time “Transgender Tipping Point” cover and amid the urgent, intersectional calls for action against systemic racism championed by Black Lives Matter, I was working in another newsroom in New York, unpacking the continuing “masculinity crisis” from my vantage point as a still-new (and white) man. My beard had come in by then, and years of socialization as a cis-passing man after three decades as a queer feminist had left me with questions about the root relationship between masculinity and violence, and my own latent biases.
As the country roiled with pre-Trump rage, I had questions about the world I now inhabited, such as “Why won’t anyone touch me?” and “Am I sexist?” As a newcomer to this fraught landscape, I reckoned with my own masculinity in a very public experiment: I learned how to box, spending months grappling with other men in a Manhattan boxing gym, learning the rituals of the men’s locker room and asking sociologists and biologists and psychologists every “beginner’s mind” question I had about masculinity along the way. I became the first trans man to fight in Madison Square Garden. I wrote the story of my fight in 2016 and later wrote a book, “Amateur,” that expanded my examination of American masculinity.