Look at us: Seeing trans in times of misidentification

This Rapid Blog comes to us from Carlos Garay Negrón, a Trans Latinx activist, community advocate, musician, and queer/trans theorist. Their theory work is centered around intersectional analyses of trans and queer experience through the media lens, and their praxis is focused on empowering marginalized communities to enact transformative change. This essay is their own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
This Rapid Blog comes to us from Carlos Garay Negrón, a Trans Latinx activist, community advocate, musician, and queer/trans theorist. Their theory work is centered around intersectional analyses of trans and queer experience through the media lens, and their praxis is focused on empowering marginalized communities to enact transformative change.
Meeting the parents when you’re trans is always a stressful proposition.

I remember sitting on my partner’s parents’ couch, tapping my feet on the floor as their huge golden retriever insisted on slobbering all over me, thinking to myself: “Will they misgender me? Will they misgender him? How long until the questions start coming in?” The questions are the worst part: invasive and prodding interrogations into what we are, especially surrounding our bodies.

My partner and I are both trans, both used to the discomfort of being analyzed or spread out for investigation by people; parents, who have known us since before they knew we were trans, can often inadvertently engage in that line of questioning.

Furthermore, these questions coming from people who care for us can make it that much more hurtful.

But the questions didn’t come. Aside from some pronoun mistakes, the experience was nice and made me feel comfortable having finally met “the ‘rents.” On our way back to his apartment, my partner received a text from his mom: “You two are adorable. You would make beautiful babies.”

Those last five words were enough to sour the evening.

Remarks like “you would make beautiful babies” speak to the importance visibility has for trans folx. Transphobic statements show us visibility isn’t just the opposite of invisibility, but also of misidentification; being seen in ways we don’t want to be seen. In a media where trans images are either stereotypically transphobic roles by cisgender actors or conventionally attractive—and overwhelmingly white—passing bodies, misidentification is just as harmful as not being seen at all.

Consider the statement my partner’s mother made: to say we’d make “beautiful babies” makes assumptions about our bodily relations, especially around and about our genitalia; it makes implications about our sexual dynamics and behaviors, it analyzes our bodies and selves in ways which would be invasive and discomforting for any person, trans or not. It implies we want to make children, it implies my partner’s parents know what our true and essential genital roles are. Ultimately, it makes us assimilated in her mind to a cisgender, straight couple.

To be visible in a hegemonic society—as ours is—implies that the power lies in the hands of the observer. Feminist thought and politics have often focused on the ways which hegemonic gazes (specifically, the male gaze) often are allowed the privilege to determine visibility.

However, true visibility allows the observed this power over determining what is being seen. People should be allowed to self-identify and self-determine, and to be respected and valued and seen accordingly.

Oftentimes, the power over visibility is not extended to trans bodies; much of the language around transness reveals the assumption that cisgender people know what trans people truly are; impostors, interlopers, intruders. People in costume. Perverts. Unreal. It is in the hands of cisgender onlookers to determine what the trans body is; medics, police corps, newspapers, airport security, comedians, even other members of the LGBT community find themselves empowered, institutionally at times, to determine what we are.

Misidentification, thus, often leads to invisibility. We fear being seen. We know what has happened to scores of black trans women already. They were seen, and then they were unmade and forgotten. We fear, and so we are led to hide, because at least when we are invisible, we can live in the shadows. But from the shadows, it is easier still to forget us, to cast us aside and deny us the right to thrive. Why would you need to thrive when you don’t exist?

To truly celebrate, advocate, and promote visibility—not just one day of the year, but continually—we must take an approach which puts the power of visibility upon trans bodies themselves. A body which is not misidentified is a body less likely to desire invisibility. To know we are seen the way we want to be seen allows us to fear no more.

How do we achieve this, both as trans fellows and as cis allies? The answer is simple: look at us as we want to be seen. But in case you need more:

Don’t point out that a trans girl is wearing “male” clothing, or that her makeup isn’t up to your standards, or that her name is Jonathan, and that to you those things do not make a woman, because you don’t make her a woman; she does. That goes for all of us.

Don’t tell your non-binary or genderfluid or agender or genderqueer friends that there are only two genders; we’ve heard it all before and your logic is both outdated and entirely false. We’re never too young, or too old, or too disabled or too non-white to determine our genders. Do not invalidate us.

Our bodies are as male or as female or as any other category as we want them to be, whether they’re newly-minted or there since birth. And asking about our bodies unless prompted to is never okay. If we choose our body parts to be invisible, you don’t see them either. Your assumptions and curiosity misidentify us and hurt us in the process.

Teach yourself about concepts you don’t understand. If you don’t understand misgendering, agender, the male gaze, or even cis or trans, those concepts are a quick Google search away. It is not trans people’s responsibility to educate you or each other, especially when resources are so readily available.

Validate and reinforce us when the world makes us weak. Remind us that we exist when we choose to be invisible. And respect our intentional invisibility; when we choose to be in the shadows, forcing us into the light can be a death sentence. Protect us at all costs. Always ask and never assume.

And to our parents and family (and everyone else, really): please, never tell us we’d make beautiful babies. We are the beautiful babies.

Photos courtesy of Carlos Garay Negrón.
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