With the news of Lilly Wachowski (formerly Andy Wachowski) coming out as a transgendered woman, GLADD published a “Tip Sheet” for discussing transgender terminology covering Lilly Wachowski. A good deal of that deals with using the proper pronouns, using “transgender” as an adjective instead of a noun, etc. The last commandment to journalists they provide is “DON’T indulge in superficial critiques of a transgender person’s femininity or masculinity. Commenting on how well a transgender person conforms to conventional standards of femininity or masculinity is reductive and insulting.” (GLADD, 2016). I completely support GLADD, but I think we are going to butt heads on that bullet point since we’ve gone beyond empiricism and into the field of subjectivity. “Superficial” is a broad term, determined in the eye of the beholder, and opinion, while having the capacity to be insulting, should never be taboo.
I don’t do “trigger warnings.” That’s the best you’re getting.
News about the Wachowskis
News broke yesterday that filmmaker Andy Wachowski is a transgender woman and is now Lilly Wachowski. Lilly’s statement, published in “Windy City Times,” a Chicago area LGBT newspaper, came out having transitioned after pressure from tabloid publishers who were threatening to publish the story. In her statement, she discusses current events affecting the trans community, including statistics about transgender murder rates and her perception of how society treats transgender individuals. Additionally, Lilly discusses a lot of queer and gender theory, stating, “We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.” She quotes Jose Munoz, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world,” and elucidates with her statement of: “I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be a very example of the potentiality of another world”
The latter Wachowski sibling , Lana, announced her transition in 2012 during a promotional spot for their 2012 film Cloud Atlas. Great for them that they can be so open in their identity and bravely face any persecution for that decision. Being transgendered is not an easy thing in a society that’s still largely struggling to grasp the concept of just what transgendered is. However, I have my doubts that The Wachowskis truly feel that their transition was for them alone. I’m NOT saying they’re lying, they may indeed have a feeling of femininity and a massive sympathy for the trans community. There is, however, a huge difference between “transgender” and “transition.” While I don’t doubt their feelings on being transgendered, I do doubt the authenticity and motives of their transition. A statement, I know, which may sound hateful and will take a bit of explanation.
Wachowskis, Celebrity and Transgender
It’s important first to define what “transgender” and “gender identity” mean. According to the American Psychological Association, transgender is “an umbrella form for person’s whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else” (APA, 2011). GLADD uses the same definition, though phrased differently for a more relatable understanding (GLADD, 2016).
According to research, the suicide rate among transgender youth is 41% and includes such factors as “depression, a history of substance abuse treatment, a history of forced sex, gender-based discrimination, and gender-based victimization” Research done through child welfare agencies over 60 years came to the conclusion that “The desire to modify the body to conform to one’s gender identity cannot be adequately explained by someone who is transgender nor can it be fully understood by someone who is not” (Mallon & DeCrescenzo, 2016). There is no known cause behind what causes a crisis in gender identity, nor what compels such people to physically transition.
It is not difficult to find articles which accurately and appropriately describe the challenges transyouth face as a result of discrimination. Those struggles are very real and there is plenty of social activism to create more acceptance for transgender individuals – some of it positive, but some of it rather extreme and unnecessary. Yes, there certainly is a need for more open-mindedness in how our society treats transgender people, but that need is not serviced by people like Caitlyn Jenner or The Wachowskis – they do not experience or represent the struggles of the common transgender person. A 2016 Celebrity Studies article from the University of Wellington, New Zealand, proposes a thought that the public transitioning of Caitlyn Jenner and other celebrities is, from the attention they receive, a form of “earned” celebrity status. There is a precise attention to image and, according to that article, serves only Caityln Jenner “by framing her transition as both a validation of her right to fame and an escape from the emasculating force of Kardashian-style celebrity.”
There is a reason that Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vanity Fair – it’s People magazine for rich people. There is a reason that Joe Biden and Lady Gaga’s anti-rape statement at the Academy Awards received standing ovation, because it was an issue none of the wealthy in the audience could truly relate to. Celebrities are not subjected to same kind of discrimination and lack of support that the everyday person is. They may quote statistics about victims, they may have an “idea,” but they’ve never really experienced that struggle. Celebrities already have a strong support network – so their decision to transition is met with very little consequence. The rate of suicide for transgender individuals of 41% includes no celebrities. Celebrities and their experience is so separate from the average person, that their reasons for transitioning are vastly different. The experience of transgender celebrities, is something I’m going to call “Fashionable Trans,” and represents an idea of extreme trans-ally behavior.
When Lana Wachowski came out in 2012, there was a huge amount of support for her. According to an interview with the Los Angeles times, “they had been praising the studio’s compassion during Lana’s transition” . Lana talks about the support received from fans, family, and the studio. The same happened when Caitlyn Jenner came out in the news-making Vanity Fair article. This is a level of support that’s exclusive to celebrities as countless other transgender individuals suffer discrimination, harassment and violence on a daily basis.
You may have heard the phrase before that “gender is a social construct,” which is true. Sex and gender are two different things – sex refers to the genitalia one is born with, while gender refers to either identifying as male or female, whether it matches their sex or not. The reason it is a social construct is because ideas of gender are given to us from birth, boys are treated differently than girls, and the values and concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” are what we know as gender. Gender is a spectrum, with masculinity on one end, femininity on the other, and every single human being falling somewhere between those two points. Transitioning is gender expression; a person alters their physical form to align with where they identify on that spectrum of gender. This is not too dissimilar from the way a person gets tattoos, piercings, or wears certain clothes as a reflection of their identity. Such things as tattoos were once stigmatized, but their acceptance is growing. Gender expression through transition is still a behavior many people are unwilling to accept – but that will perhaps change over time.
“Celebrity” largely brings with it an immunity from criticism, an immunity from consequence. There are very few things the average person is unwilling to forgive a celebrity for – like the sexual abuse of children, for instance. Society will typically allow deviance in celebrities but not so in the common individual, some drug abuse or assault charges don’t frequently affect the support people have for a celebrity. Rock Hudson was gay and people loved him, even in a time where most states still had active sodomy laws. Gender expression is not one of these “make or break,” topics. Society still considers it deviant and the common person will face challenges, but celebrity transcends that – they can transition without consequence. While a celebrity may want to show their support and be a role model, they can’t because they will never experience the challenges or come to have a full understanding of how difficult life will be for transgender people.
“Fashionable Trans,” then, is trans for a statement rather than a true form of gender expression. The average transgender person that transitions does so with full knowledge of the consequences, full knowledge of how society will react to them, and full knowledge about the lack of support they will receive; they identify so strongly with their gender that they have accepted the consequences – it is not an impulsive decision. “Fashionable Trans,” as exemplified by celebrities, comes with no consequence so one can transition at whim.
If you want the opposite of this, look no further than actress Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black. Ms. Cox grew up in Mobile Alabama, has long been an advocate of trans rights, and transitioned before achieving any kind of celebrity status. There was no press release to announce Laverne Cox’s transition.
So Why Doubt the Wachowskis?
Or any celebrity for that matter? Because of that lack of consequence. I’ll return to that closing sentence of Lilly Wachowski’s statement: “I will continue to be an optimist adding my shoulder to the Sisyphean struggle of progress and in my very being, be a very example of the potentiality of another world.” Ms. Wachowski envisions another, future world of non-binary gender, and has simply decided to become a part of it. The use of the word “Sisyphean” is aptly chosen as it references a futile and never-ending struggle; there is no “potentiality” with a Sisyphean struggle as it is fated to always be the same thing until the end of time. The decision to transition because of the potential of a new (and not possible) world, does not reflect the idea of transgender individuals today. While transgender people hope for a new world, and realize that there is a potential for acceptance, they transition with the knowledge of how the world currently is. Simply put, people do not transition to bring awareness or create potential for acceptance – real people transition because of true feelings of gender identity.
I have no doubt that the Wachowskis identify as being feminine, I do not doubt their gender identity. What I DO doubt is the conviction of their transition, as they do not face the same consequences as average people. Lily Wachowski, then, falls under this banner of “Fashionable Trans,” since the expression of gender identity comes as simply as wearing a t-shirt – that choice of gender expression is simply not as obtainable by the common person, the same way that Prada or Armani is outside the means of everyday people. Donating to the homeless is good, socially-conscious publicity, and so, apparently, is being trans.