Content Warning: Descriptions of anti-trans violence and transmisogyny
In the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, ball scene queen Pepper Labeija opines that realness is “to be able to blend…[to] not give away that you’re gay, that’s what’s real…to look as much as possible like your straight counterpart.” In this, realness is an imaginative take, in the safe space of the ball, on passing, either in terms of one’s gender or sexuality. Contestants can masquerade, lampoon, subvert, enact, or actualize those identities denied to them in the outside world. What Paris is Burning also illuminates, however, are the violent repercussions when one’s performative identity is read against their intention, when they don’t pass. The most heinous example in the documentary being the murder of trans performer Venus Xtravaganza before the film was completed. In this, passing is quite literally embodied survival praxis.
In 2017, twenty-seven years after the release of Paris is Burning, more transgender people than ever before have been murdered, the overwhelming majority of which are trans poc. On September 1, after speaking out against white privilege, trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was fired by cosmetics company L’Oreal. The violences one must confront, adapt to, and resist as a transperson are multifaceted and ever-changing. As Micha Cárdenas has argued, a “modulation of visibility…is the specialty of trans women of color who face multiple forms of violence on a daily basis, shifting their body and appearance as necessary for survival, at one moment passing invisibly as a cisgender woman and at another standing on stage speaking out against racist, transphobic violence.” To Cárdenas it is not so much a static visibility or invisibility that characterizes the trans woc experience, but a constantly mutating technical relation to visibility, a forced hyperawareness of one’s body at all times.
To this, there is a scene in the 2015 film Tangerine where Razmik, a taxi driver, cruises a specific street in LA searching for a sex worker to proposition. He finds a woman who gets into his car and directs him to a more private spot where they can complete their transaction. She begins to go down on him before he insists that he would like the opposite, to perform oral sex on her. When he begins to do so, however, he is outraged, repeating “what the fuck is this, where is it?” Razmik angrily takes his money back and kicks her out of his cab, telling her not to walk that street anymore, as it isn’t for her. Razmik is appalled that he has been duped, that the sex worker is in fact not trans, but a cisgender woman.
Thus, Tangerine seemingly inverts the “trap” trope that has long characterized many on-screen representations of trans women. Typically, a beautiful, feminine, presence is shockingly exposed as “a man,” played for either comedic or horrific effect (or more likely both) through the revelation (or allusion to) a penis. Yet Razmik is disgusted precisely because this particular woman has no penis. This is a tension that carries throughout the entire film, especially as in the main plotline Sin-Dee, a trans sex worker who has just gotten out of jail, spends the entire movie attempting to chase down the cis woman her pimp boyfriend has cheated on her with. Tangerine, thus, exposes both the inadequacies many trans women are meant to feel when compared to cis women, while also lampooning our expectations of what attributes we are meant to find desirable.
Razmik importantly, however, embodies a separate kind of problematic relation to transness, the chaser. The chaser fetishizes transwomen. The chaser makes transwomen into an object to be bought and sold. The chaser demands that transwomen be made visible as such for his own viewing pleasure. Like the TERF or the fundamentalist transphobe, the chaser reduces transwomen to a fictive bioessentialist reading. The chaser also makes readily apparent the kinds of media fixation transwomen are made subject to: as spectacle, as perversity, as commodity and, as problematic relation to authenticity. Thus, the chaser insists on a definition of the parameters of trans identity as solely defined through their fixations, their pleasures, their desires.
We can see a digital corollary on 4Chan and Reddit forums, which have “trap” communities where trans women post images of themselves, nude or otherwise, that are deemed convincing enough to pass for cisgender women. As the sidebar of r/traps reads, “/r/traps is for the posting of photos and video of young and beautiful trans girls and individuals who would love to trap! Content can be from/of anyone as long as they’re passable [and] feminine.” Passing in these spaces becomes a mechanism to reify the normative boundaries of the gender binary. Whereas Paris is Burning posits realness as a subversive revelation of the performative foundations of identity, providing a space of free expression for marginalized peoples, the chaser “realness” of Razmik, 4Chan, and Reddit maintains a misogynistic gaze fundamental to commodifying women’s bodies.
All of this is not to say that the free expression of gender identity through digital nude shares is always reducible to misogyny. Mastodon instances, discord servers, and group texts patently prove otherwise. The very language of the “trap,” however, insinuates a demonizing moral valuation of transwomen, one that blames them for the inordinate violence they face. Let’s burn it down.
Trans people are not reducible to the violence committed against them, but nevertheless it is important that their names be remembered. This is by no means a definitive list of those murdered in 2017.
Candace Towns was reported missing on October 29 and her body was found on October 31 in Macon, GA. She was 30 years old.
Stephanie Montez was found on October 21 in Robstown, Texas, but, due to misgendering by police and the media she was not identified as a transgender woman until October 27. She was 47 years old.
- Ally Lee Steinfeld was reported missing on September 1 and her remains were found on September 21 in Cabool, Missouri. She was 17 years old.
- Scout Schultz was killed by police on September 16. They were 21 years old.
- Derricka Banner was killed on September 12 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was 26 years old.
- Kashmire Redd was killed on September 4 in Gates, New York. He was 28 years old.
- Kiwi Herring was killed on August 22 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was 30 years old.
- Gwynevere River Song was killed on August 12 in Waxahachie, Texas. Gwynevere was 26 years old.
- TeeTee Dangerfield was killed on July 31 in Atlanta, Georgia. She was 32 years old.
- Ebony Morgan was killed on July 2 in Lynchburg, Virgina. She was 28 years old.
- Ava Le’Ray Barrin was killed on June 25 in Athens, Georgia. She was 17 years old.
- Josie Berrios (also known as Kendra Adams and Kimbella Rosé) was killed on June 13 in Ithaca, New York. She was 28 years old.
- Kenne McFadden was found on April 9 in San Antonio, Texas, but due to misgendering by police and the media she was not identified as a transgender woman until June 6. She was 27 years old.
- Sherrell Faulkner was attacked on November 30, 2016 and died on May 16, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was 46 years old.
- Brenda Bostick was attacked on April 25 and died on May 4 in New York City. She was 59 years old. (There have been conflicting reports about the name this person used and their gender. It now seems clear that this person was assigned male at birth and lived at least part of her life as Brenda. Therefore we refer to her as Brenda and use female pronouns out of respect for that identity.)
- Chay Reed killed on April 21 in Miami, Florida. She was 28 years old.
- Alphonza Watson killed on March 22 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 38 years old.
- Jaquarrius Holland killed on February 19 in Monroe, Louisiana (identified as trans on February 28). She was 18 years old.
- Ciara McElveen killed on February 27 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 21 years old.
- Chyna Gibson killed on February 25 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 31 years old.
- Keke Collier killed on February 21 in Englewood, Chicago. She was 24 years old.
- JoJo Striker killed on February 8 in Toledo, Ohio. She was 23 years old.
- Mesha Caldwell killed on January 4 in Canton, Mississippi. She was 41 years old.
- Sean Hake was also killed by police on January 6. He was 23 years old.
- Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow killed on January 1 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She was 28 years old.
Stephen McNulty is an instructor at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Their work advocates for ethics and ontology beyond the human through analyses of media, science, and culture. They can be found on Twitter @stevie_trix