Media Portrayals of Transition

People often believe that transition is just a simple surgery and then poof, magically over. This really is the fault of the media, who are unable to truly represent it in the short span of time they have for their stories. It’s so common to make it appear easy and magical that there’s even a trope about it (and I just ruined the rest of someone’s day just by linking that). It’s such a pervasive myth that when Natalie Reed did her two-post essay on 13 myths and misconceptions about trans women, it came up as part of number three. This ties back to the whole belief of “The Op” being what it’s all about. So much so that there are many (even many trans people) who believe that transition ends after. I’m of the mind that transition is far more than the physical, and never ends. I actually ran into this a bit back, while I was visiting my dad.

As you may remember, a few weeks back, I posted about someone getting flustered and referring to me as “whatever you are.” I posted almost that exact post (just slightly changed for the audience) to the forum for the group that was there that day. I’ve been asked in the past to educate people of that group on trans and queer issues on account of being the only gender variant person (as well as the only person of alternate sexuality) who attends meetings, making me the expert by default on the topics. About a week later, a crossdresser (who has never attended a meeting) started posting in response to it, basically saying “well, get a tougher skin” and saying that there should be no reason to get offended. And a few days later, while I was visiting my family, one of my roommates (not the one who runs the group) popped in on the conversation, using it to advertise her group for discussing stuff like that that causes conflicts, and making an offhanded comment directed at me about “people declaring themselves to be experts,” saying that the person who is an expert on this topic would be “the one who has finished their transition.”

Considering that a week before, this was an individual who didn’t even know the word transition and called it “transgendering,” you can imagine she doesn’t know much on the topic, so I wasn’t expecting much. But this is a perfect example of what people believe about transition based on what they see in the media. They see the completed product. They don’t see all the years (minimum of 4, sometimes more than 10) of hormone therapy to bring about redistribution of fat, breast or hair growth (depending on female or male, respectively), change in body odor (women tend to have a less musky smell to their sweat than men), and more. They completely miss the time it takes to change a voice (either brought on by hormones for the guys or training for the girls) and get used to it so that one can shout, whisper, project, etc. with the new voice. The series of other surgeries we may or may not go through (breast augmentation/reduction, facial feminization, trachea shave, etc.) are completely bypassed in favor of the one that focuses on our genitals. They miss the emotional turmoil we go through as our bodies go through a second puberty at an age when the kinds of mental changes and attempts to seek our identities are no longer acceptable in society. The joy we feel the first time we are referred to by our real genders or the heartwrenching we feel when someone misgenders us. And for many of us, those who are lucky enough to not be visibly in that limbo between the sexes where we’re obviously trans, we often have to come out many times if we choose to remain active in the trans community or as trans activists.

There is so much more to transition than the media can show, and because of it, most people never see or understand it. Much as we wish it was a simple, magical transformation, it is in reality a long, painful process akin to the metamorphosis a butterfly goes through. There’s an old story about a man who sees a butterfly trying to make its way out of a cocoon. As the man sits there watching, he sees the butterfly fight and struggle to make its way out. Deciding the help the butterfly and ease it from its pain, he takes out a pocket knife and cuts the cocoon to let the butterfly out. When he does so, he is startled to find that butterfly’s wings are limp and useless, dragging behind the bloated caterpillar body. The struggle to free it from the cocoon would have forced the water from its body into the wings, enabling them to fly.

Butterflies are a trans pride symbol, not just because of the change we go through from something ugly (in our eyes) to something beautiful (again in our eyes), but also because of the pain of the process. Even if the physical changes could be done quickly and miraculously, we would still have to relearn body language and mannerisms, as well as figure out the social aspects we missed out on. We would have to adjust to society in a whole other way than how we were raised. Even with the body changed, there is always more to learn, and it never ends. When I was in high school, a gay male friend complained that I walked like a girl because my hips move when I walk, but now that I live most of the time as a woman, I’m told that I often stand or walk “like a man” because I keep my feet in certain ways out of habit, not from being raised male, but from being raised in the martial arts (i.e. I tend to keep my feet in such a way that it’s hard to knock me off balance even when walking). 20-30 years from now, that may have changed, but society will have changed as well, and I will have something else to relearn of “being a woman,” or to forget of “being a man.” Transition never ends. It is the whole of our lives, always growing, always learning, always changing.

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7 responses to “Media Portrayals of Transition

  1. I love that image you used. Indeed, I repeat the exact same thing in my workshop: “contrary to popular opinion, a sex change is not where you put it in the oven and 20 minutes later out pops a cake!”

    Even worse than the TV tropes is Journalism, or rather, “Journalism” where real transpeople are interviews, but their stories are grossly misrepresented to imply there is a magical sex change that made/makes/will make them a man/woman.

  2. I disagree with this :”Transition never ends. It is the whole of our lives, always growing, always learning, always changing.”

    Life never ends. Hopefully, if a person is self-aware and open-minded they continue to learn and to grow throughout their lifetime. Declaring that a trans person’s transition never ends is not very open-minded. There is one phrase that should be standard boilerplate whenver making generalized statements about being trans and transitioning, YMMV (your mileage may vary). Although there are commonalities that exist they aren’t universal and frequently the differences between two trans narratives are more pronounced than the similarities. It is bad enough when trans people are stereotyped by cis people who don’t understand what it means to be trans. It is far worse to be stereotyped by another trans perosn who should know better.

    Some people believe they “become” their target gender as they transition, others vehemently oppose that point of view, Some beleive they will always be trans whereas others beleive once transitoning that they no longer are. And, some pope belive that their transitions last their entire lifetime and others believe there is an end point. FWIW, not all people who say their transition has reached a conclusion think the enpoint was surgical. For some surgery never happens and for others it is merely one step along the way and that the conclusion of their transition occurred either long before or long after they went under the knife.

    To end on a poisitive note I whole-heartedly agree that trans people are misrepresneted in the media. Transition is a far more complicated and far less uniform than the media or it’s consumers are willing contemplate.

    • “So much so that there are many (even many trans people) who believe that transition ends after. I’m of the mind that transition is far more than the physical, and never ends.”

      I think you missed this bit in the very first paragraph. I’m not stereotyping, and I even state that there are trans people who believe transition comes to an end at some point. I also state that I disagree with that view, discuss my view, and why. It’s the proper form of intellectual debate.

      As you said, life continues on, always changing. That is my view on transition. I have friends who are non-op, as soon as their legal name and gender marker changes go through, that’s as far as they’re going. But their bodies will still change with hormones, and they will still grow as people. To say they have finished transition is not something anyone can say, and they may feel complete in it, but they will still continue on. That is why I say transition is never truly over.

      There is no true way to be a “real man” or a “real woman,” no matter what society tells us. We decide for ourselves who we wish to be, what kinds of men or women (or both, or neither). Transition is, ultimately, about the self. You hold your opinions, I hold mine, and every trans person holds their own. It is to each of us to find our own paths. But this being my blog, the opinions stated here will be my own.

      • I saw what you wrote in the first parpagraph. I disagree with you. The biggest difference is that I don’t claim that my opinion is true for all trans people whether they agree with me or not. You do. You acknowledge that not everyone agrees with you but then state that they are wrong and you are right because their definition of transition does not match yours. To be fair, you didn’t use the word wrong but instead just dismissed their opinions as being misinformed by the media.

        As i said in my reply, we agree on several points. We both feel transtion stories are mishandled, horribly, by the media. We both beleive that people continue to change throughout their lives. Where we disagree is about the definition of transition. I believe you have every right to define transition as you see fit for yourself and I have the same right. In your post, and your reply to my post, you believe you have the right to define transtion for yourself, and for everyone else too. If I’m mischaracterizing your opinion, please tell me that this post is about how you define transition for yourself and that you believe everyone has the right to define their transition in their own way and that their opinions are also valid.

      • I stated both in the initial post and in my reply that others are free to have their own opinions of what transition is. I have also told you what my opinion is. The purpose of this post was not to discuss any such opinions, but instead to discuss how the media unfairly portrays transition and focuses heavily on the physical, especially gender confirmation surgery, to the exclusion of all else.

        The trans community has enough battles and conflicts as is. The last thing we need is infighting over a definition. You are free to feel however you like about transition, as am I and as is every other trans person out there. That doesn’t mean I agree with your opinion or that I will shift my opinion to match yours. But we can still be allies to the common cause. You said it yourself, there as many different ways to be trans as there are trans people. I don’t speak for the whole community, I speak from personal experience and towards issues that affect major portions of the community.

  3. Pingback: Queer Movies | Transendent Lives

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