Commentary LGBTQ

It’s Time to Retire the Media’s Sad Transgender Trope

Katelyn Burns

Transgender writers shouldn’t have to perform sadness or pain just to get published.

Beyond all else, cisgender people have a compulsive need to imagine that transgender people are miserable. In telling transition stories, it’s often the pain that is centered—the pain of loss, of discrimination, or even physical pain. Those stories do nothing for trans people and exist merely to fulfill the voyeuristic need of curious cis people. Trans storytellers who are willing to dig deepest into their own trauma are thus too often elevated to the biggest media platforms.

In a New York Times op-ed published Saturday, trans writer Andrea Long Chu became the latest to take advantage of that dynamic, describing how she has become more depressed, dysphoric, and suicidal after starting hormones and claiming that her forthcoming bottom surgery won’t make her happy. Chu skillfully exposed her very raw pain on the country’s largest print platform, presenting a very important counter-narrative to the idea that trans people are universally happy after transitioning. The thesis of her piece is that it shouldn’t matter whether transitioning makes us happy or not, and fundamentally, she has a point.

But whatever she hoped for cis readers to take away from her piece, it’s overshadowed by her inaccurate and offensive claim that a post-op vagina is a “wound,” and her insistence that trans people aren’t happy after transitioning. “There are no good outcomes in transition,” she wrote, projecting her own transition difficulties onto everyone else.

The act of inverting a penis into a vagina is so extreme and offensive to society that misery is the only prerequisite justifying the procedure. “People transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong,” Chu wrote, before launching into a beautiful monologue detailing her own painful experience. But without qualifying that her statement is merely her own, she perhaps unintentionally asserts her own experience as universal. In truth, studies have shown that trans people are generally happier after transitioning and that most of their difficulties in life come from discrimination and social rejection.

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Many trans people have responded to her op-ed by explaining that they are happy with their transitions, but Chu asserted later on social media that trans people lie about how happy we are after. As Chu noted, there is a basis for her assertion because trans people are forced to follow a script to satisfy the gatekeeping demands of cis therapists and doctors who determine who gets which treatment. The issue again is that this merely creates more fodder for the cis people who ultimately have the power to decide who gets to transition or not.

If none of us are happier as a result of transitioning, and anyone who claims happiness is a liar, how is transitioning an ethical treatment option for gender dysphoria? Why should we allow these tortured souls to serve in the military or even access these “mutilating” surgeries, one might ask. Chu is playing a dangerous game with transition care access currently threatened by the Trump administration.

The op-ed comes the same week that the Trump administration appealed its trans military ban directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. The administration is falsely suggesting that transitioning causes negative mental health outcomes, and as a result adversely affects military readiness. A public comment period just ended in which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs asked whether it was ethical to provide transition care, citing several outdated studies that said treatment is ineffective. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is considering a rollback of nondiscrimination protections for transgender health care, making the same argument.

Chu’s words, thanks to the large platform of the Times, will have an effect on access to transition care, but not for trans women like herself. She’ll get her vagina she won’t be happy with while the fate of care for trans veterans or incarcerated trans women is in the hands of those who believe transition is as harmful as Chu describes. Perhaps a white woman from New York City is not the right person to center in these discussions.

Transitions that end up with unhappy trans people threaten the rather naive belief that our nation’s founding “in the pursuit of happiness” guarantees that our lives are linear pursuits of happiness and that any decision that fails to achieve that is a failure. Chu correctly pointed out that the risk of poor outcomes shouldn’t threaten access to transition, but her own unhappiness is highly personal and linked to who she is. She has every right to express it, but her pain is not inherently linked to a general trans identity.

My own trans life has had its share of pain. My transition led to the end of my previously happy decade-long marriage. That divorce and the subsequent demands on my career it created have cost me hours of time with my children and put hundreds of miles between us. I’ve also been raped. Nevertheless, I’m still happy with my transition and I was happy before it as well. But is there room for joy and dignity in media transition stories? Transition needn’t require a long sad slog, before or after, and trans pain is our own.

Like Chu, I have my own bottom surgery in less than a month, and along with that are a lot of difficult and conflicting feelings to unpack. But why should I, as others have chosen, have to flay my own soul and parade my pain around in front of cis readers to be taken seriously by the Times?

Given that, with some exceptions, trans people are rarely given a platform by the paper of record, it’s fair to question why it was this particular take that was published in this political moment with so much at stake.

There’s long been criticism of the way mainstream publishing mines the personal trauma of women for clicks. Trauma stories centered around sexual assault are bought for just a couple hundred dollars and are widely considered exploitative. Editors harvest that pain for book sales and clicks, churning them out because the business model works.

Tragedy porn abounds, and transition stories satisfy that demand like few others, especially if they feature a sad transsexual, glumly cutting off her bits and acknowledging how weird or freakish that sounds to everyone else. Ever the cool girl performing for her audience.

In attempting to complicate the trans narrative, Chu played to the audience of cis rubberneckers who love to gawk at medical transitions, and her own transition horrors overshadow whatever point she was trying to make about access to care. From “The Danish Girl,” a movie based on the story of Lili Elbe dying from a rejected womb transplant, to countless transition memoirs, cis people consume trans sadness to reinforce their own sense of superiority. Chu’s op-ed is just “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for the new millennium.

Happiness shouldn’t be the goal or purpose of transitioning, but equally, trans writers shouldn’t have to perform sadness or pain just to get published. It’s long past time for the media’s sad trans trope to die.

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