3 October 2012
Public and private trans
Do you remember THAT Athena poster? You know the one of the hunky man holding a baby? Kind-a sepia effect? Here’s a reminder (and also for those who weren’t around in the eighties):
Now check this out
The similarities are spooky. But they also point to the social and cultural changes that can be located in such ‘low’ iconic imagery that abounds in everyday visual culture. The sensational image of the PREGNANT MAN on the front of the News of the World in 2008 seems already like a lifetime ago. Things have certainly changed - not only is the tabloid defunct - but Thomas Beattie now has four kids, and increasingly we hear of pregnant trans men. Together these images combine the best of what is most tacky and most sensational. They both epitomize the ‘New Man’ from within their own historical specificity; positioned side by side these images offer a rather poignant comment on the shifting states of masculinity and parenthood.
In the last six weeks Raphael Fox and I have been researching and exploring various ways of critiquing and questioning the ways in which trans people are portrayed in the media, in particularly the tabloids. One thing that struck me is the splendid poetry of such spectacular headlines. Here are some to whet your appetite in preparation for our dialogue session on the 28th October at P o P:
I was born with no vagina, Sex-swap para hero wig attack, Pop star Kim used to be Tim, Pilot at Will’s RAF base plans to lose chopper, Teenage Tranny stalks Jordan, Let perv tranny rot in men’s prison, Tranny with one leg gets boot, I ditched my weapon… but got new MISSILES!, BEAUTY QUEEN SHOCK I used to be a Boy, I went from Mr to Mrs BY MISTAKE.
Trans people who are in the public eye evoke some critical thinking around whether being trans is a private matter or something for public debate. Trans people are both invisible and highly visible at the same time. They are all over the media – the tabloids, women’s magazines, news items etc. but trans people don’t tend to be seen or ‘out’ at work, in Universities or in their local neighborhoods. In his seminal book Publics and Counterpublics (2005), Michael Warner pays particular attention to queer and trans lives in relation to a theoretical backdrop of public and private spheres. There is, he claims, a distinct private and inner world that is paramount in the formation of a trans identity, offering the sense that ‘individuals… are to be formed primarily in the private’ (Warner 2005: 48). Displaying or making public queer lives, Warner tells us, can be seen as “ero[ding] any distinction of the public and private” (Warner 2005:62). The distinction between public and private is crucial to the formation of the individual, and embedded in much of our legal framing, not only for trans people but all individuals. The rights to privacy, Warner agues, evoke a liberal idea, which defines humanity itself (Warner 2005:39). Drawing on Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, Warner states:
“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public.” (Warner 2005:48)
The bourgeois project of public behaviour is where ideologies of particular values and morals are performatively produced as ‘bourgeois’. There are particular tensions around trans visibility in relation to a legal framing of human rights to privacy. Indeed, a person’s right to a private life, embedded within Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, is of particular current attention as it regards protection around a person’s privacy and of their private correspondence. We can think of the Levison Enquiry following the 2005 phone hacking scandal , in which tabloid newspaper “News of the World” was eventually closed down due to illegally hacking into the phones not only of celebrities and public figures, but also of victims of 7/7 and the family of murdered school girl Milly Dowler. It was this invasion of an ordinary member of the public’s personal privacy that brought about such a public outcry and led to the final demise of the tabloid newspaper and the consequent damage to Rupert Murdoch owned News International. Similarly the super-injunctions’ saga in 2011, in which the courts issued super-injunctions to protect public figures (including professional football players) and secure their rights to privacy, became incredibly difficult for the legal systems to tackle. This was especially complex as these super-injunctions proved ineffectual due to the international and speedy nature of new social media sites such as Twitter, where information can spread so fast and so far throughout the world, and cannot be held accountable to one particular country’s legal framings.
In 2002, again in reference to Article 8, the European Court of Human Rights claimed that the UK was in breach of its obligation under the European Convention of Human Rights, in respect of the human rights of transsexual people. This led to the legislative achievement of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which gave full legal recognition to people in their ‘acquired gender’. The process of gaining this legal recognition involves applying to the Gender Recognition Panel for a Gender Recognition Certificate, which, if issued, enables the applicant to receive a birth certificate in their ‘acquired gender’. Hence those in receipt of a Gender Recognition Certificate no longer have to reveal their biological sex at birth; instead, it remains private. Following this all employers and organisations must understand that their employees, students and service-users have a right to privacy and confidentiality around their gender identity and gender history. It is an offence for anyone in any official capacity to disclose that someone has applied for a Gender Recognition Certificate, whether or not they have been given one, or if someone has a Gender Recognition Certificate. Unlawful disclosure applies to spoken, paper and electronic communication and includes disclosure by an employer, manager, colleague, administrator or anyone working in an official capacity for a public agency or service provider.
Being trans - or specifically undergoing, intending to undergo or having undergone Gender Reassignment - is a private matter. This is a crucial aspect when thinking about the visibility or the visuality of being trans. Privacy/ invisibility and public/ visibility are dualities enmeshed in complex ways as they are ideas and experiences that form part of everyday trans living. Of course being visibly trans can mean there are genuine safeguarding concerns and fears of discrimination, harassment and danger. Similarly the disappointment when a trans person is treated differently as a result of people knowing they are trans can be difficult to live with. Hence the motives for remaining private about being trans can be preferable and sometimes necessary. Cross dressing acts have been typically understood as something practiced behind closed doors, or taking place in private, highly regulated spaces such as underground clubs, private functions and house parties. In particular, visible ‘femme’ performances carried out by visible male-bodied people continue to be prohibitive and are violently enforced by members of the public. Logical consequences of such everyday enforcements mean that many trans people keep their trans history or trans identity private, and choose to live stealth. Living stealth means not disclosing to others that your sex/gender is different to the one that you were assigned at birth.
The principle of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is that people should be able to control their own disclosures and decide for themselves who they tell about what. And yet, we cannot consider such rights to privacy outside of this context of prohibition and violence. We must understand these moments of disclosures, or ‘coming out’, as acts carried out within a culture of hetero and gender normative domination. After all, Warner tells us, you do not have to come out as heterosexual (Warner 2005:52). Warner states: “We blame people for being closeted. But the closet is better understood as the culture’s problem, not the individual’s” (Warner 2005: 52).
On the 28th October, Fox and I will not be in the closet but on the sofa, reviewing those newspaper and magazine articles that feature trans people. We will not only be discussing the types of stories that feature across such platforms, but rather lend a focus to the performance of rendering visible. We wish to consider the ways in which trans is made visible, for what purposes and - regardless of those intentions - to think about their potentials. To end this post I wish to quote Spencer Rowell, photographer of the famous Athena poster, who said:
"The whole New Man thing wasn't a factor we were trying to create. But you just don't know when a photograph is going to capture the mood of the moment."