Speaking on Their Own Terms: Trans Women and Representation - Timothy Lyle

Timothy Lyle

Initially, I had planned to compose a blog post structured by hashtags and infused with tweet-able moments about how and why I use social media in the literature classroom. But after careful consideration of recent current events, I have changed my mind—an often frustrating decision that is indicative of a life-long penchant for revision, to be sure.

Because I am teaching my core literature courses around “the dangers of the single story” and “why narrative matters” this semester, I feel compelled to join creative acts of cultural production, intellectual pursuits, and acts of political resistance with the following post.

Last week, North Carolina lighted social media on fire and ignited activist passions for social justice by calling an emergency special session and by hurrying a significant anti-LGBT piece of legislation through both the House and the Senate. Among the many disheartening components of the North Carolina House Bill 2 (known mostly as HB2) is a stipulation that bans transgender individuals from using restrooms and other public facilities that match their gender identities unless they have successfully changed their birth certificates—despite the difficult barriers that prevent them from doing so, if they choose to in the first place.

If you might be thinking that North Carolina’s legislation is an isolated attempt to police gender and rob trans folks of their safety and the dignity to relief themselves in peace, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with similarly problematic bills circulating in or threatening to emerge from the following states: Kansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, Michigan, and Georgia.

In and out of a variety of states, a troubling tendency persists that captures the attention of an English professor. Not only are trans folks suffering unthinkable levels of everyday discrimination, but they are also subjected to everyone else’s narrativization of their identities and their lived experiences. Throughout media coverage, in legislative halls, and during everyday conversations, trans folks remain subjected to unsubstantiated claims of predatory behavior, pedophilic inclinations, and overall perverse dispositions. Under the guise of a rhetoric of privacy, fueled by steadfast “protection” of the heteronormative/cisnormative nuclear family, and shaped by rigid, binary understandings of gender identity and its relation to an interpretation of genitalia at birth, non-trans individuals regularly direct inaccurate, incomplete, and oppressive narratives of trans identities and experiences.

As a corrective to a host of cisnormative constructions of transgender people, I would like to use this blog space to offer narratives and resources to our readers that self-identified transgender cultural producers shape themselves. In so doing, I encourage you to ask what else comes into view when trans folks become the content creators of their own stories—or at least become key players. How do the very questions that underpin these narratives shift dramatically? Because these severely marginalized individuals rarely have access to mainstream cultural production venues, readers have to search harder to discover their voices, especially the voices of those who reside at the complicated nexus of race, gender, sexuality, and class in America. Below, our blog readers will find a starting point for reorienting themselves or for at least hearing divergent voices often suppressed in favor of intensely dispossessing accounts.

Aspiring cryptologists out there in the blogosphere might quickly notice that my list of 6281969 is a nod to the historic Stonewall riots in our neighboring New York City on June 28, 1969—an act of everyday resistance that is often credited with helping ignite the modern-day LGBT liberation movement. What you might not realize, however, is that narrativizations of this paramount act of issuing a resounding NO! to routine discrimination, disempowerment, and perverse use of authority started when trans women of color, homeless queers, sex workers, and other gender non-conforming people fought back.

Unfortunately, though, with the normalization of the LGBT movement—massaged by a politics of respectability—the contributions and voices of these community icons fade into the background or disappear all together. For a recent concrete example, look no further than the boycotted film Stonewall (2015) directed by Roland Emmerich.

Taking my cue from the soon-to-be-released short film Happy Birthday, Marsha (centering the life of Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson and her contributions to the Stonewall Riots), I am offering a list of 6/2/8/1/9/6/9 to share transgender women of color content creators that you should know in a variety of creative and political circles.

6 Books

6: Books by Trans Women of Color/Queer People of Color to Read

  • Janet Mock, Redefining Realness (2014)
  • Ryka Aoki, Seasonal Velocities (2012)
  • Lovemme Corazon, Trauma Queen (2013)
  • Toni Newman, I Rise: The Transformation of Toni Newman (2012)
  • The Lady Chablis, Hiding My Candy (1997)
  • Sharon Davis, A Finer Specimen of Womanhood (1985)

2 Blogs

2: Blogs by TWOC/QPoC to Surf

  • Monica Roberts, The Trans Griot
  • (Various), Black Girl Dangerous

8 Social Media Leaders8: TWOC/QPoC to Follow on Social Media

  • Laverne Cox
  • Angelica Ross
  • Cherno Biko
  • Janet Mock
  • Lynn Cyrin
  • Reina Gossett
  • Geena Rocero
  • Brooke Cerda Guzman

1 Organization1: TWOC/QPoC Organization to Support

  •  Trans Women of Color Collective

9 Films - New Media

9: Films or New Media Titles by, about, or starring TWOC/QPoC to View

  • Tangerine
  • Her Story
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Happy Birthday, Marsha (in post-production)
  • Laverne Cox Presents the T Word
  • FREE Cece (to be released in 2016)
  • MAJOR! (in post-production)
  • Mala Mala
  • Paris Is Burning

6 Historic Figures to Learn6: TWOC/QPoC Historic Figures to Learn

  • Sylvia Rivera
  • Marsha P. Johnson
  • Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
  • Sir Lady Java
  • Tanya Walker
  • Carlett Brown

9 Things to Avoid9: Things to Avoid Saying to TWOC

  •  “Have you had the surgery?”
  • “You are so passable. I would never know.”
  • “______ would really help you to be more feminine or masculine”
  • “How do you have sex?”
  • “What bathroom do you use?”
  • “Can I touch your hair?”
  • “That pronoun thing is just too confusing for me.”
  • “This reminds me of RuPaul’s Drag Race? I love that show!”
  • “So your boyfriend/partner is gay, right?”


What’s Up With the Girls? - Christina Carlson

Christina Carlson


Several years ago, I taught Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as part of a course called “What We’re Reading Now.” At the time, I saw it as a response to life in America after the economic bust of 2008. But since then, I’ve started to wonder if it reflects a different kind of cultural trend. This rethinking is largely based on a couple of “copy-cat” novels, notably The Good Girl by Mary Kubica, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. All three have moody, blurry greyish hardback covers. All three utilize names and dates in their chapter titles, referring to journal entries or the times of particular recollections and the individual to whom they are attributed. But most notably, all three feature an unreliable female narrator, the “girl” of the title. The extent to which they are unreliable varies: Flynn’s girl is a manipulative sociopath, while Kubica’s, though still a liar, is more sympathetic and has an almost defensible reason for her lies. The girl on the train, the most sympathetic of the three, is an alcoholic who has blackouts.

girl on the traingoodgirl










Whether the inclusion of “girl” in the title of these later novels is an attempt to capitalize on the success of Flynn’s book is debatable; but either way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There seems to be something about using the word girl in the title that attracts attention. This is in spite of the fact that none of the titular girls are, in fact, girls—two are in their mid-twenties, the third in her mid-thirties. They are intelligent, educated and could be employable if not for their unreliability. They are women, yet I suspect to call them that would diminish the appeal of the books. Can you imagine a novel called Gone Woman? Why wouldn’t that sell? There are probably several reasons, none of which have anything to do with alliteration.

Perhaps it is because none of these characters act like mature women, despite their age. Perhaps it is because the word “girl” carries with it the promise of something still unfolding, unpredictable, maybe even uncontrollable. Perhaps this is what makes the three main characters unreliable narrators—an as of yet unformed sense of self, an unstable moral compass. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that recently, while I was working at the Scholastic Book fair at my daughter’s school (she is in first grade), I came across a book titled Girl, Stolen about a sick, blind girl who is taken while sitting in the back seat of her mother’s car. My blood ran cold: same kind of title, same kind of cover, similar premise, but this time marketed to actual girls.

girl stolenNaturally, I bought the book. When the other volunteer rang it up, she got a warning message that the book contained “mature content” (don’t worry, it’s for me—I promise!). I won’t lie about being concerned. It’s one thing (and perhaps not a good thing) to use the notion of girlhood to connote unreliability to adult readers. But I wonder what the implications are for girls who are themselves in the throes of that liminal time? I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet—perhaps I will be surprised and it will turn the conventions of this emerging mini-genre on its head and give us a clear-headed young woman who finds a way to save herself and thus paves her own way to a mature adulthood. At least that’s what I hope. If not, you can be sure my daughter won’t be reading it anytime soon…

Words I Loathe (part 1) - Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being - either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.