Images Of Transness

So I had a link to a brief, outsider’s perspective to the ongoing internal efforts regarding the language we use to describe ourselves, and of course this particular interview was included.

I stopped and watched it for about the dozenth time or so.

I spend a lot of time talking about language — semantics is a minor part of the field of pragmatics, which looks at social systems through the way they are constructed with words. Words matter, words are important, words have history and meaning and they can and do change over time, and while it might take a thousand words to equal a single image, those thousand words can also tell you more than that single picture can in one fell swoop.

It is, after all, the reason I use the particular layout I have changed to.  It places a focus on words that I like, but it also allows for a strong emphasis on images.

I take an exception to many of the terms we use and many of the bits and pieces of our language.  I tend to prefer the newer terms to the older ones, because far too many of the older ones carry within them too much of our own internalized stigma and shame and they often enable our attackers to use our own insecurities against us.

I saw this right after I got done calling someone on the internet a racist, transphobic, sexist jackass. Someone who was mentioned in the article — it drives me nuts and I may have to stay away from my email for a few days because I get tons of this stuff on this one person, whom I have now decided to label Cockroach. Because I was asked not to call them by the nickname they apparently prefer, but ‘roach works well enough for me, and its better than always saying rhymes with “ugh”.

But it brings to light the issues around the terms trans, transgender, and transsexual, as well as the rest.

I am all for efforts to reclaim, but reclamation can only happen for a specific individual at once, and it takes time and space for a term to shift.  “Women of Color” would have been an insult in the days of my childhood, as it as too close to “colored folk”.  It took time and distance for that reclamation to happen.

Tranny is that way. And there is no distance from it for most of us living today. It is a word that one does not used in mixed company.  And let me point something out that people forget all the time: the Internet is mixed company, always.

I will repeat for clarity.

The Internet is mixed company, always.

 And that means that, on the internet, the word is really only good for one thing: hurting other people.

In face to face, real life, personal and your safe zone things, hey, who the fuck am I to tell you that you can’t call yourself a tranny.  But you call someone else one, well, I’m inclined to treat you with the same kindness that I reserve for that previously mentioned insect sort of annoyance.

But the terms transgender, and transsexual and trans are something entirely different.  They are used in various ways to speak about particulars of existence.  There is a political aspect to the term Transgender that cam about as a result of the efforts in the 1990’s.  Transsexual is a medical term that is slowly — but absolutely — being erased from medical terminology because it carries within the medical establishment a connotation that is negative. It is also used along with she-male and tranny as a way of focusing on the “sex” aspect in order to suggest that trans women — and, in particular, trans women of color — are all about prostitution and pornography.

The *sad part* about that is that I work very heavily with those communities, and they see it as something that many aspire to. Because it is the only constant exposure they get.

Or it was until Isis King and Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Harmony Santana.

Each of those terms creates a different social impression, as well.  Trans is not very well known, hasn’t gained the cultural cache, but it is still out there.

You can actually check into a sort of “Zeitgeist” about how trans people are thought of and represented by simply looking into the most common form of media available: stock photography.

This is the stuff that magazines and newspapers and newsletters and websites turn to when they need a picture of something to headline an article or maybe add visual interest to a lot of white space.

When you see a photo, there is often a credit underneath it.  Two of the most popular — that is, most used — stock photography sites are Getty Images and Shutterstock.

Toss in Tranny, Transgender, and Transsexual, and you can get an idea of what it is that editors, reporters, magazine layout specialists, and, generally speaking, anyone in the media who needs a non specific image for a story or whatever are going to see.


Getty Images




Getty Images




Getty Images



 Now, for real comparison, here’s the results in Google images, for the same things:



Tranny — not going to do this one, as it is very much not safe for work.

Google, then, is generally better a resource than the stock photography stuff. However, Google’s images are usually very complicated to get the rights to, and these companies are very concerned about who owns the rights to pictures and all that stuff.  It’s a multi-billion dollar a year business.

So while they can use those images, they aren’t likely to without taking a risk that they are going to be sued.  If you recall, I pointed out not too long ago that you do not own pictures of you most of the time. And that’s just the start of the headaches.

So they use these services like Getty and Shutterstock.  Those services make sure they have the rights documented, that the right people get paid, and all the rest.

But look at what they have to choose from. I see myself mirrored in the google results for transgender, not so much in the transsexual and certainly not in the tranny one. And that’s even accounting for my admittedly prudish impulses and the fact I see myself in many place sand many ways because I’ve been taught how to.

But I do not see myself in any of the Getty or Shutterstock stuff.  I see performers who may or may not be possessed of transness to some degree. I see mock-ups, I see selected photos that generally only appear in certain kinds of places. ANd, to be honest (and give an old friend a plug) I see better stuff here:

Now think on this, carefully.

We are talking about a business that thrives on images.  And the * word* you use to find those images changes the options that you have made available to you. SO, in this case, transgender works better for representing trans people than any of the others.

I am not “edgy” in my presentation.  Indeed, if anything, I’m rather dowdy. Well, for a gal who wears knit dresses all the time.

But let’s say you want to avoid any sort of link with that imagery — let’s say you want something new, something that the people you are talking about can use to invoke images of themselves, something that means people have to use real examples, not something they pulled off the internet but something that they had to create, *then*.

In that case, I would recommend Trans. And Getty is why. And Shutterstock is why. And Google is why.

And then you find that the images you will see out there will be less about the old, and more about the new. More about the future.

More about what Trans people say it is, instead of what Cis people say it is.

Sometimes a thousand images are contained in just one word. You have examples now, ways of seeing the meaning behind this.

And it is because of stuff like this that I don’t use terms like transgender or transsexual.  I just use Trans. But when that won’t do, when I need to reach people without that barrier of ignorance, I will always use transgender.

I do not do so because Autumn Sandeen leads a charge that was started by someone else ages ago. I do not do it because Isis King identifies that way and Janet Mock doesn’t.

I don’t deal in identity, remember? I deal in description. Identity is a zero sum game that perpetuates this kind of fight and heightens this kind of hostility — identity is what creates people like Ashley Love who literally works against everything I do, including helping those women of color rise from poverty and get opportunities.

I have to be able to help both the Ashley’s and the Autumns, though. I don’t get a choice there. And, again, Trans lets me do that in a way the other two terms do not.

So when it comes to images of transness, I struggle towards finding ways to overcoming the problems those links show above.

Once TIH finishes its campaign to open the Trans Center, we will have the ability to address that. But, right now, we have to get there, first.

And that leaves us with a struggle to look more closely at the images of transness we see around ourselves, and overcome the traps and the pitfalls that surround doing so — the lookism, the sexism, the racism, the colorism, yes, but also the traps of validation and of false acceptance.  Two traps which feel good, but are dangerous and usually harmful.

We need to step away from the considerations of passing and the fear that is wrapped up in disclosure.  We must use new paradigms to give people something new to think of when they hear these words, or we must come up with new terms to give them more value and meaning.

Because I look for images of Transness, and I do not see myself.

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