Written by Artemis Walsh
Illustrated by Isabel Dickey
I am a person. I am also a public debate.
The presence of transgender people in the public consciousness has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. As a friend of mine said, “A few years ago the general media image of trans people was poor but next to nonexistent and held in my opinion, lasting effects from the 70–90s—it was all very dated and there was no brand or culture associated with us. Now, social media plays a huge role in the determining of politics and political stances. Not undivorced of Tumblr at all because all social media creates a feedback loop, the public image of trans people is as a mass hysteria, demanding and invading millennial invention. It carries a specific cultural cadence and a lot of the newsreel on us began with things like Tumblr, Reddit, etc”
So many times when I meet a new group of people, I am fairly sure that for a sizeable part of the community there, I am the first trans woman they ever interacted with on a regular basis. I can always tell which ones too, because I can see years of buildup of preconceived ideas unloading onto their senses and perceptions of me. (Newsflash to cisgender people: you aren’t as slick as you think you are). I have been for so long a theoretical concept, and now they have one in the flesh.
One of the ongoing controversies in the public ideas of trans people has been public bathrooms. Several states have introduced or passed laws prohibiting transgender people from using gender-segregated public facilities that correlate with their gender identity (i.e. a transgender man using the men’s restroom). In response, several other states have made rules to made single-stall bathrooms gender neutral. Far outside the state houses, though, there was a firestorm of debate around transgender people. And I do say that purposefully; the discussion wasn’t really about bathrooms. It was about how we do and should see transgender people and how they should be allowed to exist in public.
In some way, this debate achieved at least one of its aims: it terrified transgender people.Myself and so many others I know became afraid around public restrooms. Being a couple years into my transition, I had begun to break through into a feminine appearance and truly long hair, but without voice work or a resolved presentation. I felt caught between two boxes: not looking cis enough to be safe in the men’s bathroom, and certainly not passing enough to be in the women’s restroom. No matter what I picked, I feared that anyone I encountered in those spaces would be aware of and absorbed the “trans debate” and would unload it all onto me.
And in a larger sense, it definitely wasn’t good for my mental health to see myself be debated about on the news circuit and town hall meetings, late night shows and political podcasts. When the North Carolina bill was hot news, I saw many, many facebook posts a day talking all about this, and other acts of transphobia in the world. Each one of these posts was a reminder of all the people in the world who hated me and what I was, and would rather shutter me out of public life or, in the words of one infamous transphobe, have me “morally mandated out of existence.” I began to see myself not as a person, but an invitation for debate.
And I don’t have an answer for how to stop that.