I’ve been a transgender advocate for over 20 years; lots has changed over time in the content of the questions people ask me. Recently, in my liberal enclaves, the tone has changed, too. From curiosity to pity as each day a new law passes in a new state, restricting, outlawing, banning. Lately, the most common question I get is: Why are transgender people the current political football?
A few years ago, when transgender girls in sports first made the headlines, I could point to a situation in Connecticut where two transgender athletes were winning races in girls high school track. Cause, effect. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was at least a response to stimulus. Now, though, there’s nothing to point to. No stand-out athletes in most of the states banning transgender girls from sports. No overwhelming wave of children seeking gender-affirming surgery. Nothing. Well, there is one thing: us—our mere existence as transgender people.
In the 1980s, transsexuals were a background presence. They appeared on daytime talk shows, and occasionally were the subject of late-night stand-up. They haunted the end hours, the adult spaces. They were curiosities and punchlines, something to be stared at, laughed at. How’d they get there? Why were they picked out from the array of human spectacles? I didn’t ask these questions; I simply accepted that it was fascinating to look at a man in a dress. Because that’s essentially how transsexuals and transvestites were presented: men in dresses. The exception to this would be Pat on SNL—an androgynous character who erred toward the masculine.
I think that presentation is a good place to start to comprehend why it is that transgender people are so easily villainized. Back on those daytime talk shows, transexuals and transvestites were presented as people with something to hide. “I never knew my husband was a transvestite, but I kept finding my nylon stockings missing!” would be a typical line from a scandalized wife. Secrecy, shame, duplicitousness. This was for many years the basis of mainstream understanding of the transgender identity and mind. We were one thing pretending to be another.
Double. That’s the word at the core of misunderstanding transgender people. Why we are fascinating, why we are scary. When I try to imagine the mental images held by the lawmakers across the country about what a transgender person is, I think of Norman Bates in Psycho, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. The 1980s were rife with such movies, like Sleepaway Camp and Dressed to Kill. For adults now in their 40s and 50s, these were the access points for what it meant to be transgender. These horror movies presented transgender women as violent, dangerous, and unstable. There’s sexual fetishism, jealousy, frustration lurking beneath the surface. And, again and again, there’s the narrative of deception and doubleness.
Even the more comedic movies from that era that featured “trans” characters like Tootsie (later Mrs. Doubtfire), presented the same idea of being two things at once. Here, it wasn’t threatening so much as it was convenient. These men wanted something and to get it, they disguised themselves as women.
The narrative about transgender passing is that it is a means to an end. The deception is present, as is the doubleness; movies like these hinge on the revelation of the true identity to resolve the plot. Even more complex and nuanced movies from this era, like The Crying Game, played into the same trope. The most salient feature of a transgender woman is what she is trying to hide.
These are the storylines we carry in our head. The transsexual may have disappeared from daytime talk shows, but transgender women still dominate the horror movie screen. When I work with schools to educate people about transgender identity, I frequently will hear, “You’re the first real transgender person I’ve met.” By which they mean, not on a talk show, not on a movie screen—just a person. For the majority of Americans, transgender people are hypothetical or fictional. Our storylines are supplied by movies, sensationalized. When we move off the screen and into real life, the narrative of deception comes with us.
The lawmakers who are currently passing bills banning transgender athletes from girls’ sports or restricting access to gender-affirming care use the language of protection. They are keeping girls and women safe. They are saving children from abuse. The transgender person is the monster, the danger, the villain. If we want to push against this movement, we need to understand this rhetoric and acknowledge where it comes from. The Right has created a monster and a horror movie storyline to go along with it. The American mind has been primed to receive that narrative.
Alex Myers is a teacher, writer, and transgender advocate.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.