The Myth of “(In)Visibility”
August 27, 2009
I can’t count how many times trans men have complained of being “invisible,” or where they (or, admittedly, transphobic cis women) justified paying more or exclusive attention to trans men’s issues because of their “lack of visibility,” or implied that my “visibility” as a trans woman was a form of privilege.
But “(in)visibility” is an incoherent idea. One is not simply “visible” or “invisible” like Harry Potter putting on his cloak–invisibility cloaks don’t exist, some people can see you even if you are wearing one, and one is always standing on the other side of a wall/behind a tree relative to someone, and the near side of the wall/in front of the tree relative to someone else. What “invisibility” universally fails to ask is: to whom is one visible, and why? Under what circumstances, and in what light? Am I visible to the friend looking out hir window for a houseguest, through the binoculars of a peeping tom, or within the crosshairs of a sniper rifle? The concept “invisibility” implies that these things are all linearly correlated, so that as my chances of being harassed on the street go up, so do my chances of finding a partner who will know about and be sensitive to my issues and be a fierce advocate for me, and the fact that trans men don’t get murdered at anything approaching the same rate as trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers is something that will change as they get more spots on Oprah.*
These things are only weakly correlated:
Trans women are the targets of the large majority (though by no means all) of cis feminist transphobia, and almost all pathologizing/objectifying/fetishizing/misgendering/transphobic/non-feminist sociological, psychological, sexological, and anthropological research, while trans men and (conflatedly) FAAB genderqueers get the bulk of positive, sympathetic (though not necessarily trans-positive) feminist research (MAAB genderqueers, in this scheme, are subsumed into drag queens/crossdressers/trans women).
Trans women have the overwhelming edge on number of autobiographies–the surviving ones, for some weird reason, are all (with two mid-90’s trans-woman-bashing-smash-the-gender-binary exceptions) of the disempowered, desexualized, pity-me medical model variety, despite empowered trans woman writers of the period like Susan Stryker, Sandy Stone, and Angela Douglass (who did, in fact, write an unpublished autobiography) and several (also problematic) pornographic autobiographies no longer extant (see Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 198-202)–but trans men’s books have, on the whole, taken a much more empowered line, with sexuality discussed on their own terms in a non fetishizing way. As Serano writes in Whipping Girl, these were the only stories of trans women’s lives that were allowed to be told. (Some might say better something problematic than nothing, and while there’s limited truth to that up until sometime in the 1990s, there’s no room for argument in 2009.)
And though with Serano’s book there is a public and empowered voice for white trans women’s issues, and films such as Still Black attempt to broadcast the admittedly under-publicized lives, voices, and issues of trans men of color, our women of color’s self-advocacy has never or almost never been amplified by publishing or filmmaking institutions–yet trans women of color are all over self-published media (the blogosphere)–and murder reports and fetishizing/exploitative media articles, that almost universally omit their voices and ideas. (see my 2008 post about this phenomenon.) The closest thing to an exception would be Paris is Burning–and if you’ve read Butler and Prosser on the subject, you’ll likely agree that it’s not really an exception (though it is a highly enjoyable film).
To oversimplify: trans women are visible: as a sexual threat, as sex objects, as objects of derision and hate, and as objects of pity. Trans men are visible: as potential partners, as activists and revolutionaries, as an “invisible” group that deserves your advocacy, and (recently) as parents. The Thomas Beatie case is the exception that proves the rule–the unusually degrading media treatment that drew totally justified anger and analysis happened only in response to his pregnancy and open defiance of cisnormativity and transphobic eugenics, where that kind of media coverage is par for the course for trans women regardless of what they do, and doesn’t get that kind of attention, analysis, and anger simply because it is so common. And, you know, because fewer people and institutions care. That many trans men victim-blamed Beatie for this coverage and were angry about this making them “look bad” represents a tacit understanding that “visibility” isn’t inherently good or bad, but only good or bad relative to specific circumstances and situations.
Let’s dump “visibility”–and start thinking about to whom, as what, under what circumstances, when, why, to what end, and at what cost.
*(A bit of a tangent: Related is the idea that trans men pass better either a)because people don’t think about trans men or b)because testosterone is powerful, manly, and dominant while estrogen is submissive and weak, rather than being related to a)the ways in which masculinity is seen as natural and femininity as artificial and suspect (see Whipping Girl) and b)male as default (see Kessler and McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach chapter 6 “Toward a Theory of Gender, also anthologized in The Transgender Studies Reader, Stryker and Whittle, eds. See the overlay study in particular, which talks about how “male” gender cues count *much* more strongly toward gender attribution than “female” gender cues.)
EDIT 3:20 AM– General Note: For about half an hour after a post is first published, I’m revising it, generally without “edit” notations. I always intend it to be done before it’s published, but it never is/HTML doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, etc. The substance stays the same, (this time it was trying to get the spaces in between the bullet pointed paragraphs plus “to oversimplify”) but if you’re wondering “did something just change?” …it might have. After half an hour, though, I generally include a note. and my half hour’s up.