Chelsea Manning has claimed her womanhood, leaving Bradley behind, and good for her.
But, as a transgender person myself (I transitioned from male to female in 1990), I can’t help but wince and think: Oh, not another unwelcome image of transgenderism for our community to counter. A “trans traitor”? This is not the change I’ve been waiting for.
Even though convicted in military court for espionage and other crimes, Manning has been declared a whistle-blowing hero by others. While I support her brave decision to come out, it is still a bit disheartening to see the transgender community saddled with another negative image. Indeed, she may leave behind an unintended legacy as one of the most well-known transgender figures in recent history.
That’s unfortunate, since the public perception of transgender people (TGs) is not a wildly diverse one. It is largely shaped by images from popular culture, from characters that are mostly one-dimensional and negative. Consider this sampling of unsavory transgender film archetypes:
Serial Killers. Buffalo Bill is the nasty piece of transgender work in “The Silence of the Lambs,” killing young women and then skinning them so he could wear their epidermis. And then there’s Dr. Robert “Bobbi” Elliott, the schizophrenic slasher in Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” who takes out his gender frustrations on innocent women.
Tragic Lover. In “The Crying Game,” a man falls in love with a lovely young woman who turns out to be transgender, but their relationship is interrupted when he is sent to prison for a murder she,
nutball that she is, commits.
Tragic Kidnap Victim. In Pedro Almodovar’s more recent film, 2011’s “The Skin I Live In,” a man is subjected to forced sex reassignment surgery by a crazed doctor who wants to create a replica of his late wife.
And then there’s the crossdressing juvenilia on display in the Tyler Perry and Adam Sandler movies, along with the occasional sitcom such as ABC’s quickly-cancelled “Work It,” a particularly offensive attempt to revive a “Bosom Buddies”-style franchise.
Sadly, these crossdressing romps are as close as many people get to confronting and thinking about transgender issues.
For every sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a transgender person (Roberta Muldoon in “The World According to Garp,” Bree in “Transamerica”) there are multiple fictional images of psychotic spree killers and various types of victims who identify as TG.
It is a sign of how desperate the transgender community is for positive images that the character played by Laverne Cox in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” is cited as a breakthrough. Sure, the writing is deft and Cox, a transgender actress, is wonderful in the role. But, you know, the character is a criminal.
The transgender community is still waiting for our own “Will & Grace” icon to show up. We need powerful images of the normal, everyday TG person who goes to work, walks the dog, and isn’t conspiring to “bring down the country” in their spare time. Case in point: My most exotic activity most weekends is golfing. Badly.
Where is the TG version of Mitchell and Cameron in the sitcom “Modern Family,” showing a transgender person in a loving relationship?
That would be the real breakthrough: a boring, run-of-the-mill transgender person who is dealing with life’s many problems along with his or her gender identity. Not cutting a wide swath of murder and tragedy because of it.
Until then, TG folk will be easy to poke fun at and right-wing noise machines will bloviate about transgender individuals and groups with impunity, as they did yesterday in response to Manning’s news.
And that’s a shame, because the transgender community needs understanding from the larger world in order to achieve crucial gains. We face real and sometimes dire challenges. The rate for attempted suicide for TGs is astronomically higher than it is for others (41 percent among transgender people as opposed to 1.6 percent in the general population, according to a survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality.)
The same survey found that 90 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people report harassment, discrimination and mistreatment on the job, concluding that “the injustices they face have devastating economic and personal consequences.” (I myself was once let go from a job after my supervisor learned I was transgender.)
And, as Chelsea Manning is learning, it is often difficult to obtain adequate health care, including necessary hormone therapy.
All transgender people can hope is that Manning’s case, exceptional as it is, illuminates some of the challenges that we face. And that as people learn about those challenges, they may become more understanding and tolerant.
Case in point: There has been a spate of articles in just the past 24 hours about which pronoun to use for Manning. This is progress.
Ultimately, perhaps people will use this particular story about Chelsea Manning to pry open new and helpful insights about the transgender experience. And not use it to shatter and damage a community that doesn’t need any more bruises.
Christine Howey transitioned from Richard to Christine in 1990. Her one-person play exploring that transgender journey, “Exact Change,” will open at Cleveland Public Theatre in January, 2014.