It is a sad fact of life for transgender people of all varieties, that sometimes we will be misgendered. Often instinctively even by people who are trying to get it right, but sometimes by unpleasant people doing so with malice. We can all tell which camp the offenders fall into, and we know how easy it can be for those doing it innocently because if we are honest with ourselves we may admit to have done it by mistake sometimes ourselves. We politely say the correct pronoun or honorific and move on, and in nearly all cases the person takes it on board. If it continues we may say it a little more forcefully, and if it is willful and continuous we may take the perpetrator to task. If it’s part of online hate on for example social media, we block the person and move on.
It’s been uncomfortable then hearing of wilful misgendering happening on the TV, in the reality series Celebrity Big Brother. This year’s crop of attention-seeking Z-listers includes India Willoughby, regional TV presenter turned professional celebrity trans woman, and someone who it is fair to say has gone out of her way to alienate herself from the trans community with her very exclusionary views. It’s never good to see a transgender person get a hard time, but her record has resulted in a rather obvious lack of sympathy for her predicament among trans social media.
India’s reaction to it all was to launch into something of a scene about it in front of the BB cameras, captured in all its toe-curling glory in a YouTube clip. Needless to say this undignified response didn’t seem to go down well with the housemates, or indeed with the viewing public. Most online seemed to identify it in a very negative manner as the product of India’s character rather than as a product of her being a transgender person, but a positive portrayal of transgender people on the small screen it was definitely not. This was car crash TV at its finest, and thus of course it would have been grist to the mill of the TV producer.
For those uninitiated into the art form it may seem that what we see on the screen is a faithful record of events, but the depressing fact is that everything presented is not what really happened, but the story the producer wants to tell. I have written about this elsewhere in the past with respect to the hardware hacking community, but the same is undoubtedly true for transgender people. Making fools of people who are different makes for good TV in the eyes of producers as it goes down well with the baying mob of viewers, and since ratings are a measure of success in that industry they are only too happy to head straight for the gutter. That India with a lifetime in television behind her did not seemingly understand this stretches credibility to breaking point, and leads to either a conclusion that she must be spectacularly stupid, or one that the whole thing was a purposeful stunt for the cameras.
It is of course possible that we have witnessed India’s epiphany, the moment at which after a lightning-fast transition supported by all the enhancements money can buy she slips off her cloud to finally experience a taste of the reality faced by so many transgender people who have not had her good fortune in their paths. If that is the case we’ll all be looking forward to the newly chastened trans celebrity perhaps repairing some of the damage she has caused, but I for one will not be holding my breath.
Instead I think the key lies in India’s turn of phrase. When she exclaimed that she was a “Real Woman” she unconsciously echoed a piece of transgender community slang that was prevalent a few years ago when I found my way out of the closet, but which seems to have faded from view for the newer generation of transitioners. A Real Woman was someone who made it clear that they considered themselves to be more transitioned, better passing, or generally more authentic than her peers, and was generally someone who was a royal pain in the arse. People like India are no rarity, everyone will encounter someone who styles themselves as better than everyone else as they make their path through all this mess. The bizarre thing about them is that to obtain the validation they crave they have to stay around the transgender community in some form even if like India they are at pains to declare that they are not trans, for if they do fade into the general populace they become simply another person among many, a pretty mediocre fate.
That piece of slightly outdated slang for such people then, “Real Woman”. Trans women everywhere of a certain generation who watched that clip are nodding sagely. “You got that right”, they are saying.
Car crash image: Ildar Sagdejev [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0].