LGBTQ Column: What does trans look like?

As a journalist, I try to follow as many diverse voices on Twitter as possible. I follow journalists from news outlets I like, from ones I don’t like, from national sources to small town papers. I also try to make sure I’m following people from marginalized communities, who report on issues that might be neglected by large news organizations. One such journalist I follow, a transgender woman named Katelyn Burns, reports a lot on LGBTQ issues, and I generally appreciate her reporting. 

Several weeks ago, when the Supreme Court began debating whether or not the Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ workers, Burns tweeted something that bothered me, but it took me a few days to figure out why. She covered the case in person at the Supreme Court and tweeted, “As far as I can tell, I’m the only trans person in the press room.”

Most of the replies said something along the lines of, “Thank you for being there,” which I agree with—I think it’s incredibly important to assign reporters to cover stories that pertain to their identities, especially marginalized identities. As a journalist and a member of the queer community, I want LGBTQ reporters to cover LGBTQ issues whenever possible. 

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Yet that wasn’t what bothered me about the tweet. It was the first clause, the “As far as I can tell.” After mulling it over for a day or so, I finally figured out why it bothered me—why did Burns assume she could tell the gender identity of every person in the room just from looking at them? Was she implying that transgender people somehow stick out as transgender? Or that, to be transgender, you have to look a certain way? 

I believe that her intentions were to state that she thought, or maybe felt, that she was the only transgender reporter in the room. However, this plays into the same kind of rhetoric used by people opposed to transgender rights—implying that you can always tell when someone is transgender because they don’t “pass” as their gender. Not to mention, if someone were to say this sort of thing about sexuality— “As far as I can tell, I’m the only gay person in the room”—it would be a fairly controversial statement to make. The queer community has argued for years that just because someone looks a certain way, it neither says anything about to whom they are attracted nor how they identify. 

This kind of rhetoric reinforces the ongoing debate over what it means to “look” trans. Many gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people are often pressured to fit a certain aesthetic—skinny, white, short hair, vaguely androgynous. British nonbinary photogrpaher Jackson Akitt talked about this stereotype when doing a photoseries on nonbinary individuals, citing mainstream actors like Ruby Rose as the media standard for androgynous identities.

“[The media representation of non-binary people is] usually quite biased towards white, typically androgynous, skinny models,” Akitt said in an interview with Vice. “It makes it seem like it’s something for white people to be androgynous and nonbinary. It’s important to have a diverse representation of what we look like.”

Time and time again, nonbinary individuals remind the LGBTQ community that you don’t need to look a certain way to be valid in your identity—we seem to be in consensus on this when it comes to sexuality, but not gender. 

Ultimately, what really got to me about this journalist’s tweet is that I knew if I had been in that press room, as someone who is genderfluid and uses they/them pronouns, she would have looked at me and my femme presentation and made an assumption about my identity. And, for all we know, there were other trans reporters who “passed” as cisgender, nonbinary reporters, genderfluid reporters, and so on in that room, who saw this tweet and were made to feel invisible. It happens to me every day when I talk to strangers who think that I look feminine enough that they don’t need to ask my pronouns, or feel justified in telling me that I don’t look genderqueer when I correct them. 

What confuses me the most about this mindset—going into a situation assuming you are alone in your queer identity—is that it’s inherently isolating. Most polls and estimates place the LGBTQ population of America at around 4.5 percent of the population, with fluctuation from state to state. Those numbers are often based on self-reporting, so they may actually be underreported, as people still in the closet may be hesitant to self-identify. 

Regardless, that means that if an LGBTQ person is in a room of 100 people, or even 50 people, odds are they are not the only one. To me, that’s more comforting than upsetting, because it means that I’m not alone. 

If you’re entering a new community and defaulting to thinking the world is against you, especially when it comes to being LGBTQ, it can make everything feel scarier and isolating. Plenty of trans celebrities, and even just every day people, have talked about what it feels like when people assume they are cisgender and then learn otherwise. Sometimes it can be very validating to know that you “pass,” but the accompanying shock of people saying, “Really? I never would have guessed it!” can also be very hurtful. 

Ultimately, assuming that you are always the only one who is LGBTQ causes more harm than good—it divides the community, it implies an unnecessary hierarchy of what it means to “look” transgender, and it puts us all into the mindset of constantly being alone in this fight. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my years in the LGBTQ community, it’s that we are never alone. 

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