A Transgender Superhero For Every Gender Non-Conforming Child: Thoughts On Acceptance And Support For Transgender Youth
In the wake of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide in December 2014, people have been formulating ideas for how to fulfill her final wishes to “fix society”; to have her death “mean something” and to have it “counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide”. In her suicide note, Alcorn, age 17, explained that her reasons for committing suicide centered on her parent’s inability to accept her gender, and beyond that, imposing upon her religiously sanctioned conversion therapy designed to make her conform to cisnormativity.
In this essay I want to discuss some of the steps necessary to achieving acceptance, and most especially the ways in which the media can address misconceptions and provide transgender and gender non-conforming kids with a diverse range of stories. Please note that this essay contains language that may be triggering to people with depression and suicidal tendencies.
First and foremost, we need to ban conversion therapy. Such a practice should never be considered or presented as a viable option for parents who have become aware of having transgender children. This form of psychological abuse has been denounced by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization among several other mental health organizations. According to Dr. Mirta Roses Periago, former director of the Pan American Health Organization, “[t]hese practices are unjustifiable and should be denounced and subject to sanctions and penalties under national legislation… These supposed conversion therapies constitute a violation of the ethical principles of health care and violate human rights that are protected by international and regional agreements."
Of course, outlawing conversion therapy in and of itself will not unilaterally erase transphobia. Parents who have no innate understanding of gender outside of cisnormativity and who feel justified in imposing strict gender norms on their children either by cultural or religious standards are still likely to abuse transgender children whether they have access to medical professionals willing to perform conversion therapy or not. We must unravel the various number of factors that contribute to the very desire to reinforce cisnormativity.
We must also not forget violence against transgender people is not limited to suicide, nor abuse committed by family members. Trans women—and trans women of color in particular—are victims of disproportionate amounts of violence, including assault, rape and murder. In committing ourselves to the fulfillment of Alcorn’s final request, we cannot allow her name to be the only one embedded in our memory. We should be as familiar with the names Keymori Johnson, Kandy Hall, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, Yaz’min Shancez, Zoraida Reyes, Eyricka Morgan, Islan Nettles, Jennifer Laude, Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, and the circumstances of their deaths, as we are with that of Leelah Alcorn’s. Fixing society means understanding who are the most vulnerable among us and how race, class, disability, national origin, religious affiliation and sexual orientation all contribute to the deaths of transgender people.
Additionally, suicide ideation in and of itself is something that has to be given greater precedence in discussions of mental health. If I can be candid for a moment (and trigger warning for the following): I don’t have a reason for living. There is nothing that tethers me to this life other than a basic survival instinct, which to be honest, can be overridden at the drop of a hat. I get up in the morning because it is inevitability, not because I look forward to the day ahead. It’s been this way for over a decade. It’s OK for me to admit that. It’s OK for anyone to admit it. It’s necessary that we feel free enough to speak on our feelings without judgment if we are to have any hope of working through our depression.
Unfortunately, most people are, to be blunt, inept at speaking to a suicidal person. This is partly because we avoid speaking on the subject in general and because we live in a culture which demonizes those who attempt and die as a result of suicide as well.
When a suicidal person is at their most vulnerable, others typically engage in emotionally and psychologically abusive, demeaning dialog (“What’s so difficult about your life?”, “How stupid/selfish/pathetic can you be?” etc), erroneously expecting such violent rhetoric to reinvigorate a zest for life. Even among mental health professionals, there are those who do not know how to speak specifically to a suicidal trans person, which can result in fueling their ideation rather than alleviating it.
Reversing this paradigm involves equipping mental health professionals on how to handle trans-specific factors related to suicide as well as educating the general public on how to handle a conversation when the subject arises. As David Sue, Derald Wing Sue, Stanley Sue and Diane Sue illustrate in Understanding Abnormal Behavior (2015), “[m]any people considering suicide are relieved to be able to discuss a taboo topic openly and honestly, and to have someone help them look at their situation more objectively” particularly without the use of victim-blaming language.
Deconstructing transphobia that can eventually lead to suicide begins with listening to the lived experiences of trans individuals. As a public speaker, I have led classroom discourse on a number of issues for college students taking courses ranging from sociology, psychology, ethnic relations and human sexuality. However, my primary topic of choice is representation in media.
While it may seem absurd to many to place such value on film, television and print, mainstream media has the capability to break or reinforce misconceptions about marginalized groups that foster a sense of entitlement to commit various acts of violence. Queer Media Images: LGBT Perspectives (2013), edited by Theresa Carilli and Jane Campbell notes that, “[t]he importance of mediated portrayals of marginalized populations cannot be ignored” and that, “media effects scholars have long argued for the role of television and other forms of mass media as educational tools”.
Though I have often joined the rallying cry for more positive representations of transgender characters, I am also hesitant to present trans youth with narratives of a bias-free world that has yet to manifest itself. That’s not to say I believe our stories should focus exclusively on our tragedies, but that both joy and heartache need to be portrayed in balance. To that end, the only way to have fair, accurate, educated and inspiring stories of trans life is to have multiple transgender characters at the forefront of the major publishers that can demonstrate the nuances of our community.
Recently at Comicosity I presented an article asking readers which characters from the major publishing houses they thought could be reinterpreted as transgender. While the exercise was not expected to result in any major characters officially having their gender changed, it did result in some meaningful online dialog on how creators could better approach the development of transgender superheroes—characters that all people, but trans youth especially, can empathize with.
One topic that often passes under the radar on hardships faced by transgender people is classism and economic violence. Imagine for a moment that Tony Stark came out in the pages of Superior Iron Man as a trans man. What would be the repercussions of such a revelation in the Marvel Universe to know that Stark was assigned female at birth? What new extrapolations could we infer about his life experience having previously assumed he is a cisgender man?
For one, we could probably assume that, not unlike Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s eight-year-old John, he began expressing his gender identity at an early age and his parents Howard and Maria Stark did not make any attempts to deter him. Such an open and supportive environment would be wonderful to explore in retrospect, as many trans and gender non-conforming children face an intense amount of resistance when they begin exploring their gender.
While someone as iconic as Iron Man would make an incredible trans superhero, how would his class, racial, and male privilege distance his lived experience from the most vulnerable members of the community? As an inheritor, billionaire and technological genius, it is highly unlikely Stark would ever face the prospect of employment and housing discrimination (and seeking public assistance as a result) faced by many transgender people.
According to Social Services with Transgendered Youth (2009) edited by Gerald P. Mallon, “[t]ransgender people seeking to enroll in public assistance programs must often navigate a complicated maze of bureaucratic and administrative hurdles that are only made more daunting by gender nonconforming expression and by identity documents that appear to contradict the person’s appearance or the present inconsistent name or sex information. Transgender youth seeking public benefits should expect to encounter misunderstanding when dealing with a system that is, at best, designed to enforce strict eligibility criteria and flag inconsistencies, and that is increasingly reliant on automation.”
In addition to the hurdles of seeking pubic assistance, the choice to transition or not can be contingent on a number of factors. For trans people seeking medical transitioning (including but not limited to hormone replacement therapy and reconstructive surgery), one of the biggest roadblocks is money. Many insurance providers still refuse to cover trans-related medical care—yet another example of how a wealthy trans man like the reimagined Stark would be relatively immune to systematic transphobia.
Beyond finances, there is also the problem of medical gatekeeping, which refers to medical professionals restricting or blocking trans people from undergoing medical procedures based on outdated models of diagnosis (such as Harry Benjamin Syndrome or the Benjamin scale) and other personal beliefs on who should “really” be considered trans. Sadly, there are also instances where a preexisting medical condition can prevent certain procedures from being possible. For those seeking medical intervention, coming to the realization such a transition is literally impossible can be a devastating blow. Due to the fact that trans youth often feel isolated and without support, the stories they read should not only include how trans individuals overcome different types of adversity, but how to develop healthy coping mechanisms as well.
In comparison to Iron Man, consider the implications of Catwoman coming out as a trans woman. Selena Kyle has an established history as an impoverished, abandoned youth and sex worker. Due to the fact that trans women face increased road blocks to economic prosperity (as employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity is not illegal in most jurisdictions), sex work has proven to be one of the most significant avenues to sustain a living wage. Whether it is an occupation of choice or one of circumstance, the movement to decriminalizing sex work is of significant importance to many trans women.
It is also a matter of importance because, as Melissa Hope Ditmore documents in Prostitution and Sex Work (2011), trans women are subjected to hyper-visibility by police, “including profiling all transgender women as sex workers.” This is true of ASU student Monica Jones, who in 2013 was charged with “manifesting prostitution.” Catwoman’s already tumultuous relationship with law enforcement echoes that of trans women who are habitually profiled and harassed simply for being transgender.
Alternatively, many trans individuals do carve out their own pathways to the careers of their dreams, be it in entertainment, medicine, science and technology or education. Again, proper representation means having trans characters who are able to fulfill their dreams with relative ease as well as those who are embroiled in the struggle to survive.
You can read almost any dissertation, autobiography or blog written by a trans woman and you will inevitably find some mention of how being approached by a man in any public scenario can rapidly devolve into a life-threatening situation. For trans women who do not “pass” as cis women or who are deemed “visibly trans,” harassment can occur upon sight. Those who do pass are often accused of being deceptive; morally bankrupt temptresses whose sole purpose is to ensnare cisgender heterosexual men into deviant sexual activity. It doesn’t matter whether the woman in question is even attracted to men in the first place; the mere perception of a threat to a man’s sense of self and sexuality are enough to invoke a verbal or physical assault.
When Alysia Yeoh began dating James Gordon Jr in Batgirl it gave me a twinge of panic that I believe only trans women can understand. It was clear he was targeting Alysia because she was roommates with his sister Barbara, but I couldn’t help but question whether or not he knew she was transgender and if such knowledge factored into his pursuit of her. Could he have had a fixation on harming trans women? Would he have made an attempt on her life not only to torture Barbara but specifically because of Alysia’s gender as well? Alternatively, could his interest in her have been genuine? If so, would he have attempted to maintain a relationship with her without disclosing the fact that he was a serial killer?
Such fears that can arise with dating someone new—a cis man especially—are not uncommon for most trans women. It is also commonplace for trans youth to misplace their trust in potential lovers in a desperate attempt to escape the persecution they face at home. We must be able to teach our children how to recognize a potential abuser masquerading as a savior.
As with many comic book enthusiasts, one of my most important draws to the industry was the X-Men animated series from the 1990s. Even though Storm and Jubilee were my favorite characters, the one I empathized with most was Rogue. Her inability to touch other people because of the harm she could inflict seemed to be an uneasy parallel for my own lived experience—being unable to freely interact with those I was attracted to because of sexual, gender and societal norms as well as facing the potential consequences of choosing to do so anyway.
One scene that stuck with me in particular was when she flashed back to her early childhood after her father discovered she was a mutant. While his exact words were, “Ya ain’t my daughter, not anymore,” I could just as easily picture him saying, ‘Ya ain’t my son, and you were never my daughter.” What circumstance would a young trans girl like Rogue have found herself in after being abandoned? Probably not so different from her canon history—falling in with the wrong crowd like Mystique and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in order to survive.
While living off the grid and on the wrong side of the law, I’m sure she would have also had a number of people go through their typical rounds of invasive questioning if they discovered her assigned sex or if she chose to reveal it. “Do you have a penis or a vagina?” is one question most trans people hate to discuss, if only because it is one perfect strangers often feel entitled to ask.
Actress Laverne Cox brilliantly pointed out that society’s preoccupation with the genitalia of transgender people prevents us from discussing more crucial factors that impact our lives—housing and employment discrimination, medical gatekeeping, verbal and physical assault and murder. Author Janet Mock also parodied how invasive and anti-intellectual the genital question can be by posing it to a cis woman in a mock interview.
For Rogue, even among her fellow mutants who have face similar rejection and displacement, I’m sure the most pertinent question asked by the people around her would be, “have you had the surgery yet or not?”
Realistically, it is a question that is going to continually come up. It is just as likely to be asked by children on the playground or in the classroom as it is to come from an adult conducting a job interview or reviewing a rental or mortgage application. As such, I believe it’s important for all of us to have reference points on how to handle that question when faced with it; how to articulate boundaries on what we are and are not willing to discuss. For instance, Janet Mock being willing to discuss the intricacies of her transition in her autobiography Redefining Realness (2014) does not automatically mean she is willing or obligated to discuss it on air or with anyone she does not feel it is appropriate to have that type of conversation with. We each have the right to discuss our bodies and medical history on our own terms or to not discuss them at all.
In retrospect, it would be interesting to witness a character like Rogue recount the process of her transition, her choice to undergo hormone replacement therapy, reconstructive surgery, or not, and how those circumstances affected her social and romantic life—whom she trusts to share that information with and those with whom she does not. Though other characters like Alysia Yeoh have demonstrated the potential dangers in a trans person’s romantic life, there must be characters who show the potential virtues as well.
In Redefining Realness, Janet Mock gave us a beautiful true-life fairy tale of her relationship with her boyfriend Aaron Tredwell. I’ve grown weary of the comic book industry’s assertion that the life of a superhero must be devoid of happiness. Marginalized characters in particular require a more concentrated effort to evenly portray strife with ecstasy. I stand firm in my belief that Rogue’s soulmate is Gambit, and seeing them develop a consummate love like that of Mock and Tredwell would be astonishing to read.
That being said, not all trans characters should have their life’s joy tied exclusively to the concept of romance either. As the Transgender Law Center’s More Than Marriage campaign attests, while the freedom to marry is important, it is not the most critical factor to our survival. Moreover, deconstructing the myth that trans identities are contingent on who the individual is sexually attracted to means portraying trans characters whose narratives exist outside of a quest for romance.
As with cis individuals, there are trans folk who are straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual; those who are happiest in consummate monogamous sexual relationships and those who are happiest being single and sexually free. Furthermore, some are asexual, with certain individuals being interested in romantic courtship without sexual activity and others who possess no interest in sexual or romantic pairing whatsoever. It is important to remember that sex, romance and marriage in particular do not factor into everyone’s definition of happiness. Diversity in trans representation means displaying diversity in trans romance as well as the absence of it.
Aside from class, employment and romance, there is the very topic which brought about this discussion in the first place: religion. To be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in America and in several places around the world is to have an inherently turbulent relationship with theology. Those raised in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in particular can face terrible persecution at the hands of relatives, as well as members of the larger community who interpret religious doctrine through a heteronormative and cisnormative metaphysical worldview. As such, the choice to embrace faith or denounce it is an infinitely more taxing journey than for those who are cisgender heterosexuals.
Michael Holt, the second hero to take the mantle Mister Terrific, is one of the most intelligent fictional characters to grace the comic book industry. A certified genius with expertise in engineering and physics, he is also one of the most high profile atheists in publication. While his intelligence is a rebuke of the most heinous inferiorizing stereotypes about black people, his atheism in and of itself underscores a unique struggle among Black Americans, as much of our culture is intrinsically tied to the Black Church.
According to Atheists in America (2014) edited by Melanie E. Brewster, “[i]n the United States, one cannot legitimately claim patriotism, humanity, or morality without also claiming religious belief. If the claim of religious belief is used as a stepping stone for whites pursuing upward mobility—well-paying jobs, corporate ownership, election to political office, and more—it has been absolutely critical for the mere survival of black people. Black parents often see no alternative beyond making sure that their children, irrespective of all other values taught to them, embrace religious belief.”
To avoid being dehumanized by a dominant white culture, people of color often attempt to adhere to the fallacy of respectability politics in a futile attempt to elicit compassion and empathy from an inherently flawed system. Consequently, a narrow definition of morality, gender role and sexual integrity manifests itself in black consciousness, creating a false dichotomy between “respectable” and “unrespectable” black people who are either working for or against our struggle for racial equality. This mentality can also take hold among other ethnic minorities as well.
Thus, if we were to re-envision Michael Holt as a black trans atheist, a triple axis of oppression creates an infinite number of ways transphobia can present itself in day-to-day life. Holt’s moral center, intellect and masculinity would all face hostility, not only because of his race or rejection of theology, but also because of his assigned sex.
Of course, atheism is no more immune to bigotry than theology. It’s important to underscore the fact that transphobia manifests itself in secular social circles as well. There are plenty of nonbelievers who are genital essentialists, relying exclusively on anatomy, outdated models of mental health and other personal biases, who are as just as abusive and/or violent towards transgender people as any theist.
We must also acknowledge not all LGBT people come to the conclusion to reject theology. While there are those who would recommend all LGBT people simply abandon religion to avoid abuse, it is not a reasonable recommendation for everyone. In the same way it is abusive to force a narrow theological worldview on someone, such as in the way Leelah Alcorn was victimized, it is equally abusive to attempt to impose atheism on an individual committed to their faith.
Instead of disavowing religion altogether, mental health experts recommend LGBT people who have experienced religious abuse seek out bodies of faith which are inherently LGBT-affirming. Organizations I’ve worked with personally include the United Churches of Christ’s Open and Affirming Coalition, the Episcopal Church’s Integrity USA, the Catholic Church’s Dignity USA and Catholics For Equality, the Lutheran Church’s Reconciling Works, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, More Light Presbyterians and the international Keshet—the World Congress of LGBT Jews. Additionally, there is also the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which was recently founded in 2013.
Since there are those of us who remain devoted to the religious tradition in which we were raised or make the choice to convert to a different system of belief, it is important to develop characters who are religious devotees, such as the X-Man Nightcrawler, who is one of the most recognizable theists in comic books. There should be depictions of trans superheroes who are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Taoist and more.
There is also a need for gender variant characters whose genders stem from their cultural (and often spiritual) heritage, such as Two-Spirit people of Native American and First Nation tribes, the Hijra of South Asia, the Sworn Virgins of the Balkans and Albania, the Fa’afafine of Samoa, the Māhū of Hawaii, and the Muxe of Mexico, among others. The development of transgender characters who are theists is necessary to illustrate that one does not need to make a choice between faith and gender.
To reiterate, I don’t expect any of the major publishing houses to be radical enough to have any of their iconic characters come out as trans (though there would appear to be the perfect opportunity to do so with the Secret Wars and Convergence storylines), but at the very least I hope editors and creative teams will take the opportunity expand their worldview and commit themselves to telling authentic trans narratives that everyone can see a reflection of themselves in. Let’s give every gender non-conforming child the superhero—the beacon of hope—they deserve.
J. Skyler is an author, public speaker and activist on LGBT history, culture, and politics, and feminism and gender equality. You can read more of her writing on comics at Comicosity. Follow her on Twitter at @jskylerinc or find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jskylerincorporated.