In Transition

30 May 2016 Cerise Howard

In Transition

Photograph by Netflix

Earlier this year I was commissioned to write an op-ed piece about The Danish Girl, then in contention for Oscar glory. Why me? I’m far from the only film critic in town. The clue is in the title: ‘Get real Hollywood and catch up with the wider world: A trans woman’s view of The Danish Girl.’

It seems the arts editors at the newspaper in question saw the benefit in including the seldom-aired perspective of an actual trans woman – on a film purporting to represent an actual trans pioneer’s struggles. A film that, in my opinion, falls far short of the mark. Ultimately, it was most disappointing by not being about someone half-woman, half-pastry.

But, more seriously, The Danish Girl disappointed in its blanket casting of cisgender people (a person whose gender aligns with what they were assigned at birth).

Now, a few months later, I’m reflecting on that article and the developments since it was published. Here in Australia, numerous column inches have suddenly been given over to trans issues, and a whole lot of attention has been garnered by (albeit, flawed) films like The Danish Girl and prominent trans personalities from the US and Europe, like Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox. But has this meant that the lived experiences of regular trans and gender-diverse folk in Australia are any better?

Analysing The Danish Girl and its representation of the LGBTIQ community is complex. In my original analysis I regretfully failed to mention that – among the many liberties taken in bringing Lili Elbe’s story to the big screen – the film neglected her possible intersex status. While the intersex community (those whose anatomy doesn’t fit the usual male or female categories) is typically at pains to make clear that their issues are not to be conflated with those of the transgender community, they are also right to grumble about The Danish Girl’s “transwashing”.

These disappointments aside, the trans community has recently had some high-profile gains. We now number not one, but two Wachowskis on Team Trans (this year Matrix director Lilly Wachowski joined sister Lana in coming out as trans) and, locally, Jordan Raskopoulos of musical comedy act The Axis of Awesome has gamely gone public with her transition. There was also worldwide lamentation for the premature passing of Prince, another celebrated gender-nonconformist. But, for all of that, there has also been a nasty backlash fomenting against the gender diverse in the public sphere, both here and abroad.

In March in the US, Governor of North Carolina Pat McCrory signed into law what has come to be known as the “bathroom bill”, an egregiously transphobic piece of legislation demanding that people use public conveniences in accordance with their sex per their birth certificates, rather than their lived gender identity. Supposedly, it’s about protecting the public. But, as no incidences of trans people molesting members of the general public in a restroom have ever been reported, McCrory’s bill is demonstrably nothing but a bid to impose binary models of gender. What’s more, legislation such as his actually puts anybody whose perceived gender is not immediately perceptible at risk of, at best, embarrassment and, at worst, violence.

More happily, however, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has advised that her office is seeking a court order declaring the bathroom bill to be “impermissibly discriminatory”.

Battles over transgender lines are being waged closer to home, too. In February the government ordered a funding review of the Safe Schools program, an initiative designed to bolster young and vulnerable LGBTIQ people’s self-esteem and security. Fortunately, some resistance has been forthcoming at state levels, with Victoria pledging to keep the program alive, undiminished, through its own funding, and with similar positive noises emanating from the ACT. And, as I type this, we’re approaching IDAHoBiT (the International Day Against Homophobia/Biphobia and Transphobia), when the Victorian AIDS Council will launch the Equinox Gender Diverse Health Centre, a welcome complement to other services and cultural events specifically dedicated to improving the lives of local trans and gender-diverse people.

Support is growing at the grassroots level for a community only really now asserting itself as such. That people might claim a trans or non-binary/genderqueer identity is still quite a new development. The received wisdom for many years has been that if one was to be trans – to “change sex”, as it were – one really ought keep pretty bloody quiet about it and simply learn to “pass” as “the other” gender, no matter that this was often exceedingly difficult to accomplish, perilous to employment prospects and often physically dangerous.

Just south of six foot four, I’m conspicuous at the best of times. Yet these days, as I go about my business, I’m seldom accosted in the street and I no longer feel at risk of a violent encounter like when I began transitioning more than 10 years ago. I’m no longer even mistaken for other trans folk; visibly trans people were evidently such a novelty a few years back that I was sometimes misapprehended as being other trans people altogether, even when I in no way resembled them...

The more that positive trans role models emerge into the limelight, the better. Laverne Cox remains inspirational, in and out of character as Orange Is the New Black’s Sophia Burset. And Melbourne-raised supermodel Andreja Pejić is representing Australia admirably on the world stage. But oh! If only Australia, now that it’s (inexplicably) part of Eurovision, could have found a Dana International or a Conchita Wurst to represent it!

In all seriousness, though, I dream that one day a genderqueer thespian turns in a performance in a major motion picture of such brilliance that the anachronistic Best Actor/Actress binary category has to be dismantled wholesale to accommodate their nomination. But that’s another battle, for another day...

Cerise Howard is, among other things, a film critic and a member of the team behind tilde: Melbourne's Trans and Gender Diverse Film Festival.