When Trans Visibility Comes At The Cost Of Trans Safety

Getting a few trans people on screen is not the same as trans liberation. There’s no doubt that cultural visibility has turned ordinary trans people into prey.

trans day of visibility

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Last year, the trolls came for my blood. It was December, I’d just published an op-ed in The Age about trans representation and was now a Visible Trans Person. My article, combined with several tweets, provoked the ire of online TERFs and other transphobes. My words were picked up by reactionary publications. For my sins, I was called a “heckler” and “hysterical rainbow bully”. The Catholics accused me of propagating “neo-Marxist gender ideology”.

On Twitter, I fronted an army of trolls. They took me to task for “censorship”, “insanity” and “cry-bully tactics”. I was a “groomer” who supported “state-sanctioned child abuse”. I was a “moron”, a “fascist”, a “stupid twat”. A “despicable human being”. Even a “satanist”, according to one unhappy chap.

So extreme was the vitriol, it would’ve been laughable if it wasn’t so alarming. Private messages placed curses on my family. I was sent a GIF of a burning effigy. “Fuck off”. “Piss off, zealot”. “Grow a spine snowflake”. It was relentless. This went on for days until, after almost a week, exhausted by the deluge, fearful of escalation, I deactivated my account.

A few weeks later, I read The Undying, poet Anne Boyer’s excoriation of cancer narratives. Almost every sentence was a revelation, but my heart skipped a beat when Boyer took a scalpel to the fetishisation of ‘visibility’. “Visibility,” she explains, “doesn’t reliably change the relations of power to who or what is visible except insofar as visible prey are easier to hunt.”

Visible prey are easier to hunt. Of course: I’d poked my head above the parapet, become a visible target, and then — predictably– was shot down by the hordes below. This trolling was nothing compared to the life-threatening hatred and violence commonplace to trans experience, but it gave me an instructive taste of visibility’s shadow side. It taught me that visibility without justice is just a fancy name for throwing people under the bus.

Today, 31 March, is Trans Day of Visibility. This is an international event, held annually since 2009, to celebrate the trans and gender diverse community and promote trans visibility. The day has a festive air, intended to balance the sombre Trans Day of Remembrance on 20 November — an occasion to remember trans victims of violence.

Certainly, there’s good reason to celebrate and champion trans visibility. It changes lives; it saved mine.

For most of my life, I couldn’t be trans because I couldn’t see trans. During my youth in the 1990s and early 2000s, the only trans people in my orbit were punchlines and freaks, such as the trans woman in Ace Ventura who prompts Jim Carrey to vomit with disgust. With no fully human trans folk in sight, my childhood brain banished transness from the realm of the possible.

It is no accident that everything changed for me in the wake of the so-called ‘trans tipping point’. In May 2014, Time magazine put Black trans actress Laverne Cox on its cover and proclaimed ‘The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier’. In the seven years since, we’ve seen unprecedented trans visibility, ranging from shows like Transparent, POSE, Gentleman Jack and The L Word: Generation Q; to new trans celebrities like Sam Smith, Caitlyn Jenner and Elliot Page. Trans visibility has even reached Neighbours, that stalwart of white-bread Australia. Since 2019, trans advocate Georgie Stone OAM has played Mackenzie Hargreaves, a teen making her way at Erinsborough High.

As a result, we’ve had transness depicted as a legitimate way to be human. Cis-normativity continues to rule our imaginations, but the cracks are beginning to show. For the first time, people uncomfortable with their assigned gender have guides and examples of who we might become.

It was all this visibility that, in 2018, allowed me to finally recognise myself as trans. At that point, I was a thirty-year-old woman, plagued by eating disorders and depression, struggling to understand why I felt a prisoner in my own body. Seeing myself in trans characters enabled me to grasp the problem: I wasn’t a woman at all.

My experience is far from unique. Trans identification has skyrocketed in the wake of the trans tipping point. In Melbourne, the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Clinic has seen a significant growth in referrals, rising from three in 2007 to 250 per year in 2017. At the Monash Gender Clinic, which caters to adults, referrals increased from 88 in 2011 to 247 in 2017.

Similar trends are evident overseas. A Gallup poll of fifteen thousand Americans, released in early 2021, found that Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) is the queerest generation yet. One in six identified as LGBTQIA+, with 1.8 percent of Gen Z specifically identifying as trans. This is a big jump from millennials, of whom one in ten are LGTBQIA+, and 1.2 percent are trans. Among baby boomers, only one in fifty are LGBTQIA+ and 0.2 percent are trans. Worldwide, the mainstreaming of trans identities has enabled unprecedented numbers to recognise their transness and come out of the closet.

But as I discovered last December, visibility comes at a cost. Getting a few trans people on screen is not the same as trans liberation. For a marginalised minority like the trans community, who face disproportionate rates of violence and discrimination, visibility alone is not an inherent good. On the contrary, it can in fact render us more vulnerable to harm. As Boyer warned, being visible makes trans people easier to hunt.

There’s no doubt that cultural visibility has indeed turned ordinary trans people into prey. Transphobia did not magically evaporate in 2014: in fact, it’s arguably increased. In the years since the ‘tipping point’, we’ve witnessed a global transphobic backlash, characterised by anti-trans legislation, media commentary and violence.

Trans hate crimes are higher than ever. In 2020, at least 350 trans people were killed worldwide — up from 331 in 2019. This violence is disproportionately directed towards transfeminine people, especially trans women of colour. In the United States, ‘bathroom bills’ — legislation that restricts trans people’s access to public bathrooms — have been proliferating in red states. In the UK, celebrities like J.K. Rowling have mainstreamed TERF discourse, while 2020’s Tavistock case rolled back access to gender affirming healthcare for trans youth.

Here in Australia, the 2016 moral panic over Safe Schools was followed in 2019 by The Australian’s anti-trans campaign. That same year, legislative reform in Victoria inspired transphobic fearmongering by TERFs. In 2021, the University of Melbourne academic Holly Lawford-Smith launched a website to amplify the disproven transphobic trope that trans women act as predators in female bathrooms. Despite complaints, University administrators have yet to ensure trans safety on campus.

This Trans Day of Visibility, I’m not satisfied with trans flags and hashtags — I want to change the relations of power. I want the media to stop platforming TERFs; I want justice for trans victims of violence like Mhelody Bruno, killed in 2019 by her partner; and I want the 78 percent of Australians who support trans rights to act on that belief.

Above all, I don’t want to be frightened for myself and every other visible trans person. I want a world we can dance on the parapet, shake our glorious trans booties, kick our legs high into the sky, and be greeted with nothing other than cheers and applause. Because if you look properly, if you allow us to become truly visible, you’ll see that trans people are magic and deserve nothing less.

Dr Yves Rees is a writer and historian living on unceded Wurundjeri land. They are a Lecturer in History at La Trobe University and the co-host of Archive Fever podcast. Their memoir All About Yves: Notes from a Transition will be published by Allen & Unwin in late 2021.