Today is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which you might never have heard of, and thus actually proves why it is important. The Trans Day of Remembrance in November is when we mourn our losses, today is the day we celebrate those of us who are still here. It’s a day when we stand up and say that we’re going to be visible, that we’re not going to be ashamed of who we are, and that we’re going to fight for our rights and freedoms. If you look for it online I’m sure you’ll find lots of celebrations of people and the great work they do being visible (like the awesome web series Her Story or the charming indie film Boy Meets Girl) but I wanted to do something a little different.
I was in the closet for 27 years of my life and there was a long time where I didn’t feel like I saw myself directly represented in any media, and definitely not in a very positive way when they did show up. I’ve managed to find some great representation since then, but I mostly had to get mine from metaphorical understanding. So I just want to celebrate some of that stuff here. So I give you, The Riley Silverman List Of Cultural Things That Aren’t At All Visibly Trans
In the late 1980’s, Batmania had swept the nation. If you’re too young to remember, the bat symbol was so prevalent in our culture that people were actually getting it shaved into their hair. (I wanted to, my mom wouldn’t let me.) This of course also meant that Mad and Cracked magazines had their parody versions of the Burton movie. Those of you who remember the movie might remember a scene where Alfred lets Vicki Vale into the Batcave, thus failing at the one job that Alfred actually has, which is to not tell people that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Anyway, in one of those parody comics, they shortened this scene so that Bruce just stepped out of a closet in the batsuit, and Vicki Vale says “Oh you’re a transvestite.” I had to ask my babysitter what it meant, and she explained it to me. And completely blew my mind.
Okay, look, the word ‘transvestite’ does not apply to me. In fact you really shouldn’t use it to describe anyone who doesn’t directly tell you that it is how they identify, because damn has it been used in some pretty nasty, ugly, and psychologically gatekeeping ways to screw with the lives of trans people. Having said that, this was the first time in my life that I had ever heard of a word that described something even remotely close to how I felt. It was the first time in my life where I didn’t feel like I was broken. So as a result of that, Batman has always held a very special place in my heart, even though I prefer Marvel to DC tenfold. I feel like Batman was looking out for me that day. A friend of mine too pointed out that Batman’s costume, his whole image, presents this overly masculine, terrifying ideal, and yet his most formidable foe is a highly feminine male who thrives on telling “Bats” just how similar the two of them are.
Because of all this, I love that Batgirl comics were on the forefront of introducing three dimensional transgender characters into mainstream comics with Alysia Yeoh. It took my personal connection and made it a real thing.
Sidenote, if you want to see true panic in the eyes of a teenage babysitter, be a child in her care in the 1980s, get her to define ‘transvestite’ and then respond with an excited, “Oh that’s what I am!”
One of these days I’m going to write a full-scale ‘Underappreciated Gems’ review of this joint-production between Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick. But if you want to talk about a metaphor for the trans experience, you can’t get much more on the nose than this mix of science fiction and fairy tale. So, we have a little boy, David, who is absolutely certain that he is a little boy, despite the fact that the entire world seems to really want to convince him that he’s a robot. David knows he isn’t though, and he goes on a hero’s journey to try to prove it. He loses his family, he travels through some of the ugliest parts of humanity, and also some of the brightest, most colorful parts as well, he meets up with a scientist who thinks he has David all figured out but is totally wrong. And while the movie never actually makes David physically become “a real boy,” he does find his blue angel, and eventually gets reunited with his mother, giving him that one perfect day that made it all worth it. Shut up, you’re crying.
3. Doctor Who
Okay, so this one came up after I was already out, but it is still one of my big ones. Like so big that I’m planning on getting a tattoo about it. Putting aside the really, really obvious example of the fact that it is now canonical that Time Lords can change gender when they regenerate, even the very concept of regeneration rings so close to home for me and many, many other trans Whovians I’ve talked to about this. The idea of a part of yourself dying, and you being reborn as seemingly a whole new person who looks completely different but you’re still you, and your experiences and memories still matter? It’s practically on a tee.
For me this really got hammered home with the regeneration of Matt Smith’s Doctor into Peter Capaldi’s. When Smith regenerates at the end of “The Time of the Doctor”, he monologues because, well, he’s the Eleventh Doctor and that’s what he does. At the time I had not yet begun hormone treatment but I was getting ready to start the process, and he drops this gem:
“We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”
As someone who had danced around every different variation of gender identity before deciding to transition, this was the most spot-on description of fluidity of self, of gender, or identity that I’d ever heard. Then we cut to series 8, and the scene pictured above at the end of “Deep Breath.” Where the Twelfth Doctor senses that his companion Clara is going to leave him, and he pleads with her to realize that he’s the same Doctor she’s known and loved. “You can’t see me, can you? You… you look at me and you can’t see me. Do you have any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone, I’m right here. Standing in front of you. Please, just… Just see me,” those last three words echo in my mind constantly. I wear them around my neck in a necklace that has them printed in the Doctor’s Gallifreyan language. These words repeat in my mind whenever I’m misgendered, whenever the mask that is this body I was dealt prevents someone from understanding me. Just see me.
4. Werewolf: The Apocalypse
So, I’ve definitely spent some time in my life with tabletop and LARPing, and the game that got me totally into it was this one above. In general werewolves and other monsters that can look like people can sync well with the trans experience, but this one especially really connected with me, and in ways I didn’t completely understand til I was older. The idea of these beings who live among humanity, keeping their true nature a secret because they know they will be hated and feared? Especially in this series where the werewolves (Garou!) were actually fairly benevolent, and were unjustly maligned because of that fear? Oh, yes, for sure. Much relating.
5. The Shawshank Redemption
Andy Dufresne is literally a prisoner because no one else believes what he knows about himself to be true. And while he manages to overcome most of the prison hardships and craft a life of relative comfort, he’s still a prisoner and he must carve away at his walls piece by piece and literally crawl through shit to get free of them. Throw in the fact that one of his (literal) gatekeepers is a corrupt warden who proselytizes fundamentalist Christian sentiments but also operates a criminal enterprise out of his own prison, forcing Andy to be complicit in the profit system that also reinforces his own incarceration. You dig?
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I was the exact perfect age for Buffy when it was on, and for my adolescence there was no show that came close to topping it in my heart. There was just no stopping a world where there was a special secret type of teenage girl that no one knew was actually really powerful and had the strength to keep the monsters of the world at bay? Even though I was more of a Willow girl myself, especially when she came out as a lesbian (R.I.P. Tara), there was definitely something very powerful in what Buffy Summers represented to me as a teenage girl. The only real difference, besides the fighting vampires part, is that everyone thought that Buffy was just a teenage girl, and no one was aware that I actually was one.