NEW YORK — In May 2014, actress Laverne Cox made history by being the first openly transgender person on the cover of Time magazine. She stood confident and beautiful, as the magazine declared that “The Transgender Tipping Point” had hit the mainstream. Cox, a black transgender actress known for her role in Orange is the New Black, was held up as a symbol of the mainstream’s newfound acceptance and celebration of transgender life.
The same year, the FBI released hate crime statistics indicating that incidents of violence and threats against transgender individuals had tripled, from 31 to 98. By 2015, that number would increase to 114. As the Human Rights Campaign noted, “the number likely only represents a fraction of such cases given that thousands of law enforcement agencies throughout the country did not submit any data.”
Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, is a new book from editors Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton and co-published by the New Museum and MIT Press. The book’s title suggests its subject, which explores the yin and yang of visibility, which offers a door that is also a trap, “accommodating,” as the New Museum notes, “trans bodies and communities only insofar as they cooperate with dominant norms.”
A launch party this past Thursday at the museum featured the editors and contributors Che Gossett, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Juliana Huxtable, and Toshio Meronek. Miss Major, executive director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, noted that this era of increased visibility places transgender women of color, especially sex workers, at increased risk: “Their lives are in danger because of this,” because violent actors take out their transphobia not on celebrities like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Caitlyn Jenner. Miss Major, whose activism dates back to Stonewall, highlighted the fact that transgender issues are being commodified by the mainstream in a way that has never happened before, but few people without what we commonly refer to as ‘privilege’ — advantages afforded to people based on their background — find themselves in media.
The book is itself a highly visible object, with a cover featuring actress Mya Taylor in her role as legendary performer and activist Marsha P. Johnson from the film Happy Birthday, Marsha! (written and directed by Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel) and 448 pages of content ranging from essays to interviews. As such, the politics of aesthetics was a core topic of discussion. Reina Gossett noted that the book, which features full-color artwork throughout, is “insistent in its beauty.” Tying together aesthetics and politics, she pointed toward anti-crossdressing laws in New York City and how notions of bodily control continue in the prison system, where transgender people have limited, if any, control over their gender expression. She noted that, early in her activism, she didn’t think aesthetics had a role to play, but that laws and regulations that control how people dress are in fact judgments on aesthetic appearances.
The panel discussed a wide range of topics, from the meaning of trauma and trust, to the basic reality of economic equity that many transgender people do not have access to, and femme presentation politics. Audience members from the packed house asked critical questions about the realities of employment — how can you get a job if no one will give you a chance? how can you get a referral if your previous employers don’t know you transitioned? — and what it means when so few transgender people are lifted up to represent such a complex and rich community.
Artist Juliana Huxtable observed that the best remedy to the “packaging and distributing of our stories” by cisgender people is to collaborate with other transgender people to make work and to find and cultivate role models. What this looks like in practice, what precious few examples exist, and how to build toward this reality could have been an entire panel in itself. The evening’s discussion, featuring predominantly transgender people of color, felt like a key step in the right direction toward Huxtable’s recommendation, but as Miss Major reminded the audience: “We don’t have economic security.” In a country where transgender people suffer three times the unemployment rate of the average population, the doors to visibility may seem wider than ever, but many are still trapped fighting for safety and stability.