Media representations of transpeople's intimate relationships
by Tam Sanger
Transpeople's intimate relationships are almost entirely unrepresented within academia, with the majority of trans-related literature focusing on medical, psychological and social aspects of the lives of transpeople themselves, with their partners, friends and families scarcely mentioned. Media coverage is more likely to involve discussion of intimate relationships, but often in a fairly sensational and marginalising manner, where those being talked about are represented as being somehow outside of 'normality.' This is exemplified in media coverage of the film Normal. Normal, an American film directed by Jane Anderson, was made for the television channel HBO and screened from 16th March through April 2003. The film portrays the lives of a married couple and their children throughout the transition of the transwoman partner. In reference to the challenges faced by transpeople and those who share their lives David Steinberg reports in Spectator Magazine that "'Normal' presents these issues as complex and deserving of respect, rather than trivializing them, or titillating us with the peculiar pleasure of watching people lost in dilemmas that (we imagine) will never be our own" (Steinberg, 2003). The wording here implies that those reading the article are not transpeople or in any way affected by trans issues (at the time of reading), which reflects that transpeople are still not perceived as 'normal.' This is reiterated in the statement "perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Normal is that it presents the issues of a family undergoing gender transition as being not so different from the issues that face the rest of us" (Steinberg, 2003). Again, transpeople and their families are envisaged as 'other', and are not incorporated through the article into Steinberg's readership (the rest of us). However, Normal itself does tackle issues surrounding the lived experiences of transpeople's friends and families as well as of transpeople themselves, and, as stated by A. J. Frutkin in The Washington Post, "...under Anderson's direction, surprise often gives way to a deeper understanding of a topic that, for many, remains incomprehensible" (Frutkin, 2003). Although some in the media are perhaps becoming more accepting of transpeople, Steinberg's comments show that transpeople and their friends and families are still perceived as outsiders, as 'different.'
The majority of media representations of transgenderism, however, are seemingly not so interested in promoting understanding, and do tend to engender titillation and sensationalism. One example of this type of representation was an edition of the talk show Kilroy aired in the U.K. on 17th December 2002, which focused on relationships involving transpeople. In this program the presenter, Robert Kilroy Silk, talks to an audience which includes a number of transpeople and their partners, about issues surrounding such relationships. Kilroy Silk is at one point talking to the partner of a transwoman, and he asks her, "Did you feel sick?" (BBC, 2002) as they discuss the day that her partner 'came out' to her as transsexual. She makes it quite clear that she didn't feel sick and continues to talk about her relationship, whilst Kilroy Silk asks her leading questions clearly meant to add sensationalism to the story. One of the comments he makes to a partner is, "I don't know . . . what's the turn on?" (BBC, 2002) Kilroy Silk also comments about one partner "She was making love to a bloke, now she's making (pause) to a half woman, half bloke" (BBC, 2002). One of the transwomen in the audience asserts, "it's nice to think that love is more important than the sexual relationship" (BBC, 2002). This is a recurring theme brought up by transpeople and partners who have remained together through 'coming out' and transition. Of course, due to the changes which will be implemented if the Gender Recognition Bill is successful, these married individuals who have stayed together through transition will be forced to divorce in order for the trans-partner to obtain a new birth certificate. The government, it seems, is not so convinced of the importance of love within intimate relationships.
The relationships which the media is interested in seem to be those involving a transwoman and her non-trans female partner. How many newspaper or magazine articles have you read where a transman and his partner are being interviewed, or even two transpeople? Why are these types of stories not published? Perhaps transwomen and their non-trans female partners are more willing to discuss their lives. Could the more ready acceptance of transwomen's stories by the media be related to the fact that transwomen are in a way moving down the social ladder by giving up their perceived male privilege, and this is easier for society to deal with than transmen moving up the ladder and gaining privilege? After all, maybe if the existence of transmen was common knowledge we would all want to 'become men' and gain the privileges therein! I have heard it said that transwomen (particularly if transitioning late in life) are often more obviously trans and transmen can blend into society more easily. If this is in fact the case, maybe those who cannot become 'stealth' are more likely to be open about their lives and where they have come from, in order to raise awareness of transgender issues and elicit understanding from society. Another possibility is that a belief exists that the heterosexual basis of our society would be undermined if heterosexual relationships involving transpeople (i.e. a transwoman and non-trans male partner, a transman and non-trans female partner, or a transman and a transwoman) were more visible. Would the fact that transpeople can be heterosexual confuse widespread ideas about heterosexual relationships as being between supposedly 'normal' individuals, who were labelled at birth as a man and a woman and stayed that way? Perhaps this could be a problem as it is more difficult to marginalise those who can be seen to fit into preferred societal relationship configurations. Of course there are more questions than answers here, but I do think it's an interesting area which hasn't really been investigated to date.
I feel that there are many questions which have not been answered, or even asked, about transpeople's intimate relationships and I believe that academia can provide an important arena for the synthesis and exploration of such questions. Much of academia has in the past been disparaging about transpeople, but I would like to think that a new wave of academics is emerging, ready to dispel some of the myths and half-truths which currently exist within areas such as Medicine, Gender Studies, Psychology, and Sociology.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 29.12.04