It’s no secret that Black queer identities on television and in film have historically been squeezed into stereotypical boxes and relegated to side plots. Even when those stories are finally brought to the main screen, very rarely do they engage with the nuanced, intersectional lived experience of those who identify as Black and queer.
Tre’vell Anderson wants to change that with their new book, “We See Each Other – A Black, Trans Journey Through Television and Film”. Anderson’s encyclopedic work takes a groundbreaking look at the history of transgender representation in TV and film, taking the reader along on a personal journey through the history of trans visibility. “We See Each Other” likewise offers up important guidance as to how media can increase representation, both in front of and behind the camera screen. It’s a work that knows exactly the extent to which trans people have always been here and will always be here, both on television and on this planet.
INTO sat down with Anderson to talk about the book, their journey as a Black, queer, nonbinary journalist/storyteller, and why “We See Each Other” is so vital during a time of aggressive anti-trans legislation.
INTO: You open the book by talking about your nonbinary journey and even include a photo of your grandmother. Why was it so important for you to begin with that story?
Tre’vell Anderson: I come from a Black family that doesn’t speak a lot about those who came before us. It was important for me—as it has always been—to tell my story, and to also tell the very complicated story of my family along with the need to document our existence and have some sort of record. A record of how we have lived and will continue to live at this time. My grandmother factors very heavily into my coming of self, because she helped raise me. I was raised in the church and I talk about that in the introduction. Beyond this book, I’ve spoken about how so much of my upbringing and my learning of self happened in the church. I learned how to perform gender in the church, as well as other things. And even further beyond that, my grandmother was a bad bitch. She was a Black woman who felt called to ministry in a church that would not allow her and other women to preach. She started her own church. She was a pivotal part of my history and broader Black history.
Much of the book discusses a personal relationship you have to trans visibility. What does it mean to you to be seen?
Being seen is about me seeing myself. Being my own witness because so much about the broader world doesn’t see us the way we want to be seen. It doesn’t care when it comes to seeing many of us. And when I say seeing us and seeing me specifically, I particularly mean with the nuances within my lived experience as a Black and queer person. I think it specifically means the world seeing my worth—some sort of purpose. All of that comes with being seen by others. But when I talk about the prevailing way that visibility has manifested for me in my life, it has been about ensuring that. I am comfortable and happy with who I am and how I show up in the world, the world be damned. [Visibility] allows me to find community, while it allows us to be assured in ourselves, and helps us to unlock various possibilities of how to exist and how to be. How to move throughout the world. But it’s important for me to note that to be seen is also to be a target. To be at once be aspirational and inspiring to folks, but to also be a target. This is the daily struggle.
Thinking about all the issues trans people are facing currently, what can folks learn from this book? In what ways has it helped you?
I’ll say I was less concerned about the book being a tool or resource of some sort. By which I mean that, while I recognize the socio-political landscape in which my book is coming out, I also recognize the fact that some people who pick up this book might not have ever thought this particular way about trans images or trans visibility and the visibility of gender nonconforming aesthetics and culture. Thus, there are elements to the book that aim to speak to those folks and provide education to those who haven’t seen us.
For me, it was mainly about context. So often, folks believe that we as trans folks dropped out of the sky with Laverne Cox and Orange is the New Black. They only think about Chaz Bono, right? They don’t know about Ajita Wilson or Jackie Shane, or Isis King and Ale Maldonado, right? Or that before Naomi was on Legendary she was on America’s Next Best Dance Crew. I wanted this book to provide context to these moments and the discourse that we are having now, because so much of our history happens in a piecemeal format. My goal with this book was to give folks images, but also to remind folks about the moments that aren’t trans images. Thinking about RuPaul and drag and Madea plays. We also need to have that conversation, right? About the ways in which trans is also used for comedic value.
Why was it so important for you to share so much of yourself in writing this book?
Well, I think so often of those of us who are bestowed with the title of “expert” in various situations. Oftentimes, those folks speak from a place of knowing better or being better than the folks they’re speaking to. As if we’ve always been the most ethical, the most inclusive people when the reality is that many of us—most of us, if not all of us—are legitimately working through the exact same struggles, even as we are lifted up as experts [in transness.] I knew that so much of the discourse about trans visibility often centers and focuses on trans women and femmes. There are plenty of reasons for that which I list in the book. We don’t talk about transmasculine culture and trans men enough. So I knew that I wanted to do a chapter specifically about trans men in broader pop culture. I felt the need to interrogate my own reporting, my own paying attention to or lack thereof of trans men and transmasculine folks. And the reality was, I wasn’t thinking about or considering transmasculine people and the specificity and uniqueness of their experiences. It was me hoping that in sharing my experiences, we can recognize that no matter where you are on the spectrum, we all got work to do.
What advice do you have for those who are queer/trans/nonbinary and still struggling to see their beauty?
For so long, I did not know my wondrousness. Because I was told that I was the only one when the reality is that we belong to a long history and line of trans excellence. Folks often say—and it ends up being a very cliche thing, right?—how you can’t be what you can’t see? That type of thing. And it is super cliche, but there’s a lot of truth to it. I titled the book, “We See Each Other” because I want to be clear about who I’m talking to. Everybody else, you can read the book. I want folks to buy the book. But as I say in the introduction, this isn’t a book written for the cisgender imagination. It is complex. It is non-linear. It is how my mind works. Which I recognize might be an interesting experience for a reader, to jump into my world. To see things from where I see things. I just want folks to feel empowered to know more bits and pieces of our history as trans people, specifically as Black trans people. And to see how that history in particular has manifested in my life, and how it can manifest in all our lives. ♦