When was the first time you learned you were tragic?
Let me rephrase: who was the first character who told you that you, as a queer person, were tragic?
For me, it was Angel.
You remember Angel, right? She’s the one trans character in “Rent,” a show that is ostensibly supposed to be about queerness and LES bohemia during the AIDS epidemic.
I remember being at summer camp and waking up to the “Rent” soundtrack (original Broadway cast) being piped through someone’s shitty CD speakers each morning. This is how I slowly came to understand what “Rent” was about. Nobody really talked about what “Rent” was or gave any context. On the face of it, our camp cabin was basically just a bunch of (ostensibly) straight cis girls singing along to show tunes. The word “gay” never came up in our conversations about the musical, nor did the word “trans.” But someone gave me a crucial piece of information at one point: that Angel was a “drag queen,” and that she dies.
I can’t remember the exact reason we were having this very public conversation, but I remember the phrasing of it so clearly.
Angel is a drag queen.
And guess what? I wasn’t alone. On Twitter, I asked people who their first “tragic trans” character was. The results were familiar to me: most of the media people referenced were films and shows I’d already been aware of, either because of their transphobic content, or because they were inescapable. The sad thing is that everybody’s got one: whoever you are, if you came of age before 2014, you’ve probably got a crystal-clear memory of the first media that told you you were an abomination.
João: The first one I remembered was on a “Law and Order: SVU” episode. It was a trans woman. I remember the episode making me feel very sad over her, because it seemed that the protagonists, who we are supposed to cheer for, were out to make her, who was the victim, into the villain of the whole story.
It ended with the trans woman being convicted and sent to male prison, and the episode ends with the protagonists learning that she was assaulted in prison.
I think I was around 10 – 12 years old. Around 2005 – 2007. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a queer person on media in general. I don’t remember seeing any positive portrayal before.
At the time I didn’t knew what I was feeling, but now I know that I was very scared of that happening with me for some reason. And I was very sad for the woman, she didn’t deserve any of that.
After that, I stopped watching cop shows, and most TV at the time. I also got this idea that the USA was a place where trans people aren’t allowed to be happy, and considering recent events, I think I’m right.
Emory: I think Boys Don’t Cry both sent the “tragic” message and also gave teen me a very screwed up image of what the transmasc spectrum could be, which meant I didn’t realize I was trans until I was in my 30s.
Violet: Probably Boys Don’t Cry? It was long before I even dreamt about transitioning, but it sure filled me with a sense of, well, something. Something akin to “That’s fucked up”.
Emma: I’m…60 next month. As with the rest of my transgender brothers and sisters, I knew who I was and what people “out there” were told to think about us. This was hammered home in one line from the film Klute, when Jane Fonda’s character berated Donald Sutherland’s by asking him what line of supposed deviance he was “into.”
“What’s your bag, Klute?” She asks. “What do you like? Are you a talker? A button freak? Maybe you like to get your chest walked around with high-heeled shoes. Or make ’em watch you tinkle. Or maybe you get off wearing women’s clothes. Goddamned hypocrite squares!”
A shudder went through my being and I hid who I was for many decades.
Marne: Carol from “Friends” is buried way back there somewhere, oof.
Elle: the relationship between Ed Helms and Yasmin Lee in The Hangover 2. for all the joking, innocent or not, the connection they had despite being deemed special was ultimately judged disgusting and not deserving of serious thought.
Alexis: My knee-jerk reaction was Dallas Buyer’s Club. I watched it as an egg when it first appeared on Netflix and I don’t think it did me any favors with my timeline.
Glau: It was people laughing at the previews of Mrs. Doubtfire, I think, that first started building my closet.
Dahud: “Degrassi.” There was this gay character who was always going through some horrible times. It was especially weird because I was homeschooled, so shows like “Degrassi” were my only perception of what it would be like to have peers. Apparently, it wouldn’t have been great.
Tegan: A tie between Boys Don’t Cry and A Girl Like Me. That I’m pathetic and an object of ridicule? Ace Ventura. That taught me being trans is not desirable? Daytime talk shows (e.g. Jerry Springer.)
Sam: The Bible. I was raised in a Fundamentalist Apostolic cult.
Elizabeth-Marie: My first exposure to trans people came from American 90s daytime tabloid talk shows. At the time, I was a quiet, creative, honors student. In my tweens and teens, I wanted to be a musician, a writer, an artist. I scripted and drew comics about outsiders. I wrote operettas about outsiders. I expressed myself through metaphor because the simple truth was too dangerous.
The trans women I knew from daytime tabloid television were not free to become musicians, writers, or artists. Half of them were portrayed as sexual deviants, whose loudness only seemed to mask inner sorrow. Half of them were in troubled relationships, clearly deceiving themselves as much as their partners. None of these tragedies looked like the life adults promised me, and the result was a sense of doom. Even the more compassionate portrayals showed me that anything I achieved could be undone by who I was.
When I left for college, I discovered a website of portraits of professional trans women who more closely resembled me, but at the same time, I saw older trans women enacting the same televised tragedies. Family, career, and transition were at odds in so many tales, and the story usually ended in rejection and divorce. I vowed not to be like them, but that was its own little tragedy because I also struggled to complete my transition and desisted many times. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I read Julia Serrano and finally understood how my internalized transphobia had held me back.”
The second half of the equation, of course, is finding (and creating) representation that works for us.
We’re living in a different world now: for better or worse. TERFs are (slowly) being shown the door. Patti Harrison is playing a surrogate to Ed Helms. But it’s a tall order to forget the bad representation that defined our childhoods. All we can do is fight for better representation and hope the dark ages are over for good. ♦