Marketing the MonsterHas Trans Identity Become a Sales Pitch?

Illustration of a large dark blue, red, and black monster with horns and a long tail curled up, pushing its hands against the red edge of the frame.

Illustration by Colin Laurel

Cover of Bitch's Wild issue cover: women dressed in white dancing in a circle in a river with greenery in the background
This article was published in Wild Issue #92 | Fall/Winter 2021
We’re living in what I like to think of as Transgender Tipping Point 2.0. Maybe you remember the classic 2014 Laverne Cox Time cover that proclaimed, for all the world to see, that trans people do, in fact, exist (and that they’re among us, and they could look just like you. You could even be talking to one of them right now! Gasp!). But Trans Tipping Point 2.0 is arguably more significant because it’s the point at which our acceptability is such that we are marketable, and by extension, exploitable. It ushers in a whole new era of trans politics—one that has the potential to (and is perhaps on track to) mirror what’s happened with gay visibility in a post-Obergefell era. The tipping-point narrative represents a neoliberalization of identity: Our identities become neat, concrete, static. There’s adversity, but it’s sexy adversity, the kind that makes a compelling memoir, that makes people want to donate to your transition GoFundMe, that fits into the picture of what cis people already know about trans people. 
 
While I don’t claim to speak for all trans people—if a company like Oreo tweeting that trans people exist makes you feel seen then by all means you do you! Take that joy wherever you can find it!—I personally don’t subscribe to this definition of transness. Post Tipping Point 2.0, I see my personal gender neutered by pop-identity politics, my identity externally constructed not by a community or a history of gender deviance but by advertisers and marketers. This is a gender that operates on cis terms, by cis standards, within cis systems. It is regulated, and by extension, tamed. Along with a legacy of radicals who’ve seen this coming since before I was born (I am by no means the first person to articulate this), I’m disappointed by this vision of gender because it buys into systems that are inherently oppressive, and it rejects and rewrites (not to mention whitewashes) a history of trans activism that is deeply radical. 
I’ve often found my way out of mazes by following the monster. And in this case, the monster is me, or rather, the monster that the world has made of me, of us all. Which is to say, I find my way out of the maze of modern identity politics through trans identifications with monstrosity. Seeing myself as a monster untames my gender, reminds me that under the surface of the tweets and the marketing is an apparatus that only accepts me because it’s cool and trendy to do so, because I’ll buy their shit. But what does it mean to identify with monstrosity as a trans person in the age of trans “acceptance”? What happens to monstrosity in this new age, the age of trans “visibility,” where we’re seen not necessarily as monsters but more as props, as figures, as statistics—like the oft-trotted-out life expectancy of a trans woman (35 years, a statistic that has no clear source), or like the number of people who know someone who identifies as nonbinary (1 in 5 in the United States). The few openly trans celebrities—Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Elliot Page more recently—are often just figures for cis people to use as reference points, rather than to view as actual people: identity constructed by way of symbol and metaphor because it is easier to sell and digest.
 
When thinking about what it means to be a trans monster in 2021, I returned to Susan Stryker, the author of what is perhaps one of the most well-known works/analyses of trans identification with monstrosity, itself a monstrous hybrid of resurrected performance piece, historical analysis, critique, love letter, and memoir. Her piece began as a performance titled “Rage Across the Disciplines,” delivered at a conference at California State University San Marcos in 1993, which she revisited in the form of an essay as “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” published in GLQ, a journal of gay and lesbian studies, in 1994. “My Words” is a freak rallying cry—a proclamation of selfhood that takes pride in monstrous identity. Stryker traces the roots of our monstrosity via the word itself: “‘Monster’ is derived from the Latin noun monstrum, ‘divine portent,’ itself formed on the root of the verb monere, ‘to warn’… . Monsters, like angels, functioned as messengers and heralds of the extraordinary. They served to announce impending revelation, saying, in effect, ‘Pay attention; something of profound importance is happening.’” This is possibly more relevant in the age of trans visibility than it was at the time of publication; I think we’re in a moment where, for better and worse, people are paying more attention to trans people. 
But perhaps we owe this visibility to the fact that the monster narrative has faded, or rather morphed—as monsters are wont to do—into something different. We’re living in an uncanny era where violent transphobia (both in action, in rhetoric, and in the areas in between) coexists with the products of assimilation—trans influencers, ceos, venture capitalists, and fashion models make the news every day alongside the latest hate-crime statistics and bills criminalizing trans existence. Perhaps we can see the movement for trans inclusion in the military as a case study for the pitfalls of assimilation politics. Author and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (who has contributed to Bitch) points out that this particular struggle, which only became an issue because of one trans billionaire, is rooted in a longer history of queer assimilation. “Obviously it’s mimicking the struggle for gay inclusion in the U.S military, but it comes at a point when trans people don’t even have a fraction of the amount of power that gay people had when that horrible fight started,” she says. “It’s like we learned the wrong lesson. The lesson of that struggle is that actually what we need to be fighting for isn’t inclusion in dominant institutions of oppression, but ending those institutions.”
 
For all the benefits that inclusion brings, normalizing forces are fundamentally violent. The first institutions in which we’ve sought to be included are ones with legacies of violence—both marriage and the military are far from innocent. And as Sycamore points out, inclusion can distract from the potential benefits of devoting our efforts toward the larger struggle for collective liberation. “There’s always this idea that accessing dominant institutions of oppression is an easier battle than dismantling them,” she says. “I don’t think that’s true.” Stryker and Sycamore see the potential of trans identity—not a watered-down version of identity but identity as something actively constructed, and aware, and maybe a little dangerous—to disrupt these structures rather than reinforce them. Monster is an invocation of this disruption. “We as trans [people] need to unsettle the way that gendered bodies and bodily difference gets segmented and becomes part of an oppressive structure, rather than a liberatory one,” Stryker says. “And so, you know, granny tranny’s down for sticking with the monster thing,” she jokes. Monster, as she envisioned it in the ’90s and today, is a project of reclamation. “I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself,” she writes in “My Words.” “I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster.” She goes on: “By embracing and accepting [these words], we may dispel their ability to harm us.” Monster now is a project of returning to radical roots in an alienating age—of recognizing that we are the tools we need to make a better world. But it is also a promise of tenderness that comes from being an outcast. Loving a monster and loving as a monster opens up so much possibility for understanding the ways we’ve been taught to hurt ourselves and each other and how to heal from that. Holding this kind of love for ourselves, for each other, for our monstrousness is radical for trans people, given our often fraught understandings of family and kinship. I see this in the histories of trans people caring for each other, building their own genders and relationships in ways that were often illegible to a cis public. 

What it comes down to for me is that if what you’re trying to do is to fit into a previously existing organization of the world, you will never fit as a queer trans person. You just will not. 

The problem is, even as we move ever faster toward the visibility singularity, a mounting movement still cries “monster!” This is the problem of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and their contradiction of a movement purportedly grounded in “feminism” that’s determined to paint trans people, and often trans women specifically, as monsters. While terfs are by no means a new phenomenon—Stryker states that her article was specifically motivated by the terfs who called trans people monstrous—as time passes their ideologies seep from the from the fringes into the mainstream, while maintaining a malicious fixation on the monstrous nature of transness. Recent terf discourses targeting younger trans people (like the concept of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”) that mobilize social-contagion theory have a monstrous quality, with transness framed as some kind of infectious and deadly disease. It’s a classic monster tale: We’re the vampire or the werewolf, and thousands of teens on Tumblr or TikTok are the innocent villagers who must be protected. This kind of monstrousness feels uniquely like a product of the trans-visibility era. While its origins may be old, its vitriol and the level to which it is in the mainstream (to the point where a Republican senator read from J.K. Rowling’s “manifesto” while striking down the Equality Act last year) feels like a direct consequence of our increased visibility. 
 
“What it comes down to for me is that if what you’re trying to do is to fit into a previously existing organization of the world, you will never fit as a queer trans person, you just will not,” Stryker says. “So you have to transform the world around you. You have to make your space to be in.” Depending on the day I read this, it feels alternately pessimistic and hopeful, a swing between hope and despair that embodies the tension of our current moment. There’s a lot to be gained by the project of “trans visibility,” “trans representation,” “first trans x,” but there’s a lot to be lost too. The way out lies in seeing the potential inherent in this moment, viewing it as a jumping-off point, a place from which to work toward more revolutionary goals rather than assimilate into a society that continues to hurt the most vulnerable of us. Sycamore mentions seeing this in the work that visible Black trans women such as Janet Mock are doing in refusing to leave behind those who would be deemed unassimilable. “That’s the lesson I feel like we could have learned from gay assimilation—that assimilation at any cost is cultural erasure, and it is not just cultural erasure but it enacts violence, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our bodies, in our lives, on our streets, and around the world, and we shouldn’t be fighting to become part of that violence; we should be fighting for an end to that violence,” she says. 

 

This fight requires the work of connection, of building networks with other people, cis and trans, and of operating from a place of creaturely love for each other—seeing yourself in the stitched-together arms of your fellow creatures and joining hands. “Just doing that work of carving out space for yourself and then finding all of those ways that carved-out space can connect up with other carved-out spaces, I think of it as an interstitiality,” Stryker says. “It’s like mycelium and mushrooms. There’s a whole subterranean network of fibrous connections between things and as it proliferates and grows, that’s the life-sustaining part. It’s not necessarily what’s above ground and what people see most readily. It’s not the trees in the forest. It’s the underground network of subterranean life, communicating with other kinds of subterranean life, that’s vital for the whole ecosystem, and it lives on.” Stryker ends “My Words” with a blessing: “If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.” I regift this to you and hope it will save you as it has saved me and offer my own kind of prayer for those of us who are still inhabiting a monstrous space or body. May those who taught you to fear yourself learn to fear you, may we be the mycelium, ever growing, never dying. May we recreate the world in our own image. 

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Oliver Haug, a white person with short brown hair, smiles brightly as posed against a green outside backdrop
by Oliver Haug
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Oliver Haug is a writer and recent graduate of Smith College, currently based in Berkeley, California. They have previously written for Ms. magazine, them, the New York Times’ newsletter “The Edit,” and others. They enjoy writing about gender, family, unlikely trans narratives, and Frankenstein.