A Conversation About Transgender Representation in Pop Culture

Janet Mock, on her MSNBC web show, is one of a handful of transgender people who has recently gained international visibility.

Recently, we’ve seen a transformation of the representation of transgender people in pop culture. Trans people are far more visible in mainstream media than they were five years ago—from Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair to Janet Mock anchoring her own MSNBC web show to actress Jamie Clayton starring in brand-new Netflix show Sense 8. But how does having more transgender celebrities affect trans people who aren't in the spotlight? 

To discuss this change and what it means for the everyday lives of transgender people, Equity Foundation Executive Director Karol Collymore sat down for a conversation with two transgender advocates who are also pop culture consumers. Stacey Rice is Co-Executive Director of Q Center, an LGBTQ community center in Portland. She’s originally from North Carolina and identifies as a trans woman—she transitioned 15 years ago. Jayce Montgomery is a trans man who is a student at George Fox University in Oregon.

This conversation is part of our podcast episode “Transformations.” Click to listen to the discussion below or read the whole transcript. 

KAROL COLLYMORE: So glad to have you all here for this conversation. I’ll just jump right in. How did pop culture influence your own life when you were thinking about your gender identity?

JAYCE MONTGOMERY: I didn’t watch a lot of TV, radio or stuff like that. I remember the first time really thinking about gender was when I watched She’s the Man. It’s about a girl whose soccer team gets booted from the school. She wants to continue to play soccer and dresses as a male to attend her brother’s school and plays on the guy’s soccer team. That’s the first time I remember thinking about gender and the roles people can play.

Was it a moment when you were saying, “I wish I could do that—be Amanda Bynes in this movie?”

JAYCE: Yeah. I was definitely like, “I want to do that. I wish I could be a girl and then be a boy whenever I want to.” At the time I thought, “is that possible?” Maybe it’s just simple to stick with the lesbian identity.

STACEY RICE: I was a child before the Internet era and before a lot of pop culture seeped into the consciousness of our culture today. There were barely glimpses of what maybe could be or what was. I remember one of the first times it really connected with me in a big way was back in 1972. There was a Lou Reed song that came out, “Walk On The Wild Side.” Part of the core lyrics to that song is that this particular character shaved her legs, and “he” became a “she.” And I thought, “Wait, maybe I can do this.” Outside of that, there wasn’t a lot. You just got barely glimpses here or there. I knew from five years old that something didn’t quite fit. That everyone treated me as a little boy they saw, but I felt like a little girl. I didn’t have a great way to explain that during that time period. You have three television channels. So where do you find someone who is trans and connect with them? There was a lot of time spent digging into college libraries and other places, trying to find a shred of information. To me, one of the most amazing inventions is the Internet because it helped trans people connect and see people to build community with.

You grew up in North Carolina. Was there anybody there who you could identify with in this sort of mainstream LGBT community? To start that first step of identification?

STACEY: Yes there were. There was one of my cousins who identifies as gay now. Of course, at that time it wasn’t even spoken. I could feel a kindred kinship with my cousin. This is a person that’s also not quite fitting into those little boxes that people had at that time. It kind of started expanding my horizon that there were people outside of those boxes. Maybe my box was okay. I just had to figure that out, though.

So now that we are in 2015, there is Orange is the New Black. There’s now Keeping Up With The Kardashians—they’re going to have a spinoff for Caitlyn Jenner. How does that impact you now as you walk through the world? Do you feel like that is any reflection on you, to you, or for you? Positively, or negatively?

JAYCE: I’m really excited that they’re putting more trans people [on TV] and displaying them more in the correct manner. This happened with gay individuals and lesbian individuals, always displaying them in the stereotypical way. You know, “masculine,” [or] this is the man/this is the woman role. And not really delving into their background and what they actually go through. I’m really excited to see more characters (LGBTQ and trans) that are more well-rounded, who actually get into their life and their experience as an individual.

STACEY: We really have reached a tipping point with trans issues and trans visibility. One of the things I’ve always thought the trans community has working against them is wanting to blend in. You didn’t want to be out. You wanted [this] for the safety issue, actually. What happens is, people maybe knew a trans person but they didn’t really know it. This visibility of all these amazing folks on the front pages, on the front lines, does nothing but help. It’s a huge platform that these folks have had to be able to tell a very authentic trans story to the world. It’s really going to do nothing but help us and the people that come after us. It takes a lot of that mystery away. A lot of that, “I don’t know what this really is.” It’s brilliant. I never thought I would see that in my life, actually. It’s wonderful.

Laverne Cox in her role on Orange is the New Black.

Jayce, talk to me about what it means when someone like Laverne Cox, who is trans and a person of color, specifically a Black person. Obviously people of color have a harder time in any category, in any walk of life. It doesn’t matter what it is, we’re going to be struggling. How is it for you and your reality? How has she helped? Or does she even help at all in your journey?

JAYCE: As a trans person, especially a trans person of color, there are a lot of obstacles that go into being a person of color. Being trans on top of that, really adds a double barrier. It’s very nice to see a woman, especially an African American woman. You have the intersectionality going on. It’s nice to see her step out and really be open about herself. It encourages me to not be scared and be willing to step up. Even though I may be scared and nervous, other people are always learning, using me as an example.

Stacey, I was reading a recent op-ed in the New York Times. The author was saying she felt it was unfair that Caitlyn Jenner got to define feminism. And that she was not allowed because she just became a woman, and had been a man before. I thought, that isn’t necessarily what I understand from trans people. You just don’t get to decide at 40 or 60 that you’re suddenly a different gender. I wanted to know your thoughts on that, in regards to your femininity, or lack thereof, however you choose to define yourself.

STACEY: That conversation is really raging in feminist circles and the trans community as well. There is part of me that understands feminists who grew up in the 50, 60s, and 70s, and where they’re coming from. I was in that era, too. I understood exactly what that patriarchy was. We had made a lot of changes in that time. That’s been their lived experience. What has to happen now is we all have to evolve. We all have to get to a different place because this world is changing. Ideas are changing, people are changing. It was an interesting op-ed to read. I knew before five that I was really female. Of course, there was no way to accomplish that. Sure, I’ve lived through 40 years in my male life and that has had certain privileges. I do understand that. I would be hard-pressed to say that my experience as a woman is a different experience. I think there are things a lot of genetically-born cis women experience that no one else will, sure. I think it’s an evolution. We have to evolve on this. It’s a very touchy, very fraught with lots of issues kind of conversation. We’ve been having some of those conversations at Q Center with feminists and trans women saying, “This is who we are. These are things we do/don’t have in common”. It bothers me the stridency I see in some of the comments. But we need to get beyond that. It’s funny because when you look the younger generation, this is not really an issue to them. So that shows an evolution. It’s going to continue to evolve. It’s going to be fine moving forward.

Jayce, how did your friends react when you told them you are a man?

JAYCE: My friends reacted pretty well. They already kind of knew. I was the typical butch lesbian dressed like a guy. When I came out it wasn’t that big of a surprise. They only struggled with the correct pronouns. Luckily, it was an easy-go. I’m very fortunate for that.

That’s an amazing generational change, for sure. Back to the idea of “What is Feminism/What is Masculinity.” There was a trans man from Eugene who entered the contest to be on Men’s Health magazine. He’s ripped. I thought, especially with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, is there now going to be pressure for folks who are trans to fit into the conventional beauty standards that we’ve created?

STACEY:  That’s a good question. It was fascinating to realize that I all of a sudden felt those pressures. I was tall. I was puzzled to think that I had to feel that pressure. At least for myself, you have to come to the realization that you can only be who you are. This is the package, this is who you are, and you make the most of that. I think it would be a mistake if people saw those two folks and assumed that would be the norm for the community. It would be a mistake if people assume, when they saw those two folks, that is the norm for the trans community. The trans community is diverse. However, we need to have those people who out there at the front.

Aydian Dowling in his aspiring-cover-model photoshoot for Men's Health.

Jayce, you’re sporty. You love the sports. Did that cover give you pressure? Did it make you excited?

JAYCE: It makes me excited, but it would be dumb for me to say that I don’t succumb to society’s gender roles. I definitely do. Being able to shift from male to female, you’re able to see how boxed things are. You’re actually able to see how much you play into that yourself.

Tell me more about that, your role as a man.

JAYCE: I’ve always been very assertive. You know, as a woman you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to sit back and let the males do what they’re going to do. I’ve always had a problem with that. Transitioning to male, there are a lot of social pressures from friends. I don’t think they mean to push people in a certain way. But it’s the comments that they make. The conversations are very sexual. Stuff like that. The most important thing being aware that we all play into those stereotypes. Being able to say, “Yes I did that and how can I change that? How can I do that better next time?” That’s important.

STACEY: What a unique journey to actually experience life on both sides. I look at that as a blessing, that you can see things from two different—very binary—areas. I never forget the time after I transitioned and worked in an office. A manager came over to me and said, “Honey, let me show you how to use that computer. You might not know what it is.” I was like, “Okay here we go.” I always knew that existed. That really is there. That’s part of life.

Have either of you, because of your identification, been harassed, assaulted, or felt like you were physically in danger?

JAYCE: Personally, not really, except online. That always happens, behind the screen, people are always going to say bad stuff. I’ve been really lucky. A lot of the anxiety comes from knowing the violence that can happen to trans people. And that people in my school know about my identity, people that I didn’t want to tell but know because of the media. Being afraid to walk home because I’m small. It’s kind of a more indirect fear that society produces for trans people. That can be really debilitating and binding and scary.

STACEY: Makes perfect sense. That’s a beautiful point. I felt the exact same thing. I’ve had a couple of minor issues. I worked a lot of retail after I transitioned. A couple people would make remarks that they knew I was trans, and they weren’t very nice. I’m worried more because of the violence against trans folks and that there’s so many trans people in this world who are murdered. I’m always aware of where I am and what I’m doing. It was challenging in the South. I moved to Portland three years ago, and it’s easier here. I was always very cognizant that if I was rolling in the countryside and need to go in somewhere in the middle of nowhere, maybe into a little grocery store or something, I was always a little worried. There’s always the potential violence hanging over us. It’s real. It’s very real.

Is there anything you think we don’t cover when we talk about issues of trans people? We have fair representation—we have Janet Mock on MSNBC, which is only online. Hopefully we’ll get her on the TV. But, what do you think we are missing? Cis people and straight people. What should we be talking about?

STACEY: There’s a multitude of issues that fall under this. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the trans folks’ experience is so different than Janet, Caitlyn, and Laverne Cox. A great study came out a couple years ago on transgender issues. 10,000 trans folks filled out that survey. It is stunning to see those numbers, a super high percentage of trans people who have been homeless or fired from their jobs. The list goes on. This are the reality for trans people. There is nothing more heartbreaking than someone to come to Q Center who is homeless, and we really have no place for them to go. We have Right 2 Dream Too, and they accept trans folks. That happens more often than people realize, that people show up here like that. We have a ton of issues to start focusing on.

JAYCE: There are still a lot of issues with legislation and law. One thing I’ve been looking at is the intersection between masculinity and trans people. A lot of times we focus on the LGBTQ community, but we also need to focus on things outside of it and how it’s affecting the trans community. Basically, masculinity is the rejection of anything that is seen as feminine. That plays a really large role in how the trans community and LGBT community is treated because gay/lesbian/transgender people are defying and challenging patriarchy. If we look at masculinity and how we are raising our young boys, that they can be emotional, we would see a huge release on the LGBT community, trying to look at those outside circles and how they intersect.

Would you hope for more portrayals in pop culture of all folks of the LGBTQ spectrum to be more human? What’s interesting about Orange is the New Black is, yes it’s a women’s prison, but there seems to be the spectrum of at least L, Q and T a little more human. Is that becoming something we want? Maybe not just in a women’s prison, but also a café like on Friends?

STACEY: That’s a beautiful description, also great example. I think we have to have these tipping points happen first before we have those diverse portrayals. Yeah, we’re not turning back now. It’s going to just go from here. We’re going to continue seeing more and more and more.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.

Do you hope or aspire that trans characters will be portrayed by actual trans people? There was the issue of Dallas Buyer’s Club where Jared Leto was playing a trans woman, and Jeffrey Tambor was playing a trans woman in Transparent. How does that make you feel? Are you just elated to see representation on screen? Or are you thinking that there is a stable of actors who don’t work?

JAYCE: I think it’s great that trans people are playing on screen. It’s like race, being able to see Black people out there doing their thing. I also think it’s great that people who are not trans to play those characters. It gives people who are cis or straight a look into the experience of that character. As a cis/straight person they are able to take that experience and educate. People of the majority have a large influence because they hold the power. I think both are good.

STACEY: Me as well. It’s very important for folks  who are not trans to be sensitive of what they’re doing. That’s been my sense, that maybe the two you mentioned were cognizant of that. They didn’t go off on, “This is my idea of what a trans person should be.” They actually maybe had people working with them who could talk about that experience. It will come to a day when there are lots of trans folks able to play those parts. It is lovely to see someone who is transgender on the screen being that part. I think it’s going to change. It’s not going to be this way.

I want to say thank you to both of you for participating in this conversation. Is there anything you would like to say before we wrap it up?

STACEY: Thank you, Karol for moderating this and putting it together for Bitch Magazine.

JAYCE: Thank you it’s been a great experience, every time. I love working with you.

Related Reading: As Jenner's Story Breaks the Internet, Trans Women of Color Discuss Their Own Narratives.

This conversation was transcribed by Xatherin Gonzalez, who is a writer, an editorial intern at Bitch, a recent Portland transplant, and 305 ‘til she dies. Find links to them on Tumblr.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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