It’s no surprise the world at large hasn’t figured out exactly how to deal with trans people yet — after all, we’ve only existed for three years! The media, the ultimate microcosm of the human experience, especially has a difficult time negotiating trans identities and experiences. That might be why the media tend to only frame trans people in the public eye as activists.
The thought process here seems to be that all trans people in media or entertainment are immediately spokespeople for the trans community at large. For someone like Laverne Cox, whose acting career seems almost secondary to her activism, this makes sense. But not all trans people in the spotlight have a political agenda.
On Wednesday, model Hari Nef responded to Marie Claire’s tweet lauding her for being part of the #NewGuard and fighting for “transgender rights and other marginalized communities.” Nef’s response was swift and direct.
I’m not overly fond of Hari, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that for so long after she became famous, she was one of the trans community’s only mouthpieces — and I didn’t think a privileged white model was really the person who should be speaking for us. But that position is one that was forced upon her, as it is forced upon so many trans people, famous or not.
Trans people often aren’t allowed to just be people; our bodies inherently politicized. We’re expected to not only explain our experiences to anyone who wants to ask, but also to fit it into the narrative of trans rights and visibility. Hari Nef will always be a transgender model. Laverne Cox will always be a transgender actress. I’ll always be a transgender writer. The qualifier will always preemptively define us and frame the way we’re expected to interact with and educate the world.
Last month, model Teddy Quinlivan came out as transgender. “I think the personal is political,” she told CNN. “It’s political, but I’m also doing it for myself. I was ready to come out, but I think the times we live in elevated the sense of importance and urgency.” Quinlivan couldn’t merely disclose her transness, there had to be a reason for it and it had to be instantly politicized.
Can we even imagine a scenario where she came out quietly on Twitter, gave no interviews and felt no desire to place her assigned birth gender in opposition to her already successful career? Of course not, if only for the fact that after her announcement, Quinlivan walked for Versace, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Chloé during Fashion Month — and was among the most walked models, trans or otherwise.
When I first came out as trans, it colored every experience and interaction. I lost jobs and lovers because of it, but I also was able to use it to my advantage as someone who writes about social and cultural issues. Suddenly, I had a point of view that was not only political, but profitable. For a time, I leaned into this. But now, with some distance, I don’t want everything I say to be filtered through my gender.
Trans people with platforms are expected to be activists because being trans is supposed to be hard. But wanting to be affirmed or respected or successful doesn’t automatically make you an activist — it just makes you a person.