Less of the Freak Show, Please

It is fairly rare that I get absolutely furious with someone on Twitter, but if I do it is almost always with the LGBT History Month account (@LGBTHM). They have a poor track record of insensitive posts about trans people. Today’s tweet was a classic:

Stunning Before And After Photos Depict The Journey Of Gender Confirmation Surgery

I don’t know what that says to you, but to me it screams loud and clear, “FREAK SHOW! COME AND GAWP!!!”

There was a link in that tweet to an article in the Huffington Post. This one. It is the sort of coverage of trans issues that makes me want to beat my head on my desk until it bleeds.

Ostensibly, of course, it is all very sensitive. The article talks about “respect”, “ambition” and “empowerment”. Practically it is all about click bait, and the aforementioned freak show.

It is entirely plausible, of course, that the people in those photos are proud of what they have done and empowered by it. I know that other trans people are very comfortable with “before” photos being displayed (and see the footnote about genderfluid people). But I tend to view such material with some suspicion when it is framed using a narrative written by the person making the pictures rather than the trans people themselves.

For example, think back to My Transsexual Summer. Most people agree that the series did great things for the trans community. It was certainly far less exploitative than most television about trans people. But the series was by no means a bed of roses for the stars. Check out this interview with Fox, in which he explains some of the awful things that were done to him by the production crew.

The people photographed for that HuffPo article are all from Cuba, which is not the most affluent place in the world. My first question on seeing the article was to ask how many of them posed for those pictures willingly, and how many did it because they were being offered a lot of money to do so.

Even if some people are willing to pose for such photos, however, it doesn’t mean that making them, and posting them in that way, is a sensible thing to do. The “before and after” photo is a staple of tabloid coverage of trans issues. They do that because of the freak show aspect of it, and also because it panders to transphobes by giving them an image of what the trans person “really” looks like. The “after” photo is seen, if not always presented, as a picture of a person in disguise.

Huffington Post knows this, and for all their weasel words about respect and empowerment, the headline makes it very clear that this is a freak show article.

Much of this comes back to issues I covered in the article I wrote for Holdfast recently. Cis people are fascinated by the transformation aspect of trans people. If they write about us, if they make films or photos of us, what they want to show is the change. That’s not treating us as people, it is treating us as objects for their entertainment. There’s far more to trans people than that, but who cares, right? The fact that we are ordinary people is not news, the fact that we can be presented as freaks is.

In any case, many trans people are deeply traumatised by images of themselves pre-transition. That’s what Gender Dysphoria means: you are distressed by your body. I understand that some people might be proud of their transition, but those people need to be aware that by encouraging “before and after” photos they are putting pressure on everyone else to do the same thing. The very first things most journalists ask for when doing a trans article are your “real” name and a photo of what you “really” look like. Except of course they’ll say your “former” name and a “before” photo, so it doesn’t sound quite as exploitative.

Don’t encourage them, please.

Even if all is well with that article, however, and all of the people pictured are delighted with what was done, nothing excuses the headline. “Stunning Before And After Photos”? That’s pure, exploitative click bait. That much at least should be obvious to anyone.

On Twitter, of course, we are limited to 140 characters. There may be a link as part of that, but by no means everyone who reads your tweet will click through. On Twitter, therefore, we have to be very careful about repeating click bait headlines. If you are going to link to a problematic article, using that article’s exceedingly problematic headline as your tweet is not wise.

Footnote: someone is going to read this as say that it is deeply offensive to genderfluid people. That’s not the intention. If an important part of your identity is your ability to manifest more than one type of gendered appearance, by all means go for it. But that HuffPo article was very specifically about people who had undergone gender confirmation surgery. I did consider using “transsexual” in place of “trans” to make this clear, but it’s not a very good word and I try to avoid it these days.