One of the things that Berkeley and I do at the start of our trans awareness sessions is a little quiz about trans issues. Partly it is just a mixer, but also we want to get the class thinking about how little they actually know about trans people and their lives. It helps put people in the mood to learn more.
One of the questions we ask is, “Name a famous trans person in the media”. When we ask for the answers we have taken to saying, “and we want someone other than Caitlyn Jenner”, because otherwise she’s all we get. After Cait, the most common name we get is Kellie Maloney. Sometimes we’ll get a few others, but those two are by far the most common choices. The class always has to be prompted to think of a trans man, and often they can’t do so. To date, no one has come up with Paris Lees, despite the fact that she’s been on the BBC’s Question Time once or twice and is a regular columnist in national newspapers.
I’m not trying to get a Paris here. I think she does a great job. But people don’t notice her, and I have been wondering why. Obviously with the guys, the media tends to ignore them, and therefore the public won’t know about them. But Paris has a pretty good media platform. She’s also young, pretty, articulate and outspoken. Why don’t people notice her?
My theory here is that Paris doesn’t fit cis people’s view of what a trans person is. That is, they don’t have a “before” narrative for her. In the public imagination, a trans person is someone who was successful in life as a man, and is now known as a woman. It is the apparent magical transformation that sticks in the mind. The public doesn’t see Paris as a trans person, they see her as a young woman.
A possible exception to this is Laverne Cox, who also doesn’t have a “before” narrative. However, I note that her character in Orange is the New Black does have such a narrative, and even a part played by Laverne’s twin brother.
The problem we have here is that, when cis people think of trans people, it is a stereotype that comes to mind. The media, of course, does everything it can to reinforce that stereotype. Somehow we need to break this narrative, and that’s not going to be easy.