Event highlights: “Representing Trans: Acts of Self-Definition” at the Tate Modern

Last Tuesday, I attended the panel discussion “Representing Trans: Acts of Self-Definition”, with writer Juliet Jacques and photographer Yishay Garbasz. I went out of an interest for Jacques’ newly released memoir, Trans, and was not at all familiar with Garbasz’s work. Both women proved very interesting in the end, and I thought I would share some of their observations. 

Chair Paul Clinton opened the conversation by noting on the recent increase in trans representation in popular culture. He added, however, that it is often limited to middle-class trans women, and to transition as a transformation tale. How can narrative and the visual arts attain the truth of the transgender experience, and leave behind voyeurism?

Juliet Jacques

  • Growing up in an environment where gender identity couldn’t be discussed, she looked for herself in popular culture.

In film, she found that being trans was always a performance, not an identity: because it was cis actors playing trans characters, trans needed to be established, through makeup or dialogue. The result was a very stereotypical way of representing these lives.

Photography merely fixed a similar performance.

Novels used trans characters as ciphers for the author’s opinion about gender, as plot twists, or as sexual experiments.

Transgender memoirs allowed trans people to frame their own narratives, but they also tended to follow the same gender-normative format -a transformation tale of before and after. What’s more, personal stories can detract from wider issues, and be co-opted.

  • Jacques’ own memoir, Trans, attempts to remedy these issues of representation in format and Trans by Juliet Jacquescontent. It places gender-affirming surgery at the beginning of the narrative, and replaces the transition climax with a discussion the before/after trope. It also frames an individual story within historical and theoretical contexts. On the whole, it is quite a meta book that aspires to begin a new canon of transgender memoirs.
  • It is important to depict the mundane, even boring, aspects of transgender lives as a way to counteract sensationalism in representations.
  • If trans is fashionable in the media, this interest does not necessarily filter into every day life.
  • Trans bodies are often conflated with that of cyborgs in popular culture. This has to do with the shock of the new being located with new technologies, and it can be fetishizing. On the other hand, the contribution of medical and scientific technology to trans lives can’t be denied.

Yishay Garbasz

  • Remember that identity is always intersectional –one is not just trans, or British, or woman, or poor, In my motteras footsteps by Yishay Garbaszbut a complex mix of all of these things.
  • Suffering from one form of oppression often leads you to suffer from others (for example, being a trans woman often goes hand-in-hand with being lower class), but this combination of oppressions allows you to see things that are invisible to others.
  • When cis photographers place trans subjects against a blank background and call it art, they not only other their subjects; they demonstrate their own inadequacy at making art.
  • If you’re not angry at the erasure of trans people in art and society, then something’s wrong.
  • It’s important to wonder who is privileged enough to speak about minority identities. Nothing is accomplished by voices from the centre talking about minorities; it is preferable to centre minority voices instead.
  • Trans bodies are seen as transgressive by virtue of their existence, but this doesn’t reflect the reality of trans people’s lives, as most trans people have to pass in their every day lives.
  • Producing artwork deemed “boring” consists in getting out of the way, removing your ego from the picture. This is how you relate to your subject, and engage the viewer.
  • It is often the case that the people with the most urgent need to speak are those with the least right to speak.
  • There are no allies – only actions. You cannot claim a magical status. When the action ends, so does your allegiance.

While the talk had acknowledged the challenges faced by the trans community in art and society, the evening ended on hopeful remarks. The recent increase in trans representations in culture, however voyeuristic in nature, might still be preferable to the penury with which the speakers grew up. Culture, after all, is the tool we use to find a language for ourselves, so the trans children of today might find it easier to define their identities.

Juliet Jacques is best know for her blog “A Transgender Journey” for the Guardian. She’s also a regular blogger for the New Statesman. You can buy Trans here.

Yishay Garbasz’s main areas of interest are the inheritance of post-traumatic memories and the identities and invisibility of trans women. Most notably, she used a big zeotrope to show the changes in her body after gender affirming surgery in a project called Becoming, and chronicled her mother’s Holocaust experience by visiting every single place her mother did during that period for the project In My Mother’s Footsteps. Everything is on her website.

I do not get commission off the affiliate link in this entry.

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