By Kayla Zhu
Representation in media isn’t exclusive to on-screen representation—it also encompasses those behind the camera, pen and other creative tools.
Seeing oneself represented in media and among those who create such narratives is hugely formative to one’s self-image, as well as how others view them.
In modern history, the rights of trans people has very consistently been politicized and undermined. Representations of trans characters in media have been historically problematic, defaulting to othering and negative portrayals, according to a University of Windsor dissertation about transgender media representation.
This June, author J.K Rowling came under fire for making transphobic comments on Twitter by mocking the phrase “people who menstruate” in an article headline.
In response to backlash from members and supporters of the LGBTQ+ community, Rowling wrote a lengthy blog post on her website, defending her stance on what constitutes womanhood and elaborating on “five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism.”
“I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it,” she wrote.
Because of these comments, some have described Rowling as a “TERF”, an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist, by members of the queer and trans community.
“Mundane transphobia,” a term coined by Flinders University psychology and social work professor Damien Riggs, refers to the everyday normalization of transphobia which occurs through “the normative expectations that adhere to gender categories, in which trans people are treated as improper members of the gender category to which they claim belonging,” according an article in Gender Forum, a journal for gender studies.
The normalization of transphobic remarks by public figures like Rowling contributes to the unsafe and oppressive culture of transphobia that exists within our public discourse for trans people, both online and offline.
For trans fans and ex-fans of the enormously famous and influential Rowling, hearing these remarks that further the erasure of transgendered identity has been deeply upsetting. For many, Rowling is emblematic of a trans exclusionary past.
Looking into the future, trans creators are innovating their respective disciplines and creating nuanced and multifaceted portrayals of their community.
The Eyeopener interviewed three trans creators to discuss the ways normalized transphobia harms their communities, and how trans creativity is breaking boundaries in the artistic and activist realms.
Marty Fink is a non-binary, trans professional communications assistant professor at Ryerson. Fink, who is also an author, was drawn to literature, specifically writing about and teaching queer books because it “allows us to imagine the world we want to see, worlds with gender self-determination and prison abolition.”
Fink said they’re interested in using reading and writing to find and learn about queer and trans activists “who fought for access and shaped how we understand what it means to be disabled and trans now.”
“I have always approached writing as a way to connect with trans activists who came before me and made it possible for me to be trans,” said Fink. “For me, writing is also a way I can learn about people who died of AIDS who left behind these incredible activist legacies, trans people and queer people that I never got to know and won’t get to meet.”
On Nov. 13, they published Forget Burial: HIV Kinship, Disability, and Queer/Trans Narratives of Care, a book that revisits the history of HIV community caregiving among queer and trans artists and activists in the 80s and 90s.
Fink said it was a 10 year process of reading, researching and writing to create the book that all started with them going to the New York Library’s HIV and AIDS archives.
In the archives, Fink got to read, watch and touch all types of artefacts, from videos, to diaries. to newsletters about living with HIV during the 80s and 90s. They explore trans creativity further in the book, touching on forms of art that range from porn, zines to literature.
“[The] trans community and HIV community used everything from drag to porn to support each other and to fight the government to improve health care access,” said Fink.
They said activists were also fighting for trans access and disability access in general, just like how trans people today are involved with movements like Toronto’s Encampment Support Network and Black Lives Matter.
“A lot of the book takes place before the internet so making a zine or a newsletter really brought people together,” said Fink. “The book links early 90s punk trans zines like Gender Trash from Hell to contemporary trans work online.”
For Fink, trans literature “always imagines a way of being that is different from the limits of our current system.”
“Trans lit isn’t always anti-capitalist or abolitionist but at its best, trans writing builds a future where no bodies are policed and everyone can self-determine their genders, which I think definitely involves writing about what it would look like to have a world without anti-Black racism, colonization, prisons, and police,” said Fink.
While they do see progress over the past decade with trans writers being able to find independent presses to publish stories and build readership, Fink also said they think academia and cultural industries–such as the film and publishing industries–are also becoming increasingly neoliberal and capitalist.
“[They] are still really marginalizing access to gender self-determination as it intersects with defunding police, and with supporting movements for Black liberation, decolonization, and prison abolition,” said Fink. “I think we have a lot of work to do to resist narratives that try to assimilate trans people into white supremacist capitalist norms.
As for Rowling’s anti-trans remarks, Fink said they are “disgusting.” They said they believe public figures like Rowling are normalizing hate speech against trans people, which can increase gender-based violence, access barriers and further problematize the systemic inequalities trans women face.
“It’s really disturbing that we live in a moment where it’s even debatable whether people online and otherwise are allowed to speak hatefully toward trans women,” said Fink. “Any celebrities that devalue trans women or question their legitimacy as women should be held accountable to educate themselves, retract those statements, and apologize.”
“I think hearing an apology from Rowling would help a generation of trans readers who feel moved by her work to experience at least some kind of justice.”
Cuthand is a non-binary, Plains Cree Little Pine First Nations filmmaker born in Regina, Sask., and currently residing in Toronto. She makes short, experimental films on sexuality, Indigeneity, madness, queerness and two-spirit identity. Her work has been screened at film festivals across the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival, ImagineNATIVE and Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.
Growing up in the 80s and early 90s, Cuthand said the poor representation of Indigenous and queer people in media spurred her to go into filmmaking.
“I wanted to create representation so that other people in my community could see themselves and I could see myself,” said Cuthand.
She said she gravitates toward personal stories that describe how political situations impact one’s life, especially around being Indigenous, queer and trans.
Her work ranges from intimate explorations of her own sexuality in her short video, “Boi Oh Boi,” to more lighthearted, interview-based videos like The Longform Lesbian Census that surveyed lesbian women on “important statistics on tops, bottoms, and switches, butches and femmes.”
Cuthand said she likes incorporating humour into her work.
“I like telling things in a funny way, but kind of a disarming way so that people don’t feel defensive when they hear new information,” said Cuthand.
Two of her videos, “2-Spirit Introductory Special $19.99” and “2 Spirit Dreamcatcher Dot Com,” explores two-spirit identity through a commercial format. 2-Spirit Introductory Special $19.99 advertises a phone support line to two-spirit folk where they can “get instant unlimited telephone access to traditional knowledge and support” while” 2 Spirit Dreamcatcher Dot Com” promotes a two-spirit dating website that matches people based on the “Elder’s algorithm.”
Two-spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit and is only used by Indigenous people. The term encompasses cultural, spiritual, sexual and gender identity.
Cuthand said that she chose to take a more humorous approach to those videos because she said two-spirit people “tend to make work that’s a lot about [their] trauma.”
While those two films do touch on heavy topics like domestic violence, Cuthand said that she wanted to make something that was more celebratory of her community.
“With 2 Spirit Dreamcatcher Dot Com, I wanted to make something that was sexy and fun and exciting, about two-spirit joy instead of trauma,” said Cuthand.
Cuthand draws inspiration for her projects from her own life experiences as well as issues and news affecting her community, such as the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis.
“With ‘2-Spirit Introductory Special,’ it was about a support network but I was also thinking about how there’s a lot of suicide in isolated reserves, a lot of queer youth suicides,” said Cuthand. “I was kind of thinking about that and trying to figure out a way to reach out to isolated queer youth.”
She said she finds that with the multiple intersections of her identity, she finds different topics become interesting to her at different points in time. In her film “Thirza Cuthand is an Indian Within the Meaning of the Indian Act,” she explores being light-skinned and Indigenous which she said she felt like, at the time, was something she “really needed to make.” But right now, she said she’s not sure if she would make a film around those same themes.
“Not that I don’t like it, but I’ve moved on from there. It’s almost like purging those feelings, and then I can move on,” said Cuthand. “It’s kind of funny because you make these films and then you’re so over the topic and then people want you to keep talking about them.”
For her, filmmaking is something cathartic. Cuthand said she asks herself a lot of questions during the filmmaking process, and has become comfortable with not always having the answers.
As a fan of the Harry Potter series, Cuthand said she was really disappointed in J.K Rowling’s recent transphobic remarks. She said she found Rowling’s remarks “regressive” and it’s “childish” for the author to not be able to extend empathy and understanding towards trans people.
“It’s weird that someone who would make a whole series about fantasy creatures couldn’t extend her imagination to understand how trans identities operate and how they feel,” said Cuthand.
Cuthand said that Rowling’s transphobic remarks has made online spaces more difficult for some of her trans feminine friends and hopes that people turn away from her work and look towards creators who explore fantasy ideas in a more “holistic and trans positive way.”
“I think there’s options, I don’t think we have to be stuck with Rowling,” said Cuthand.
Syrus Marcus Ware
Syrus Marcus Ware is a Black, trans, disabled visual artist, researcher and activist based in Toronto. He explores his creativity through many mediums—from painting to performance to public art—to explore gender, race, disability and activism and challenge systemic oppression. In 2017, Ware received the TD Arts Diversity Award through the Toronto Arts Foundation and the Toronto Arts Council.
As an activist himself, Ware is drawn to exploring Black activist culture and social justice frameworks in his work. He has been involved heavily in organizing for the past 25 years and also creating change for Black, trans and disabled people.
“As an artist, I was inspired by the work that activists do on the daily, trying to make the world a better place,” said Ware. “A lot of my practice is trying to explore what activism is, how it works, how to support activists and how to ensure all people can struggle and fight until the last day.”
For Ware, art and activism are intimately connected. He believes that art has always been a political force and activism has been effective in creating particular aesthetics to tell a certain story, citing the artwork of Black Panther Party’s Emory Douglas, a Black American artist that illustrates graphic images depicting the struggle of Black communities in America.
“Art and activism have always gone hand in hand,” said Ware. “We’re in the middle of a revolution and artists are at the centre of the action. This is a really exciting time to be an artist, and to be somebody who combines art and activism together.”
His most recent project, Radical Love, explores the experiences of trans and non-binary people in public space. Radical Love was featured at The Bentway, a public space beneath the Gardiner Expressway that hosts art exhibits and community events.
“They’re monuments. These are large scale structures that are large scale celebrations to give a platform to Black, queer, trans presence in our cityscape and our stories in the middle of the downtown core,” said Ware.
Ware says his work is rooted in exploring activists culture and “futurity”—what Ware describes as the idea that there’s a possibility that Black, queer and trans people will live, survive and thrive in the future.
For the Toronto Biennial of Art in 2019, Ware created a short video, “Ancestors, Do You Read Us? (Dispatches from the Future)” showcased at the Ryerson Image Centre. The video is set in 2072, where the great-grandchildren of today’s generation send a message from the future to thank their ancestors for saving them and also to let them know what they have to do in order to ensure their future freedom, which is to “overthrow capitalism and fight white supremacy.”
As the future generation is sending their message, they’re going through different time periods of activist history, which Ware represents using found footage.
“That project was very much about this idea that, again, we might make it, we need to work together collectively now in order to ensure we make it into the future,” said Ware.
The mediums his work comes packaged in play a significant role in its storytelling quality. For his activist portrait series, he found that the most powerful way to shed light on the humanity of activists was to draw them in larger-than-life portraits “that are usually reserved for kings, popes, university presidents and hospital administrators.”
Ware is also involved in leadership, programming and teaching at the Banff Centre as a facilitator and designer, where he said he works with other leaders to figure out how to address white supremacy within their organization and how to transition power.
However, he still thinks there’s a lot of misinformation about trans people in the art space, and lacking access for trans artists to showcase their work. “A lot of trans artists still experience barriers, like people who transition in the middle of a career and have a name change,” said Ware.
At the same time, seeing the flourishing of Black trans creativity and artists who are imagining new ways of being in this world is something that Ware finds beautiful to witness. He said he believes trans leadership is necessary to the dismantling of white supremacy and transphobia in institutions.
“It’s interesting watching trans artists take up space and saying, ‘It’s time for us to have our voices heard and to be showcased.’”