According to GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 54% of transgender characters on television were negative portrayals, and an additional 35% were categorized as problematic (GLAAD 2012). In a time where transgender individuals are wrongfully portrayed on television as villains or psychopaths, Orange is the New Black has brought a refreshing and respectful depiction of transgender individuals. Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a Black trans woman who has recently undergone gender-reassignment surgery. What is unique about her character is that her wife supported her before and after the surgery, and Burset was imprisoned for credit card fraud rather than a sex-related offence. Not only does Laverne Cox contribute to the positive depiction of transgender individuals on-screen, but she also advocates for transgender rights as well.
In her Keppler speech, Cox shares her insight on her experiences as a trans woman of colour. Her Black, transgender, and female identities fall within marginalized categories. Her positionality is produced through an intersection of these identities and their networks of oppression. This unique positionality allows her to have different experiences than those who share some of her identities. For example, Cox comments that a white trans woman will have different lived experiences than black trans woman. She also notes that trans women of colour face higher levels of street harassment, and are even disproportionately victims of violence (Cox 2013).
Laverne Cox’s speech raises many important questions about the behaviour towards transgender individuals, and specifically about the hate and mistreatment of trans women of colour. However, this simply scratches the surface of the underlying systemic transmisogyny that is exists in our society. Transmisogyny can be defined as the negativity, violence, and cultural hate towards trans women or gender non-conforming individuals who identify with the feminine end of the gender spectrum (GLAAD 2012). Rather than acknowledging moments or examples where transmisogyny is apparent, it is perhaps more important to question the roots of this cultural hate. Trans women experience sexist marginalization based on overlapping oppressions that arise from their identification as being trans and feminine. Therefore, transmisogyny can be analyzed based on these overlapping oppressions.
The hatred towards trans women is indeed a hatred for those who do not conform to the categories of the gender binary. We live in a world of definite opposites; individuals are to be either male or female. Any ambiguity is seen as unnatural and is perhaps almost feared. From the moment we are born, we are assigned our sex. It is expected that we lead the rest of our lives in accordance with the gender that supposedly corresponds to this assigned-sex. The unwavering faith in in the gender binary is supplemented with a firm disbelief of gender variance. These rigid beliefs and the compulsion to police bodies to enforce conformity plays a large role in creating the hatred and negativity that trans women (and trans individuals in general) face.
Transmisogyny falls under the broader category of misogyny, or the dislike and prejudice towards women. There is an ingrained mentality that femininity is inferior to masculinity. This is clearly demonstrated by considering what a stereotypical girl and boy is considered to be. A boy is supposed to be strong and aggressive, thus displaying a form of hegemonic masculinity. Girls, however, are supposed to be fragile, nurturing, and subordinate, thus displaying an emphasized femininity. Trans women, specifically, are seen as giving up the superior role as a man in exchange for the devalued position of a female. This threatens the concept of male superiority, therefore forming the basis of transmisogyny.
Laverne Cox presents a third identity that is subject to oppression: being a person of colour. In her speech, she mentions that there is this “historical emasculation that has been happening in white supremacy of black male bodies” (Cox 2013). She understands that the trauma Black people face due to this is further amplified when they see a trans woman; they feel as though she is the embodiment of this historic emasculation and is a disgrace to the race. This is quite problematic, as this racialized hatred tends to alienate Black trans women. This form of oppression adds a third layer on top of the already-problematic treatment towards trans women.
Upon an analysis of transmisogyny, it can often be difficult to see how such ingrained hatred can be overturned. Apart from legal and political approaches, Cox has a simple idea: to learn to love trans women. Trans identities need to become part of our normal social fabric. In doing so, we will be able to systematically dismantle these systems of gender-based oppressions.
Cox, Laverne. “Bullying and Being a Trans Woman of Colour.” Keppler Speakers, 2013. Online Video.
“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television.” GLAAD. 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://www.glaad.org/publications/victims-or-villains-examining-ten-years-transgender-images-television>.