Poster Boy: Label Without a Cause- by Joshua Bastian Cole
In light of the egregious misrepresentation of trans people in the media lately, which reached a head with the treatment of Chelsea Manning this week, I wanted to write a response to the transphobia that seems to be at an extreme right now.
The Internet exploded in my face last week when, without my knowledge or consent, my name, headshot, and words were featured in an article by Alissa Quart on The Daily Beast. The article was written to plug Ms. Quart’s book about outspoken “outsiders,” which includes the online underground of “transgendered” people (already a red flag, as the correct term is transgender). How I suddenly became portrayed as the poster boy for amateur rebels resulted from a search on YouTube and a video I had made for Maggie Keenan-Bolger’s theatre project for homeless queer youth called Queering History. Ms. Quart found this video and felt it was compelling, thus launching me as one of the main subjects in her article.
A major issue here is that I do not view myself an “outsider” or a “renegade” (another of Ms. Quart’s words). For me, the word renegade invokes ideas of betrayal, deviance, rebelliousness, and dissent. All of these are words that I don’t feel comfortable aligning with being transgender. Trans people are just people, not particularly more rebellious or outsider than any other marginalized group of people. We still have to fight for basic human rights and safety, and for simpler things like the right to use public bathrooms or for the respect of chosen names and pronouns. Some of us also like to go to the deli and eat sandwiches, stand on subway platforms and not get stared at, do the laundry for the clothing we choose to wear, watch TV shows with feminist characters, window shop for stuff we want, or whatever activities all sorts of other people do. We are not as extreme as daytime TV would have you believe, or primetime TV, or cable, or Netflix, either.
Trans people, lo and behold, are also on the Internet. I address this in my YouTube video, but it is important to keep in mind that in that video, I was speaking to queer people, and more specifically queer youth, about our shared history. In my video, I was not speaking to someone (who I assume to be outside of the trans communities) so that she could use my words for a book and an article about my community. While my impression of Ms. Quart's purpose with the article (and, one assumes, her book) is activist and radical, her good intentions, or the work she perceives herself to be doing, leaves me with a bad aftertaste. Being talked about from the outside is one of the many pitfalls of trans representation in the media, and it certainly flavors the voice of a piece on trans experience. Though subtle, it is sensationalism over things that have been happening on the Internet for over a decade and an experience that has been happening to people as long as there have been people.
Admittedly, at first I did feel flattered and even excited to be in the public eye. I was thrilled to be Internet famous enough (a ceWEBrity, if you will) to call for a big picture of my face on a news publication. But beyond the initial excitement, I was disappointed by the reductive nature of the content. For example, the question of trans feminism, a brief highlight of the piece, is a big topic in trans communities and in Trans* Studies. Talking about it on a mainstream venue is pretty progressive, but Trans* and the media are still in the very early stages of a budding, but rocky, relationship.
As I continued to read the piece, more and more things alarmed me, not the least of which was how central my YouTube video and I were to the piece, and that I had known nothing about the piece or its writer whatsoever. Although Ms. Quart clarifies that she didn’t know me and did not interview me in person, the overall impression of the article is that there was some form of consent to use the already publicly accessible text, video, and images, especially because the author used my input so heavily to intentionally serve her discussion about the Internet as a “transom” for coming out.
Granted, I talk about exactly that in the referenced YouTube video: the Internet as a source for trans communities and resources. However, I made the video as a response to a call for submissions about queer history. In fact, I was answering questions that were asked in the submission call. The article emphasizes the prevalence of YouTube transition videos and seems to erroneously lump me into that crowd. I did come out and blog my transition on the Internet, but I did not come out or transition over YouTube; I actually came out and transitioned before YouTube existed. My transition videos were shot on VHS. The YouTube phenomenon is singular in its prolificness, and I am not among the experiences the article references.
While I am deeply concerned about the article's nonconsensual co-optation of my writing, video, and images and the suggestion that I represent Ms. Quart's theories, there is a larger issue. I read the tone of the piece as openly disparaging of post-op photos and videos with hints of disgust/fetishistic interest towards them. Post-op photos and videos can, indeed, be graphic, but they have also been a prevalent community resource and source of empowerment from within for a very long time. These images and conversations are also an (anonymously) accessible educational and exploratory tool for those considering transitioning or for those who genuinely wish to know more. By so briefly glancing over these developing oral histories in trans communities, the article has a tabloid and exploitative (more specifically in the tradition of “transploitation”) vibe to it.
Ms. Quart treats people like me as case studies, sweeping over the complexities of cultural experiences within transgender communities. I don’t feel confident that a person who does not have personal, lived experience, nor the time spent on quality research, will get it right. This feeling is deeply connected to the tradition of media misrepresentation, but is more immediately connected to how that misrepresentation is perpetuated in the article, only the beginning of which is the result of unethical journalistic and scholarly methods. This is why I now write this response, hoping to maintain some sense of personhood as an individual who is also trans. I am so glad that Ms. Quart is thinking about my communities’ cultural and social behaviors, but as a researcher and journalist, there are things that I wish she had done. For example, she had been in direct contact with one other trans-identified person quoted in the article, but why not me? Also, terminology like “transgendered,” “renegade,” and “outsider” displays Ms. Quart’s disconnection from trans communities. Her article continues longstanding traditions of exploitative and tabloid journalism often directed at transgender individuals—which illuminates an unfortunate need to explain to the media that my community does not exist for the benefit/education/consumption of cisgender (non-trans) people. If you are going to talk about us, you better make it your business to get to know us first.
Joshua Bastian Cole is an FTM transgender playwright, revisionist, and dramaturg who speaks about trans* identity at high schools, colleges, and universities along the East Coast. He also presents on transmale embodied subjectivity in theatre performance and spectatorship. Cole teaches in the Department of Speech, Communications, and Theatre Arts at CUNY, BMCC. He holds an M.A. in Theatre History and Criticism from CUNY, Brooklyn College and a B.A. in Theatre and Dance from James Madison University. Learn more about Cole at: joshuabastiancole.weebly.com.