The American writer and cultural critic Rebecca Solnit recently observed, in a public Facebook post, that “the world should give each of us windows and mirrors”: windows to give us access to experiences, lives, and identities that we do not share, and mirrors to reflect the ones we do share back to us.
This metaphor of two reflective media intrigues me especially because not all windows are translucent and not all mirrors are true. They can be funhouse mirrors, presenting us with distorted images; or two-way mirrors, in which we are observed by others unaware; and of course, as much as one may look in a window, it is always possible for the people inside to look back out. This post, therefore, is not a straightforward celebration of transgender ‘visibility’, but rather an invitation to complicate that idea – to play with all of its potential meanings, and to consider what role visibility can or should play in the movement towards liberation for people of all genders.
The History of Transgender Day of Visibility
Transgender Day of Visibility as an organised project began in 2009. It was founded by Rachel Crandall, an activist from Michigan (USA), as a reaction to the fact that the only previous trans-related day of international awareness and activism was Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20th), on which we remember all trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people murdered in gender-based hate crimes. The purpose of the Day of Visibility is to celebrate transgender people’s lives and achievements; to give trans people our roses while we’re still here; and to raise awareness both of the challenges facing us as a community and our extraordinary beauty, diversity, and resilience.
It is an uncomfortable fact that trans people in the historical record are often made visible only through records of their arrests, trials, and/or executions, as was the case with Eleanor Rykener, Anastasius Beuerlein (content note: deadnaming), and St. Joan of Arc. Others, like Dr James Miranda Barry, were outed posthumously after their last wishes were ignored. Where trans perspectives and trans voices emerge on their own terms, they are simultaneously precious and painful, as we hear in the 14th-century Jewish Provençal poet Kalonymus ben Kalonymus‘ lament at not being born female.
Visibility Needs Solidarity, Security and Safety
Even today, visibility can be more of a danger than a blessing when it is not backed up with solidarity, security, or safety. Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a trans woman from Malawi, became an international symbol of the danger faced by so many trans people worldwide when she was arrested and imprisoned by her own government in 2009. She has lived in exile in South Africa since being pardoned by Malawian then-President Bingu wa Mutharika in 2010. The last decade has also seen an explosion in anti-transgender sentiment across the UK, with public trans figures such as the feminist campaigner and Edinburgh Rape Crisis CEO Mridul Wadhwa, the activist and model Munroe Bergdorf, and the academic Grace Lavery (amongst many others) becoming targets of coordinated hate campaigns. All too often, to be visible is to be vulnerable.
Culturally-Specific Gender Roles and Identities
Yet this image of trans lives as fragile, vulnerable, or tragic, while true in important ways, is still the view from only one aperture. There are many other stories from trans and gender-variant history that demonstrate triumph, joy, and care. (Dr. Barry was, after all, buried under his real name and gender with full military honours.) One crucial thread in the weave of these narratives is that of culturally-specific gender roles and identities, such as South Asian hijra, Napolitan femminielli, Lakota koskalaka and winkte, Thai kathoey, Samoan fa’afafine, and Indigenous Australian/Torres Strait Islander sistagirls and brothaboys.
Though successive waves of European colonialism attempted to eradicate these roles and the people who embodied them, many resisted successfully in the past and continue to uphold these lifeways today. Osh-Tisch (“Finds Them and Kills Them”) was a member of the Crow Nation, whose historic lands comprise much of what is now Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Osch-Tish embodied a traditional Crow gender category known as badé, which referred to people who were assigned male at birth and who combined elements of both male and female gender roles in their adult life, from daily chores to religious ceremonies. Despite repeated attempts by the United States Indian Agents to destroy badé life and practice, she died free and beloved by her community in 1929.
Visibility is One Tool
Where there are no words to respectfully and accurately describe trans people as we are, our dissent makes the unsayable visible. Kamikawa Aya, the first transgender person to be elected to public office in Japan, left the ‘gender’ field on her official documents purposefully blank, while the musician Area Scatter defied simple definitions of gender in 1970s Nigeria, using the terms man, woman, transvestite, she, and he interchangeably while playing for everyone from village children to royal courts.
If any single image emerges from these variously-angled lenses, it is this: that visibility, rather than an end in itself, is one tool amongst the many trans people have at our disposal. Invoked by us or against us on its own, without practical support, it can be used to hurt as much as to encourage. Where it is allowed to reflect us in the contexts of our beloved communities and our rounded lives, however, it can be a source of delight and new discovery even for those of us who might be tempted into cynicism. I wish a life-affirming Day of Visibility to all who observe and hope that the year ahead will bring us all an even greater appreciation of new ways of seeing.
Lyman Gamberton (he/him) is a recent PhD student in Social Anthropology here at SOAS. His doctoral dissertation was on transgender and gender-variant lives, identities, and communities in contemporary Japan. His main area of research is ‘the Othered body in Japanese social contexts’, which encompasses gender variance, disability, atomic bomb survivors’ narratives, race, and cultures of memory. He also maintains a keen personal and professional interest in queer Yiddishkeit, bad poetry, and folk horror. He can be contacted at email@example.com.