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Dear New York Times: I’m Not a ‘Trans Activist’

NY Times

Media thrives on conflict and erasure, and that’s exactly what’s taking place as Netflix continues to salvage the awards season prospects of Girl, its dangerous, traumatizing, small-minded, and one-dimensional representation of the trans experience that’s nominated for best foreign language film at Sunday’s Golden Globes. Case-in-point: The New York Times published a piece today about the film’s alleged merits.

The film, which is about a trans girl (played by a cis boy) who wants to become a ballerina and have gender confirmation surgery, has been almost universally panned by queer critics. Mathew Rodriguez, formerly of INTO, was one of the first to the punch, calling it “another example of trans trauma porn.” I myself wrote my own critique of the picture, and other journalists have joined in a similar vein, leaving two sides in a makeshift culture war. 

In one faction is the cis, gay co-writer and director, Lukas Dhont, and the trans woman, Nora Monsecour, whose story inspired the film. In the opposing faction is anyone who’s not part of the community of cis critics who have praised and applauded the Belgian movie. This unnecessary dichotomy and wholly manufactured opposition has inspired countless clicks and endless internet debate.

Lost in the chorus of voices are, frankly, those that belong to actual trans folks. Monsecour, for her part, has doubled down on the virtue of the film in interviews and in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, saying critics of the picture are “preventing another trans story from being shared in the world, and are also attempting to silence” her and her identity.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it’s unfortunate that the concerns presented by trans and allied critics have been received this way. The criticisms are not intended to silence her, but rather that we want to be clear that the most traumatic scene of the movie did not indeed happen in real life, and that there is a responsibility that must be shouldered in telling trans stories and representing trans bodies.

In the film, (Trigger Warning and Spoiler Alert) after setting the stage about how impatient the character Lara is for her body to change, she takes it upon herself to hurry her transition via self mutilation. She calls an ambulance, attempts to numb her penis with ice, takes a pair of scissors, and cuts her penis off. The danger in this lies in the message it sends to the little trans and gender nonconforming kids that might stumble upon this film in their Netflix queue at the top of the year and do what kids do: follow suit.

We are still in what actress Jen Richards once called “the Sidney Poitier phase of trans representation, where the few that we have have to be so unassailable so that we can open doors.” Until we get beyond it, films like Girl come with a hefty price tag. Multiple truths can coexist without a battle being created: We can say the film is not a win for trans representation and not be accused of trying to silence a trans woman in the process.

But cis reporters are bound to miss this nuance. On Wednesday, Erik Piepenburg of The New York Times called the critiques a “firestorm,” invoking language that has long been used to keep critics who aren’t straight white men at bay. Piepenburg referred to us not as critics or reporters (I myself am Out’s director of culture and entertainment and formerly a reporter from the Los Angeles Times), but instead as “trans activists.”

Frankly, this is a thinly-veiled effort to dismiss, ignore, and invalidate perspectives and critiques that differ from those dominated by newsrooms that are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. Asserting that the pushback the film has received, including not making it to the Oscars foreign language shortlist, is the work of “activists,” erases the necessary and effective work of journalists and career film critics. Left in its place is the impression of a host of negligible, pesky, and unfounded opinions, now seen in the nation’s paper of record as extreme and unreasonable.

It’s a perspective rooted in the idea that because I myself am a member of marginalized communities — Black, queer, gender nonconforming, etc. — that what I believe is somehow not as valid as the beliefs held by my peers who are of communities with more power. Piepenburg seems to imply that my vantage point, filtered through my othered identities, is purely an emotional response and, therefore, must be uninformed.

To be clear, I am not implying that the label of “activist” is inherently bad or laced with judgement. What I’m saying is that dismissing criticism of Girl by trans and allied folks as the work of activists is to erase a history of traditionally marginalized people holding the white, cis mainstream to the fire through their journalism. Like Ida B. Wells or Timothy Thomas Fortune, or even Frederick Douglass. Though we know that it's often only in retrospect that our journalism is seen for what it is — not activism.

Ultimately, to anyone who wants to watch the movie: go off, sis! But for the media to continually assert that my criticisms are somehow invalid is offensive. And to the New York Times: Perhaps instead of spending time writing your own piece and inserting your own voice into the debate, or devoting significant margin space to profiling Neo-Nazis, you might consider consulting, employing, or elevating some of the voices who have been continuously ignored and overlooked by your publication for decades.

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