trans*scribe illustration ©rosa middleton, 2013
I never really used to give much thought to the idea that society needs positive cultural images of minorities until I came to embrace my Hispanic heritage and come out of the closet, a set of processes which took a few years in college to do. Having the blessing, or curse, of lighter skin is a double edged sword. It allows a whole world of opportunity a sort of choose-your-own adventure game with your race unfolds. Do you want to embrace your blood, or whitewash yourself?
I did the latter for a while until I went to college. (I look back at my old pictures and realize how damn Hispanic I truly look. Who was I fooling?) Hence, I never thought about why people were complaining about the lack of black, or Asian, or Hispanic persons in media. To me, I was white. I can’t speak Spanish, and the Hispanic side of my family tried pretty successfully to whitewash itself. But none of my father’s side, a family of Puerto Ricans, looks truly white. I used to always drop ‘Puerto Rican’ from my race when people asked me. It’s a wonder that nobody called me out on that in school – I’m pretty sure Joe Arpaio would deport my ass if I stepped foot in Arizona.
I had gender dysphoria and questioned my gender identity well before coming to terms with this, although I didn’t come out of the closet at this time. It was high school, after all! I figured maybe it was some phase, so I never brought it up. I was also afraid of family backlash, having read enough stories on the Internet about transgirls getting kicked out and forced into selling drugs or their bodies to make a meager living; it was enough to scare me from taking a leap of faith until college. That’s not to say I didn’t try to learn about it during high school. I was always curious to learn new things. Being computer savvy, and a loser with no friends at the time, I had plenty of time to surf the internet when in high school.
I ended up finding my first images of transgender women that weren’t Tim Curry in drag or women on the Maury show on the *chan websites. Pretty picture of a Southeast Asian woman, or some buxom blonde. Obviously silicon – whoa, is that a cock?
Yep. Of course, on the net it was to shock people. A trap, to use internet vernacular. But it intrigued me. I didn’t think transgender women could look beautiful before this. I ended up seeing plenty of images of the same thing with various transgender women all throughout high school. I was filled with emotions. Lust, jealousy, surprise, amazement. Naturally at this time I was as horny as a Triceratops, but aside from that, envy and awe filled my brain. How did they do it? Was this all photoshop? What kind of sorcery can do this? I figured I had no chance at hell of looking like these women. I still know that I’ll never match some of them. I definitely remember seeing a lot of Bailey Jay, aka Line Trap. This kid had done something that I didn’t dare to do, and came out amazing. She gave plenty of cisgender women a run for their money and seemed to have shed her skin.
I never noticed anything odd though about her, or any other transgender women that I saw and brooded over with jealousy at that time. I had yet to embrace my Hispanic heritage. However, the truth is that a large number of them fell into two racial categories. They were either white, or from somewhere in Southeast Asia. There were very few Latina/Hispanic girls, and black transgender women appeared even less. Even so, it seemed like every Latina/Hispanic transgirl was in porn, labeled “exotic” or some other synonym. The few non-porn Latina/Hispanic girls I could name were dead. Now, I definitely agree that I could’ve found a better way to learn about transgender women and find role models. I’m glad that more visible transgender women like Janet Mock and Jen Richards are making their way to the surface, but the images are still disproportionate, and damaging.
I hold nothing against transgender porn stars, or any porn stars for that matter. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to pay the bills. However, for me, this seemed like the only image of transgender women out there at the time. It stuck with me further when I got to college and brooded over coming out.
The old images came back as I sat in my dorm many a night. Even when I first came out to my friends last April they were still there. The images of women with flawless, silky skin bent attentively on their knees, puckered and painted lips wrapped around a throbbing “stud”‘s dick. The Latina/Hispanic girls bothered me the most. A bit of a numbing situation when I thought about it at times. It seemed like my future as a transwoman would either be on my knees, or living in grinding poverty – just waiting for someone to come along and kill me and get away with it.
That’s a pretty scary thing to think. White trans women are somewhat visible in the mainstream media — granted they’re commonly the butt of a joke, but it’s a step above sex work being your only form of upward mobility. (And again, I hold nothing against porn stars or sex workers, I must emphasize that point! You guys and girls make the world go around!) That isn’t very promising as you prepare to transition. It definitely set my ambitions down a peg, and it raises an even bigger question than where I will personally go. Where the hell are the transgender Latinas/Hispanics in our society? They do exist, that can’t be questioned. Some cultures even have traditions of third-gender groups. Transgender people are very prominent in countries such as Brazil, to the point that my Brazilian friends just understood when I told them. Meanwhile, in the United States, Latina/Hispanic trans women seem to be rare, or at least hard to see.
Is it that there really aren’t very many Latina/Hispanic trans women in this country? Or are they here and just not living openly? Or is the real problem located in a media that’s not interested in showing real representations of Latina/Hispanic trans women? Based on my own experiences, I can think of plenty of reasons why other Latina/Hispanic trans women may not feel comfortable coming out. It’s possible that machismo culture is an issue. I know I would be in the closet today if my father were actually in my life. He might’ve white-washed himself as far as interests, but machismo was one thing he was steeped in. It dripped from his body. Religion, possibly is another hurdle. I might not come from a religious family, but I know for others religion has been a reason for them being forced out of their home, hurt, or even killed. While God or Gods have yet to strike a transgender person dead, many a follower has in their name.
For me, though, it was none of these things that made me reconsider the safety of the closet. I worried that this would drive me out of the culture that I had only recently come to accept and embrace. I bit my tongue on telling the people I cared about the most for fear that any reason could drive me from something I had just come to love, tip-toed around it, and broke down in front of a few of my close Hispanic friends when I explained it, figuring that I would lose them, too.
But I didn’t. The same people I was wary of telling turned out to be the simplest to explain to. I received warm words, care, and few of the same painful and strange questions that I got prodded with by my other friends. I didn’t have to hide out from the people I was afraid of losing. Everything went well. Strange. It doesn’t end up that way for everyone, though.
And that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. We can not cure all reasons for transgender discrimination, or reasons to stay in the closet, but we can make it easier and more relatable by bringing prominent transgender women of color to the forefront, and working to create an environment where it’s safe for them to be publicly visible.
We need more women of color leaders in our community. I don’t just mean activists, either. We merely need successful women of color who are transgender and open about it. Stealth is something to admire, but it is also harmful toward the next generations of transgender people. We need to give them people to emulate, look up to, and realize that there is a possibility of success and a good life ahead for them. Trans women (and all women) who have found success through sex work are admirable, but for young trans women who have other dreams, it’s incredibly difficult to live without role models of any other kind. We need to leave our youth with people to aspire to be.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.
I loved this piece. As a Latina trans woman (especially one who is a) light-skinned and b) was pushed to be americanized by family because I was smart, though I still retained my Spanish) a lot of the points you raised resonated with me. I took a very long time to come to grips with myself because of growing up in an environment that only had derision and scorn for trans women as well as very codified gender roles, enforced by “maricon” and other various and sundry slurs.
In a similar example, my mother (who I was terrified of coming out to because of a childhood experience where she threatened to kill me “si eres un maricon”) understood and accepted me pretty easily (though pronouns and names took a while since we live thousands on opposites ends of the country). She even cracked a joke when I told her I was staying with my girlfriend, asking if I was planning of staying with my girlfriend “como una tortillera”. I knew she got it
Here in Los Angeles, we have some Latina role models, like Mariana Marroquin, Drian Juarez, and the folks at Bienestar. That said, I also hope that there can be an in increase in positive media representations of TWoC (especially in mainstream English media) in the future.
Thanks for the great essay! There are some great trans activists who are also latinas… Sylvia Rivera (but, yes, who was also a sex worker), the late Alexis Rivera who was an amazing activist for trans youth in Los Angeles, Arianna Inurritegui-Lint is a trans woman attorney from Peru who works with all kinds of civil rights organizations in Florida, Bamby Salcedo who’s been a key figure in trans health issues, Monica Greene in Dallas who’s owned restaurants and ran for mayor, and JoAnne Keatley, an MSW who works at the Univ. of California’s Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and designed/facilitated all their trans-related programming including SF’s trans jobs program SFTEAM. Maybe they weren’t women who were shown on network news programs but they are well known and respected in the trans community. Bamby and Arianna were just named (with two other trans women) to the “41 List” which is for notable latinos/latinas in the LGBTQ community.
Agnes Torres Sulca!!!!! She was killed in Puebla last year, but she was pretty kickass.
I really liked the content of this article, but I feel like the jerky writing style kept me from enjoying it as much as I could have. I hate to nitpick, as still learned something from it but a little style editing to make the paragraphs flow together would have improved this for me. Otherwise it was great!
yeah your brazilian friends are the exception then, not the rule.
watch out about making generalizations regarding cultures you’re not inserted in. you’re exotifying them and obviously coming from a place of north american/white privilege.
As another Brazilian transperson — just wanted to second what the first person said. Also, please don’t throw Brazil in with “hispanic” culture. Not only is that term extremely colonialist, we were not colonized by Spain, even though we have several traits in common with latin america.
As someone who is neither trans*, nor of a Hispanic heritage and not even an US citizen, I don’t have anything meaningful to contribute. I just wanted to thank you for this article and the opportunity to learn from you, Elaine :)
I am a trans woman, half-Puerto Rican with ‘fair enough’ skin. Normally, people simply assume I’m white, although if I physically mention that I’m Puerto Rican, I’ll often get “Ohhh, I can see it now!” or “I totally thought you were *something*!”
I’ll also often be asked if I am East Asian or North African by those who do notice my ‘slightly unusual’ colour.
Thank you for this article; much of what you wrote resonates greatly with me. An ex of mine used words like ‘trap’ to explain and exoticise me when I understood what it meant to be trans (although I don’t resent her for this). And although neither of my parents are particularly religious, my mother is very socially conservative-minded and there is a lot of discord between us. It has gotten in the way of my ability to pride myself in both my gender identity and ethnic heritage.
Since university, I have gradually become more and more open with peers and professionals in my “networking” attempts. I can only hope that, as an education major, I can inspire my students on a greater plane—and be an example to look up to for future trans generations. I live in the southern US, in a somewhat rural area (but not as rural as it could be). There is a lot of potential for change and I would like to tap into that potential.
Nice Post Useful Information ..!