The publicity campaign for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the latest album from Against Me!, has only begun and the last minute retractions and sensitivity edits are already underway! As it turns out, if we still can’t expect some people to wrap their heads around why phrases like “the gay lifestyle” are problematic, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath when it comes to their approach to transgender rock stars.
To be fair, a substantial number of contemporary music critics probably don’t know (or don’t think they know) a trans person, so their notion of what is or isn’t appropriate is largely guesswork. For these writers, then, there will be two major problems to contend with: First, they are going to need to critically evaluate a record whose subject matter is confusing and foreign to them. They will mediate Laura Jane Grace’s lyrics through their own assumptions about gender and sexuality, and more disconcertingly, through misconceptions they may have about trans people or the process of transitioning itself. The danger being, of course, that we’re about to be inundated with album reviews that more accurately reveal the gender anxieties of predominantly straight white cisgender men than they do any of Grace’s concerns.
The other problem these writers will grapple with is how to talk about Grace herself, and really, this shouldn’t be as hard: She’s a real person. She’s an artist. She is not available (nor is she making herself available) for objectification. The parameters and decorum with which we talk about any human being still apply.
This issue was put to the test over the weekend, when NPR posted an Against Me! album stream and writer Stephen Thompson was handily excoriated in the comments for writing that singer Laura Jane Grace “came out as preoperative transgender.” (This line has since been edited.) So where did he go wrong? For one, this particular phrasing puts an undue emphasis on “operative” status, as if gender identity depends on it. It doesn’t. But also, adjectives like these linguistically demonstrate our cultural obsession with trans bodies and presume that we have a right to know the personal physical details of these bodies in ways that we would never demand to know of anyone else. In her brilliant reprimand of Katie Couric, also over this weekend, Laverne Cox expands on this exact point:
The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.
A little bit of writerly advice, then: Surgery of any kind is personal, and an expression of entitlement to such detail is invasive at best. It’s as irrelevant to your critical work as asking whether or not Oasis are circumcised.
There are considerations and conventions that non-trans people need to learn. This is not negotiable. We need to know that language can be hostile to trans people, that language can prescribe and enforce the dominant heteronormative discourse, and that we—as cosigners on the social contract that is language—have every right to modify the way we speak about gender and transitioning in order to demarginalize those individuals whose realities are not served by their own tongue.
There is no shortage of trans etiquette work on the Internet, and this piece is not meant to replace that. I also don’t mean to speak on behalf of trans people, whose own voices are too often muted or ignored. If anything, consider this as more of a gentle proviso: Should you decide to write about Laura Jane Grace or any other trans person this year (or forever), you are hereby charged with a responsibility to keep from undermining their lives.