The recent uproar when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson, a cisgender woman, would play a transgender man known as Mr. Gill in an upcoming docudrama, highlighted the frustration of the LGBTQ community regarding the continued lack of representation in Hollywood. On the flip side, the television series Supergirl was lauded for hiring a transgender actress, Nichole Maines, to portray a transgender superhero. These reactions show the world how much transgender representation in mainstream media matters.
Why does representation matter? If I had seen people like me represented in the media when I was growing up, it would have saved me a lot of pain and heartache. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, there were no transgender male role models for me to look up to. When I was confronted with the conflict between the fact I felt like a boy and the reality that I had the body of a girl, I struggled to find my identity as I was forced to conform to gender societal norms.
I found myself being called a tomboy, and I clung to that label like a lifeline. That was the closest I could get to who I really was. I’m not a female with a male gender expression. What I really am is a male stuck inside a female form, but that concept wasn’t in the public consciousness when I was a child.
For years I struggled with being weird and different. I didn’t make friends easily because girls didn’t know what to make of me and boys didn’t want to be associated with a girl. When I hit puberty and all these things started to happen to my formerly androgynous body, I had one of many existential crises. I continued to struggle because I still didn’t act enough like a girl despite my newly developed curves.
During my young adulthood I kept swinging between trying to be more feminine and just feeling wrong and being more androgynous and feeling more like myself. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to be truly androgynous because of how curvy I am. There wasn’t much I could do about it, so I just did my best to ignore the issues I had with my body and focused on things I could control.
I focused on my education and career. When I found myself in a relationship, I put a lot of my energy into that. I always focused myself outward, ignoring who I was because I had no means of reconciling who I was with the body I was stuck in.
I was well into my forties before I began to discover transgender men online, and I was drawn to their stories and struggles. A lot of their stories echoed my own. When I finally came across genderqueer and gay transgender men, I finally began to realize that’s who I was. My years of joking that I was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body was no longer a joke.
When I finally saw myself represented in online media, it made so much of my life make sense for the first time. Why I struggled to find partners. Why I rarely made female friends. Why I always felt like I never fit in anywhere.
By not having representation, millions of transgender people in the past have been doomed to try to wedge themselves into societal expectations as best as they could, often to their own detriment.
So, when Hollywood and mainstream media get the representation right, such as with the case of Supergirl hiring a transgender actress to portray a transgender character, it makes a significant difference to everyone in the transgender community.
I’m hopeful that representation will become the norm, not the exception, so that transgender and genderqueer children won’t have to grow up with the confusion and misunderstanding of who they are like I had to. I’m happy I can finally transition into the person I was always meant to be, and I hope that will eventually be true for all transgender people.