BY GWENDOLYN ANN SMITH
In July of 2016, my father passed away. In his later years, he was primarily known for being a conductor on the Disneyland Railroad, as well as his long-time model-railroading hobby. Yet in for some three decades before he began shouting “all aboard” at mouse-eared guests, he was a professional photographer.
As you can guess, he took countless photos of me. My mother always wanted up to date family portraits, and I suspect it was easy enough to test out the gear on a mostly-willing and easily available subject. Even if I was one of the few people my father was never able to tease a photogenic smile out of.
I have several photo boxes of these and other photos, as well as a nine-pound wedding album when he and all his photographer buddies mobbed my wife and I’s wedding. Some of his work is really lovely, including photos of me taken in lupine fields, or facing into a Southern California sunset, or resplendent in wedding finery. These photos mark many years of my life, and many milestones in it.
The thing is, while I have shared some of those with transgender friends, especially those still dealing with the earliest stages of their own transitions, as a way of showing how far I personally have come since those days, I simply cannot share them in a wider fashion, amongst those who are not transgender folks.
Those of you who are transgender already have a good idea why: all of these photos were taken before my transition, with the last of them taken within weeks of the day I came out to my father. Of course, he could have taken more after I transitioned and in the later years when we reconciled, but that simply never happened. He wasn’t a photographer then, and had largely put those days behind him.
To a non-transgender person, photos of transgender people are treated as if they are magic. This is, perhaps, why you can type in just about any transgender person’s name into Google and watch it autocomplete the word “before” in the search window.
I’ve talked a bit about this before, how people will do this same thing with our “deadname,” that is, the name we were assigned by our parents at birth. As soon as such is known, no matter how much we make it clear what our chosen name is, that old name is treated as if it is somehow more “authentic” or “real.”
The same happens when we reveal we are transgender to others who may not know: You’ll see the eyes squint, traversing every nook and cranny of one’s face, looking for clues of our pre-transition history. That we identify with a gender now is tossed aside, in some perverse search for the person we may be behind the face and body we have made for ourselves.
All of this, of course, ties right back into another thing I’ve brought up more than once: this is, at the heart, another reinforcement of the tired, old “transgender deceiver” trope. It’s this idea that transgender people are simply out to “fool” people.
It is what drives the anti-transgender “bathroom bills” that claim one would take on a female persona only to assault women and girls in restrooms and it is what sits at the heart of the “transgender panic” defense, this belief that a transgender person “trapped” a person into “gay sex,” and they were forced to react violently.
In short, all of this says to those of us who are transgender that we cannot be trusted with the agency to tell us who we actually are. Indeed, the “truth” isn’t in the name we’ve chosen or the visage we present, but in a name stamped on a decades-old birth certificate in a county office, or a pile of snapshots stashed away in a dusty, cardboard box.
What this means to us is that we have to function without our own pasts, knowing that such could be used as a weapon against us in order to invalidate our current existence. I find this sad, but having seen far too many transgender people reduced to their pre-transition pasts, I know all too well how it works.
Consider, just a few examples of celebrities who happen to be transgender: Chaz Bono, the Wachowski Sisters, and, I suppose, Caitlyn Jenner too. How quickly might a non-transgender person bring up their histories? How much weight would be placed on their pasts versus the person they are today? Then consider: what is their truth?
I transitioned roughly half my life ago, around age 23. How many of us would be accurately represented by a photo of ourselves taken nearly half a century ago? Setting aside how many of us would be little more than a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, would a grainy school portrait from that long ago accurately portray the person you are today?
Likewise, it is still fairly common in this society for brides to take their husband’s last name when they marry. Would it be in good form to tell the blushing bride that while they may now be a “Smith,” you shall always call them by the last name of their parents?
This seems unreasonable, and it should feel similarly silly when applied to transgender people. Just like Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “The map is not the territory,” the belief that these relics of a transgender person’s past accurately depict their reality is ridiculous.
Meanwhile, my father’s photos of me remain on a shelf here at home.
BY GWENDOLYN ANN SMITH