Recently, the New York Times interviewed Lavern Cox, from the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Cox is a self-identified Trans* female, both on and off the hit show. In the interview, titled “Lavern Cox: ‘Blending in Was Never an Option’” (which impressively did not attempt to throw a spotlight Cox’s genitalia, unlike other recent interviewers have done with Trans* individuals in the media), Cox tells her story of how she got the part in the show, and how it feels to be a Trans* actor. There was a very interesting piece of the interview that began a brief conversation about passing. The Interviewer asked Cox
“Is it a burden to be known as a Transgender actress-not just an actress?”
To which Cox responded “Yeah, but I think it’s important to empower being Trans*. Most of the narrative around trans identity has been about transitioning. You blend in, and that is the goal, but blending in was never an option for me. Some people are going to know that we’re trans*. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
This part of the interview really struck a cord in me and caused me to consider something I have been struggling with for a long time; is it okay to pass as a trans* person and drop the T from ones identity? Does that undermine the trans* movement for human rights and equality if Trans* people are literally “disappearing” into our society to become simply women or men? OR, is it truly that that individuals wants to be male or female, and have no interest in identifying as trans* once they can pass safely in their communities and environments? After all, it is definitely safer to pass in many situations and environments, and I understand those risks are extremely high in certain settings. But, if one’s trans* identity disappears, and the person can pass, does the visibility of trans* individuals gets smaller and smaller? This is not suggest that all trans* individuals wish to pass, as many androgynous people still straddle the line between male and female, denying their participation in the gender-dichotomy we live by in our society today. Additionally, I have met many trans* identified people who appear to pass yet still identify themselves as trans*. What I’m really trying to question here and consider is, is choosing to drop the “T” from ones identity and becoming part of the male-female gender dichotomy going to help or hurt the trans* equal rights movement that is slowly picking up speed today? With surgeries and hormone therapy becoming better and better, will we one day live in a world that is full of trans* people who no longer identify as trans*?
This quandary leads me to consider the idea of the term trans. Trans literally means that someone who is in transition, so why should someone maintain that identity if they are no longer transitioning from one thing to another? Shouldn’t our society come up with a better term to use that would incorporate the true identity of many trans people today who are no longer transitioning, but passing, or, those who are androgynous and are not transitioning, but instead happily arrived at their desired gender identity and expression? For instance, in many of the Native American cultures, the term 2 Spirit is used. Or the term Hijdas, used in Indian cultures to describe a third gender. Why must people who choose to pass, or remain androgynous, maintain an identity that no longer describes them? I think this is a huge identifier that we, as a culture, still lack the appropriate language when it comes trans issues and identities.
So how can we bring this message back to the idea of psychotherapy and counseling? Well, I think in the therapy room, it is important for both therapists and clients to begin a dialogue about what kinds of language and terms should be used in session. Sometimes, it can be a burden for clients to have to educate their counselors, but a conversation about language can begin the process of education, and draw awareness to the unique needs of each client as they enter therapy and the therapeutic relationship. So go on, talk about how to talk! Agree upon correct terminology for yourself, and practice establishing your right to being spoken to as you prefer to be spoken to. We are all on learning curve here when it comes to trans language and what words work best for each individual. Don’t stop talking about talking, even when talking gets tough!