Beyond Representation

Written by Shaadi D.

As quickly as trans women become more visible in the media and political landscape, we also see a pushback in terms of policy and the political discourse. Alongside the burgeoning images of notable trans women in select, highly visible spaces, we see a global conversation that says our presence means that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket.” 

And while individuals who can climb their way to the spotlight of being institutionally “represented,” make personal strides, trans women do not have the protections of institutional backing and suffer the most material realities of viral, targeted pushbacks.

Representation is a truly beautiful act of imagining. It is often through the act of seeing ourselves reflected in others that we even realize the call to take up the space of ourselves. As actress Laverne Cox says, our “possibility models” open a door in the imagination that allows us to truly pass into the door of our own political and social bodies. But this door can easily be hijacked when the representation itself is prioritized and fetishized over an actual liberatory framework.

The cost of representation is often a high one, where it can only be achieved through institutions and actors that are only willing to give us rewards in exchange for playing by their rules. Suddenly, in exchange for being conditionally allowed, we find ourselves constantly battling between an offering of silence and our own true needs, labeled “radical” and “divisive,” because they challenge power. 

Several questions begin to emerge that movements have grappled with for generations: As we continue to materially suffer so that a few can achieve the guise of representation for the whole, what do we lose in exchange? How are our politics diverted by institutions that we appeal to and defanged in the interest of access and a few “seats at the table?” When we arrive at this table how much power do we actually have to define our own realities, and placate existing power holders? Have we replaced a true political scaffold with the politics of being “represented?” After the awards are received and we have arrived in the global imagination, what does the average trans woman have to fall back on in the face of a world that is increasingly polarized against them?

In the game of momentary survival and access, there is always a danger of sacrificing a true future in exchange for “success.” There is a package of representation that is often offered to activists and changemakers right when we are at our peak of enacting true shifts and deeply radical, healing change within our societies. When you are visible, offers come to use that visibility in service of institutions, brands, and power, who seek narratives that do not ultimately challenge them but allow them to continue as usual, in exchange for letting a few of us in. After the door is closed again, the average trans woman is still in dire need of resources and societal protections.

Around the world, much of the representation we have received has been translated into an opportunity to use trans women as a political wedge and incite populations into helping bad actors achieve temporary political goals. If there is no true political, material, and systematic protection put in place (in favor of representation) how can we truly hope to combat and weather the storms meant to sacrifice us in an act of “necropolitics?” If we understand “necropolitics” as the acts and power to decide who can live and who can die in the interest of the politics of nationhood, trans women are repeatedly one group who are instantly offered as disposable. In the context of necropolitics, when we offer representation without a political framework to protect the people being represented, are we guiding increasingly vulnerable populations to the chopping block?

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As the pandemic continues, housing becomes more inaccessible, wages stagnate and inflation rises, the most vulnerable populations will bear the brunt of global crisis. The last to be considered will especially be queer and LGBT+ people within those populations. While representation can offer a few opportunities for people to be confronted with an opportunity to recognize our humanity, we need more than the goodwill of individual actors who “allow” us humanity based on an image. We need the protections of a larger global movement that prioritizes the reduction of collective human suffering, instead of offering us up as something exceptional, only to be considered in an act of hypervisibility that leaves most queer people vulnerable. Hypervisibility says that we are either extremely visible or completely invisible according to the charged feelings, attitudes and interests of the dominant society. In the context of hypervisibility, we are either extremely successful women who are worthy of representing an otherwise dehumanized and pitiable minority or we are political kegs used to light populist movements into destructive political acts. Where we seek to build humanity and political frameworks in between, we are rendered invisible or destroyed before we can bloom from the pavements.

As we consider trans and non-binary people beyond the acts of representation and into a future that we can inhabit with less shame, judgement and destructive acts of political sacrifice of human life, we learn to empower populations with the ability to decrease suffering through loving and supportive action. When the representation of our icons fades from our daily lives and we are left with our material realities, the hope is that we can use the opportunities they provided us. Pushing the dialogue even further into a radically supportive liberatory framework that secures our future beyond the glitter of a moment is the ideal, not holding them up as exceptions and celebrities and wipe our hands because we’ve arrived.

In the quest for fame, representation, viral moments and personal success how do we make sure that the work stays centered on those who need it most?


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