Narrative Control

Our groundbreaking year suddenly doesn’t look so groundbreaking

Alexandra Billings and Jeffrey Tambor in <em>Transparent</em>. (Beth Drubber/Amazon Studios/Everett Collection)
Alexandra Billings and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. (Beth Drubber/Amazon Studios/Everett Collection)


Every sentence I have written since beginning these columns has been toward one basic point: we have reached a time where how we react to another’s gender identity says as much about our humanity as theirs. In 1961, James Baldwin put it this way: “If you don’t know my name, you don’t know your name.”

What would you say about the humanity of the person who sent this email: 

Dear Diana, Wowee! What a surprise! … A whole new perspective on life and the world, many adjustments others may have to make to your choice … and a total giveaway of former gym outfits and footgear. I want you to know that it may be awkward for me at times to know what to say and how to behave, but I’m WITH you … Wowee! O.K. I said that enough. First the Mets soar and roar, now this. Too much shockers for one summer. …

Well how ’bout those Mets? Curiously, amid the ineptitudes, he’s careful to carve out space for future ineptitude, a move echoed by many old acquaintances at a conference I attended recently. “I’m going to mess up,” “This is going to take me a while,” were the first words out of so many mouths after hugging me hello. “Nonsense,” I said each time, “we’ll all be fine.” The next day at lunch, after I politely requested a woman to stop referring to me as “he” and instead refer to me as “she,” I received a lecture which began, “Look! You’re just going to have to be patient!” There we are: the privileged, desperate to feel good about themselves, slipping the noose of their own humanity.

Maura Pfefferman’s role in the acclaimed show Transparent parallels this dynamic: the trans person in that show is a continual “shocker,” something cis people must figure out how to adjust to—so things can stay all about them. Meantime, Maura’s own journey is hardly the point of the show, and receives little air time. The same is true for The Danish Girl, a movie centering on the ordeal of a wife, even though the husband was a trans pioneer (Lili Elbe, the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery). As we all watch those in power figure out how to maintain narrative control of Hollywood (something people of color are especially familiar with), our groundbreaking year suddenly doesn’t look so groundbreaking.

At the end of Season 2 of Transparent, Maura’s son Josh finally begins to “mourn the loss” of his father. Here’s another bullshit trope that needs to go. Although I have no doubt Josh feels loss (as my own brother did), what’s actually going on is the stripping away of a mirage, and we could do a lot of good culturally by finally getting this right. Meantime, I look forward to the day, either on screen or in life, when a person appreciates how lucky they were to have had this parent, this sibling—who they’d still have, if only we were seen for who we are.

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Diana Goetsch (formerly Douglas Goetsch) is a poet and freelance teacher of writing. Her latest book is Nameless Boy.


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