Will Young’s video and all those reactions

Deeply moved and affected. That’s the gut reaction of myself, my partner, and many other trans guys to seeing Will Young’s Brave Man video.

It’s an uncomfortable watch, but a powerful one. It speaks so strongly of the experience of having to constantly (metaphorically) take our clothes off in public – our bodies are everyone’s property and business, and we can never escape the cis gaze. If you don’t understand what I mean by this, imagine what it’s like to find yourself being questioned about your genitals by your new counselling supervisor, or where the most casual conversation can quickly turn to a verbal exploration of what’s under your clothes.

This is my experience of being transgender, and I know I am not alone.

It’s a world where my non-binary identity is often conflated with my (current) decision not to go for surgery, despite the fact that the two things have nothing to do with one another. The relief I felt when this man revealed himself to be non-op was palpable. Commenters who referred to the trans actor Finn as “androgynous” have dangerously missed the point. The power of seeing that non-standard male body against the constant repetition of the word “man” in the song was deeply moving. This is not about non-binary, or androgyny, it is about masculinity.

My understanding is that the video was made with very clear consent and in collaboration with the trans community. I am satisfied at the level of ethics that went into its making, but I appreciate that the video does feel an incredibly risky thing to expose to the cis gaze. While its message is to confront the way we are reduced to our bodies, I can understand how on a more simplistic level it feels like just such a reduction. As well as having a powerful emotional reaction to the video, my partner and I both experienced a lot of discomfort and fear. It’s not an easy piece of art. It is very challenging, and brave.

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That “B” word. We are not brave for being who we are, and I get oh so tired of hearing that. Because inherent in the “brave” narrative is the inference of choice – that we are being trans because we’re brave enough to be different, rather than we are being trans because that’s simply who we are. We don’t really get to choose to avoid the oppression, scrutiny and attack that’s heaped upon us. At the same time, I kind of liked Young’s statement that it’s really about vulnerability – “to be vulnerable is to be strong“.

In addition to this, I am always thrilled as a feminist to see anything that puts maleness and vulnerability together, given the anti-vulnerability narrative that exists as part of toxic masculinity and infects trans guys as much as cis ones.

Another criticism is that it’s a trope to portray trans people as a “silent, agentless, friendless symbol of suffering” (CN Lester, on Twitter). I agree, it’s a trope. At the same time I think there’s something really powerful about showing this vulnerability, because despite these “tragic trans” tropes, our community is still seen as threatening and dangerous. Seeing the video resonated with me – yes, I am that vulnerable and at the mercy of the cis gaze. For me, the most powerful part of the video is Finn’s defiantly shrugging off a coat a well meaning cis woman places over him. My partner punched the air at this point. That was the fight we needed to see. Contrast this to the clumsy scene in “Boy Meets Girl” in which trans woman Judy landed a punch on one of her bullies and thereby reinforced the lie that trans women have male power and strength and live in a world where it’s safe to defend themselves.

Another issue raised is the whiteness of the video, and this is something I want to delicately unpick, at the same time as acknowledging my own whiteness. Yes, I would like to see more people of colour represented across the board in the media I consume, and I would like to see the stories of trans people of colour, particularly women, elevated. It’s astonishingly important to be intersectional in our approach to awareness raising and activism. We need to bring a focus onto the terrifying violence and oppression experienced globally by trans women of colour.

But I have begun to notice in the stories we trans folk tell ourselves a notion that being trans on its own isn’t enough of an issue. I think this is reinforced by the fact that we are a very small minority. It’s hard to get our voices heard alone, and we are early on in our fight for rights and recognition.

But just because being trans on its own is not spoken about so much, does not mean it is a “lesser” oppression. Being trans in its own right is the cause of significant oppression and social disadvantage. I think the rarely seen image of a trans man being visible and victimised strips away the complicating factors of other oppressions and makes trans oppression very clear. I don’t need to see this image over and over, but as a one off in the mainstream I think the image is important. As a community, we’ve been too schooled to be dismissive of trans oppression as a thing on its own, and not simply as a complicating factor in other oppressions.

Finn brave man

As for Young’s patriarchy comment, I am uncomfortable with it:

As I thought more about it, I realised that there is often coverage of what it is to be a woman in a man’s body, but never to my knowledge the documenting of the opposite (almost a perverted kind of patriarchy).”

I want to believe that Young is talking about how society falsely associates trans women with transgressive maleness and that’s why the violent hypervisibility lands on them, but it’s hard to escape the fact that this comment effectively misgenders trans women.

I would like to hear what Young has to say about this, and I think he needs to be called out over it. Is some of the reaction proportionate to his crime? Maybe not, but as someone who isn’t a trans women it’s hard for me to judge how it impacts them. Also, Will, can we please get away from that awful term “woman in a man’s body” – if you’re going to wade into ally waters, you seriously need to do some work on getting your language right. Being well meaning isn’t enough, and the community has a right to call you to account.

But this brings me to my final point – how easily a vulnerable, marginalised community can tear itself up over a video like this, and how hard it is to keep our reactions in proportion.

Why are trans people so “touchy” as one commenter described it? Because they are often traumatised and hyper-vigilant and frankly scared silly, and with good reason. Does this lead to overreactions at times? Of course – ask any traumatised person, we jump at our own shadows. Please let’s be compassionate with each other though, and not overreact to each other’s overreactions.

My own reaction is a non-binary one, just like me. This video, and Young’s words and intentions, are neither perfect nor completely reprehensible. I think the ensuing discussion, even with the over-reactions on either side, is important and valid, and I hope we can listen to the various thoughts and feelings this challenging video stirs up. I do not think my perspective is definitive, but I do have a valid stake in the conversation.

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5 thoughts on “Will Young’s video and all those reactions

  1. jerbearinsantafe

    Reblogged this on Fairy JerBear's Queer/Trans News, Views & More From The City Different – Santa Fe, NM and commented:
    As an Agender person dmab I too dislike the whole “trapped in a women’s /men’s body” description of being trans. I like to think Will’s heart was in the right place but he could do with some more education and exposure to the stories of trans people in all our divesity. The video has been a catalyst for much needed discussion and that is a good thing.

    Reply
  2. Margo Schulter

    As a Lesbian feminist trans woman of the Second Wave, I’d like to reflect a bit on Will Young’s “patriarchy” comment, and the real need for more visibility and recognition of the right kind for trans men and transmasculine people generally. There are a number of issues here, and visibility of the right kind is to me a central theme.

    Sam, as you’ve said, “AFAB privilege is not a thing,” and I would add that AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) oppression, as by childhood female socialization, is a thing. So, as I remember quipping in the 1970’s somewhat in the manner of Will Young, anything an AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) person does, even transitioning, is more likely to get recognition than the same thing done by an AFAB person. This was at a time when Janice Raymond was developing her argument, published in _The Transsexual Empire_ (1979), that trans men were simply a front put up by the patriarchy to make transitioning look more balanced! While anathematizing trans women, with those of us who are Lesbian feminists singled out as the worst of all, she thus reduced trans men simply to a kind of Potemkin village or mirage fashioned by the patriarchy. Even though trans men back then were speaking out against transphobia, their visibility was evidently low enough that Raymond felt free to write what she did at the time.

    Maybe this kind of contrast between the objectification and sexualization of trans women (much as gets applied under patriarchy to women in general), and the nonrecognition of trans men and transmasculine people, is still a prevailing pattern — and we need to change both sides of the picture! Visibility and first-hand narratives can be the best counters to destructive mythmaking, whether by the mass media or by those practicing sex essentialism and transphobia in the name of feminism.

    For example, there was actually a claim that the reason that there are Gay trans men is because Gay male culture is so much more visible than Lesbian culture that AFAB people are choosing to identify as Gay men rather than Lesbian women! A first-person account by C. Jacob Hale of how he came to live as a Gay man in part through taking part in the leatherdyke scene, with its fluidity of gender identities and expressions providing a kind of bridge for his transition, is the best refutation to such transphobic notions. And in sharing his own experience, he’s also being a very effective ally for me as a Lesbian trans woman. Opening minds to the many ways that gender identity and affectional preference can interact serves us all well.

    A vital point that you’ve made is that things are not neatly symmetrical. While those of us who are AMAB trans people do get some male or quasi-male privilege before we transition, it is often partial and accompanied with gender oppression — as you mainly were emphasizing is also true for many AFAB trans people in transition, and often also later. This ties in with the idea that intersectionality is an opportunity and responsibility to appreciate how race, class, ableism, and other factors affect ourselves and each other — but, especially in the area of gender variant people, doesn’t always mean neat and tidy binaries.

    In short, I appreciate the grain of truth in Young’s statement while understanding how it could be taken in unpleasant ways. But more healthy visibility for trans men and transmasculine people, together with challenges to some stereotypes reflected by the wrong kind of visibility for trans women as sex objects or the targets of transphobic stereotypes, may help us to move together on the road to liberation.

    Reply

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