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.
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.
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.