Stills from A Thousand Cuts, a video installation drawing attention to issues faced by the trans community. Credit: Courtesy B G-Osborne
Transgender Day of Remembrance
9 min

Why silencing trans art endangers trans lives

This unspecified threat that cis people express in relation to trans art is resulting in that trans art being censored

A few months ago, at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, a trans visual art exhibit caused an angry tizzy among a bunch of cisgender women. The visual art exhibition, Degenderettes Antifa Art, featured sculptural objects and photographs. Some of the key visuals included white shirts on display in a cabinet, with blood splattered across them from a die-in performance at San Francisco Pride 2017. It was intended to bring awareness to the staggering number of trans people who commit suicide or are murdered each year. In black writing, one shirt said “YOUR APATHY IS KILLING US” and another, “I PUNCH TERFS!”

Other items included chopping axes and baseball bats painted with flags that represent particularly marginalized members of the queer community, including the pink, purple and blue bisexual flag; the yellow, white, purple and black non-binary flag; the purple, white and green genderqueer flag; and the iconic blue, pink and white trans flag. A few of the bats were wrapped in barbed wire: sculptures that represent the DIY defence tools that many women who live alone keep in their homes. In this case, they are re-envisioned as self-defense tools against biphobia and transphobia.

There were also a number of painted sculptures meant to represent shields, the most contentious of which features the text, “RIP Brandi Seals” followed by “Die Cis Scum.” This piece references Brandi Seals, the 28th trans person (we know of) who was murdered in the US in 2017.

Seals was a Black trans woman. Initial reports of Seals’ murder misgendered her. A police detective speculated on Fox 26 News in Houston that she was “a man in women’s clothing” and implied that Seals’ gender was deceitful, and that once discovered led to her murder. Seals was found dead in a home that was under construction after neighbors reported hearing six gunshots. According to the Human Rights Campaign, of the 29 trans people reported murdered in the US in 2017, the vast majority were trans women of colour. According to USA Today, 2018 is set to surpass the number of trans people murdered last year.

I came across the Degenderettes Antifa Art exhibition a few months ago while I was still trying to work as a genderqueer playwright and performance artist in Vancouver. A white, cisgender woman who works for Vancouver’s Playwrights Theatre Centre had just told me that I was a bully for naming that someone was a TERF, and in my Googling a good article to send her on why calling out discrimination and bigotry is not an act of bullying, I came across the art exhibit via a lot of white cisgender women’s online outrage.

Outside of the artist’s own Instagram and the San Francisco Public Library’s website, much of the online coverage of the exhibit was through the gaze of white, cisgender women who felt personally threatened by the exhibit, or through the lens of internet commentary that insisted on misgendering trans women by calling them men.

Like the website Deep Green Resistance News Service, they log their coverage of the art exhibit under “MALE VIOLENCE.” Or Meghan Murphy, the cisgender woman who is the founder and editor of the blog Feminist Current, who wrote: “Trans activism is excusing and advocating violence against women, and it’s time to speak up.”

While Murphy includes a photo of the “RIP Brandi Seals” shield in her blog post, she never says the name of the actually dead woman, Seals, once, in her long piece concerning violence against women. She never mentions the woman who has been murdered once.

I’m not sure when trans activism has ever resulted in violence against cisgender women. I’ve never seen a news headline about a cisgender woman having been murdered by trans people. I do, over and over, see headlines about murdered trans women of colour.

Murphy’s perception that trans activism poses a threat to cisgender women does not exist in isolation, however. In reaction to the exhibit, the social media campaign #IWasCalledTERF was launched. Mainly white, cisgender women tweeted pictures of themselves to the San Francisco Public Library holding signs.

One reads, “I was called a TERF because I said men are not women & humans are sexually dimorphic.” The use of the 10 dollar word dimorphic implies a higher level of education than the statement does: some people are born intersex, and often their bodies are surgically “corrected” at birth to “normalize” genitals, ie, to force the bodies of intersex infants to adhere to the appearance of being male or female, in one of the most invisibilized, and medically sanctioned, mutilations of a group of people in history.

Another image reads, “I was called a TERF because I said there can be no male lesbians . . . no matter how they ‘identify’.” Much like Murphy’s blog, the tweet implies that trans women are not women, and that by proxy, trans women cannot be lesbians.

A study of the #IWasCalledTERF campaign is a masterclass in what misplaced outrage informed by deep, systemic privilege looks like. On Feminist Current, Murphy says, “Threats of violence against women branded as ‘TERFs’ are increasing — will liberals and progressives speak out before it’s too late?”

OMG RIGHT?! THE TRANS PEOPLE ARE COMING FOR THE CIS PEOPLE! It might ALREADY BE TOO LATE! Too late for what? NO ONE KNOWS! BUT WHILE TRANS PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY DYING, CIS PEOPLE FEEL VAGUELY THREATENED SO LET’S DO SOMETHING!!!

Ironically — and intentionally — this unspecified threat that cisgender people express in relation to trans art is resulting in that trans art being censored. The San Francisco Public Library altered the Degenderettes Antifa Art exhibit, removing the T-shirt “I PUNCH TERFS!” after public outcry.

Calgary’s Arts Commons was recently exhibiting A Thousand Cuts, a video installation meant to draw attention to the issues faced by the trans community. It comprises footage from mainstream film and TV, such as scenes from Friends, Ace Ventura and Orphan Black. The clips, as well as their juxtaposition, create a scathing indictment of how the media treats trans lives.

A Thousand Cuts creates a powerfully accurate portrait of how the discovery, humiliation and outing of trans people is used as a frequent plotline in order to extort shock and comedic entertainment value from trans lives. For me, the work also allowed me to reflect on depression and suicide ideation within the trans community. How can trans people not think about ending our lives when the media tells us that our lives will be miserable and lacking in dignity?

Furthermore, A Thousand Cuts shows that over and over, these reductive and exploitative plotlines about trans people always have the trans characters being played by cisgender actors, enacting exploitation on top of exploitation: even when trans characters are being written, trans people don’t get to tell those stories, and trans actors definitely don’t get to make a dime off the exploitation of trans narratives.

There is a particularly incisive clip about Hilary Swank, saying “she lived as a boy for one month to prepare for the role of Teena Brandon, a true story of a boy — girl — living as a boy in Nebraska,” referencing the prep work Swank did to play Brandon Teena, a white trans man who was raped and then murdered in 1993.

The clip about the rigour of Swank’s research misgenders the murdered trans man that Swank plays, and is followed by a clip from her acceptance speech when she won an Oscar for the role. A Thousand Cuts shows this white, cisgender actor, talking on behalf of a trans community. As she takes the mic, she says, “We have come a long way.”

I share this level of detail about A Thousand Cuts to accurately convey the tone and content of this work, in order to point out how ridiculous it is, and how ridiculously frail cisgender audiences are. Much like Degenderettes Antifa Art holds up mirror to the violence the trans community experiences, A Thousand Cuts holds up a mirror to the exploitation of trans lives for entertainment, and the near-constant appropriation of the voice of the trans struggle by cisgender men and cisgender women.

While the text, audio and visual content of A Thousand Cuts is taken from mainstream media (and therefore contains the occasional seconds of mild nudity and profanity that we are all accustomed to seeing), Arts Commons reported that it received complaints about the nudity and coarse language. “Nudity and coarse language” derived from clips taken from media such as Friends, Ace Ventura, Orphan Black — and the Oscars. Along the lines of the San Francisco Public Library, Arts Commons asked the artist behind the piece, B G-Osborne, to edit the video art. Unlike Degenderettes Antifa Art, A Thousand Cuts did not contain anything that could be argued was a threat of violence against cisgender people. B G-Osborne refused to edit A Thousand Cuts, and Arts Commons took the work down.

I heard about the controversy surrounding Arts Commons censoring trans work in October 2018, while I was in the process of moving from Vancouver to Calgary. In the year and a half that I lived full-time in Vancouver, I’d been quite vocal on social media about the ways that Vancouver’s performing arts community is so saturated with transphobia that it’s dripping. A few cisgender performers based in Vancouver, seeing my, “I’M GETTING OUT OF THE TERF-CENTRAL KNOWN AS VANCOUVER” posts jumped on the trans art censorship happening in Calgary to show me that I was making a bad move and Vancouver wasn’t so bad.

Living in Vancouver as a genderqueer playwright and performance artist did feel like death by a thousand cuts. While I’ve called out an arts organizations in Vancouver and a Vancouver-based blog (Murphy’s Feminist Current), there are several overt transphobic aggressions and covert transphobic microaggressions that I could list from time in Vancouver, such as when TERFs showed up en masse at the 2018 Vancouver Dyke March with transphobic messages written on rocks.

There is often an assumption among left-leaning Canadians who are cisgender that this country is doing enough to protect trans citizens. Bill C-16 amends the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code in this country to prevent discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression — so there is a perception that discrimination against trans people is an American problem in the Trump administration, rather than a problem that exists in Canada. This is simply untrue.

Just last week, the Ontario PC Party passed a resolution to debate whether or not the party should recognize gender identity, with the resolution stating that gender identity is “A highly controversial, unscientific ‘liberal ideology’” —words from the party that is currently in-power in Ontario that directly contradict our Human Rights Act, and words that sound eerily similar to Murphy’s Vancouver-based blog. (Premier Doug Ford has since pledged to stop the motion).

The text on the bloody T-shirt from the die-in intended to bring awareness to the staggering number of trans people who commit suicide or are murdered each year says it best: “YOUR APATHY IS KILLING US.”

The idea that trans art and trans activism is dangerous to cisgender public safety, as TERFs like Meghan Murphy would have us believe, ignores the facts about the number of trans people who are murdered or who take their own lives, and conveniently places trans people in a place of voiceless inertia. We can’t make art about the violence we endure and we certainly can’t make art that says that the violence we endure feels like it needs a violent response. The trans art we are allowed to make hovers between pity-porn that earns cisgender people acclaim, and aesthetically-pleasing Instagram thirst traps where we give our content away for free for the privilege of the cisgender majority telling us: Wow! Trans IS beautiful!

While it is offensive that Arts Commons took down A Thousand Cuts, a work whose subversive power lies in the fact that its content is actually PG-13, at least in Calgary the censorship of trans art gets national news coverage, with the CBC picking up the story. And at least in Calgary, five galleries (Marion Nicoll Gallery, Stride Gallery, The New Gallery, Truck Contemporary Art and Untitled Art Society) ended their partnerships with Arts Commons, out of solidarity with trans artists.

My complacent cisgender colleagues in Vancouver might want to characterize what happened at Arts Commons as a failure. Those of us who are trans artists, however, know that the fact that five galleries in Calgary actually cared that trans-authored and trans-directed art was being censored, and that’s actually a rare win. Because trans artists in this country are systemically ignored and ghettoized. There are no theatres in this country, other than those with explicitly queer mandates, where trans people are given leadership positions. The Canada Council for the Arts does not recognize that trans people are an oppressed minority in the national arts ecology. The Canada Council for the Arts gives us no checkbox we can use to try and combat the systemic barriers we face in our industry.

On the Trans Day of Remembrance, as I think about the trans people who have been murdered and who have taken their own lives, as I think about the intersex babies who will continue to be mutilated at birth, and as I think about how we people on the trans spectrum will continue to wake up every day and have find more certainty in ourselves than any cisgender person will ever understand, I have come to realize that playing nice, as a trans artist, is a bad bargain, with the arts industry and with society. Our lives will be called weapons, and our experiences will be called profane, while we’re the ones actually being pummeled, with attacks and with apathy, to death.

To the trans spectrum artists in Canada who are fighting the fight in this country for us to tell our stories on our terms, thank you. Thank you to Chanty Marostica, for becoming the first trans person to win Sirius XM’s Canada’s Top Comic competition and making the trans experience a candid part of your material. Thank you, Sze-Yang Ade-Lam, for taking Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards to task on the fact that binary gender award categories exclude trans and non-binary artists and when they changed their categories as a result of your activism, and then acted like your activism had been their idea. Thank you, B G-Osborne, for A Thousand Cuts, one of the most poignant and beautiful pieces of trans art I have ever seen.

For all us trans, non-binary and genderqueer people, we have no recourse but to stay dangerous.