The Problem With Cis-to-Trans Fan Art and Headcanons

By Levi van Wyk

Words you may be unfamiliar with:
Canon: Official traits given to fictional characters by the original creators. Example: “Superman has a muscled body”.
Headcanon: Unofficial traits given to fictional characters by fans, usually just for fun or creative exploring. Example: “Superman’s muscles are actually just sponges stuffed into his costume to make it seem like he has a muscled body”.

As an artist myself, I definitely understand the need for creativity and ideas to be applied to works of fiction and its characters. People generally enjoy fictional characters most when they are relatable or convey commendable behaviour. Unfortunately, a lot of fans tend to take their creativity too far by forcing ideas onto creators, their creations and other fans.

Recently, I’ve noticed a rise in artists and fans turning cisgender fictional characters transgender, as part of creative fan art projects and headcanons for fun. While it’s great to see the transgender community being represented in the creative world, it also brings a lot of problems to light.

The “obviously transgender” character

I absolutely loved the idea of taking original fictional characters and drawing them as LGBT individuals for fun. However, I recently noticed that almost all fan art featuring a cis-character-turned-trans, make it blatantly obvious that the character is transgender. Cis male characters are portrayed wearing lipstick and makeup while showing off a fabulous beard and wearing clothing generally found in the female section of a clothing store. While we try to erase gender stereotypes where we can, some things will always be gendered because of society’s way of sorting everything under labels, and the transgender community is very well aware of this. A part of the transgender community constantly asks the “do I pass?” question, while trying to match their gendered clothing, mannerisms, physical appearances and way of living to a gender-type. This may exclude agender and non-binary individuals, as they are more flexible with the previously-mentioned concerns. Unfortunately, to the entire world, gender stereotypes will most likely never be erased.

Fictional characters that seem “obviously transgender” in appearance, insinuates that transgender individuals make use of gender stereotyping to only add to their original traits, such as wearing bright pink lipstick while being unable to help the fact that they still grow beards, if the character is a trans female. I’m perfectly fine with harmless fan art, which is probably what it is, but artists and fans also need to remember that art gets seen by everyone if it’s posted online, and the general public, who probably doesn’t understand much about transgender lifestyles, might get the wrong idea. Not all transgender individuals are “out” to the public either, where the characters in these artworks scream “look at me, I’m transgender!”. More often than not, a transgender individual will not make it obvious that they are transgender to the public, unless if they feel safe to do so. I do feel like cisgender artists and fans need to go out of their way to research transgender lifestyles, join transgender groups online, talk to multiple transgender individuals and ask enough questions to fully understand the transgender community. That being said, by no means am I attacking fans, artists or their creative pieces – I’m simply noticing the problematic aspects of something that could be deemed as “harmless media”.

CIS-TO-TRASN HEADCONS

Harassment and death threats

Whenever there’s drama somewhere on some type of social media website, everyone seems to know about it, except, apparently, for the harassment and death threats people receive from creators of “this cis character is trans” posts, if they disagree with the posts. Personally, I tend to feel annoyed with these types of posts, even though I grant people the right to create headcanons and be creative. I recently asked members of a few transgender Facebook groups what they think about said headcanons, and the majority said they don’t like it or just ignore it. I’ve seen a lot of transgender individuals disagree with these types of headcanon posts, only to be met with a barrage of insults, name-calling, harassment and death threats, usually from the creators of the posts themselves. Ironically enough, after doing some digging, I’ve found that most of the creators of these posts identify as cisgender, but are a part of the LGB communities. There’s nothing wrong with this, however, the problem comes in where transgender individuals state that they disagree with posts relating to their identities and community, and are then immediately attacked and called “transphobic”.

I feel that if a transgender person states that they do not agree with something transgender-related, which was created by someone outside of the transgender community, they should be respected, instead of attacked. A lot of transgender individuals on these groups mentioned that they usually get attacked by cisgender individuals, and told that they house “internalized transphobia”. To me personally, it makes no sense for someone outside of the community to tell someone belonging to the community that they are transphobic, even while it could be a possibility. Once again, people have the right to be creative and make headcanons for characters, but they shouldn’t attack others for disagreeing with them. It’s fine to say “I think this character could be trans, because-”, but it’s wrong to say “This character is trans and if you disagree with me, you’re transphobic-”, because headcanons are fan-made and unofficial.

Gender identity is NOT an aesthetic

Carrying on from the previous topic, “cis to trans” headcanon posts and art generally have this strange type of fantasy and fairytale vibe to them. Again, this is fine, except for the fact that it makes it seem like being transgender is some sort of aesthetic, a fairytale one can only dream of living. This, of course, is not what being transgender is about at all. Being transgender can be a struggle, even in the smallest of cases. Transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria; fear of passing in gendered public spaces such as restrooms; severe bullying in the form of verbal, psychological or physical abuse for identifying as transgender; depressive and anxious episodes; and so forth. Of course, cisgender individuals experience some of these issues as well, but they’re still very different to what transgender individuals experience. For example, one of the posts featured a character who got bullied a lot because of his nerd-like personality, big glasses and interest in science – a typical trait in fictional universes, given to characters who apparently need to experience “character development”. However, the creator of the post stated that the character is transgender, which is why they constantly got bullied. While this is an interesting theory, it’s highly unrealistic, unless if the character explicitly stated that they are transgender and the bullies knew, but they didn’t, as far as I remember. Again, not all transgender people are “out” to the general public. One of the people who commented on my questions in the transgender groups, said that they feel as though the creators of these headcanon posts make it seem like being transgender is some cute way of living, with the featured character experiencing hardships and then ending up a hero of some sort in the end. Once again, I’m perfectly fine with people expressing their creativity, but research needs to be done, and creations need to be realistic in terms of being transgender, because any creations posted on the internet can be seen by the whole world, and misinformation can be spread extremely easily.

Fan art and headcanon posts also tend to have a strange insinuation that transgender individuals are “special” beings, living “special” lives. While our lives may differ to cisgender lives in a lot of ways, we’re still normal human beings. Once we accept and allow ourselves to live our identity, we live normal lives, with a few exceptions and a few changes. I understand the problem with censorship and being afraid to be creative as an artist, however, if art and creations tell an unrealistic story and have a false sense of what its featuring, it becomes a problem, especially if real-life groups of people are included.

Consumer becomes creator

Those who are familiar with “fandom culture”, will know how problematic it is on its own. Fandom culture is a type of “culture” formed around a certain fandom, where fans usually influence each other’s way of viewing characters, agreements and disagreements arise, unwritten rules are laid down, and strong opinions are generally thrown around. Fandoms can be great, but once fandom culture is implemented, general toxic behaviour and discourses arise from some fans. It does, however, also have lots of positive traits, such as meeting new people with similar interests, sharing ideas, sharing art and humour, and so forth. Unfortunately, people tend to only see the toxic side of fandom culture, and unfortunately, I will be focusing on one of the worst traits fans have developed within certain fandoms: forcing opinions and headcanons on the original creators of a creative project.

Many creators keep an eye on their fan-bases via various social media sites. Creators take note of how characters are portrayed by fans, creative alternate universes for different characters, fan-made relationships, and so forth. Personally, I believe it’s great that creators interact with fans and add certain special traits to characters based on popular opinions from fans. The problem here, is that some fans take it too far. It’s a common problem for creators to have certain traits of their characters set in stone, only to have fans demand a change in those traits. This, unfortunately, includes the fact that fans take cisgender characters and turn them transgender, while forcing others to accept this change. If fans did this for fun, it would have been fine, but unfortunately, as previously stated, things get pulled out of proportion. As a creator and trans male myself, I naturally feel the need to include LGBT characters in my work, but I also know that fans won’t respect the traits I give to my characters. This puts a lot of pressure, not just on me, but on a lot of creators in the world. We want to include more LGBT characters, but we know that fans will just ignore their identities and orientations either way. This goes for cisgender, straight characters as well. It’s very common for fans to take straight characters and make them LGB, or, as discussed in this article, cis characters, and make them trans. Again, this goes for when creators state that a character has a definite orientation or identity. Recently, Wonder Woman has been confirmed to be bisexual, and some fans still insisted that she’s lesbian, while there’s a difference between the two orientations. Thankfully, her orientation hasn’t been changed to please fans, and still remains as bisexual.

Of course, we’re talking about fictional characters here, so a lot of people might wonder what the problem is. While characters are fictional and shouldn’t necessarily be taken seriously, traits such as orientations and identities, should be. The reason for this is that, as explained earlier, everyone who gets introduced to the character, gets introduced to their traits, and if those traits are unrealistic or thrown around to be changed by fans, people will get confused, annoyed, indifferent or ignorant about those traits. In my personal opinion, fans should stop trying to force creators to change their character traits just to please a small amount of fans. There’s a big difference between a “what if” for fun, and a “this is how it is, because I said so”. It’s disrespectful towards creators and communities of people with similar orientations or identities.

The rise in LGBT representation

Personally, I absolutely love seeing more and more LGBT characters included in games and movies, however, there’s a problem with this as well. Because of the high demand of having LGBT characters in media, companies have started to do just that – include LGBT characters in their creative projects. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that this could also just be because of high demand, and that including LGBT characters in creative projects, will make it sell. This doesn’t include all companies, of course, but I feel that people should understand that a rise in LGBT representation will be seen simply because of the demand from the market. While it’s great to see said representation rise, I also feel that characters should be legit. Characters should be made a certain way, because it fits their character, not to please the audience. Of course, this type of thinking will lead to fewer sales, seeing as “audience-pleasing” has been a thing for years, even through thousand-year old storytelling.

The solution

Instead of taking existing characters and changing their identities, rather make new ones. Fans can easily create new and original characters matching their creative needs. Companies, whether doing it as part of a crowd-pleasing project, or including certain character traits because they really want to represent more communities worldwide, already do this. Examples such as Steven Universe and Overwatch have been doing an incredible job in LGBT representation, and while it sold, it also seemed to be legit – it’s simply how things are in those universes. Anyone can create a fictional world representing different people via different character personalities, nationalities, orientations and identities. I personally believe that it’s better to create complete new characters or worlds when including LGBT characters, instead of simply adding to old and existing worlds where LGBT is unheard of.

In reality, orientations and identities can change, but in the fictional universe, creators have the final say, and it’s best to respect them and how they portray their characters. If an official creator changes a character’s identity, then that’s how it is, but it’s different when fans assume a character has a certain type of identity and then force their ideas on everyone else.

I believe that all orientations and identities should be respected. Fan art and posts for fun and discussion make great additions to fandoms, but those posts and ideas shouldn’t be anything more than creative discussions and “what ifs”.

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Transgender Models Bares All to Stand with PETA

By TMPlanet

Benjamin Melzer and Loiza Lamers has become the first transgender models to land their own PETA campaign, and raise awareness in the opposition to wearing fur.

Loiza Lamersmade of Holland’s 2015 Next Top Model², and Benjamin Melzer who made his fame by landing the cover of Men’s Health Germany. These two leading European trans models are now standing up for another without a voice, animals, through a new PETA campaign.¹

“I’d rather go naked than wear fur”

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Lamers & Melzer for PETASource:   Ray Depatti./PETA

“Ben and I have always been firm believers that cruelty towards animals and the use of fur, especially in the fashion industry, is terrible, outdated and unnecessary,” Lamers said in an email interview to .MIC. “The campaign came about after we had a conversation about the subject and decided to reach out to PETA. They got it right away and we started putting [together] the concept for the ad.”


In posing for this campaign, the two, who have modeled together for Diesel, join people like Pamela Anderson, Eva Mendes, Pink and Taraji P. Henson, all of whom have posed nude for PETA campaigns as well.

It means everything,” Melzer said in an interview. “How can we as members of the LGBTQ community want the world to acknowledge and respect us but stand by and let such a hurtful, inhumane practice in our industry continue without speaking out? That would make us hypocrites. When you really think about it, the trans community and PETA have a lot of the same goals. Love and respect should be for all. It’s that simple.”

In addition to the campaign image, there’s a making-the-campaign video that shows how this ad went down. -Via .MIC

The Making of an Historical Ad campaign for PETA

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  1. PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
  2. Loiza Lamersmade was the first transgender woman to win Holland’s Next Top Model
  3. Benjamin Melzer is a model, advocate and first gained international attention as the winner of the cover of Germany’s Men’s Health Magazine. The first trans man in the world to do so.
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10 Trans Men of Color That Will Not Be Silenced & We Are Better For It

By Sabrina Samone

America has always been known as the great melting pot, but how those ingredients mix, is a question that in 240 years, has yet to be answered. Never before have we been so blatantly reminded of this, as we have under the #notmypresident’s administration. Bigotry persists, and there’s probably no one on Earth that knows that better than the average trans person. Yet, even in these times while we watch the leader of the supposedly, most free country in the world, support an enemy our grand parents died to protect us from, we too must take a second to look bigotry in the face and see if there’s any resemblance in our mirrored reflection.

As a community, we know the value of representation and visibility. If you are under 25, that urgency may not be as strong as a trans person over 40, who remembers searching for anyone in this world that gives them the light of hope, that they are not alone. When we know a name, and  see a face, that share some of the struggles that we do; we feel less alone, not so abnormal, and we’re given hope that we too can find happiness. Yet, in our culture, I challenge anyone at this moment, to do a simple search of media content of this week that gives a voice to the men of color in our community. There is less media representation for reasons that often could be reflecting our attention span.

Whether bigotry is given in a cag, or as a table-spoon, it is bigotry. The voices of trans people matter, our stories give hope and understanding, but if they are not heard or ignored, we miss an opportunity to be that great promise of a true melting pot. The trans men of color in our community are the unsung heroes of the Trans revolution. Their true silent masculinity does not demand validation, but out of respect it should be given. Among many are those that have created the greatest, positive changes for trans culture world-wide, as in Kylar Broadus, who is the only transgender person to speak on behalf of an entire minority group, before The Senate of the United States. They’re career advocates like, Kris Hayashi, who heads the largest transgender organization in the country, if not the world, and strives to uplift all of trans society. They face the demons of some of the most oppressed countries in the world like, Victor Mukasa, in Uganda, yet still paves a way for the next genderation to walk just a little easier in the sun.

These are the silent masculine voices of our community, that refuse to be silenced, and because they have, all our lives matter even more.

1. Kylar Broadus.”<img src="image.png" alt="tmp_Kylar_Broadus">

Broadus, who transitioned more than 20 years ago, is an attorney who focuses on LGBT law and transgender rights. He is the founder and director of the Trans People of Color Coalition, the only national organization dedicated to the civil rights of transgender people of color. The former Lincoln University of Missouri professor is also co-founder of the think tank the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. The Missouri native is the first transgender American to testify before the U.S. Senate in favor of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. During his 2012 speech he said,

“For me, the physical transition was about letting the outer world know my internal sense of self, of who really was inside this body. … My transition was a matter of living the truth and sharing that truth for the first time in my life.

2. Kris Hayashi<img src="image.png" alt="tmp_Kris_hayashi">

Kris is the Executive Director at Transgender Law Center, one of the largest organizations in the country advancing the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming people. Prior to that, he had served over a year in the role of Deputy Director at the organization.  As a public transgender person of color, Hayashi has been a leader in movements for justice and rights for transgender and gender nonconforming communities for over 13 years. His first Executive Director position was at the age of 23, with Youth United for Community Action in California (YUCA).  YUCA is a grassroots community organization created, led, and run by young people of color. YUCA provides a safe space for young people, to empower themselves and work on social justice issues to establish positive systemic change through grassroots community organizing.  Kris took on his second Executive Director position five years later at the age of 28 at the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) in New York City.

3. Victor J. Mukasa <img src="image.png" alt="tmp_Victor_J._Mukasa">

Mukasa is a human rights defender from Uganda who now lives in the U.S.  He is a Co-founder of Sexual Minorities Uganda and Executive Director of Kuchu Diaspora Alliance-USA. He was forced to seek asylum in the U.S. after fighting for LGBT rights in the highly trans/homophobic environment of Uganda. He was the first activist to address the United Nations about transgender issues in Africa. As part of the “Proudly African & Transgender: Self-Portraits in Writing” exhibition, he wrote,

“For most Ugandans, any person that expresses ‘him/herself’ as the opposite sex is a homosexual and so this exposes transgender people to all the mistreatment that they would love to give a homosexual. All transgender people are seen as the obvious homosexuals. Therefore, on top of all the transphobia, there is homophobia even if you are not gay.”

4. Leo Sheng<img src="image.png" alt="tmp_leo_Sheng">

Sheng came into the limelight after he documented his transition phase from female to male on Instagram and You Tube. He has also been advocating for transgender people, and created his identity as a filmmaker. He has been a source of inspiration for those who are in transitioning phase, and his documented story has helped encouraged them to identify themselves as a transgender. “I really just want to bring awareness to a particular identity and what it may mean for some people — again, not all. I don’t represent transmen, nor do I represent transmen of color. I represent myself. My personal goal, or hope, was and is to try to remove some of the stigma and break the stereotypes of what people think transmen are like. I hoped to show people, as other people have shown me, that it’s ok to be true to who you are and to own your past,” Leo said in a 2016 Interview with Huff Post. Leo is studying at Temple University in Philadelphia as an international student.

5. Laith Ashley

The 26-year-old Ashely, started his transition less than 3 years ago, and immediately appeared in a Barney’s ad, along with several well-known trans personalities. The New York native quickly became a favorite to follow on social media, (and in my best RuPaul  ‘You Better Work’ voice), his modeling career took off. He has been featured in shows for New York Fashion Week for Adrian Alicea, and Gypsy Sport. He also has posed for Calvin Klein. Laith, along with his new romance became a huge hit for Whoopi Goldberg’s first season of the show Strut.  The show comes amid a call to the modeling industry for more representation of the large number of trans models working, who are denied those coveted go sees gigs with national brands due to their identity. Though many in our community see this as one field that has a great deal of trans representation, those trans models are often limited to the work they receive. While our community knows of them, few have broken the barrier into the mainstream, even fewer of those are men, which makes Laith’s role in this, pivotal for trans masculine representation.

6. Neo Sandja

Neo L. Sandja is a Life Coach, Speaker, Author and Entrepreneur. As the president and founder of FTM Fitness World (The First International Body Building Competition of trans men), he is dedicated to empower people of Trans experience in reaching their full potential. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Neo came in the U.S., at the age of 19 to pursue his college career. Neo is a certified Neuro-Linguistic Programming Life Coach and a member of the Association for Integrative Psychology. Having struggled with major depression himself, he is very passionate about Emotional Intelligence and helping people find within themselves the drive to lead a richer life. Sandja is the Author of the book, “Right Mind Wrong Body – The Ultimate Trans Guide to be Complete and Live a Fulfilled Life”. Neo is also the chair of the FTM foundation, a private foundation focused on helping people of Trans experience with their overall transition.

7. Andrés Rivera

Chilean transgender activist and founder of Organización de Transexuales por la Dignidad de la Diversidad, a major transgender rights organization in Chile. Through his work, he helped change the laws in Chile to allow transgender people to legally change their name and sex.  He has worked with government and the local health system to facilitate the evaluation, treatment and surgery of trans people, and organized the first Rancagua debate on the Civil Union Pact. He has also fought against employment non-discrimination in Chile and for LGBTQ rights in Latin America in general.

8. Lucas Charlie Rose

Lucas Charlie Rose, was born in 1991 in Paris France, and is a well-known musician, hip-hop artist and  You Tube personality; chronicling his transition, and love of hip hop. A trans-masculine hip hop artist that is not only reshaping the next genderation of hip hop, but forging together those voices in music often overlooked.  He earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts Degree in Film production from Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. He’s been featured over the past year in several lgbtq media outlets.  Over the past year, he raised eyebrows with the ingenious, first ever collaboration CD, of several trans-only hip-hop artist such as; Sidney Chase, Nicki Andro, Neeko Freeman, Jiji Parker, King Giselle, and many more. The first ever such project, that spoke volumes to the unity of the trans hip-hop music scene.

9. Shawn Stinson

Thirty-five year old Stinson is a Veteran Marine, originally from Peoria, a personal trainer and health fitness coach. In 2014, he won the 1st annual FTM Bodybuilding Competition founded by Neo Sandja. That would spark his popularity as not only a trans role model, but fitness role model. He would go on to compete the second year of Fit Con, and remained undefeated.

“This is once in a lifetime. We’re changing lives so that people get fit and helping transgender men transition,” says Stinson. The time is now.”

Recently, Stinson was featured in a meme that went viral, in the wake of North Carolina’s anti-LGBT legislation, HB2. Among other things, the law prevents transgender individuals from using public restrooms assigned to the gender with which they identify.”

10. Jiovani Carcione

Everyone loves a man in a uniform, and there’s nothing not to like about this handsome EMT from Chicago. A hard-working man, that has every reason too, as he is also a proud father. Raising a child through the ups and downs of transition, life and remains optimistic and full of hope. Jiovani is the new cover model, and trans man of the future; hard-working parents living their authentic truth, and being a role model to millions yet to come. Reminding a new genderation, that all is possible regardless where you are, and that all trans men of color matter!

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Fashion Industry Embraces Diversity

By Sabrina Samone

The message is that there is beauty in difference and in the unexpected; indeed there is beauty in what was once considered the opposite. Contrary to what we have witnessed in the past month in American politics; Trump’s Tweets against Transgender people and his most recent support and defense of hate groups like the KKK, and Nazi’s, the fashion industry is the one medium, unlike film and music, that is giving a voice to diversity.

New Zealand Fashion Week is just days away and diversity is the theme. There is a call from big name Kiwi designers for diversity at this year’s model casting calls.¹ “This year we are getting requests from designers like Zambesi and Huffer for diversity, which is amazing,” Andrea Plowright from 62 Models told says. “Many fashion-forward designers want to see models who are Asian, black, Indian, transgender, mature etc., which I think is fantastic! There are no limits and no boundaries, which is wonderful to see and be involved in. We live in a global world and we all want to see equality and fairness.”

”If there is a star of this trend it will be in the form of beautiful transgender model Manahou Mackay, 18, who is picked to light up the catwalk for a number of designers.“  Fashion Week will be her moment to break into the industry big time,” said Plowright. In March, New York-based Australian transgender supermodel Andreja Pejic walked for Smith & Caughey’s in Auckland and left an impression on Mackay. “It was a major modelling moment for me meeting Andreja, she is an inspiration to me in so many ways,” Mackay said. “I’d love to use modelling as a way to travel and see the world. I’d also like to help people view transgender people as just normal. “Transgender is not the classic porn-star Barbie and not the drag-queen look. We’re just normal humans. And we do not need to be sexualized to be understood and accepted.”

Lauri Watt and Manahou MacKay.  New Zealand Fashion Week founder and director Dame Pieter Stewart says, “Long gone are the days where models are typecast to fit a certain, now-outdated standard. They are as unique as the many different designers and their collections showcased at the event. Fashion is about variety and diversity, and New Zealand Fashion Week is the platform that encompasses all of this.” Other models who break the traditional look this year could include Fiona Xu, who has shot for Harman Grubisa and Kate Sylvester; Sophia Frankish, a universal favorite; Lincoln Van Vught; Grace Huan, who is also a dancer; Lauri Watt and Horace Lee.

Recently at a New York Fashion show, Reshma Quereshi. A 19-year-old Indian woman whose vile excuse for a brother-in-law, flung acid in her face two years ago. She bears the scars, and they’re severe (she lost one eye), but she is beautiful, not least because of her strong spirit, and she became the start of the show.

Quereshi’s presence was guaranteed to secure headlines for the Mumbai-based designer Archana Kochhar, as well as help spread awareness about these venal cowardly attacks which happen more often than they should. But it also reflected a growing acceptance, in the Fashion industry and beyond, for a much broader definition of what’s considered beautiful today.

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Instagram archanakochharofficial

The production company that staged Kochhar’s show, FTL Moda, aims to introduce major diversity to the runway. Last season they cast Brisbane model Madeline Stuart, who has Down syndrome, in her second NYFW show. She looked wonderful.

On the catwalks of the U.K., the tide may slowly be turning on what once was considered taboo in high fashion; women sizes 12 and up.

Model and body positivity campaigner Ashley Graham has debuted her own lingerie range at New York Fashion Week, a collection created for the sizes persistently ignored by designers.

As well as showcasing covetable undies, she brought a much-needed change of pace to the models we usually see on the catwalk. “Every woman in the show has a completely different shape and we wanted to show diversity of shape and ethnicity and that’s what curvy women are,” she told Time Magazine.

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Models on the catwalk for London’s Plus Size Fashion Week UK

In recent years there’s been an explosion of transgender models hitting the runways of the world. The struggle, like various occupations in society has been a hard fight, but unlike politics, film and music, the closet doors of the fashion world has been kicked down possibly to the last under-represented group, transgender. Many have reached what was once called super model status; Lea T, Ines-Loan Rau, Valentijn De Hingh, Laith Ashley, Aydian Dowling, and Andreja Pejic to name a few.² The most recent and most diverse among the growing list of transgender models, is plus-size model Shay Neary.

Shay_neary

The inclusive fashion brand Coverstory has made history this year,  by casting the first plus-size transgender model Shay Neary in its latest campaign. Coverstory has a history of showcasing a diverse range of models of various races and sizes, but with this latest casting the brand identified Neary as representing a sector of its customer base that needed to be seen.

When speaking with Refinery29, Neary³ reflected on how difficult it was for her to find a designer to dress her, and the trend of new, diverse models always seeming to be photographed naked.

“Oh my god, the truest statement ever. I’ve done maybe eight to 10 naked shoots. I’m a new trans-plus model to the scene, but I have yet to find any designer willing to actually dress me for a shoot or book me an actual high-profile gig. They’re not willing to get you clothes. They’re not willing to find a designer to get you clothes for a shoot. [Photographers say] ‘We’re not gonna hide your body, we want your raw body.’ Hmm, how about [designing] some clothing for my ‘raw body’?

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While representation, and equality has been fought in every aspect of trans lives, and careers, it’s the fashion industry that maybe setting the example of answering that call. For years transgender advocates have demanded, along with all minorities and feminist groups, to represent a broader diversity of consumers.  Though representation is far from equal, the fashion industry is leaps and bounds ahead of careers in business, politics, music and film.

This week America was rocked by the tragic death of a peaceful protester in Charlottesville, VA. While America has a conversation on tolerance and equality, the fashion industry may hold a clue to how to achieve that. Visibility, has been the mantra of the modern trans person. Visibility and representation in print, film,  and where we shop does matter. Representation is the constant subliminal message that there are other people like me, yet it’s also a reminder that everyone who isn’t like me, matter and exist as well.

Conversations on equality cannot take place, until we have completed the conversation on equal representation of all colors, sizes, genders, and sexualities. It’s when we can grow up in a society that shows truly, that people are beautiful and matter that we can finally see an end to transphobia, racism and the differences that separate us.

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  1.  New Zealand Fashion Week is Aug. 28th- Sept. 3 2017
  2. 50 Years of Transgender Models
  3. Refinery 29’s Story of Plus Size Transgender Model, Shay Neary
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Lessons of Leadership: A Review of TRANS/ACTIVE

Lynnea Urania Stuart

 

Committees are already gathering worldwide.  Their members, planning the next International Transgender Day of Remembrance (ITDOR, or simply, TDOR), take various approaches to what has become the international trans community’s most sacred event.  For planners and speakers, the new paperback, TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith should be required reading.

It should not only be required for them, it’s a book that should be read by every trans activist and trans ally because it describes keys to success in securing human rights for a people for whom human rights was considered laughable for too long.  In a year when religious Dominionist forces seek to snuff out and erase the memory of a minority of minorities, it’s time to revisit what made the Day of Remembrance and trans activism as a whole so vital.

The story of Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the founder of the Day of Remembrance, and known by many of us simply as “Gwen”, is more than a transition story.  Unlike most of publications of that genre, this story tells the unfolding of a life of activism and a determination to fight the prevailing erasure through the preservation of memory.

Her approach to challenging others is clever and genteel, pointed and philosophical.  The reader may find the biography laced with quotes like:

 

“If all you’ve ever known of transpeople are late-night comedian jokes and fear-mongering about bathrooms, what would you think of transpeople?  Instead, let’s put an actual transperson in the room, and challenge those misconceptions.1

 

The author, Sophia Cecilia Leveque, pursued writing this biography after a synchronous “accident”.  It began with a Wikipedia edit-a-thon hosted by the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, where participants wrote about prominent members of underrepresented communities.  She chose Gwendolyn Ann Smith because the name “Gwendolyn” had enchanted her through other powerful writers who shared that name.  But when needing to reference her Wikipedia page, she found too little online biographical information.2

Ms. Leveque is a young writer of 23 years, competent, but not yet seasoned.  She recently graduated and now pursues a Master’s degree.3 She approaches the story in gonzo style, building upon personal interviews.  Her approach reveals a genuine candor, but at times seems apologetic:

 

“The clock struck five and I called.  Two rings and she answered, sounding breathless.  Was it possible she was nervous too?  Her voice was smooth, very much like her writing. She made a few jokes to put me at ease and said she couldn’t believe someone wanted to interview her.  I told her I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already.  I could hear myself talking too fast, trying to fit as much into one interview as I could, in case she decided she didn’t want to have another call.  I asked many invasive questions without meaning to, but the hour flew by.4

 

Ms. Leveque succeeded in presenting a multi-dimensional activist.  Gwen Smith may be known best as the founder of the Day of Remembrance, but her activism began to blossom by tackling anti-transgender bias manifest in a ban on anything transgender by America On Line (AOL).  Gwen not only succeeded but continued to administer an online chat within the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum which became Transgender Community Forum, then The Gazebo..  Other online platforms would follow the lead of AOL.5

The importance of this contribution, too often overlooked, cannot be overestimated.  The Internet has been the most potent medium that brought together the modern trans community.  Much of today’s community may be found on online services like Facebook, Twitter, and GooglePlus; in fact today we find more transpeople socializing online than in support groups who meet at brick-and-mortar locations like liberal churches, LGBT centers, private offices, and gay bars.

The original connection between Rita Hester and the Day of Remembrance has long been well documented.6 But the death of Chanelle Pickett and its connection to the same has had far less billing, thought emphasized in TRANS/ACTIVE.  Both transwomen “of color” died in proximity to one another under similar circumstances but scarcely anyone connected them.  Gwen recognized this lacuna in what seemed like a milieu of collective amnesia, a sad internal failure deserving of indictment:

 

“Gwen was not only incredulous; she was angry.  These 2 cases were eerily similar and no one was making a connection between them_ there was simply no community memory.”7

 

This level of insight makes Gwen’s story so compelling.  It’s precisely this realization that has enabled many transpeople to rise up out of the underground, onto the streets and into the halls of government.  It’s a realization that comes from reserving the right to question why things are so; and also to look for ways to make change happen, however crazy creative ideas leading to solutions may initially appear.  This alone, apart from anything else, makes Gwen an example for activists everywhere.

The book, however, isn’t free from inaccuracy, even aside from the usual typographical issues that often bedevil first editions.  One instance particularly would have been difficult for any writer to catch unless she had been familiar with a civic organization’s modus operandī, therefore requiring further explanation:

 

“She [Gwen] was working on other social justice projects, as well.  She worked to get ‘the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a health care benefits ordinance for transgendered [sic] city employees as part of the City and County of San Francisco’s Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force.  This task force also mandated that all single occupancy bathrooms in the city would be gender neutral.’”8

 

The Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force convened on June 1, 2000 in a conference room on the second floor of San Francisco City Hall overlooking McAllister Street.  The 17 voting members were required to be San Francisco transgender residents selected from 3 sources:  6 by Mayor Willie Brown, 6 by the Board of Supervisors, and the remainder by the Human Rights Commission, though the residency requirement was waived for a couple of members whose expertise City officials desired for the effort.  The City assigned the task force a 2-year mandate after the 1994 passage of Municipal Proposition L that gave local recognition for the civil rights of transpeople.  Task force members would evaluate how well the city had followed the will of the electorate.  They were also to recommend implementation for change in the City’s practices.  This task force was a source for reform in police practice, transition benefits, and became a springboard for later change in California civil rights law.  Statewide change took the form of AB 196 that passed in August 2003, making California the 4th state after Minnesota, Rhode Island, and New Mexico to recognize transpeople as deserving of civil rights.  But discussions for addressing state law began with this task force in October 2000 and the verbiage of AB 196 followed the pattern its members discussed.9

Of course, 17 members couldn’t carry out all they needed to do by themselves.  Worse yet, some task force members couldn’t continue their duties for long because of financial or other personal reasons.  Several committees convened at various times each month and various locations in addition to the general meetings at City Hall on the first Thursday of each month.  From the beginning, the task force filled these committee positions with volunteer transpeople who did not need to be appointed or be San Francisco residents but who also attended the general meetings in an outer ring of seats away from the conference table.  These volunteers had access to documents pertaining to committees and all documents of the general meetings including the cornerstone document from the Human Rights Commission titled, Compliance Guidelines to Prohibit Gender Identity Discrimination.  Everyone in the room had some role in trans activism.  However, these volunteers were not considered part of the task force.  They were assistants to the task force much like a clerk who works at the meetings of the Board of Supervisors is an assistant and not part of the board.  It’s a distinction too easily overlooked.

By 2001, the task force was in danger of losing a required quorum and began to take new appointees.  The Board of Supervisors considered Gwen’s appointment as a voting member in August 2001.10 The date of Gwen’s appointment is important to the narrative because it occurs after, not before passage of transition benefits.  Task force members and volunteers were talking informally about transition benefits back in 2000.  Supervisor (now State Senator) Mark Leno authored the measure and introduced it in January 2001.  Its introduction hit the U.S. news media like a bomb, inciting national ridicule from late night political pundits and comics.  Despite opponents’ attempts to make San Francisco a laughingstock over health care for transpeople, proponents rallied in March 2001 and the Board of Supervisors passed transition benefits on Monday, April 30, 2001 with a vote of 9-2.  Many trans activists were present at City Hall at the time of passage including Gwen Smith as reported by Janis Ryan of Transgender San Francisco, writing in The Channel.11

So while it’s accurate to say that Gwen worked for passage of transition benefits, she could only have done so as a volunteer in 2001, not as a voting member of the task force.  Her work as a voting member would have applied to implementing what had already been passed and the success of this program was well established by 2006.12 The author should make this distinction when preparing this book for any future printing.

Ms. Leveque’s book features what may be the most extensive appendix for a book of pocket size: a list of transpeople people unfairly killed since 1970, almost the time of the Stonewall Uprising and from Gwen’s own research.  This list alone is worth perusing well.  By Gwen’s own admission, this list is by no means comprehensive “due to lack of proper media coverage, incorrect police information, and an overall lack of available information, particularly from earlier years.”13

The list seems overwhelming, frightening, and poignant.  It’s a list any trans activist should have ready to hand and available for reference.  It invites everyone to say and remember the names, to defy attempts to erase the victims, and implicitly, all transfolk from the world’s memory.  It also invites us to do our own research, to question and compare.  Consider a sample for a single month as an example, as compiled from the Trans Murder Monitoring Project and the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT):

 

  1. Alejandra Leos, age 41, shot 9/6/2014 in Tennessee.
  2. Karen Alanis, age 23, thrown from a moving truck 9/10/2014 in São Paulo, Brazil, and died at 7 pm at a local hospital.
  3. Cris, unknown age, killed by a drive-by shooter 9/13/2014 in Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil.
  4. Unknown cross dressed victim, allegedly found burned in Los Angeles 9/15/2014. (The obscure story then cited as coming from NBC Los Angeles has not been verified.)
  5. Gabriel Lopez, age 46 and Marcela Lopez, age 46, killed 9/15/2014 in Medellin Antioquia, Columbia as reported from 2 sources but both may be the same victim. No details recorded.
  6. Billi Saeed, age 27, killed 9/22/2014 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. No details recorded.
  7. Mahadevi, age 22, killed in Bangalore, India 9/24/2014. No details recorded.
  8. Bruna Lakles, age 29, killed 9/30/2014 in Brazil. No details recorded.
  9. Aniya Parker, age 47, fatally shot 10/2/2014 while walking home in Los Angeles. The LAPD and City Council offered $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the culprits.14

 

Compare these names with Gwen’s list on pages 116, 117 for the same period:

 

  1. Alejandra Leos, Memphis Tennessee, USA, 2014, gunshot to the head.
  2. Karen Alanis, Caçapava, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2014, thrown from a vehicle, ran over.
  3. Marcela Duque, Medellin, Colombia, 2014, stoned to death.
  4. Cris, Portal da Foz, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, 2014, multiple gunshot wounds
  5. Mahadevi, Malleshwara, Karnataka, India, 2014, pushed off a moving train.
  6. Bruna Lakiss, Várzea Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil, 2014, gunshot wound.
  7. Gaviota dos Santos, Rio Largo, Alagoas, Brazil, 2014, 3 shots to the face.
  8. Aniya Parker, Los Angeles California USA, 2014, gunshot wound to the head.15

 

The differences are themselves instructive for any archivist and historian as well as any activist who contributes to the Day of Remembrance.  Billi Saeed and the unknown victim burned in Los Angeles do not appear in Gwen’s list.  Gaviota dos Santos does not appear in the TMM-IDAHOT list from that time, though she may have been recognized later and so may have slipped through the cracks of being remembered at some 2014 observances.  Gabriel (Marcella) Lopez appears on Gwen’s list as Marcela Duque.  Bruna Lakles appears as Bruna Lakiss in Gwen’s list.  Other details emerge when making comparisons.

This is a very good thing to do because of a grim fact.  One person cannot hope to gather and maintain a fully correct and comprehensive list from year to year and from one generation to the next.  Gwen can’t.  Neither can I.  It takes a collective, a coordinated network across generations and international boundaries.  Even then we can’t be entirely sure the facts are 100% correct.

But it says something more.  While the lists associated with observance of the Day of Remembrance tell us how transpeople, especially those “of color,” have became fodder for slaughter, they don’t say much about how these transpeople lived or what lessons they may have gleaned.  Today’s news articles often offer much more in this respect and we need to give these stories attention concerning their details.  We must do the best we can because these people deserve to be remembered, and to do otherwise may render the entire demographic forgotten by default as it has during much of human history.

But the main contribution of Ms. Leveque’s biography consists of presenting Gwen’s insight.  It’s evident in her admonition to allies.16 It’s also evident in Gwen’s statements about the intentions of ITDOR, a much more serious event than what has sometimes occurred.17 ITDOR has been exploited to merchandize LGBT centers and sponsors even to the point of them becoming like street vendors in an atmosphere resembling a fair.  When sponsors gain a greater voice than the names of victims and speakers talk about the progress of their own transitions instead of defying erasure, they could cheat an entire gathering of attendees who attempt to exercise the observance.18

Gwen’s insight is what this book will continue to contribute, details of which should be read and re-read.  The work Gwendolyn Ann Smith has performed over the years has enriched and unified the trans community and this book will continue that enrichment in good measure.  Personal details are incidental.  But remembering her principles and following her actions offer the best and most enduring compliment by which her activism will endure as a legacy.

 

 

TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith

By Sophia Cecelia Leveque

Produced and distributed by Library Partners Press

Z. Smith Reynolds Library

Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem NC

www.librarypartnerspress.org

ISBN: 978-1-61846-044-8

 

Paperback, 127 pages

Available on Amazon

 

Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the National center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Trans Lifeline, TransLaw Help, and the TransActive Gender Center in Portland OR.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS THIS OR ANY OTHER TOPIC ON OUR SITE, PLEASE JOIN THE CONVERSATION ON THE TMP FORUM

_________________________

REFERENCES:

 

Featured Image:  (clockwise from the left) The cover of TRANS/ACTIVE; a scene from the first ever Transgender Day of Remembrance on a drippy evening in the Castro in 1999, from the archives of Lynnea Urania Stuart, source is an unknown amateur San Francisco photographer.  “Stop the killing!  Stop the hate!” was the mantra of protesters that night, available from Theresa Sparks on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-lTsu9SQXM .  Quotation from page 51 of TRANS/ACTIVE, leaping into light out of the darkness.

 

  1. Leveque, Sophia Cecelia. TRANS/ACTIVE: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith (Winston-Salem NC, Library Partners Press, ZSR Library, Wake Forest University August 1, 2017), p. 51.
  2. Ibid, p. 5.
  3. Ibid, p. 9.
  4. Ibid, p. 10.
  5. Ibid, pp. 19-21.
  6. Rita’s death often appears without mention of Chantelle’s as in “Transgender Day of Remembrance #TDOR – November 20” GLAAD https://www.glaad.org/tdor , accessed August 10, 2017.
  7. Op cit. p. 42.
  8. Ibid, p. 52.
  9. Unless otherwise noted, the writer, Lynnea Urania Stuart, relies upon her own recollections as a volunteer to the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force from June through November 2000 when she served as Employment Committee Secretary and attended the general meetings. Gwen was nowhere at the general meetings through November 2000 so could not have worked for the task force before December 2000.  Further conversation with Gwen on August 6, 2017 revealed that she recalled initially taking a seat next to the window near Larry Brinkin.  Brinkin, being an advisor to the task force, and not himself transgender, typically sat at the outer ring behind and to the right of Co-Chair Sarah Marshall.  Consequently, Gwen would have also sat in the outer ring. The writer has followed developments related to task force activities after moving from the Bay Area.  She writes about the task force and its relationship with AB 196 in detail in “California’s Trans Rights Collective” Transpire (June 10, 2016 ) https://lynneauraniastuart.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/californias-trans-rights-collective/ .
  10. Letter from the Clerk of the Rules Committee, San Francisco Board of Supervisors to Gwendolyn Ann Smith, dated August 9, 2001 (supplied by Gwendolyn Ann Smith August 6, 2017).
  11. Ryan, Janis “Transgender History Made in San Francisco” The Channel 20, Issue 6, June 1001,Transgender San Francisco, p. 15.
  12. Human Rights Commission. “San Francisco City and County Transgender Health Benefit” (memo revisiting the issue of transition benefits, 2006). Copy available online from  Transgender At Work Project. http://www.tgender.net/taw/SanFranciscoTGBenefitUpdateMar3106.pdf .
  13. Leveque, p. 77.
  14. List of transgender victims from the writer’s own archive.
  15. Op cit, pp. 116, 117.
  16. Ibid, p. 63.
  17. Ibid, p. 59.
  18. Witnessed by the writer, Lynnea Urania Stuart in Orange County CA. The writer has also witnessed how some younger members of a planning committee groaned at the perceived “drudgery” of reading the names of victims, an exercise that has embodied the very heart of the Day of Remembrance.
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