Transverse: Lana Wachowski's Stellar HRC Speech and Making the Invisible Visible
I'm really interested in trans narratives in the media as cultural temperature-takers, a topic I write and talk about often. Mostly I find myself disappointed to see yet another "Trapped in the wrong body" talk show or "Trans children are magical" tear-jerking puff piece, because, though those narratives hold truth for some of us, our stories are not so flat, our bodies not alien, and our life arcs not less messy, more glorious, or stranger than anyone else's.
A few months ago, I wrote about Lana Wachowski's quiet "coming out" for Salon, and how I felt that her refusal to take part in the prescriptive bloody surgery/baby picture montage -- and the public's generally relaxed reception to her announcement -- signaled a potential tide-turn for simplistic, high-profile trans narratives.
I thought about Wachowski a lot after her "announcement," because there's a rawness in her films, an anxiety about difference that I can relate to. Of course, I knew little about her gender identity or her motivations for keeping mostly mum about her transition, only that she's a deeply private person -- and I respected her silence as powerful, a way to present a trans narrative that's less about the probing "whys" that frame most trans stories for a cis audience, but more about a woman showing up for her life in whatever way she wants.
There are a million ways to tell a story.
But something changed for Wachowski: She got word that she'd be receiving a visibility award from the HRC. How interesting that must have been for her at first, a clearly private person, to be forced to reckon with what visibility meant, and why she was being acknowledged for manifesting it.
Once again, Wachowski refused to be anything but herself. I was deeply moved to read the transcript from her October 20 address to the HRC, not just because her speech was beautifully written and complicated, but because she spoke to parts of the trans experience so rarely discussed: the necessary vulnerability of our process, our desire to be visible and invisible at once, our internalized transphobia, and how proportional love and celebration from allies is to overcoming the terrible stories that we're told about who we are.
Most of all she was brilliant and honest, offering truth as an antidote to messaging that seeks to make our bodies strange, different, and wrong.
"I am completely horrified by the talk show," she said, describing her initial decision to come out despite her desire to maintain privacy. "The interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality."
Troubled by the expectation of exposure, but needing to junket Cloud Atlas, she outlines how she came to the decision to bring her gender identity to the public eye by recounting moments she felt seen and unseen as far back as childhood. In this examination, this line of logic, she ultimately feels that being transgender, for her, has often resulted in the worst kind of invisibility; not the privacy of a life shielded from prying eyes, but a sense that a part of herself was hidden that she has finally brought to the surface.
This, again, is not the story you will see on 20/20, even if her experience sometimes overlaps familiar trans narrative themes: alienation, suicide attempts, triumph. No one but Lana could explain the moment she's about to jump in front of a train in the way that she does: "When I see the headlight I take off my backpack and I put it on the bench. It has the note in front of it. I try not to think of anything but jumping as the train comes. Just as the platform begins to rumble suddenly I notice someone walking down the ramp. It is a skinny older old man wearing overly large, 1970s square-style glasses that remind of the ones my grandma wears. He stares at me the way animals stare at each other. I don't know why he wouldn't look away. All I know is that because he didn't, I am still here."
Being seen, the heart of the transgender experience, is also the true universal human need. "Trapped in the wrong body" misses that point entirely.
The most powerful part of her speech might be the moment she describes learning of the murder of Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen killed in 2002 after her trans status was discovered, around the time Wachowski came out to her own family. "Here was this person like me murdered by ignorance, by prejudice, murdered by intolerance, it seemed in direct inverse proportion to the acceptance of my family. Murdered by a kind of fear that seeks to obliterate any evidence that the world is different from the way they want to see it, from the way they want to believe it to be."
Though it can be terrifying and, yes, for some of us a matter of life or death, I think that those of us most fissured by the social burdens of shame and fear often are the most willing, paradoxically, to be radically vulnerable when we reclaim what belongs to us -- our humanity, our right to be here in our bodies, however they are.
I am hugely impressed with Lana Wachowski, and I hope every one of you watch the video of her address. I hope you see the way, immediately following the release of that video, the media framed her story ("Lana Wachowski: I Nearly Committed Suicide" screams the headline by Liz Raftery of TV Guide), and I hope that you see the significance of how Wachowski, in accepting a visibility award by actually making herself truly visible, did so to refuse anyone else's erasure -- and that is a gift to all of us, whoever we are, whatever our bodies.