National Geographic’s “American Transgender” – A Response

In May 2012, National Geographic aired an hour-long documentary feature called “American Transgender” that looked inside the lives of three adults who identify as transgender. It’s available to watch on YouTube.

I want to preface my response with this: I’m trying very hard and very consciously not to be a buzzkill here. One of the most effective methods of educating is sharing stories and getting to know other people. Stories, friendships, relationships, conversations – these are the tools that help to reverse ignorance. I don’t intend to demonize National Geographic, and I certainly don’t intend to criticize or pass judgment on the people whose lives are documented in this special. What I want to do is examine the structure, the discourse, and the implications of “American Transgender” – what it says and what it does not say, what it illuminates and what it ignores.

“American Transgender” is framed by a wedding. It begins with one of the documentary’s three subjects, Clair, an MTF transwoman, shopping for a wedding dress, and it ends with (spoiler alert!) her wedding on a Hawaiian beach to another one of the documentary’s subjects, Jim, an FTM transman. The third subject is also an FTM transman, named Eli, who is married to a woman named Amanda.

For me, this was one of the most problematic elements of the documentary – that all three stories hinge not only on heterosexual monogamy, but that they hinge on the institution of marriage. I suppose it can be interesting to look at how the transgender identity actually can fit snugly into the institution of marriage and heterosexual monogamy, but the implication that it should fit is far from useful – it is dangerous.

Again, I have nothing against Clair, Jim, Eli, Amanda, or anyone of any gender identity or sexual orientation who wants to partake in marriage. Everyone should be allowed to do what they see fit with their lives, bodies, and personal relationships. If marriage makes sense and improves the quality of life for these individuals, then of course they should get married. But the fact that this documentary does not include the story of a person who is transgender and who is not interested in the institution of marriage, or who exists outside of heterosexual monogamy, seems to me a decision that was made in order to hide the less traditional and more complex forms of relationships that exist for the choosing. It feels like an act of airbrushing.

As I was watching this, a thought popped into my head: “They’re depicting the act of falling in love as equivalent to falling into a binary.” Not necessarily the gender binary of male/female, but the binary of personally unfulfilled while single/fulfilled while married. The structure of encapsulating the telling of these stories within the frame of a wedding only seems to reinforce this. The pain and the hardship of transitioning is rewarded and justified by falling in love and getting married. Or, It Gets Better. You Get Married.

As if to attempt to answer my concern, several seconds later, Jim and Clair are sitting on a couch together, and Jim says, “If I felt like we were falling into stereotypical gender roles, Clair would clean the house all the time and and cook all the time, and [inaudible] … I wish,” as Clair jumps in and says playfully, “I fell more under the gender stereotype of princess.”

This was the extent of the documentary addressing gender roles. As for addressing falling into stereotypes in other ways, such as their post-transition gender presentations strictly aligning to the masculine/feminine binary, the documentary remains mum. I hope I’m not sounding like a broken record here, but I feel like I need to reiterate once again that I’m making no judgments of any trans* person who chooses to present themselves inside the masculine/feminine binary. I just think that National Geographic did the trans* community a disservice by only including subjects who fit themselves inside that binary. The genderqueer identity is never mentioned by name or even alluded to as an existing option.

Along the lines of what the documentary does and does not show, both Jim and Eli have had surgery during their transition, and although I don’t believe it was ever explicitly stated (I could have missed it), the impression is given to the viewer that Clair, too, has undergone surgical procedures during her transition. I would’ve liked to have seen and heard the story of a person who identifies as transgender but has chosen not to pursue surgery, simply because this is a path that lots of transfolks take, and while it is acknowledged by one of the subjects that not every trans* person desires surgery, it is never depicted, and these people are left vague, invisible, and impersonal to the viewer.

What my beef with “American Transgender” ultimately comes down to is the methods by which this documentary seems to legitimize the trans* identity and those who claim it. The act of transition is legitimized through the act of falling in love monogamously, which is later legitimized through the institution of marriage. The acknowledgement that one’s gender identity does not always “fit” with one’s birth sex is legitimized through the depiction of trans* people who still mostly “fit” inside the masculine/feminine binary of gender expression – whose outward appearances are clearly legible as either “man” or “woman.”

This documentary suggests that someone who identifies as transgender is “just like you, just like anyone else” (and those exact words are spoken by one of the subjects). While this kind of assimilation is not necessarily a bad goal – and while it can and does improve the quality of life for many trans* people – it is problematic, because it is an oversimplification.

If assimilation is our only goal, then we’re probably hurting just as many people as we’re helping, because monogamy, marriage, surgery, and the masculine/feminine binary are not universal and do not apply to everybody. “American Transgender” does not explicitly state otherwise, but in its implications and its portrayals, it captures a very narrow and traditional view of what it means to be transgender in America.

-Matt R. Metzler