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Trans as “Personal Truth”? Thanks For the Screw Over, Glee

Ryder vs Unique

“No you’re not, you’re a guy” Oh, the words we so love to hear, especially when someone’s gaze at the same time is focused 30 degrees below our chin. Because I managed to go several months now without mentioning ‘Glee’, the writers responded to the doubtless flagging viewership and decided to shove something in there guaranteed to inspire me to write about. Well, probably not, but I’m glad they brought it up anyway as this horribly cold March is leaving me grasping at straws to come up with good topics every three days. For that I thank them.

In case your regular viewing has strayed from quality programming and you spend the time watching shows about people who make duck calls, use coupons, or toss out precociously loveable zingers from double wide trailers, I’ll catch you up. Last week on ‘Glee’ we got to witness a confrontation between Unique, the mega star in the making trans girl, and Ryder, one of the new characters who is catching on as fast as ‘Saved By The Bell, the New Class’. I doubt even Screech could bring out his best. In this episode, Ryder takes the position that Unique is “really a guy” in spite of being told point blank that she is a “proud black woman” and refuses to back down. For the record, the rest of the characters, except for Sue Sylvester, have no trouble understanding Unique for who she is. I was super glad they decided to tackle this. At first.

As usual, I’m going to tangent off to the left for a moment, if for no other reason than to avoid making this a sketchy re-write of the Wikipedia recap of the same. This point hits home for most, if not all, trans people because it speaks to one of our greatest challenges. No matter how we educate those around us, and no matter how we appear, attempting to overcome that lingering mindset that we are “really a…” is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Even those who claim to understand, who want to understand, and may have stood solidly by us the entire time often have trouble wrapping their heads around this.

Very recently, this happened to me yet again. I was explaining to a co-worker, who has been incredible in every respect to my transition, how I had decided to dorm for college because I like to be in total control of my own personal space. This was a little more pressing before I was out, and I’ve since calmed down about it. He replied off the cuff that, “of course you would, like any guy.” My hackles went up immediately. Uh, guy? He attempted to backpedal quickly. “Well, I mean you were a guy at the time.” No, not even then, in spite of appearances. He finally attempted to rectify by comparing me to his daughter who was the same way.

I know there was no deliberate attempt to hurt my feelings. I know he isn’t transphobic, or expressed even the slightest bit of resistance to my change in appearance. What it did though was give me insight into an internal mental space that hadn’t quite made the change over quite yet. Granted, he did know me for a little over ten years as ‘Mike’, but it’s now been 8 months since I have appeared as ‘Mike’ anywhere, much less here at work. I have to wonder how many others still think of me internally as ‘dude’? I clearly have a lot more work ahead of me on a front I fooled myself in thinking was won early on and now a distant memory.

Getting back to ‘Glee’. Well, as glad as I am that they broached the subject and brought it into the mainstream consciousness, I think they flubbed it in the end. After attempting to resolve the issue in the worst possible venue, a sing off, understanding is pushed to Ryder via groupthink. The message? Unique has a different personal truth than Ryder. OK, not what I was hoping to see here. True, in Gleeland a musical mash up usually is enough to win a campaign for hearts and minds, especially when perfectly timed, choreographed, and with shifting changes of venue and wardrobe that may or may not supposed to be really happening. Let’s put that aside and go with the whole ‘personal truth’ thing.

Personal truth is a great concept for disparate opinions that cannot be independently verified. It’s a good compromise along the lines of ‘my orange juice tastes better than yours’ when you have one person calling Jesus the one and only, and another party proclaiming that Buddha is where it’s at. In these cases ‘personal truth’ is a good fallback position to avoid another ‘Taste’s great! Less filling!’ campaign that resorts in untold death, destruction, and still no clear answer like the Great Bud Light War of latter 20th century.

The inherent danger of taking this position is that it all becomes very subjective. Sure you feel you are female, but I feel you are not, and therefore my opinion is equally valid. In most cases of this type, however, both truths are not at all equally valid. If I contend an antibiotic will improve a bacterial infection, and you hold that going to a faith healer is equally valid, I’m reasonably sure the numbers are going to weigh heavily in my favor, no matter what your personal truth is. If the question of trans is handled in the manner of a personal truth, the results are going to be compared to the faith healer by anyone who wants to express doubt for whatever reason.

I would have been much happier if Glee addressed this by pointing to the validation provided by the medical, psychological, and psychiatric communities and the specific reasoning as to why this is nearly universally recognized by scientific bodies as reality. Instead, millions of viewers were left with a very milk toast namby-pamby kind of reasoning that anyone looking to doubt our existence is all too happy to jump on. So glad they brought it up, but really wishing they would have put some more thought into it.

About michellelianna

I'm a transgender woman now in the maintenance stages of transition having all the electrolysis and surgery one can reasonably be expected to undertake. While busy exploring my new world, I took to blogging about it with dubiously popular results. I don't have quite as much to say as I used to, but I'm not quite done yet either.

10 responses »

  1. Pingback: They Slushied Unique! | Michellelianna

  2. Firstly, I DON’T WATCH GLEE. I hate high school type based shows in general. The only exception I’ve ever made was Buffy, but that had the redeeming feature of students and staff regularly being bumped off by the monster of the week. Secondly, tried watching an episode and it seemed populated by self absorbed wankers, none of whom I liked. So I don’t watch the show and the musical numbers are probably cute but don’t redeem it for me.

    But I do watch a LOT of TV, especially ensemble style shows where the pay-off is the interplay between characters in difficult situations. And it seems to me that there could be several possibilities here.

    If (and I have no idea who writes for the show) Joss Whedon were writing it, Unique would be built up bit by bit and the audience liked her even if they didn’t understand her. Then she’d be cut down very suddenly in a way that would outrage the audience.Maybe Unique’s being groomed for something like that. Maybe they’ll be an episode where she’ll turn up bashed and injured, murdered, or discovered dead by suicide. And then there’ll be an episode full of guilty flashbacks about how mean people were to her, culminating in a musical tribute that (most likely) misses the point anyway.

    Or, maybe the harassment is going to continue for a while because it’s “realistic”. Then Unique will put herself on the line to help out one of her persecutors, will then have a change of opinion/heart about her. Like the Simpson’s episode from way back – if only every trans person I knew saved my life, I’d have a different opinion about them”.

    Or maybe Unique really is a cross-dresser, and this will be highlighted by another trans person who enters the show and “passes”. The bombshell for the episode will be a bunch of the female characters talking shit about Unique, and one of them coming out to being trans. Or maybe they’re setting this up for a “girls lockeroom” issue. Or maybe one day Unique will “wake up to himself” and turn up in “boy mode”, having realised that “he’s just a drag queen” anyway.

    These last two scenarios are not very nice, but from what I read of this show I wouldn’t be surprised.

    • I really hope not on that last part. I do love the show and the general understanding treatment they give to those who are different. Still, it’s hard to trust writers who constantly have adolescents making 80’s era cultural references. Seriously, it’s like me making Dick Van Dyke jokes or recalling something Gilligan said on the Dobie Gillis show. That aside, it’s hard to speculate where this is going, but I remain cautiously hopeful it will move in the right direction. Thanks for commenting Laura!

  3. I was saddened by this recent focus on Unique has just a cross-dressing boy playing pretend in the Glee club room… while there’s nothing wrong with cross-dressing, she was originally and continues to state she is transgender and yet is not treated in that way.

    I don’t know if you caught the subsequent episode? The bitchy blonde cheerleader (I haven’t put her name to memory) makes a snip that Unique should be Scary Spice because “nothing is scarier than a girl with a penis.” It was followed by a cutsie “just kidding!” but I was just floored.

    • I know, right? I have been a huge Gleek since inception but feel it is falling very short on the trans side of things. After getting it so right for gays (then again, Ryan Murphy, so go figure) I can’t understand this. I think they are in desperate of a trans consultant. Ahem, if anyone happens to ask… yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I mean… excuse me, sure, whatever, let’s talk. 🙂

  4. Michelle – As usual you are dead-n in your assessment of the situation. I thank my stars that you are watching this stuff closely as I cannot at the moment. Your social conscience and mine are very closely aligned in so many ways. Keep your eyes open and fingers ever at the ready.

  5. love the tongue-in-cheek with some edge on the side voice that comes through your writing loud and clear.

    feeling glad i don’t watch t.v..

    personal truth? give me a break! my daughter’s truth is not subjective! it is a reality that despite anyone else’s understanding, remains unscathed.

    this condescending phrase does little to validate trans-reality…and is more aptly applied to things like one’s taste in art or music.

    so sad that given the platform and all those ears, eyes and minds out there the folk at ‘glee’ opted to drop the ball and fall squarely on the fence.

    by the way, have i mentioned how much i like your voice?

    *smiles blushing a bit”

    • Thank you so much! For the kind words, yes, but more so for being such an incredible parent to your daughter. I know it isn’t something you need to be thanked for (I’m a parent myself), but it does my heart good to know you are out there. 🙂


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