The Politics of Location, Part 1

Like the majority of students at Indiana University, I was born and raised in Indiana. My family has lived in the same house outside of Indianapolis since before I was born and both of my parents grew up in the Midwest (my mother is from Indiana and my father was from Ohio). Even given the left-leaning nature of my particular county (as far left as any  county really leans in Indiana), I was mostly sequestered from people who were not white, middle-class, and heteronormative (excepting my majority black highschool, details of which are to follow). This made it difficult for me to learn anything about those people who were different from myself, especially trans people. However, if we expand location to mean not only the geographic location in which I was raised, but the home environment in which I was raised, I can identify two routes by which I was informed about trans people: television and my mother.

When I was younger, I was a fan of the television series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the spin-off series of Law and Order that addresses sexual crimes. It is slightly embarrassing to admit that one of the routes by which I learned about trans people was a sensationalized, dramatized portrayal of crime, but it is to the show’s credit that they portrayed trans people in an almost positive manner. The majority of trans characters featured in the show were prostitutes and often victims of violent crime. While this portrayal is limiting and does not describe the realities of many trans people, it does call attention to the plight of trans sex workers and did not portray the sex workers as perverts or deserving of violence (on occasion the police characters would seem slightly affronted by the trans sex workers). One notable episode I recall portrayed a non-sex work trans woman who was convicted of a crime and incarcerated in a men’s prison, where she was gang-raped and hospitalized. This character is an interesting intersection of positive portrayals of trans people (she was attractive and successful before being victimized) and negative stereotypes (trans people are always victims, even when not involved in sex work). Further, the emphasis on the character’s pre-operative status (the reason she was placed in a men’s prison) and the fact that a gender-normative actress was used to portray a trans-woman both suggest implicit bias against gender variance.

Thus, at least one mainstream television series, from which I was drawing subconscious instruction, portrayed trans people as highly sexualized and victimized people, often sex workers, and placed emphasis on gender reassignment surgery. This portrayal fits with the Western perspective on trans people and transsexualism that we discussed in class. Given the isolated nature of white, suburban neighborhoods, such television portrayals have a great deal of influence on the absorbed gender ideology of people living in these communities, myself included.

I was also informed about trans people by my mother. My mother is a nurse who works at an urban hospital that primarily serves the indigent, minority, and imprisoned populations of Indianapolis. Since poverty often disproportionately effects trans people, she has encountered hundreds of gender variant individuals over the course of her career. When I was younger my mother didn’t often discuss her work or her patients, probably owing to the depressing realities of urban poverty and the medical establishment in the US. However, as I grew older my mother raised me to be tolerant of all people, including gender variant people. Conversations about gender variance were rare, but I do recall hearing stories about “transsexual” patients. However, I am not sure that my mother’s positive, accepting stance towards gender variance is indicative of my geographic location so much as my particular family environment.

Thus, my personal politics of location can be summarized as limited, with only second-hand exposure to trans individuals. My family home was situated in a socio-economically and racially segregated suburb, leaving television and my mother’s urban employment as the only means of exposure to gender variance in my early life. My next post will discuss trans politics at my high school.

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