We cannot be what we cannot see

If it wasn’t for the internet, I don’t think I’d ever have come out. Not because I was somehow talked into being trans; forced feminisation is something that only happens in niche pornography and in the lurid fantasies of anti-trans bigots. The internet helped me come out because it finally let me see that there were other people just like me.

We cannot be what we cannot see.

Which is why Allie Crewe’s You Brought Your Own Light is so good to see. It’s a collection of 26 photos of trans people; one of them, Grace, was last year’s Portrait of Britain award winner.

Grace, by Allie Crewe

I love these photographs. I love them because they’re great portraits, and because there’s a real power to them.

Olivia, by Allie Crewe

The endless photos I looked at before I came out, the photos I looked at as I started to consider hormonal transition, weren’t as good as these. But they were powerful too. Ordinary women, trans women, publicly documenting their transitions.

I wrote this some time ago:

I spent endless hours looking at trans women’s HRT transition timelines, the photographic evidence of the cumulative effects of hormone treatment and improving make-up skills. I actively searched for timelines of middle-aged trans women, trying to see what was the result of HRT and what was just better lighting, good makeup and a cute smile.

Looking at such images wasn’t new, nor was the strong yearning I felt to be one of the people in the pictures. I’ve had those things since I’ve had internet access. But something was different now. I no longer saw the photos as pictures of transformations that, for me, would be impossible and unattainable.

I started to see them as maps of the possible.

What struck me wasn’t the physical transformation; it was the difference in the way they looked at the camera, the smiles reaching their eyes. Even relatively minor physical transformations looked spectacular because of the difference in the way people held themselves and looked at the camera.

Each timeline was the same story: unhappy people finally becoming happy in their own skin.

I wanted that too.

I have that now. I took a photo the other night during some daft family fun and it struck me how different I looked. It wasn’t makeup or good lighting – my makeup was half-arsed and the light wasn’t flattering. I look different now. Happier.

Nobody’s going to look at a timeline of me and go “wow! I never knew such beauty was possible!” But I do think that the more of us that people get to know, the more prejudices we’ll shatter.

I’m reading a powerful and sad book just now, How To Survive A Plague by David France. It’s about the AIDS epidemic, and I’ll write about it a lot more when I’ve finished it. But in the pages describing the early years of the disease, the parallels between public attitudes to gay men then and to trans women now are really striking.

As the book notes, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis some 80% of Americans said they didn’t know any gay people. They did, of course, but those people weren’t going to tell anybody they were gay: it was far too dangerous for their careers, for their social lives, for their safety. As a result it was easy for the press and religious groups to demonise gay men as perverts, predators, a danger to children. Which they did, endlessly and viciously. The way the media treated gay men during this period and for many years afterwards was despicable and undoubtedly cost lives.

Today, 89% of Americans say they don’t know any trans people. As a result…

Visibility and representation don’t just help us understand ourselves. They also help you understand us.

When you have gay friends, colleagues and family members it’s hard to be homophobic. Likewise with trans people and transphobia.

If you plot the change in social attitudes towards equal rights, equal marriage, same-sex adoption and similar issues over the years you’ll see that as more people come out, as more people get to know those people, attitudes change. Familiarity, understanding and empathy don’t leave much room for bigotry.

The bigots will still wave their banners and push their malevolent fantasies. But fewer and fewer people will be buying what they’re selling.