As a child in born in the 80s and raised in the 90s, I remember clearly hearing jokes about “transvestites” and cross-dressers on TV. It was a relatively common punchline. An easy shot at a woman who wasn’t what we know to be conventionally attractive or just an easy sight gag: a man…in a dress…LOL! How funny! Right? Meh. I didn’t think much of it, but I also never considered how this language and imagery could be hurtful to people who did cross dress, or who were born with a body that doesn’t match their identity.
Now that we live in times where transgender rights, lives and acceptance are commonly discussed, I’ve given a lot of thought to the ways in which society still has to adjust in order to allow these folks to live comfortably and with the same freedom to move as anyone else. For that reason, I was heartened to see the inclusion of Mia on OWN’s Houston Beauty. A student of the Franklin Beauty School profiled on the new reality series, the 27-year-old M-to-F transgender woman has had a very complicated life. She was put out of the house at the age of 13 and has relied on escorting over the years to make ends meet. This is Mia’s fourth attempt at getting her beauty license from Franklin and she has a love-hate relationship with Ms. J, the seemingly tough-yet-fair Glenda “Ms. J” Johnson, the school’s director.
What I found less heartening, however, is the way in which Ms. J deals with Mia as it relates to her gender identity. The school matriarch continuously refers to Mia by her former name, Ryan, and doesn’t allow her to use the women’s restroom at Franklin. Worse yet, she uses male pronouns to speak to and about Mia. As the show’s premier episode went on this past Saturday, I kept waiting for Mia to lose it or to address this head on. Short of a quick complaint about the bathroom situation to another student, she didn’t.
I know that some would likely rush to anger or outrage at the older woman’s behavior—it certainly made me uncomfortable and I cannot lay claim to knowing what Mia’s daily battles as a trans person are like—but it gave me pause for a few reasons. While I have always accepted people as the gender through which they choose to identify, I also don’t think that I would have predicted the steps our society has made towards trans acceptance over the past decade. And though the history of trans people and, in particular, trans people of color, is not hardly a brief one…I wonder what sort of exposure that an older, Southern, religious woman like Ms. J might have had to messaging that is intended to help her see the err of her ways. It’s deeper than “Don’t call her Ryan because she changed her name and don’t call her a boy because she says she’s not one.” To truly understand the gravity of what is being asked of her by Mia, and by these oh-so-modern times, would require a paradigm shift that might not have been presented to her yet.
Curious to know if anyone had publicly addressed Ms. J’s treatment of Mia, I hit the Google and found a brief, beautiful essay by Mia for the Huffington Post, in which she speaks highly of Franklin and the acceptance that she found as a trans woman there. She says she is grateful that the school “accepted me for who I am and allowed me to work toward a real career and the ability to take care of myself.” If the young woman is being honest, which I am inclined to believe that she is, then despite the mistakes that Ms. J has made in addressing her gender identification, her institution has provided a safe haven for a sister in need. I would imagine that there are plenty of Ms. Js out there who would have turned their backs on someone like Mia—if not for her gender, then for her profession. Instead of staying stuck on what the sixty-something school leader has done wrong, I’m not discounting the value of that for even a second.
If the rest of the season doesn’t see Ms. J come to a place in which she begins to acknowledge Mia as “Mia,” and no longer as “Ryan,” then I hope that the media attention that comes with reality TV fame also brings with it a clear and comprehensive learning opportunity for the elderly woman to make that change. I also hope that Houston Beauty and Mia’s presence on the show give people across the country the chance to put a face on the struggle of our trans sisters and brothers. We may be our brother and sister’s keeper, but we aren’t the arbiter of their gender identities. The sooner we accept that, the free-er we all will be.