Culture //

We (can’t) exist

Arcade Fire’s latest music video is “trans* pity porn”, writes Charlie O’Grady.

People like to ask me what it’s like being trans*. It’s something I find difficult to explain, but I can say that, for me, it’s less about any sense of being ‘trapped in the wrong body’, and more a case of being left out of my own story. Here’s an example.

Last week, the new video for Arcade Fire’s latest single, ‘We Exist’, was released. The video features actor Andrew Garfield as an AMAB trans* person figuring out their** identity. ‘We Exist’ is a song that details a young gay man coming out to his father. The video features a trans* person played by a cisgender man, who is beaten and presumably killed.

It’s hard to say who, exactly, exists here. But as I watch it I understand that, as usual, it’s not me.

There’s a lot of reasons to be angry about ‘We Exist’. It’s trans* pity porn, it’s a saviour narrative that celebrates allies more than GSD people, it prioritises a single limited narrative about trans* experience, and Andrew Garfield is getting credit for something he’s not. Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Against Me!, has tweeted: “a homeless Jamaican LGBT youth living in a sewer is going to feel empowered because a cis, straight white male actor in movies they can’t afford to see stars in a music video they’ll never watch?”

Those accusations are all certainly true. What I want to impress, however, is the genuine violence of being left out of your own story.

As a trans*man, whether I’m in or out of the closet in any given situation, I am constantly editing what I say. I stop myself from telling stories that will make people question who I am. In interactions with my family I still don’t have the opportunity to vocally correct misgendering. And other people will do it for me, too, every time my legal name is used where my real name should have been. Whenever my family or boss talk about me, whenever I get sent mail. In my interaction with my body, too, the feeling is one of being excluded from myself. So I’m used to leaving myself out, and editing around.

It would be nice, though, if popular culture weren’t doing it too.

Just calling the song ‘We Exist’ feels like some kind of cruel joke, because I have to wonder who this “we” is. If the ”we” is gender diverse people, then possibly a better title would be “They Exist”, or “We Don’t Exist”, or maybe just “Arcade Fire Seem To Think Every Queer Identity is The Same Thing”. If the “we” is cis allies, however, then the title is pretty much perfect. At the end of the video, when Garfield’s character (having just been forced to watch an excruciatingly awkward dance number) walks through some kind of death-metaphor tunnel, only to emerge at—yep, you guessed it—an Arcade Fire concert. They’re then taken on stage and cheered for by the crowd, which we’re supposed to accept as mitigating the fact that we just saw the same character get beaten to death.

I can’t possibly articulate how little I give a shit about allies, or what they think of me. I can’t possibly explain how furious I am that a story that should have been about queer identities has become, once again, about the cisgender/straight allies who supposedly “save” them. What this kind of representation does is turn a group of people into a narrative—a homogenous, simplified narrative—in a way that completely dehumanises them. ‘Being trans*’ becomes an acting experience. At least ‘We Exist’ has taken the initiative to tell a trans* narrative that doesn’t focus on medical transitioning—but it still tells a story that, like so many, begins with the donning of a costume and ends with tragedy. As if to add insult to injury, we’re not even allowed to be the ones who are telling that story.

That’s not the kind of representation I need, or even slightly want. Not only because it’s not even nearly the only narrative that trans* lives follow—not only because, sometimes, it’s nice to be shown a message of hope instead of text after text that ends in someone like you dying—it’s because there is an undeniable sense of self that comes with being able to express your experiences for yourself.

It’s not like ‘We Exist’ doesn’t hit some great moments. Garfield is a brilliant actor, and he brings a lot of what looks like truth to the role. Watching the beginning, where the character, having tried on a bra for the first time, stares at their reflection, and something inside Garfield just snaps, I felt something overwhelmingly real that I feel every time I get dressed in the morning.

But the problem is, it’s just not enough anymore.

Now, it would seem, we’re comfortable with hearing stories about trans* people—but we’re uncomfortable with trans* people themselves existing, we’d rather not think about them. I know that Jared Leto, in his infinite wisdom, likes to theorise that you wouldn’t want to “stick a transgender person with only transgender roles, so it goes both ways”—but in truth trans*-identified people, as a general rule, don’t get any roles. In a narrative explicitly about queerphobia and transphobia, we’re still forcibly closeted. Even the recent 52 Tuesdays, which features a gender non-conforming actor in the role of a trans*man, is more about the daughter than it is about him.

The thing is, the Andrew Garfields and the Jared Letos of the world don’t understand the terror about medical fees, about going to the doctor at all, they don’t get what it’s like to not know what to write on forms or say to tutors. They don’t get what it’s like to be left out—and they won’t, because they’re put in where other people should be.

To them, it’s just a role. It’s just a story. But it’s never just been a story for me, and now it’s not even a story I can tell myself. I only ever get to be the subject.

The song is called ‘We Exist’. But as far as the video indicates, we don’t even remotely exist. We’re absent, spoken about but never to. In this kind of world, where our experiences are more about the people around us, where other people’s words are passed off as our stories, we can’t exist. The best way to make someone not feel like a person is to deny them their reflection.
**I say ‘they’ for lack of a preferred pronoun for the character, because I don’t want to necessarily label the character a ‘she’.