“Orange Is The New Black” Reminds Gays They Used To Be Radical
Netflix’s latest binge-worthy original series, Orange Is The New Black, has rightly been praised for showing a spectrum of female sexuality. Impressively, its many female characters present varied, dynamic sexual orientations, both queer and straight. Perhaps the most unprecedented representation of female sexuality is the character of Sophia Burset, a Black transwoman. Burset is a complex, rich character, whom the show portrays vividly and respectfully, a welcome departure from the entertainment industry’s troubling tendency to show trans* people as stereotypes brought to life and condemned, often, to tragic death.
Trans actress Laverne Cox deserves immense credit for imbuing Burset with nuance and dignity, as well as an irrepressible sweetness. Unfortunately, Cox’s list of television and movie credits underscores the extremely limited and destructive narratives about trans*people, especially transwomen of color, in American culture. For example, here is a list of the five most recent characters Cox played other than Sophia Burset: Chardonnay, Genesuis, Blithe Stargazer, Lola, and Chantelle. Two of her roles before that were known simply as “Hooker” and “Transexual Prostitute” (sic). Clearly, if a transwoman of color wishes to act for a living, she must make herself comfortable portraying an endless stream of sex workers, some of whom don’t even have names.
It’s discouraging not to see any discussion among mainstream GLB (allegedly including T) organizations around the lack of respectful, affirming trans* representation in media. More discouraging, though, is visible gay activists’ steadfast refusal to identify or work against the high rates of poverty and unemployment among trans*people that makes sex work one of the few viable means of self-support available to them; sex work is stigmatized and dangerous, even though it should be legal and safe. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), arguably the largest and most influential lobbying group for gay rights, has shown outright hostility to improving trans* people’s employment protections. The HRC further betrays its obsession with the well-being of wealthy, mostly white gay men and lesbians with its annual Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates how large American corporations treat white-collar gay employees, and ignores unemployment, as well as every non-white-collar GLBT worker in the community.
The HRC leads a coalition of mainstream gay advocacy groups that make it painfully obvious that their efforts are geared towards assimilation into a gayer (not in the fun way) version of a 1950s sitcom-type American ideal where men are in charge, brown people are barely visible, and trans* people never existed. This version of the movement persistently fails to address the issues affecting non-white GLB and/or poor GLB people, as well as issues that primarily affect gay/bi women, GLB disabled people, the GLB elderly, trans*people generally, and people who fit into more than one of these categories. Highly visible gay-advocacy organizations do not address or discuss any of the following problems:
- Political Rights: re-instituting Section 4 of the hobbled Voting Rights Act; stopping the spread of voter ID laws, which, in addition to disproportionately impacting poor people and people of color of all orientations, especially impair trans* people’s voting rights.
- Physical Safety: stopping violence and police brutality, especially against gay, bi, and trans* people of color; addressing hate crimes targeting intersecting racial and gay/trans* status or appearance; identifying and stopping domestic violence. Preventing violence and keeping people safer is also missing from this area of advocacy.
- Criminal Justice: destigmatizing and legalizing sex work; stopping unfair treatment of GLB people of color and trans*people in courts (including frequent convictions for GBLT people attempting to defend themselves from fatal attacks and/or rape); stopping the common practice of assigning trans* people to wrong gender-specific prisons, and/or forcing trans*people to endure solitary confinement because of inadequate ability to protect them from violence and sexual exploitation; addressing the needs of incarcerated people of all GLBT identities and races.
- Poverty: increasing safe and affordable housing options; addressing the effects of housing discrimination against GLBT people, people of color, elderly, disabled, and those who identify as more than one of these; increasing availability of elder care and addressing the needs of GLBT elderly people (because they could not marry elderly GLBT surviving spouses do not receive Social Security survivor benefits from their deceased partners, and may lack traditional family support networks); improving visibility and rights for LBGT people and families in rural areas.
- Employment Stability: stopping harassment and discrimination in the workplace against GLB people who are also of color and/or women, and against trans* people generally; improving job quality for low-wage and hourly workers, a disproportionate number of whom are women of color.
- Health Care: educating health care professionals about respectfully treating trans*patients and their diverse health care needs; reducing the costs of gender-reassignment-oriented drugs and surgeries for those trans* people who desire them; increasing access to a full spectrum of reproductive health choices and support for lesbian/bisexual women and trans*people (many trans*people have the capability to become pregnant); decreasing HIV/AIDS rates in communities of color, among GLBT-identified sex workers and in poor communities.
These are only a few of the complex and often critically important problems facing the “community”. Nevertheless, the top agenda item among the most visible gay advocates at the moment is a boycott of Russian vodkas. Many mainstream GLBT advocacy organizations barely bother to report on the efforts of activists in red states to expand marriage equality nationwide, now that DOMA and Prop 8 are history. Most infuriatingly, many of these movers and shakers are proud of their exclusivity, and allege that their tactics keep the movement focused on “real” GLBT issues. Advocacy groups preferring to maintain the race, class, and gender privilege embodied by their leadership have utterly betrayed the resistance-oriented origins of gay-rights activists. Now that white male gayness is largely unremarkable among upper-class urbanites, maybe they’d like to have a seat, so the people doing relevant work can make the movement awesome again.