A Conversation with Jen Richards
The ways in which a person experiences and expresses their own identity are always shifting. With maturity, experience, and time, each person journeys to discover who they are and how they present themselves to the world. Jen Richards, an advocate focusing on racial and gender justice, looks at what happens when the person who is taking that journey does not fit into the traditional definitions of gender. How is that person’s experience of self expression different, and how will it change in the future as technologies, both social and medical, continue to develop?
How might the experience of a 10-year-old trans youth be different by 2030 than it is today?
It’s fun to think about what it will be like for trans youth. It’s amazing how often I can go into bookstores now and see trans people in books and magazines, as well as on TV. The visibility came so quickly – more quickly and so much bigger than any of us anticipated. There is a whole generation of trans kids today who will grow up with that just being normal.
But at the same time, there are kids growing up in places like North Carolina, where there’s a state legislation entirely based on a fear around what trans youth are, and that must be horrifying for them. I think a lot of that will settle out in the next 15 years. Of course, hatred won’t be entirely gone, but given the pace at which gay and lesbian acceptance has been in focus for the past few years, I think trans people will experience the same thing. Hopefully, trans acceptance in 15 years will look a lot like gay and lesbian acceptance today. We’ll be accustomed to being represented in the media, having pride parades, and just being acknowledged as a part of society.
You said the visibility being given to trans issues in the media has increased. Why do you think this is the case?
I think that it’s been a collision of several factors. It’s partly because the rise of social media has allowed trans people to find each other in ways they have never done before. There has been a real sense of solidarity amongst a lot of trans people in the last couple of years. That’s been partially in response to the amount of violence that was happening in the trans community and awareness of that violence as it has become a national news story, and that has motivated a lot of work that’s happened. Another part of it is just simple media exploitation. I think they are always looking for the next interesting story – they always are – and trans people were ready and waiting for that.
Then there are the social justice circles. After marriage equality had been won, there was a sense of “what’s next?” and trans people were like, “We’ve been here all along. How about us?”
How do you think the experience of a transgender individual in the media might be different by 2030?
It is going to be massively different, particularly as more and more trans people are speaking in their own voices. There’s an interesting shift happening right now in Hollywood, where it’s becoming less acceptable to have cisgender actors playing trans roles. There’s a sense now that those parts really should be going to trans people.
We’ll inevitably have our first “Will and Grace moment” – there will be a popular sitcom that will have a major character who’s trans, and it will be a light, accessible, funny sitcom that will bring trans people into the living rooms of millions who would otherwise never really think about it. It is really hard to overstate what kind of impact that could have.
Say social emphasis on equality takes place. What happens next?
You can already seeing it happening online. And popular media makes it seem like it’s going to be singular issues – “We talked about that, now let’s move onto this.”
Obviously, the reality is much more diverse. Trans people are not a monolith. There’s no single trans community, but rather several overlapping communities that often have different issues, stories, and trajectories.
It’s all part of an intersectional approach to social justice; members cannot be reduced to a single factor. I am not defined by being trans any more than I am defined by being a woman, or white. What the larger moment is about is recognizing all the embodied intersectionalities.
What do you see for the future of the gender binary?
My friends and I are the last of the dinosaurs – our gender still adheres to the binary of male or female. Most of my friends transitioned from one gender to a very traditional place on the other side of the spectrum, so they’re still binary identified. They’re men or women, and most of them are heterosexual, too. So something that seems so revolutionary and subversive isn’t always so. Someone can move from one box to the other box, but it doesn’t challenge the fact that there are still only two boxes.
A lot of work in trans activism is allowing the transition to happen more easily, and accepting that a person can move from one box to the other. But younger trans individuals, especially those under 25, are just destroying the boxes altogether. The traditional binary of gender is being completely disrupted and they have so much new terminology. It’s an incredible space for self-expression. What is often considered the future of gender seems to already be happening with the younger generations.
Can you see a world where humans work toward creating new types of sex organs?
Although this isn’t something I’ve thought much about, I can absolutely see that happening. Gender is becoming art. It’s becoming play. And once that happens, it becomes open to all kinds of interruptions and innovations, whether it’s artistic, or ethical, or technological.
As gender becomes something that is almost akin to fashion – which is grounded in a physical reality but is also a place of art and commerce – all kinds of opportunities open up.
Can you imagine a world without the notion of gender? What would that look like?
No, I can’t. But what I can imagine is a world in which gender operates in a very different way than today. There’s this utopian ideal of getting past gender and everyone being androgynous – that would be so boring. Androgyny is only interesting in gendered context as a rejection, as an intentionally carved out space – if everyone was like this, it would lose all those qualities. But I can definitely see masculine/feminine or male/female becoming much more fluid and dynamic.
Gender is everywhere, and we kind of take it for granted; it’s like the air that we breathe. But as we break from that, and as we bring it into awareness as a construct, as a thing we can put on and play with, then we’ll still have gender – but the way it operates will be very, very different than today. It won’t be a given that is put upon us and that can have incredibly damaging consequences – it will become a realm for play.
What types of technologies do you see emerging that might help individuals determine gender for themselves?
The two big technologies that have already completely reshaped the trans experience are medical technologies and social media. Medical technologies, such as advancements in endocrinology and hormonal therapy as well as surgical interventions and reshaping the body, have allowed a lot of people to attain the body that they desire, the body that matches their sense of self. And that’s tremendous.
When I was younger, what I knew about the trans experience was very specific and based on a distinct, single narrative. In the past few years, social media has completely transformed the trans community and, through that, it has given us access to so many different kinds of narratives around what it means to be trans – so it opens up the experience. It allows people to say, “Hey, my experience is just as valid.” It allows more people to come into the community and reduces feelings of shame.
Besides social media, what kinds of online spaces might impact notions of gender?
I am not involved in any kind of gaming, but a lot of people are and I’ve heard a lot of trans people talk about the first space that they felt comfortable playing with gender was in online worlds, where they could adopt a character of the opposite gender. It gave them a way to imagine themselves as something else. That is a really common story. I can see that becoming an increasing avenue for people to discover their own sense of gender.
How do you see public policies shifting, if at all?
Our approach to these issues needs to become more intersectional. We need to take into account the relationship between people’s gender, race, and class. Our school policies need to ensure that kids feel safe at schools; we need safety nets across the board. We need better employment policies that address the fact that, currently, trans women are overrepresented in sex work – and this leads to a lot of other issues with addiction, HIV, and violence – because they can’t get other jobs or medical care. This is an issue on the governmental level, and it’s complicated and multi-layered. These things won’t be solved by any one policy or approach. It needs to filter into both our private and public lives, our corporations, governments, individuals, schools… we need to recognize who are the most vulnerable among us and address them and help them.
What sort of beliefs around gender today support or conflict with your aspirational view for the future of humanity?
The most obvious one that greatly conflicts is the belief that women are inherently worth less than men. And that, for me, is a far bigger, more pervasive, and more damaging concern than the specific place of trans people within the larger gender spectrum. Violence against women is a huge, global issue and it manifests in a variety of ways – interpersonal, governmental, medical, or with unequal pay. And this needs to be addressed before all else.
I am very curious to see what will happen as more women are the creative leadership on various projects. I think we are on the precipice of a kind of renaissance of media that will be led by a diverse group of women. It can’t just be white women – it needs to be whole range of women, trans women, queer women, straight women, Black, White, Latina, Asian, everyone. I think once women have a greater say in these spaces, it is going to absolutely change our whole sense of what storytelling means and what kinds of structures we assume to be natural. If we move away from the typical “hero trajectory” that’s very masculine and reimagine a new storytelling structure, then things will change, and that is very exciting to me.
I’m always going to be working toward improving trans rights, but when I’m moving through the world, the issues I confront on a daily basis have less to do with being trans and more to do with being female. Until we address this, there’s no room for gender exploration and play and all the other things we talk about. My concern is that, as of right now, half the globe’s population is still brutally penalized because of their gender and the way that gender is based in our physical reality.