I was 12 years old before I ever saw a queer person on a billboard. My class was on a trip to Monterey, and as we drove through San Francisco, we passed the super cheesy Gay.com billboard that used to loom over 101. The boys on the bus cackled, pointing out the window, and I stared. “Are you?” the ad read, and I thought to myself, Maybe, maybe, maybe.
As for the boys in my class? They were too busy giggling into their hands to think about the greater societal implications of their reactions (and also, we were 12). But I think it was more the shock of the queer presence rather than the queerness itself that scandalized them. We were from California, sure, but we were also from a pretty freaking conservative little town where queerness wasn’t so much suspect as it was simply absent. The idea that queer people could be among our ostensibly “normal” classmates was foreign to all of us. “Are you?” the ad asked, even as it implied, “You could be.”
Now, a decade-odd later, it’s still a bit of a pleasant shock to see gay relationships depicted in print ads. But between NBC shows and silver fox Anderson Cooper, the idea that gay people can be run-of-the-mill humans is slowly starting to permeate into the cultural landscape.
The same cannot be said, however, for the trans community. Apart from Isis King and Lea T, I can’t actually think of any transgender or genderqueer models who have been prominently featured in ad campaigns. Even my #1 love interest Andrej Pejic has way more of a following internationally than he does in the U.S., which is a tragedy for anyone who enjoys ogling photographs of doe-eyed bruisey dudes (hint: me).
Now, though, the D.C. Office of Human Rights is launching an ad campaign that attempts to frame trans residents of D.C. as being just like every other resident. It’s a timely issue -- this past year has been shadowed by a string of violent anti-trans murders in the area, ones that, for some reason, the D.C. police often didn’t address as hate crimes.
Though the Office of Human Rights hasn’t yet labeled the ads as a response to the violence, it’s hard not to see the connection. Hate crimes are often the products of fear turned sickeningly aggressive, like a cornered dog: their perpetrators reduce their victims to objects to be acted upon. Hence why lots of transphobes call trans people “it” or “thing” rather than gender-neutral pronouns or their pronouns of choice. They’re reducing their agency as people and as subjects, and their inexplicable fear is reinforcing the decision to do so.
By contrast, the entire subtext of the D.C. ads seems to be “Trans people are people too!” They also include reminders that gender identity-based discrimination is illegal in the District of Columbia, which is more than I can say for every state. My personal favorite, featuring a trans woman named Consuella, reads, “I like staying in shape, listening to Adele, and shopping in friendship heights with my mom and sisters.” Ain’t nothing threatening about listening to Adele, unless you hate choking on your own snot-tears.
Admittedly, a part of me wishes some of these were a teensy bit more radical. As a compulsively non-confrontational person, I’m historically disinclined to make people uncomfortable, particularly where my sexuality is concerned. But sometimes, the inclination to draw the cowering bigots out of from under their prejudice-beds involves a little too much patience to be my go-to option.
As a few commenters on the OHR Facebook page have pointed out, the copy of the ads seems to dwell firmly in the language of the gender binary even as it subverts it. Apart from Ashley’s ad, most of the ads’ subjects could be asking to be affably ignored as well as treated with respect and courtesy. They all present their gently gendered and neutral activities like an offering in exchange for being left alone.
In my perfect world, I and other queers like me wouldn’t react to prejudice by saying, “But we’re just like everybody else!” Instead, we’d say, “I’m different than you in some great ways and some shitty ways, and you can learn to deal with it as a human being.”
Don’t get me wrong here, though -– this is a quibble-drop in a sea of otherwise sickeningly positive emotions about this campaign. Just reading about ad subject Kisha, for example, was enough to send me into a flurry of touched-by-an-emotion tears for an hour on Friday afternoon.
Because at the end of the day, this is America’s capital. I know it’s not the harbinger of progress I and the West Wing would like to think of it as, but there’s something supremely heartening about seeing real trans faces portrayed there in a way that doesn’t exoticize, victimize or dehumanize them. Because these ads don’t just remind people to be tolerant of the LGBT population; they invoke the need of all men and women to be respected.
I’m not naïve enough to hope that after seeing these, a would-be transphobe will see the error of their ways. Rather, I hope that the next generation of D.C. residents will grow up believing in the humanity of their fellow city-dwellers, no matter their presented or identified gender.
Kate is crying over lovely Serbian blonde boys at @katchatters.