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Transgender Dispossession in Transparent: Coming Out as a Euphemism for Honesty

These immoral questions, what on Earth are we to do? Offer our confessions, offer ourselves to you? Acquiesce, acquiesce, acquiesce, acquiesce, all in us (Lang 1995).


Since the 1990s, television narratives have increased visibility for LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual) individuals and underscored the need for a deep exploration of the heterosexism (homophobia) that pervades much mainstream American programming (Lee and Meyer in Sex Cult 141:234–250, 2010; Manuel in Soc Semiot 19(3):275–291, 2009). One such serial, Transparent, has been credited by many major media outlets with transforming the way Americans think about transgender, gender expansive (Ehrensaft in Gender born gender made, The Experiment, New York, 2011), or trans*, individuals. Exploring Transparent through Butler and Athanasiou’s (Dispossession: the performative in the political, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013) framework of dispossession, this essay argues that the depiction of dispossession in Transparent may serve to hypostasize the gender binary rather than to disrupt it. By severing the rhetorical act of “coming out” from the historical pathologization of non-normative sexualities and gender expansiveness in America, Transparent risks undoing the very social progress that it has the potential to further. While the show could powerfully disrupt cisgender privilege (Brydum in The true meaning of the word cisgender, 2015), as of its second season, instead, it merely illustrates how the media produced trans* “coming out” narrative all too often reifies the gender binary and cisgender privilege. Although it is tempting to praise Transparent for its representation of gender expansiveness, its problematic use of the “coming out” rhetoric should not be ignored.

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  1. For more on bodily disorientation and gender transition, see Harbin (2012).

  2. She calls a studio apartment renting for $2000/month “cheap.” While the authors chose to limit their scope to examining the “coming out” rhetoric of Transparent, they feel as though an analysis of class markers of trans* individuals in media would also be helpful in disrupting stereotypes.

  3. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people who experience intense, persistent gender incongruence were diagnosed as having "gender dysphoria" (APA 2016). The APA has since changed the name of the diagnosis to “gender identity disorder”. This “diagnosis” normalizes cisgender people while pathologizing the gender expansive.

  4. This gender policing, as evidenced through Davina’s gender coaching, is also normalized. Maura cannot merely feel like a woman and live legally as one. She must perfect her performance, especially among other transgender women, if she wants to “pass” as cisgender.

  5. For an extensive review of trans* people who have been imprisoned for committing “gender fraud” by not “coming out” to their sexual partners, see Sharpe (2016).

  6. See Tran et al. (2014) for more on how androgen blockers are known to diminish penile erectile function.

  7. According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, Inc. (WPATH) Standards of Care (2011), those seeking to affirm their gender as one not listed on their birth certificates are required to meet with mental health care providers to garner letters of recommendation to change legal identification cards, receive hormone therapy, or undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Therefore, mental health clinicians are gatekeepers with the authority to permit or deny patients the experience to live as to they deem appropriate; this can be lucrative for therapists who recommend a longer, more protracted transitional phase for their patients. It is important to note that although heterosexism and xenophobia are both known contributing factors to the “dysphoria” from which the APA claims gender expansive people suffer, neither has been classified by the APA as a mental or personality disorder or disturbance.

  8. The Institute of Medicine (2011) reports that gender-expansive people face protracted opprobrium from physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and generally all health care practitioners. This may stem, in part, not only from the acculturation process into cultural gender binarism and heteronormativity that begins at birth, but also more specifically from the lack of training practitioners receive to learn how to discuss sexuality and gender. “While many providers report high levels of discomfort with taking the sexual history of any patient, this lack of training exacerbates this discomfort when providers are dealing with LGBT[IA] patients” (Institute of Medicine, 2011). In addition to the dearth of training regarding gender expansiveness available for health care workers, these professionals may find their ideological frameworks buttressed by a system of policies that reinforce the abnormality of sex reassignment and gender expansiveness.

  9. One example of rampant systemic bigotry can be found in the medical insurance industry and its policies regarding sex reassignment surgery and complementary procedures. For example, “Both private and public health care plans severely limit transgender people's access to sex reassignment surgery or other treatments related to transgender status. Most private insurance plans, as well as Medicare, contain explicit exclusions for such treatments” (Institute of Medicine, 2011). Medical insurance policies are influencing, if not the driving force behind, medical educational policies, which ultimately filter the dissemination of knowledge to health care providers.

  10. In Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Haas et al. (2014) found that 27 % of the study's participants reported that their physicians had denied them care at least once due to their discomfort in caring for a gender creative individual (12). Additionally, 23 % affirmed that they “have postponed or not tried to get needed medical care when [they were] sick or injured because of disrespect or discrimination from doctors or other health care providers” (Haas et al. 2014, 12).

  11. For more on ideology and “color blindness” within the framework of Critical Media Literacy, see Funk et al. (2016).

  12. McLuhan was far beyond his time in 1964, when he declared “TV is above all a medium that demands a creatively participant response” (Gordon, 2011, 445). Contemporary technologies and social media, as well as video streaming (Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, etc.) allow viewers to customize and individualize their viewing programs (Napoli, 2003). These developments have led to increased audience fragmentation (Schneller, 2014), allowing shows to market themselves to specific populations according to identity markers such as class, gender identity, race, and sexuality. As audiences are now capable of accessing a wide array of televised programming, media makers are even more able to target those audiences. While this era could introduce and promote a higher degree of diversity and further social justice, many fear that, “A steady diet of such programming might, in turn, cultivate perceptions of reality at variance with larger social norms” (Webster, 2005, 369). Further research needs to be conducted to assess whether this “variance” may cultivate and respect non-hegemonic representations of gender, or merely serve to insulate cisgender individuals from learning about gender expansiveness vi-à-vis media.

  13. These terms were used during a contest in which RuPaul’s Drag Race participants were tasked with deciding, by examining photographs of women, which women were cisgender and which women were trans*.

  14. In RuPaul 2012, on Ru Paul’s All Star Drag Race, when comedian Vicki Lawrence asked RuPaul what the difference was between a drag queen and a transsexual, RuPaul quipped, “About $25,000 and a good surgeon.”

  15. As RuPaul fervently defended his use of the word “tranny,” Logo TV released a statement emphasizing that his comments did not reflect the organization (Peeples 2014). Responding to this on Twitter, RuPaul (2014) tweeted, “Trust! @LogoTV hasn’t ‘distanced’ itself from me, not while I’m still payin’ the f %kin’ light bill over there”.

  16. Some examples are the 1993 rape and murder of Brandon Teena, the 2013 vilification of Chelsea Manning, and the 2014 media spectacle of Dana Vahle and Zoey Tur. Such violence and spectacle surrounding the trans* individuals is depicted in media as the norm.

  17. The authors chose to replace masculine names and pronouns for Caitlyn Jenner to respect her transition process. Even after she announced her transition, many major media outlets referred to her with her birth name and masculine pronouns. The authors see this as a common microaggression (Funk 2015) against trans* individuals.

  18. While GLAAD urges the media to call attention to the recent upsurge in violence against the gender expansive, what is needed may not be more news broadcasts or public service announcements, but rather a complete re-conceptualization of gender and heteronormativity, a “disrupt[ion of] unexamined beliefs about what is normal or natural” (, Funk et al. 2016, 9), especially in the culture industry. As of 2014, one transgender individual is killed every other day (Kellaway 2014). This statistic is only available from the publically reported crimes that reveal the victims’ identities as trans* and those crimes that appear to have been motivated by someone’s hate for their gender expression. Transgender people account for .3 % of the U.S. population (Kellaway, 2014), yet transgender women are the victims of 45 % of all reported hate murders (Bolles, 2012). According to GLAAD, “Violence against the LGBTQH community, especially its members of color and trans members, is a growing and tragic epidemic” (Bolles 2012).


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Correspondence to Steven Funk.

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Author Steven Funk declares that they have no conflict of interest. Author Jaydi Funk declares that they have no conflict of interest.

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Funk, S., Funk, J. Transgender Dispossession in Transparent: Coming Out as a Euphemism for Honesty. Sexuality & Culture 20, 879–905 (2016).

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  • Transparent
  • Transgender
  • Coming out
  • Dispossession
  • Media studies
  • Critical media literacy