What can we take away from Lilly Wachowski’s experience with a reporter from the UK’s Daily Mail? Especially for those of us who don’t have to worry about British tabloids when it comes to getting outed?
In case you didn’t catch it yet: Lilly Wachowski, one half of the Wachowski sibling directing team behind projects like V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas, the Matrix trilogy, and the Netflix smash hit Sense8, has come out as a transgender woman in a statement published in the Windy City Times.
This means that both of the Wachowski sibling are now out as trans women. I’m not really interested in explaining how this just as plausible (if not as statistically likely) as them both being cis or even responding (and thereby lending merit or credence to) the idea that this is somehow evidence of a choice inherent in trans identities. (That is to say, trans women are women; get over it.)
What I am interested in is what seems to have led her to come out. Namely, her statement recounts an experience she had with a reporter from the Daily Mail, which is a huge UK-based print media operation. In Wachowski’s account, the reporter repeatedly emphasizes that the Mail is not a tabloid, but the reality is that the UK’s print media has a much wider gray area of sensational reporting and commentary between what we in America would consider the tabloid style of the supermarket rack and the classical journalism of something like the New York Times.
This difference is exemplified perhaps most notably in the fact that the Mail‘s founder, Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe (who apparently was not a Bond villain despite his name), built an empire of sensational, politically charged papers and is considered by many a pioneer of the tabloid style. (This is not to say that the work of Pulitzer or Hearst isn’t comparable in America; rather, it’s just a different cultural context.)
The point being that a reporter from the Daily Mail turning up on your doorstep and wanting a comment on your gender is pretty big deal if you’re in the closet about anything. It’s pretty irrelevant if he deigns to pass himself off as benign or even benevolent in wanting to interview you because, just in case you weren’t aware, members of the media are capable of lying about their intentions in the pursuit of a story. And it doesn’t taken a Ph. D. in gender studies to see through a thin veil of pleasantries when it comes to people looking for a way to expose you as trans.
Which points to a reality in which Wachowski’s hand was forced. Faced with the possibility that a sensationalist newspaper across the ocean might out her, she released the statement she did. GLAAD has already issued a statement on the news, and it covers the key issue at play here: Forcing people out of the closet is wrong.
For a woman like Wachowski (or her sister or Caitlyn Jenner), this forced outing plays out in the national media. That’s because these are rich and famous people, and, for some reason, there’s a seemingly endless appetite for stories about rich and famous people in today’s media. As Wachowski says in a check on her own privilege in her statement, she’s lucky to have the support of her family and the financial means to survive the process.
But her privilege doesn’t protect her from the casual venom of would-be journalists who are trying to capitalize on the fact that trans issues are in the air right now. It opens her up to a wide range of attacks from across the media, both from institutions like Fox News, which stirs shit into hot cauldrons and then sells it to people as a healing potion, and from the seemingly endless onslaught of social media commentators, whose collective pooling of every individual’s two cents seems to amount to quite a fortune of bigotry and prejudice.
As different as this experience is from any that I’ll ever have or from that of most trans women (and it’s not hard to find ways in which the experiences of Jenner or the Wachowskis differs from most of us), there is, I think, a real lesson to pull out of today’s news. If Lilly Wachowski’s experience with that reporter can teach us anything, it’s that the pressure on trans people to come out will motivate them to do so, but at a cost we don’t understand.
I went through some of this myself. As I started to explore my identity and my relationship to gender, I did so with a few trusted confidants. After years of hiding any gender variance on my part from everyone (and often even from myself), opening up to a few people was at once liberating and the source of an existential terror I had always carried but never faced.
That terror came from facing the reality I wanted for myself. Living as a woman–something I’d literally dreamed about since childhood–is not something society teaches those it designates as boys to desire, pursue, or consider remotely possible; quite the contrary, anyone designated male who expresses femininity is likely to be ridiculed, ostracized, or attacked. I had accepted this reality and let it define me; I had spent years trying to convince myself that the person I was on the inside was wrong and that person needed to stay locked deep down inside me until I could find a way to purge her from my system and just be the man I was expected to be.
It wasn’t really a fun way to live.
As I started to come out, that person I had locked away was being set free, which was an empowering feeling. But I also noticed pressure from some of the people I opened up to to keep coming out. And yes, to a certain extent, this was vital and necessary in that it taught me that it was okay to come out and helped me to combat my feelings, attitudes, and beliefs that were stopping me.
But I was also reminded of my teenage experience of being outed as bisexual by a vengeful middle school girlfriend. A violation of trust on several fronts (not least of all because she had only found out about my orientation from someone else who I thought I could trust), that forced outing basically crushed me at the tender age of 13. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be bi based on the heteronormative narratives of my rural town’s society (and it was something classmates would remind me of regularly throughout high school), and the cognitive exercise of being out as bi without having prepared to accept myself as bi almost tore me apart. I still see it as a huge cause of the suicidal ideation that dominated my mental landscape until college and still lurks in certain corners of my brain.
The reality of my experience is that coming out (or being forced out) before you’ve got a handle on your own bullshit and baggage is dangerous. It can cut a person to ribbons as questions from friends and family flood your life while you’re still trying to answer them for yourself. Failing their tests (and this is really what many of even the most well-meaning questions end up feeling like) of your identity can reinforce your own doubts and throw gasoline on the fire of self-loathing that might already be threatening to engulf you in flames.
That’s the real danger of outing anyone. Wachowski, thank goddess, found a way to make herself ready and release a statement that pre-empted any attacks on her. In that way, she was able to start the conversation instead of respond to it, which is a huge asset for her.
But what if she hadn’t been ready? What if she’d been forced to read something about herself in the paper that she hadn’t resolved internally? What if a headline like the one she mocks in her statement had triggered the internalized transphobia that everyone–trans & cis–has within them and has to put the work in to fight?
The truth is that, in that event, we would all be lucky not to read heartbreaking news the next day.