So… Isis King has an American Apparel ad.
Isis King, if you’re not aware, is a particularly beautiful (under normative standards) trans woman who appeared as a contestant on Next Top Model.
American Apparel, for Pride Month (which is June in most US Cities, though July up here in Vancouver), have done a series of new ads demonstrating a supposedly pro-LGBT message. “Supposedly” because I’m not sure much effort has gone into the latter two letters. Isis King was recruited as a model, and appeared in the following images:
Which is all well and good, right?
I mean, it’s showing that a trans woman can be beautiful too, and allowing her a position of visibility, and at the same time is promoting a positive message about gay acceptance!
Here’s the problem: what are the chances that American Apparel would ever print shirts saying “legalize trans!” or “trans O.K.”
King’s presence isn’t to help promote LGBT diversity. It is, as is so often the case, an instance of using trans people to help promote the cause of gay & lesbian acceptance while our own rights are treated as an afterthought, or too controversial to openly address.
What King does is provide a gimmick for American Apparel, and the gay & lesbian community, to help market their product and message. Even in blog posts like this one I’m writing right now, the campaign is given greater and wider visibility via the “controversy” and novelty of Isis King’s inclusion.
Trans is being used as a marketing technique to sell t-shirts and an already widely-achieved mainstream acceptance of gay men and lesbians into middle-class consumer culture, while all kinds of extremely pressing human rights concerns, like the recent epidemic of violence towards trans women of colour like Isis King, or the incarceration of CeCe McDonald, continues to receive not even a fraction of the attention that the already palatable and harmless message of “gay OK” already receives.
These t-shirts are marketable because by and large, our culture already agrees with that message. Isis King is necessary to give the campaign “heat” because vague, imprecise messages of generic gay-acceptance are no longer in any way controversial.
More and more, trans people are being used by the right wing to scare voters away from supporting things like ENDA or other LGBT-positive laws. On Zinnia’s blog you can find an extremely transphobic anti-ENDA ad featuring a deliberately “ugly” trans woman and threatening parents with the possibility of “her” [sic] teaching their children. It wasn’t long ago that simply the threat of gay or lesbian teachers would have been sufficiently scary. Or there were the highly transphobic cartoons disseminated in Alaska that (successfully) were used against the passage of an LGBT anti-discrimination law. And a couple days ago, some right wing American politician or another tried to scare people away from supporting pro-LGBT legislation by claiming that LGBT (as a whole!) is all about undermining the “so obvious, so objective” categories of male and female.
This is a sort of predictable situation. As more people find the message “Gay OK” utterly yawn-worthy in its level of mainstream acceptability, the right needs to exploit deeper hatreds and fears in order to keep people scared of the queer community, and keep them voting republican/conservative/whatever. Trans people are the obvious go-to. I’m not surprised by this, but I am worried that the LGB community may see the “appropriate” or “necessary” response to be to further distance themselves from trans people rather than to push for our acceptance too.
But what does creep me out, and I didn’t quite anticipate, was that the left would use this strategy as well. That as “Gay OK” becomes uncontroversial and mainstream, trans people would become the go-to for helping generate the novelty and controversy and buzz necessary to market their products and campaigns.
I’m just really not fond of exploitation. Especially as I notice it more and more, all the time, amongst those I’d mistakenly considered allies. Good guys. Progressives.
Isis King’s presence in the ad isn’t what matters. Just like it isn’t Green Lantern Alan Scott of Earth 2 being gay that bugged me. What bugs me about things like this is how they’re marketed. Where the motivations are. “LOOK AT OUR TRANS MODEL!!!”, “ONE OF OUR ‘MAJOUR HEROES’ IS COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET!!!” Etc.
Human rights aren’t a commodity. They aren’t novelty. They aren’t controversy. They aren’t a gimmick.
And they aren’t a way to be fashionable.
Call me when you’re willing to show a gay man wearing a “Legalize Trans” shirt.