School Memories: Triggers and Transamerica


The ongoing discussions about safe spaces in academic environments has got me thinking about incidents from my own teenage years.

One of the A Levels I took was Film Studies (yeah, yeah, I know, cushy number) and I remember a paticular class where our teacher showed us clips from the film Transamerica, in which Felicity Huffman plays a transgender woman. I can’t remember the exact context, but I think it was part of a discussion about how independent films can deliberately subvert expectations.

The first clip was from Huffman’s point of view, as we saw her hand rifling through cosmetics. The teacher paused and asked us how we expected the main character to look; a student replied “sort of… pretty, like”. The clip resumed, and the teacher paused it just as we saw Felicity Huffman’s reflection in the mirror (Huffman is cis, but through make-up and presentation, emulated the look of an awkward, not-quite-there trans woman). Several members of the class let out a collective “ugh!” at the sight of her face.

We watched a few more clips, I can’t remember how many, but enough to establish that the protagonist was transgender. Our teacher started discussing them, and expressed confusion as to what pronoun he should use to identify the character; when he uncertainly settled upon “she”, the class broke into jeers and sniggers.

Now, I was still in the closet at the time, but I had already decided that I wanted to transition. As you can imagine, that class was not an entirely pleasant experience for me. So was this an instance where – as certain commentators will argue – I would have benefitted from a trigger warning beforehand?

My only honest answer would be no.

For a start, had the teacher given a trigger warning, this would merely have delayed the inevitable. The second he stepped out of the rom for his lunch, the sniggers and jeers would have begun behind his back.

But on a deeper level, I would describe the incident as a learning experience for me. It may not have been pleasant for me, but I had learned what a group of typical 17-year-olds thought about transgender people circa 2006, which is the sort of thing I knew full well I would be learning as part of my transition.

The Transamerica clips themselves were an eye-opener. It may not have been the first time I saw a trans character in fiction – this was around the time Ugly Betty started – but it was the first time I had seen a trans character portrayed with sympathy and verisimilitude, rather than as an attention-grabbing plot twist.

On that day, I was shoved head-first into a new world. A closeted trans teenager, I was unexpectedly show two very different viewpoints of the transgender experience: a sympathetic portrayal in fiction, and a decidedly less sympathetic response from my peers. It was not comfortable. But I learned from it: I learned something of the truth about how we are viewed by the world. And learning, after all, is why I signed up in the first place. Looking back, I honestly do not think that I would have benefitted from staying in a safe space that day.

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