With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
On Sarah McBride and Tomorrow Will Be Different
Should trans people be visibly trans, or should they pass, and disappear into the gender binary? What about the role models, representing us in the media? Does it matter that they look so perfectly cis-gendered? These are some of my reflections as I read this week Tomorrow Will Be Different (2018), the newly published autobiography of a rising star of American trans activism, Sarah McBride.
Before assessing her story, though, it's worth reminding ourselves of how the new wave of 21st century trans biographies are a different proposition to what went on before. Laura Jane Grace (2016), for example, weaves her life-story of self-repression and frustration with a career in anti-capitalist punk culture. On the other side of the pond, Juliet Jacques (2015) shares similar post-punk, anti-Thatcherite angst, with gradual self-discovery in the LGBT scenes of Brighton and Manchester. Sex and sexuality are not shied away from these biographies, nor too the issues of mental health, and of poverty, work, and self-doubt. Records of caricatured femininity, a la Lili Elbe (1931) and Christine Jorgenson (1967), they ain't.
With Sarah part of the millennial generation, it's perhaps unsurprising that her story belongs to this 21st century trend, though it certainly has its own angle. My immediate impression was of parallels with Barack Obama and his political testament, The Audacity of Hope (2006): Sarah's story focuses a lot on her short but hyperactive political involvement with the US Democratic party. From early adolescence, she campaigns on behalf of Delaware Democrats, and soon after she comes out as an articulate, well-educated, highly resourced trans woman; an internship at Barack Obama's White House then beckons. One milestone in particular is her address at the Democrat Convention in 2016, as Sarah becomes the first trans person in history to address a political convention.
Already, then, this is a biography very different to those of Laura Jane Grace and Juliet Jacques. Sarah's, for one, radiates wholesomeness: she loves her home state of Delaware, and sees political engagement as a lifelong journey. At different points, she quotes or refers to Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, her role models in the progressive cause within neo/liberal capitalism. The book, indeed, underscores Sarah's own status as a white, middle-class role model for trans people everywhere. She is undeniably pretty and able to pass as a cis-gendered woman, a situation aided by her post-transition status. Accepting her oft-stated pride at being trans, I would even question how her experience matches – post-transition – so many other trans people who face the kind of structural inequalities of poverty and racism that can't be aided by trans-friendly legislation alone. Gazing at her image and her story, I found myself always being happy for her, but not always being able to relate to her agenda.
This is a sentiment strengthened by impressions of her narrow progressiveness. Sarah personifies the charges of identity politics hurled by Slavoj Zizek. Not once in this highly political biography does it appear to occur to Sarah that Hillary's failures in the eventual Presidential election might also have been due to her apparent acceptance of neoliberalism economics. At no point, for example, does Sarah see connections between the violence suffered by economically disadvantaged transwomen, with the ghettoized violence they suffer, and the economic race-to-the-bottom that has become the American dream – of jobs migrated to other countries, of growing socio-economic inequality, and the cultures of racism, insecurity and bitterness it contributes to. Her cause, indeed, is simply to prepare conditions of equality for trans people to enter this system. Typifying this narrow range of vision is Sarah's preparation for her historic convention speech, sharing with the reader the insight of the writer Maya Angelou: At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel. If any sentiment sums up the superficiality of Blairite, Clintonite politics, it's this. Feelings, not thoughts; such an epithet could be chiselled on the political gravestone of Sarah's hero, Hillary Clinton.
Yet if Sarah's diagnostics of the macro are frustratingly shallow, her accomplishments for trans rights are deeply impressive. On Senate floors and behind scenes, Sarah is the driving force behind equal rights for trans people in Delaware and beyond; her battle to allow trans people access to public restrooms, meanwhile, exposes her to the ugliest, most dispiriting accusations and campaigns. A seminal moment is her Instagram selfie in a women's restroom that went viral (see image); the ensuing media storm leads to horrific online abuse and the non-stop abbreviation of kys – kill yourself. Courage, resilience, and integrity are clearly characteristics of Sarah, a reflection reinforced in her moving, harrowing account of her young husband's death to cancer, a few days after their wedding.
The personal, then, is certainly political with Tomorrow Will Be Different. To its credit, Sarah's autobiography covers the important arguments and policies that relate to trans rights in 2018, and her participation in progressive politics have undoubtedly helped make things better for trans people, especially for those of a middle-class background. If I found her politics narrow and lacking in the awareness of alternative transgender experiences (not least trans people of colour in the US), her narrative nevertheless represents a modern kind of trans identity. The foreword, indeed, by former Vice-President Joe Biden, contrasts with those of Lili Elbe (1931) and Christine Jorgenson (1966), with their medical testaments asking for sympathy and understanding. Sarah's story, from its foreword to its happy ending, is proof of how far we've come since then.