‘Assigned Male’: Humor and Insight While Growing Up Trans

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Passing

Assigned Male – Passing

Assigned Male can be described as Janet Mock meets Calvin and Hobbes. The comic strip by Sophie LaBelle, is at times wickedly funny, painfully perceptive, and profound beyond the years of its 27-year old creator, a transgender woman from Montreal, Canada.

The strip follows life through the eyes of a middle schooler who alternately makes light of, and chafes under the realities of growing up a transgender child in a cisgender world.

Assigned Male first flew onto my radar when a Facebook friend whom I met through Susan’s Place shared a three panel cartoon depicting a fictitious news story on a CNN-like channel about student restroom use.

Image 2 - News“We asked experts on the subject, who confirmed with us that trans children exist. But is society ready for them?”

I gaped at the screen for a few moments in admiration at so much thought exploding from so few words. The cartoon managed to capture not only the media’s general stance toward us as an object of study subject to the pronouncements of clueless experts, but also the assumption that transgender folks need to temper our expectations to be treated as human beings based on how comfortable people are with our very existence.

I instantly became voracious, I had to have more, and a few clicks brought me to the Assigned Male Tumblr page and into the world of Stephie, Assigned Male’s bold and sagacious protagonist.

Image 3 - TumblrI felt myself drawn in helplessly as she battles transphobia among peers, demands acceptance from family members, and shows us everyday events through the frustrated eyes of a girl who is determined to have an ordinary childhood and will accept nothing less from those around her. All three of these are on display in a brilliant exchange with her father that culminates as she responds to his anxieties by assuring him “That’s fine Dad. I’m on Tumblr. I know how to handle things.”

Just as circumspect and affirming are Assigned Male’s memes, lovingly featuring Stephie delivering witticisms that would make Confucius proud. Stephie’s cherubic smile belies a deadly accurate javelin of a tongue that LaBelle uses to skewer both society’s myopic appraisals of transgender people and our own communities unsound assumptions.

Image 4 - Cis GirlHere she competently schools skeptics of children who know their own gender identity, following it up by taking on the trans communities own preoccupation with passing.

Ms. LaBelle takes pains to show her audience a world where the full rainbow of queer experiences are woven together so realistically, we realize it would be incompletely drawn without them. She includes a genderqueer child seeking a non-binary presentation in line with their identity, and others struggling against labels the world insists upon pasting on their experiences. When her mother confesses attraction to another woman, Stephie asks “You’re gonna kiss her. Will that make you a lesbian?”

“No. Still bisexual,” the answer comes back dryly. So much insight packed into the 5-letter word “still”.

Image 6- Bisexual

What I most admire about Assigned Male is the ability to express painful anger and frustration in a form that comes off purely humorous.

I would guess she finds it just as maddening and provocative as I do when our bathroom concerns are casually dismissed. It wouldn’t surprise me if these were a subject of many a private rant. But in her strip, a few simple words do the job, as when a friend tells Stephie to “stop saying those horrible things like it’s what you hear on a daily basis.”

Image 7 - Daily BasisThe most emotional moments for me came when Assigned Male chronicles familiar rites of passage. Who hasn’t examined their body hoping for telltale signs that hormone therapy is having it’s desired effect? “It’s just gum,” Stephie declares after initially believing puberty blockers have had an effect on her hair.

Gum

Gum

LaBelle also knows how to market her own looks. Her Facebook page is peppered with glamour shots showing her unselfconscious beauty. She knows well that young females are drawn to attractiveness, and uses that fact to give her credibility among her audience.

Her beauty message tends to be affirming — one of her posts extols the virtues of “confidence selfies” — but I wonder whether the ubiquity of her radiant smile potentially weakens her messages about the non-importance of looks and physical presentation.

I sincerely hope LaBelle won’t find herself running short of inspiration or succumb to the temptation to dilute her art in favor of one with a broader appeal. Her likes on Facebook number in the thousands and her message is pretty much guaranteed to melt the heart of anyone who has ever transitioned, thought of transitioning, or loved someone who has.

However, I’m afraid her work would be a hard sell to the mainstream cisgender media whose general simplification of the transgender experience might render Assigned Male’s nuanced observations too subtle for the Garfield and Peanuts crowd.

Still, her memes are high enough quality that the t-shirt and poster sales alone should provide some profit. Even if our small market one day proves insufficient for her substantial talents, we can count ourselves fortunate that she spent the early part of her career entertaining and enlightening the transgender community with the fruits of her creativity.

Her humor and wit provide evidence to back up her heroine’s belief that Trans people are a positive addition to society.

Image 9 - Positive Addition

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About Author

Suzi Chase writes about transgender issues through both fiction and non-fiction. She has had careers in teaching and software engineering and has raised two children.

6 Comments

  1. I don’t get the cartoon really. I couldn’t see past the inappropriate use of cis-gender. The word should be tossed out in my opinion. Do we really need to use antagonistic words when its not needed? Save your energy and time with real battles. I don’t really give a F8&C what rad-fems think of us but there are some truths I think the transgender community should pay attention to that I do agree with them on:

    1) You are not assigned a sex at birth, you are observed to be male or female by your external genitalia. People don’t like to have their reality redefined for them by transgender people. Your gonna piss them off. If I am going to piss them off, I would rather have it be over a real issue. It’s a simple observation.

    2) cis is an unnecessary prefix that separates two types of females and stigmatizes transpersons as second class type of gender. It’s like you are pushing your agenda by using this in everyday language. It screams “notice me, i am a speshul snoflake!” as In….”Oh, you are cis-gendered? I am trans-gendered.” How about “we are women”? and if that doesn’t work for you, then carry your own baggage with you and declare your trans-gendered status on your own without making a natural born female change the way she sees herself as just a female…ok sis?

    Personally I would like to identify as female gendered. Call me “stealth” or whatever, but I’d rather just go un-noticed and blend in. Wearing it as a badge of honor only divides the issue into two types of women and makes natural born women prefix their gender with Cis. I know what the Latin means. It’s not the point. It’s offensive to women in general to have to be forced to acknowledge their is some ‘other’ type of female out there that they must share gender with. I’m just a female. Period. or no period. 😉

  2. Thank you for your comment, Kelli. I get your point about how cisgender could be taken by some as stigmatizing.

    I hope you’ll consider this perspective: The existence of words makes messages more powerful that would be hard to convey concisely without them.

    Example:

    “End Racism!”

    -or-

    “End that thing where people of one race act superior to another race!”

    Which is more powerful?

    My point is that the existence of a word makes conversations possible which would be very awkward if that word doesn’t exist. Sure we could say “people who are not transgender” instead of cisgender, but it would make a lot of conversations harder and more awkward, and would make it make it much harder to deliver powerful messages.

    The state of transgender rights in the world, despite improvements, are still so abysmal that we *do* need to have conversations about them, right? So we need a way to refer to people who are not transgender. I’m open to hearing alternative terms to cisgender, but we hamstring those conversations if we have no term at all.

  3. I am finding my place in the transgender world and don’t have the perspective of those who have been activists for many years. I am trying to understand and be cautious because I have found my views do change with additional time and information.

    I identify as an American. My heritage is Irish, Czech, Dutch, and English. I don’t identify as an Irish-Czech-Dutch-English American. It’s just American. If someone wants to know how I arrived here, I can tell them, but I don’t wear it as a badge. I know some use Afro-American and by the same account it is my opinion that that designation is unnecessary as well. We are all Americans in the USA (well most..LOL) It is separatist. I am white. Why don’t I get a special name?

    I arrived at female through being transgender. Some arrived at female from being born XX. In my opinion we are both female. Some would argue that is not true because I will never be XX. That’s their opinion. But I don’t have to enforce their opinion by classifying what “kind” of female I am by calling them Cis.

    I just think it’s divisive to categorize people. People who are Cis-female don’t go around calling themselves Cis-female, transgenders do. For that reason the transgender is labeling them with something they don’t care to use.

    It’s like what if someone called you “He” when you asked them to refer to you as “She”? I think that is the same feeling natural born females get when they hear this term Cis-female. It’s like what happened to just calling me “female”?

  4. Um. “Assigned” is much more neutral than any alternative I’m aware of. It doesn’t even imply it’s right or wrong, it’s just a factual description of what’s happening. “Observed” implies it’s unquestionably correct. But sex assignment is sometimes definitively wrong or at least dubious, even apart from trans identities … in the case of intersex people, sex assignment is often pretty much completely arbitrary, and “assigned” captures this inconvenient (for transphobes) fact. Sex isn’t a simple matter, sex isn’t binary, sex is a social construct just like gender. For this reason, intersex activists tend to use the variant “coercively assigned”, which is much stronger than simple “assigned”. If a non-intersex trans woman calls herself “coercively assigned male at birth”, your point that this term is inaccurate (since there was no way to tell that the baby would go on to develop into a trans person) would be more defensible (although I still don’t quite agree; there’s nothing that forces us to gender children without their consent). Sex assignment is just the result of a quick, superficial glance, not even a chromosome test or anything this sophisticated (and as the IOC has learned the hard way, sex assignment is pretty much impossible sometimes); it’s a ridiculously shoddy and error-prone procedure, counter to your implication that it’s a factual observation equivalent to a scientific investigation. And “naturally born woman” and the like (let alone “normal woman”!) are problematic at the very least for exactly these complications (and the implication that trans women are somehow “unnatural” or “artificial”, that their genders are “not biological” or “not physical”, as if people’s brains did not also belong to their biological bodies, and that being a trans woman is somehow an inferior or marginal kind of woman), while “cis” is completely analogous to “trans” and perfectly symmetric and thus neutral (like “heterosexual” vs. “homosexual”; this strategy is called “decentering”). People don’t realize just how diverse even cis women are among themselves; there’s no universal female body and no universal female experience, and nothing that’s really unique to trans women except the discrepancy between assigned and self-perceived gender. Also, the way that Calling people “cis” is in no way comparable to misgendering; that’s like saying calling people “heterosexual” is insulting or oppressive. So what, cis people don’t like getting labels forced on without their consent? Welcome to the daily experience of trans people.

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