7 Feb 2018

How the media can tell better trans stories

12:41 pm on 7 February 2018

The dirty reality.


Cole Meyers.

Cole Meyers. Photo: Supplied

Cole Meyers is not afraid to talk about himself.

The 31-year-old writer will, in a few days, speak at an event at this weekend’s Same Same But Different LGBTQI writers’ festival at AUT.

But he has a problem with the name of the event: “It Gets Better.”

It’s cheesy, he says. “It sounds like a flick-off to me.”

“If you think about it, ‘it gets better’ is a terrible thing to tell someone who is suffering - it’s like saying that at some point in the undefined future, things will get better by themselves,” he says.

“We should be saying ‘it’s shit and it shouldn’t be, so what are we going to do about it?’”

Deep breath. Mini-rant over.

“What I’m going to talk about at the festival are the unexpected things that happen when we come out as transgender. A lot of us have this dreamed idea that everything will be better, but it’s too simplistic.”

Cole is perfectly open about his past. He has struggled with addiction, eating disorders and severe mental health issues for too much of his life.

For him, transitioning helped, but didn’t instantly solve everything.

“It certainly wasn’t an instant fix for my self esteem, or fear about how others saw me.”

Cole is a script writer at Shortland Street. He was a key consultant when the soap introduced its first transgender character, Blue Nathan, in 2016. Blue is played by trans actor Tash Keddy.

Tash Keddy, who play trans boys Blue Nathan in Shortland Street.

Tash Keddy, who play trans boys Blue Nathan in Shortland Street. Photo: RNZ/Teresa Cowie

As a storyteller, Cole wants to see honest trans stories told by trans voices.

“So often in movies and on television the stories have the same neat storyline - someone has a tragic life because they haven’t come out yet, then after a transition everything becomes magical and all their problems fade away,” he says.

“This is so far from the truth.”

Instead, there’s the “dirty reality”.

There’s the dirty reality that trans people experience that cis people aren’t aware of, Cole says, or wouldn’t dare speak about.

“We do have these messed up ideas about ourselves. Some of us have internalised transphobia, and struggle to cope with society’s standards of beauty.”

Years after his transition, he still sees beautiful images of women and feels a desire to emulate them.

“But at the same time I can see pictures of buff men in magazines and think I have to be that as well.”

Cole says many in the community share similar worries. “We do ask ourselves if we’re letting the team down by not doing ‘trans’ right”.

“Am I supposed to feel ashamed about this body part?

“Maybe I’m not worthy because I haven’t known who I am from the second I was born?

“Am I invalidated by having sexual feelings that aren’t congruent with my expected gender identity?

This is the dirty reality - the messy stuff - Cole wants people to talk more about.

“It’s liberating to know you’re not the only one dealing with the issues and trauma that massively affects our community.”

Real stories, told by trans people.

Negative examples Cole names are recent movies “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl”.

A still from the film "The Danish Girl."

A still from the film "The Danish Girl." Photo: Supplied

The former, because of Jared Leto’s “stereotyped” and “constantly misgendered” character.

“In a true story, the character is totally made up for the purpose of the homophobic protagonist’s redemption,” he says.

“That’s an example of trans characters being props or plot devices that allow non-trans people to grow, while they have no story of their own.”

The latter, because of Eddie Redmayne’s character’s obsession with clothing and looking pretty.

“It was as if sparkly dresses and jewellery were the only ways she could discover her femininity.

“That may not seem like a big deal, but we have so much pressure on us to look the right way and meet gender signifying expectations - it’s this old fashioned idea that your appearance is the only thing that makes you trans.”

He may be a little bias, but he says Shortland Street’s Blue Nathan is the first positive trans story that comes to mind.

“Blue shows you can be successful and funny and have friends, but make mistakes and be a teenager. That’s what I want to see - someone not defined by their gender identity.”

Having a trans actor play the role is a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal that Tash is worthy enough to tell that story, Cole says, but it is.

Since the character's development, he has stepped back from helping craft Blue’s story to focus on other storylines. He trusts the showrunners to “do right by Blue”.

“I’m happy to write and talk about trans issues, but it gets really tiring when your job, your passion and your life are all the same thing,” he says.

“I started to feel that once I stopped talking about my trans-ness, I no longer had much worth. I didn’t just want to be Cole: trans expert.”

Cole is an activist, both for trans and disabled people’s rights. The imperfect, to say the least, depiction of disabled people in media is another rant-inspiring topic.

But on Saturday night, at “It Gets Better”, he’ll focus on the dirty reality.

There was a recent American study, he explains, that found 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide. “I think that probably underestimates the reality.”

In New Zealand, the Youth’12 study of trans school students found one in five had attempted suicide in the previous year.

Cole wonders why there’s not a bigger “crisis of shame” about this - why is the reality ignored?

“It makes me really emotional to think about this, and think about the people I’ve lost and my own experiences as well,” he says.

“I want people to see you can be successful and happy and still have experienced that history. Your happiness shouldn’t be contingent on forgetting and ignoring that pain.”

The Same Same But Different writers’ festival will be held during the Auckland Pride Festival on 9-10 February. Tickets are available here.