Transmyscira: The Guy With The Elephant Tattoo

One of the toughest realities about comics I’ve had to adapt to since I joined The Rainbow Hub (R.I.P.) in 2014 is that writing about trans issues within the industry is a difficult — and frequently punishing — gig. The fundamental issue is that it’s almost always coming from a defensive crouch, having to pick apart the specifics of why a portrayal of (usually) a trans woman is misguided or bigoted, and do so in a way that a general cisgender audience can understand and hopefully sympathize with.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten to write with unreserved pride and joy about the work of trans creators in the mainstream since 2014, while the number of reviews or personal essays I’ve written focused on the many failings of the industry would take a Marilyn Manson concert’s worth of middle fingers to account for. My philosophy has been — rightly or wrongly — that there’s not much hope for getting a general audience to fully appreciate the nuances of trans art that celebrates our lives and identities when pity, misery, and sneering bigotry continue to be normalized.

So I confront those issues as they arise to the best of my ability.

It’s writing that wears on you and leaves the psychic version of a greasy film on the pages of the comics you’re trying to read. Whether you want it to or not, it gets in your head — stuck between you and the joy you’re trying to salvage — and in the current environment where rampant sexual harassment and racism dominate industry news, it frequently feels like an opaque layer of bacon grease has been slathered over the page I’m trying to read. It’s similar to the malaise that Kim O’Connor described in a recent blog post, questioning whether writing about comics is worth all the baggage that comes along with it.

Which is why I stepped back from the rat race of the weekly review game. While I could, and still can, fire off passionately engaged pieces like my end-of-year retrospectives or tongue-in-cheek exploration of Archival Quality, chasing solicits and whipping out next day pieces felt like a chore. So I stepped back and focused elsewhere, on more immediately rewarding things.

Art by Frida Kahlo

I buried myself in a marathon college semester that gave me the opportunity to study queer artists past and present with no crosswinds or obstruction. I was free to burrow into the works of Frida Kahlo, Kehinde Wiley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other less prominent artists I was discovering for the first time like Shigeyuki Kihara or Kent Monkman. I didn’t purge myself entirely of comics, as a women’s studies class gave me the impetus to finally go see a staging of Fun Home and to mount a faux convention panel using Bitch Planet and Y: The Last Man to illustrate how women’s bodies are portrayed and policed in dystopian settings.

As the semester drew to a close, I decided to keep the ball rolling by re-evaluating my relationship with drag culture by finally reading Party Monster, then watching both Paris is Burning and I Am Divine. The whole thing climaxed with the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 10 (my first ever), and the ensuing dive into the two most recent seasons. (As Ramon Villalobos suggested to me last summer, watching Drag Race from newest to oldest is the way to go.)

So when I finally emerged from my cocoon of purely LBGTQIA content and re-engaged with the comics landscape in the here and now, I earned a new, visceral appreciation for the Rage Against the Machine lyric “Like Baldwin home from Paris.” Like T’Challa back from Wakanda. Like Diana back from Themyscira. Like Donatella Versace’s ice bucket challenge video.

Whiplash doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of coming off the glow of Sasha Velour raising her scepter as reigning queen in a victory for art hoes everywhere to Matt having to lay out the history, context, and access to “faggot” in 2018. He obviously did a bang up job, but like, at the same time, what the fuck kind of an industry discourse has one of its brightest LBGTQIA thinkers  — a queer studies graduate no less — stuck having to unravel the 1990s favourite homophobic chew toy?

It’s definitely true that this year has seen a resurgence of troglodytes intent on harassing LBGTQIA and POC creators with the goal of dragging progress in representation to a grinding halt, but Matt was addressing a pattern of misuse and ignorance that exists wholly separate from them.

And, of course, things got worse, as they always seem to in comics.

Art by Brandon Graham

On the same day, trans cartoonist Carta Monir tweeted the allegation that Brandon Graham is “not a safe person to be around” and “an unapologetic chaser.”

Half of this was new to me, and half of it wasn’t. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising that there are stories of Graham pushing boundaries or violating consent, because nothing any man in comics does surprises me anymore. There’s a culture of impunity that needs to be reigned in and a public discourse is a necessary part of that, because of the clear institutional resistance from basically all quarters to reforming the behavior of men in the industry.

There’s no accountability in place at most publishers, as shown most explicitly by DC’s refusal to dismiss Eddie Berganza until he was caught up in the #MeToo wave in a long simmering piece published by Buzzfeed and Scott Allie being quietly put out to pasture at Dark Horse without any significant move by either company to lay out steps to prevent them from allowing abusive figures to thrive in their workplaces unchecked for years.

Which leaves us with the public square of social media as the only proven, effective venue for publicizing bad behavior. Hopefully Graham will take responsibility for any actions and re-evaluate his behavior. That’s about all I think I can hope for in this, or any other similar situation.

The part that wasn’t new to me, and what I take exception to, was the accusation of being a “chaser.”

That Graham has been consistently identified as a “chaser” isn’t the subject of a whisper network or a secret of any kind. It’s been an open, public narrative going back several years that anyone who has been aware of Graham’s internet presence has encountered. It’s a topic I’ve had more than a couple conversations about, some public and some private, but all universally rooted in frustration.

To be clear, “chaser” in this context, is a redacted version of “tranny chaser,” infamously used as a song title by RuPaul. “Tranny” is typically dropped because many trans women, myself included, consider it to be a violent, unreclaimed slur. The concept of a “chaser,” which Nola Pfau at Women Write About Comics defines as someone who “[does] not care about the value of their targets as people; they see them as useful objects in pursuit of a fetishistic goal,” has some pretty broad applicability and describes a pattern of behavior behind terms like “chubby chaser,” “yellow fever,” and “jungle fever.”

They all describe people, typically cisgender straight white men, who reduce a particular class of women to a singular trait, robbing them of their subjectivity and dignity, but they aren’t as interchangeable as Pfau suggests by citing how a fat writer conceptualizes “chubby chasers.”

How Pfau and Monir use the term is valid, but is recklessly narrow in scope for a public conversation. Yes, in intracommunal discussions trans women do use that connotation: we use it to identify predators and relate negative sexual encounters, consensual or otherwise.

But we’re also pretty much the only people who use and understand the term that way, which is where the situation around Brandon Graham gets tangled and particularly painful.

Art by Brandon Graham

Pfau quotes a tweet by trans woman cartoonist Sarah Horrocks about how the root of the chaser construct, as it applies to trans women, is the social condition that being attracted to us is deviant but elides the fundamental point: that there are two discourses making use of the term. Pfau, throughout the piece, uses the term chaser strictly in an intracommunal understanding of it used for safety. Horrocks refers to the fact that the general usage and understanding of “tranny chaser” is a slur used to stigmatize any and all attraction to trans women.

Which is why the allegation that Brandon Graham is a “tranny chaser” was not new information to me on April 9th, 2018. I’d seen it leveled at him in a few different ways pretty repeatedly over several years, always in an accusatory tone aimed at shaming him for drawing trans bodies or reblogging images of trans women, some explicitly erotic and some not.

I’ve also seen it used to anonymously and viciously harass trans women associated with him.

All of this was public record at the time, highly visible on a number of social media platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and 4chan, so it strikes me as particularly reckless to not just use the same exact vernacular employed by bad actors for bigoted purposes, but to also resist unpacking the very real history of that vernacular.

This isn’t arcane knowledge either. It’s a topic that trans activists like Janet Mock have discussed at length and came to the cultural forefront in a very serious way when Hot 97 radio DJ Mister Cee was smeared with the publication of audio tapes alleging he solicited sex from a woman alternatively described as a drag queen and a trans woman. A situation that was further inflamed by outright bigotry on the part of rival host Charlemagne, who also works on a TV show called “Guy Code,” referring to Cee as a “serial purchaser of penis,” and mockingly asked when his last HIV test was.

It’s the same principle at work in a Cardi B video that resurfaced early this year in which she detailed a revenge tactic to use against a cheating boyfriend: get him drunk and invite a trans woman over to have a threesome with them without disclosing the other woman’s trans status so that she could shame him the next day for having sex with a trans woman. When the video resurfaced, the Bodak Yellow rapper caught heat for saying “tranny” in the video, but largely escaped scrutiny for the cruel dynamics of the entire scenario.

It’s correct to say and important to examine how trans women suffer a loss of subjectivity when targeted by a predatory sexuality that reduces us down to a singular feature or act, but it also has to be recognized that the same terminology is leveraged towards an overt loss of subjectivity for any man who expresses desire for a trans woman.

As Charlemangne’s jeering of Mister Cee illustrated, men with sexual histories with trans women lose agency over their sexuality at the very least. It’s a web of stigmas and self doubt that Diana Tourjee explored in depth for a 2015 Broadly piece interviewing trans amorous men that continues to be heavily promoted by the outlet three years later.

Art by Brandon Graham

Ultimately, I’m not particularly concerned for Graham’s career prospects. I’m not litigating to keep him out of “comics jail” or whatever.

My fundamental concern is that in the rush to construct critique of him and his conduct, critically important systemic issues with consequences far beyond one person’s career are being ignored.

If we’re using the same language to call out predatory or abusive behavior as the straight world uses to shame any expression of attraction to trans women, it’s only working to reinforce the stigma and harm people well outside the situation under discussion.

At the end of the day, it’s no more difficult than being mindful of word choices. Instead of calling someone a “chaser,” it’s easy enough to say they have a history or pattern of being inappropriate or abusive towards trans women as the specifics dictate. What’s a lot harder to grapple with is the ramifications of believing Graham’s interest in trans women is purely selfish or predatory in nature, and what that means for the industry. I don’t think it’s mine or anyone else’s place to make that call, to say this dude is a chaser and that’s all there is to him or to refute it based on anecdote or conjecture.

But if we take that allegation at face value and accept that premise, we also have to accept that someone who has gone to greater lengths than almost anyone in the industry to get trans women paid and published in the mainstream, to court our opinions and boost our voices on contentious issues, did so for nefarious personal gain.

In my own case, that means coming to terms with the fact that the person who brought my critique of Airboy #2 to the attention of the entire industry, took the time to meet with me and genuinely talk out the politics of keeping Doxy/Onta on an issue of Island, and left me feeling not only heard but also more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of portrayals of trans women in porn comics, did so in service to a personal sexuality that ran counter to absolutely everything he articulated to me and I saw reflected in his work.

That’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think it’s far too easy to make that calculation and call it a day, whichever side you come down on. If we accept that Graham is what Pfau defines as a “chaser,” and we accept that his considerable contributions towards improving trans representation were colored by that, he has a lot to answer for.

At the same time, we have to turn towards the rest of the industry and ask why they haven’t managed to do more for trans women in comics than someone with an allegedly predatory interest in us?

Mainstream, direct market comics aren’t exactly brimming with examples of trans women who are sexual beings depicted with agency and articulate perspectives on sex, desire, and love. They’re mostly vehicles for gags or demeaning erotic thrills like in Airboy, The Divided States of Hysteria, or Prez. Even in what are purported to be positive portrayals, trans women characters suffer acute loss of subjectivity, agency, or personhood.

Art by Fiona Staples

In Saga, Bombshells, and Detective Comics, they appear as props to educate and enlighten a cisgender audience whether it’s using baby talk to give a child a lesson about non cisnormative genitals, deploying a throwaway character like Dr. October to flex activist slang like “deadname” and show us how hip Batman is to the transgender struggle, or using Alysia Yeoh to expound on a vision of transgender identity that begins and ends at dysphoria.

These examples aren’t bigoted or cruel in intent, but they do engender a very real loss of subjectivity: the reduction of trans women into tools to educate, coddle, and soothe a cisgender audience.

It’s easy enough to point at Graham as “that guy,” isolate his reported behavior to a particular pernicious interest, and go no further.

What’s much harder — and much more important to the lasting health of the industry and trans women’s participation in it — is determining why the vast majority of the industry has been lagging behind his efforts to get us published and paid.

You can take your time figuring it out too, because I have six more seasons of Drag Race to get through.

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