Gender Representation By Allies In Media

As someone who is desi and pansexual, I know how important it is to be represented in media. As a cisgender person, I also know that representation of people with other gender identities is rare. As a writer, it is one of my responsibilities, I believe, to depict a diverse group of people and make them feel visible, something that a lot of us did not have at a younger age.

However, representing someone can sometimes end up doing more harm than good if you don’t fully understand the experiences and struggles of the people you are representing, and portray them negatively or unauthentically.

So, I decided to speak to some people who are gender non-conforming and ask them questions regarding what they thought is okay and what is not, when it comes to gender representation in media.

*I here stands for interviewer.

Angelique, Genderqueer, Trans, Texas

I: So, the first question is—do you think cis people have the right to create art based on gender non-conforming people?

A: Yes and no. I feel like they don’t have the right to mention gender non-conforming people in their art unless they do it responsibly, and the way to do it responsibly is to consult someone who is not cis. It is also a responsible use of the privilege that comes with being cisgender, and so it is also important in that sense because banning people who are cis from writing gender non-conforming characters is not going to do anything. It’s not going to stop them from doing it, whereas if you encourage them to include non-cis perspectives and artists, that does a lot more good than attacking them for doing it, and it also gives gender non-conforming people a voice.

I: So, if a cisgender person did mention a gender non-conforming person in their art, do you think there are any limits? If yes, what are these limits?

A: The limits would be dictated by whether or not the person has actually consulted someone who is not cis, and actually including them in the process. Involving them in the process is also important. Consulting them means you just have one conversation with them and that’s that, whereas involving them would mean they can point out anything that’s wrong with what you’re making before it’s actually out there for the world to see.

I: Do you think there is enough representation of gender non-conforming people in art and the media?

A: Again, yes and no. I think there is a lot of representation of gender non-conforming people in art in general but that art is not mainstream and is not really accessible to everyone, which is where the problem comes in. Recently, I’ve learnt about a lot of Hindu mythology that involves queer people. I’ve learnt about several of the artworks in one of the biggest art museums in France which—several of the backstories of the artworks have recently been uncovered as being queer and having queer undertones and queer themes. But I would never have known these things if I wasn’t on the internet, if I wasn’t reading about these things, if the people I interacted with didn’t share these things with me. Another aspect of this is that if you are an active part of the community, then there is a very large chance that you will be exposed to these things, but before that, before you come out, there’s nothing. And considering that loneliness is one of the most major feelings experienced by most queer people and one of the major reason that depression, anxiety and suicide rates are so high with queer people. So, that’s something that needs to change because yes, there is a lot of representation but that representation needs to be more mainstream and more accessible.

I: If you had to tell a cis person one thing when it comes to mentioning other genders in their art, what would it be?

A: I would say question every thing you know about queer people and then, question the answers you know—because in almost every single case of a person who is cisgender, everything you know is a media portrayal or through art and even if it isn’t, it still isn’t first hand experience, so you may know these things but you don’t necessarily understand them, and good writing and good characters come from a place of understanding, not knowing. So, question everything and then question the answers that you get from those questions—more specifically, is this a stereotype? Is this what queer people are actually like? Where does this come from? And then go from there.

I: Have you read any books or seen any movies or artwork that made you feel well-represented?

A: Not particularly, but I also haven’t really consumed a large amount of queer literature or artwork or anything like that, simply because I’ve never really had the access to it and never known where to get it from. A little bit of background here: I’ve lived in Dubai for 11 years, I lived in Cape town for 5, I lied in Singapore for about a year or so, I was in the USA for a couple months in between and then I was in India for two and a half years before I moved here. So in Dubai, there’s no access to these things. I only came out to myself when we had just moved to Cape town and I was about fifteen or so. I only came out to my parents and my friends when I was about 18 or 19. I didn’t really have any queer friends or a community until I got to Singapore. Even so, I had access to things there but I couldn’t afford it as a student as it was very expensive. In India, I didn’t know where to get it. The few things that I have seen: there is this one book called Juliet Takes A Breath, which had a huge impact on me. It talks about how being a person of African-American descent intercepts with a white person and how racism in a relationship plays out. It talks about how different the coming out process is for a person of colour and for a white person and generally, has a lot of relatable themes for me, including mental health, your first sexual partner and what that’s like, and so on. There is also a TV series called The Fosters, which is a TV series based on a family that has a lesbian couple for moms. One mom is a cop and the other is a teacher, they have a biological child from a police person’s previous marriage. They have two adopted children, and two other children who joined them at the beginning of the show. One of the kids that they were fostering and eventually adopted comes out as queer in the second season, but they begin to drop hints in the first season itself, and I think they did it really, really well, showing how being queer is not something that suddenly shows up and how being in an environment that is supportive of your queerness helps so much but there are still certain things that you will still go through. For example, the kid who comes out as queer has relationship troubles, how he struggles with differentiating between guy friends and boyfriends, how his parents struggle with putting religion and queerness together. So, it’s a very complex show but it’s one of the major shows that has had a significant impact on me. And of course, the other would be Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Captain Holt is just brilliant and then Rosa, of course—we saw it coming, the signs were all there before she came out. And in general, Rosa is a woman of colour, she comes from a highly religious background—and these are also common themes in my life, which made it even more relatable for me.

I: And the last question: how do you think a cisgender person should mention that someone is gender non-conforming without making it a big deal?

A: This is one of those things where I don’t really know. The only thing that comes to mind here is: not making a queer character but making a character who is queer. You don’t write a depressed person, you write a person who is depressed. It should essentially be that being queer is one part of this person’s identity, not their entire identity. Someone who is queer is not just queer, there are so many other aspects to them.

Tashi Choedup, Transgender Queer, Bodh Gaya

I: Do you think that cisgender people have the right to mention people who aren’t cisgender in their art?

T: I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘do they have the right’, I think it’s more about ‘do they have enough understanding, enough connection, enough empathy and the ability to relate to people that are not cisgender?’ It is no absolute right or no right here, that is never the question because if that is the case, then there would be no interactions between cisgender and non-cisgender people at this level, when it comes to expressing things about each other through art. I think it’s important to understand and include each others’ experiences.

I: Sometimes, it is considered offensive for cisgender people to create art about gender non-conforming people it’s a struggle that they haven’t experienced themselves, which is fair. Do you agree with that?

T: I think it’s okay as long as cisgender people aren’t writing or creating art about gender non-conforming people as their own experiences. You can make art based on other people’s experiences. Especially if you are good at depicting someone else’s experiences, then why not do that? I understand when queer people are upset about most cisgender people’s writing—I think that mostly comes from the fact that the experience of cisgender people representing gender non-conforming people so far has not been a very pleasant one. There is misrepresentation, misinformation and that is more hurtful to gender non-conforming people rather than the fact that a cisgender person is creating art about them.

I: The next question, if you believe that it’s okay for cis people to depict other genders in their art, do you think there are any limits? What do you think is not okay?

T: In any form of art, I think it’s important for the creator to realize and acknowledge that they are a cisgender person depicting the experiences of someone who is not cisgender, and so, to write it, or make it, in second person or third person instead of first person. They need to acknowledge the fact that their understanding of anything they are producing about gender non-conforming people, at times, could be wrong, could be limited, can have mistakes, and could also possibly offend gender non-conforming people. When that happens, the artist must be open to acknowledge it, simply say “I agree that this has been done wrongly, and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” To begin with, one needs to have research and make sure they aren’t appropriating or misrepresenting anything in their art, and make sure that they are a facilitator representing other people—so what gender non-conforming people see in this content, is ultimately, final. You do not have the authority to change their experiences. As an artist, you use their information and narrative in your art to produce the art for what it is, not for what you want to make it.

I: Do you think that there’s enough representation of gender non-conforming people at the moment in the mainstream media?

T: I don’t think that there are visibly enough artists who are non-cisgender in mainstream media. I don’t think they have the space or the medium or the acceptance to express themselves through art. For any gender non-conforming person to become good at something they are passionate about, they need to have an environment conducive to progressing as an artist, to learn and grow as an artist and be able to represent themselves and express themselves an artist. If you live in a world where you do not have space to express your own gender which is not considered conventional, then how do you make art? There are plenty of artists who are not cisgender, of course, but they just can’t be out there, in mainstream media. They can’t grow as an artist because they can’t grow as a person itself, to begin with.

I: If you had to tell a cisgender person one thing when it comes to mentioning other genders in their art, what would it be?

T: I think the simplest thing to tell them is—not just in art—do not assume their gender. No matter who they are, make a habit of asking people their pronouns. That forms an understanding of how to communicate with them. If you don’t know how to communicate with that person, from something as basic as their pronouns, then there’s no way you can represent that person through your art. When you’re making the art, to begin with, do your research well. Remember that you have no real experience about what you’re creating and you’re venturing into it because you’re interested in it, not because you think you know it. Genuinely try and reach out to people who have the experiences that you’re writing about or drawing about, or making a movie about. Communicate with them and listen to everything they say, not just to what you want to hear. If you have doubts, clear them— even if you think they’re bizarre or silly. Ask. Clarify. Before you put your art out there for everyone to see. Your art needs to have sensitivity, care and concern because you are representing someone else. There has to be love involved for the people you are making art about. If there is a gender non-conforming person who critiques your art, listen to them and learn from them, see what you can change.

I: Have you read any books, or seen any movies or art that made you feel well-represented? If yes, what was it?

T: Most of the readings that I have done on gender non-conforming people are essentially political writings. I haven’t read much fiction. I did watch theatre performed by people who are not cisgender. I have seen plenty of art by gender non-conforming people—I have a friend who is genderqueer and I see her art a lot on her Instagram, which is @ghana_nb. She travels around and she makes wonderful art.

I: How do you think a cisgender person should mention that a character is not cisgender without making it a big deal, or making it offensive?

T: I think that if you have a clear idea of the art that you’re producing, then that in itself depicts everything it needs to. Don’t keep emphasizing on the fact that they aren’t cisgender. If you’re able to present your idea properly, you will convey the facts without making a big deal out of it.

Ananya Vepa, Non-Binary, Bangalore

I: Do you think that cisgender people have the right to mention people who aren’t cisgender in their art?

AV: I definitely think so. Because gender non-conforming people do mention cis people in their work and we’re used to seeing cis people in art and so, I think it’s completely fair for cis people to represent people who aren’t cis, because that’s what representation is.

I: What do you think are the limits when cis people are representing other genders in their art?

AV: I think if you’re telling the story of someone who’s non-binary, it’s a lot more authentic if it comes from that person themselves, or with a lot of input from said person. At Queer Desi (@queerdesimag), we make sure that everything is authentic in the sense that a cisgender person is not writing the story of someone who is not because that way it’s not representative of what an actual non-binary person feels like, especially because if cisgender people do publish work about the LGBTQIA+ community, they end up getting more visibility than works by actual non-binary or trans people, who write their stories authentically and have to live that life outside of writing the story.

I: Do you think there is enough representation of gender non-conforming people in art and the media?

AV: I think in the art world, in general, there has always been the involvement of queer people. A lot of the communal pain and the marginalisation of these communities leads to more creative expression. But in mainstream art, it’s really difficult to find authentic voices and representation because a lot of the world is dominated by people who have the resources to put their art out there without dealing with any backlash. For example, a lot of the hijra community in India are very creative people, it’s a part of their community culture, but they don’t get the same opportunities as a cisgender person would in India because of their identity. So, it’s hard to find good representation in mainstream art but gender non-conforming people have been creating art for as long as there have been gender non-conforming people, so that will never change, it’s just the representation that needs to change.

I: If you had to tell a cis person one thing when it comes to mentioning other genders in their art, what would it be?

AV: Try to interact with actual non-binary people to make it more authentic. For example, if you’re an author and you’re about to write a trans character into your story, then involve a trans person by talking to them every step of the way to make sure you’re being as respectful and real as possible because transgender people are real people and they deserve to have their stories told in the most real way.

I: Have you read any books or seen any movies or artwork that made you feel well-represented? If yes, what was it?

AV: I remember watching this Indian TV show, I think it’s called Tulsi, it’s about two women in India who fall in love with each other and it’s really interesting because it was shot like a regular TV show, but the story and the feelings that they show, how they come to terms with the fact that they really do love each other and then the backlash they felt from their families that they didn’t even realize they would get—that story really resonated with me. With genderqueer stories, it’s so difficult to find, it’s just so rare to see yourself in someone on a screen or in a character. Orange is the New Black is incredible, to watch someone genderqueer just living their life, but of course I can’t relate to the character as much because she is a black woman in prison in America and I am not that. In India, it’s a little bit more difficult to find that representation of gender non-conforming people.

I: And the last question: How do you think a cisgender person should mention that a character is not cisgender without making it offensive?

AV: The easiest way, I think, is pronoun use. Like someone refers to someone with a typically feminine name with masculine pronouns, like “Oh, yes, Alex, they like doing this” or “Yes, Elizabeth, he likes ice-cream.” Then there is, of course, the way other characters treat them. I think a lot of authors in the West tend to rely on physical appearance—like someone has short hair but they also are really short and have breasts, so that means they’re transgender—which is a different kind of representation, I guess because not every trans person is going to have short hair and breasts. Also, the way their story is told. In Magnus Chase, for example, there is this character called Alex who is genderfluid and I think that was really addressed in a no-questions, this person is genderfluid- way. It was really authentic representation as well, and actually made sense to the story. It was very well done because other characters would interact with them like any other person, there was no “oh, you’re genderfluid, what does that mean?” and long explanations.

I: That’s all the questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?

AV: Yeah, just to reiterate, if you’re putting a trans person in your work, you have to make it as authentic as possible by respecting the stories and the people they come from, and always try to credit the people who gave you the story because it is harder for gender non-conforming people to get work and get representation.

Vaijayanthi, Gender non-conforming, Tamil Nadu

I: Do you think that cisgender people have the right to mention people who aren’t cisgender in their art?

V: I think they have the right to, if it is in a positive and understanding way. They have to get their facts right and it would be better if they personally know people who identify as something other than cis.

I: What do you think are the limits if they are representing gender non-conforming people in their art?

V: I don’t think there are limits as such—I think that instead of places where you shouldn’t be going, there are some places where you simply cannot go, because there are some experiences that you will never be able to understand, even if you do know people who don’t identify as cisgender.

I: Do you think that there is enough representation of gender non-conforming people in mainstream art?

V: As far as I’ve seen, definitely not. Most of the art that we get is from people who aren’t cis.

I: If you had to tell a cis person one thing when it comes to mentioning other genders in their art, what would it be?

V: I think art is mostly up to interpretation. Even if they try to portray someone as gender non-conforming, it depends on what their audience is seeing. For example, people automatically think that pink is a feminine colour, so even if you are trying to put a non-cis person in that colour palette, people are automatically going to assume that it’s a feminine person. So, art is very dependent on the audience.

I: Have you read any books or seen any movies/art that made you feel well-represented?

V: The series One Day At A Time has a gender non-conforming character who uses the pronouns they/them, and they are represented beautifully. It’s been done very well. There are a few anime that represent gender non-conforming people really well—going through puberty or even adults transitioning. There is this one anime called Wandering Sun, it’s completely about a trans man and trans woman going through puberty and it’s done beautifully. Also, there are the series Sense 8 and Orange Is The New Black.

I: And the last question: how do you think a cisgender person should mention that someone is gender non-conforming without making it a big deal?

V: It’s actually a very straightforward thing. Research will definitely help. And it’s also a very pure and natural thing for a gender non-conforming person to feel how they do and then come out and say it, so it can be portrayed very innocently. I don’t think that an explanation is needed, even, because like I said, it’s very natural and something a lot of people go through. It can be really simple. If a cis person is not careful with pronouns, that would offend me. Or if there’s reinforcing thoughts. It’s okay if you don’t get it in the beginning because we know you’re not used to it. But the fact that you are voluntarily trying to make things better is better than not trying at all.

I: That is all the questions I have. Is there anything you would like to add?

V: Yes, I just want to say that for me, personally—I only talk about my gender and experiences if someone asks me about it and not voluntarily. Even if I am being misgendered, I don’t correct anyone unless they know about my gender identity, which only two people do. So, it’s easier to complain than going and explaining it to them.

Ayaan Rao, Male, Bangalore

AR: I was born female, I’ve had quite a bit of a struggle with that for about 10-12 years of my life. Even before puberty, it was very hard for me to fit in and get along with people my own age. I never really liked dressing up or putting on frocks and dresses but I was forced to. As I grew up, things started to change and I started to understand a lot more about myself and when I was 12 or 13 was when I realized who I was. Since then, the fight has started. It was against my parents and my family because they didn’t understand what was happening, so they thought I was just doing that because I was hitting puberty and my hormones are changing but I knew it wasn’t that and it was hard to explain to them. For quite a few years, my relationship with my parents was very distant. My friends were very limited. Even in school, I was never attracted to the male gender, which caused a lot of issues and a lie that I made up from scratch saying that I was born male and things changed and I had to undergo hormones. But it didn’t feel like a lie because I got to live the way I wanted to live, and 4-5 years ago, I realized that I don’t want it to be a lie and I want to tell my story out loud, so I started talking to my parents and telling them that this is what it is. In the past, I had met quite a few counsellors and spoken to them but that didn’t help because they all tried to tell me that it was a phase or it was because I was a teenager, etc. 3-4 years ago was when I came out to my parents after about a year and a half of depression, they said “Let’s start speaking to doctors to see what we can do.” That’s how I met one of the counsellors that I still see, who is an LGBTQA+ counsellor and he really helped me understand myself and that I’m not alone, which is how I reached out to the entire community. We have a group on Whatsapp where we discuss our experiences, plus the medical process, the surgical process and even the legal processes. Just today, I had my blood test done so I can start my hormonal therapy next week. So, it is the beginning.

I: So, the first question is: Do you think that cisgender people have the right to mention people who aren’t cisgender in their art?

AR: Yes, they definitely have the right to because the world is evolving right now, so they have all the right to, as long as they portray it in the right way and don’t hurt anyone’s feelings because gender non-conforming people have a lot to go through that cis people don’t.

I: What do you think are the limits for cis people?

AR: You shouldn’t be discouraging, you shouldn’t demotivate or portray gender non-conforming people in a negative way, and you must respect their privacy and how much of their story they want told.

I: Do you think there is enough representation of gender non-conforming people in art and the media?

AR: As of now, no, but I would say that in the next 5-10 years, we will definitely see it.

I: If you had to tell a cis person one thing when it comes to mentioning other genders in their art, what would it be?

AR: Just treat them like a human being. That’s it.

I: Have you read any books or seen any movies or artwork that made you feel well-represented? If yes, what was it?

AR: I’ve gone to the Bangalore Queer Film Festival that happens every year. They play different films by both, people who are gender non-conforming and people who are cis, who are aware of the community and how things are changing. I’ve seen a lot of movies like The Danish Girl that showed me that yes, our world is actually evolving and people are slowly ready to talk about things instead of side-lining them.

I: How do you think a cisgender person should mention that a character is not cisgender without making it a big deal, or making it offensive?

AR: I think the best way to do that is how a cis person pours out their emotions to another person or talks to another person about their own feelings—I think, in the same way, a gender non-conforming person should get to do that and I think that’s the best way to bring out a gender non-conforming character in any art form because they are human at the end of the day. So, just treat them as humans with feelings.

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Saachi Gupta is an LGBTQ+ activist, animal lover and the author of 'With Love, or Something Like That.' She is a strong believer in equality amongst mankind.
Saachi Gupta

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