There’s a cultural fixation on trans women and our firsts, both real and perceived. The prevailing narrative emphasizes the ground we break—and the ground we could break still—to a positive, sometimes patronizing, and at worst dehumanizing, degree. (The inverse of this cultural fixation on the ground we break might be the cultural fixation on the space we invade, and the derivative rhetoric deployed to socially isolate and legislate against us.) In “One from the Vaults: Gossip, Access, and Trans History-Telling,” published earlier this year as a part of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, artist and historian Morgan M. Page explores this framing of trans life in terms of its novelty. She writes that the very same media coverage that renders us hyper-visible “simultaneously obscure[s] our presence in history by continually framing trans people as new, as a modern, medicalized phenomenon only now coming to light in the topsy-turvy post-gay marriage world.” This emphasis on the perceived novelty of our presence creates a kind of goldfish memory that says we’ve always just arrived when we’ve been next door the whole time. It suggests, to me, a desire to fast-track social justice, to hurdle over marginalization rather than recognize, much less meaningfully grapple with, its roots.
The 2018 midterm election had its own major “first trans” narrative. Christine Hallquist ran for governor in the state of Vermont, making her the first trans person to win the gubernatorial nomination of any major political party in American history. Coverage of Hallquist emphasized this nomination as its own, distinct first; the next first would be her potential to become the country’s first trans governor. “The Democrat running in Vermont’s gubernatorial election… will be the first transgender governor in the nation if elected on Tuesday,” read an ABC News report from earlier this week. (Search and you will find countless others like it.) But she wasn’t, and so she isn’t. Hallquist lost to Republican incumbent Phil Scott, who will continue as the state’s governor for at least another two years.
Scott won in a landslide, beating Hallquist by about 15 percentage points—more than 40,000 votes. I’d expected the race to be a lot closer than it was, considering how heavily many reporters embraced the “first trans governor” angle. For every article that ignored Hallquist’s transness in order to focus on her platform, like this one by VPR reporter Peter Hirschfeld, or provided explicit counter-narratives, like this interview for them by Media Matters editor-at-large Parker Molloy, there were another dozen or so that fixated on the “first transgender person nominated for governor by a major party” and her “battle to become the nation’s first transgender governor.” The actual platform she campaigned on (universal health care, free public college tuition, a $15 statewide minimum wage) failed to capture reporters’ attention when paired with her potential to be first. That potential amounted to, well, nothing, in the end. Still, this framing gives us one victory, even in loss: We get to congratulate ourselves on all the progress we’ve made, whether real or perceived.
Nearly every well known trans woman has a first to her name, whether or not she ever claimed it for herself. Lili Elbe, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, is said to be the first trans woman in history to get sex reassignment surgery, while Christine Jorgensen is usually credited with being the first American to get a similar set of procedures. Some say Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera threw the first brick (or bottle) at Stonewall, though many contemporary accounts point to Stormé DeLarverie, or someone else entirely, or who cares. Last summer, I wrote about what I felt was a notable scene from the Laverne Cox legal drama Doubt, interviewing showrunners, media experts, and even Cox herself to find out how it all came together. In the piece, I said that Cox was the first trans actress to play a trans series regular on broadcast television. I was wrong. That first belongs to Amiyah Scott of Star. The story has since been corrected. Earlier this year, Daniela Vega presented one of the Best Original Song performances at the Academy Awards. Doing so made her the first trans Oscar presenter, which sounds like a great honor until you remember that her peers were competing for Best Actress. Many film critics and industry journalists had hoped she would end up being the first trans woman nominated for Best Actress, but she wasn’t, and so she isn’t. Last year, researchers released the first documented report on trans women lactating, which might sound like something new but isn’t. Also last year, Danica Roem was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Reporters were quick to call her the first trans person elected to state legislature. She wasn’t.
Roem’s campaign story resembles Hallquist’s, though better written. Roem was a trans metalhead-turned-journalist aiming to unseat a rightwing monster who had introduced legislation that, if passed, would have directly harmed her. Hallquist, as protagonist, was a former executive at a smart energy electric utility, and her opponent was a well-liked Republican whose politics are destructive but not cartoonishly evil and whose loss would only be good, not deliciously ironic. Hallquist herself bristled against the “first trans” framing, mostly because it obscured the actual stakes of what she ran on: a living wage and economic justice in a state where more than 1 in 10 people still live in poverty, collective bargaining and an energized labor movement, criminal justice reform that addresses the system’s staggering racial disparities in a nearly all-white state, a focus on climate change and renewable energy. For a state like Vermont to rise up and meet its reputation as progressive bellwether would have been its own kind of first, but that’s a story no one really told.
Maybe because the climax to the Hallquist as “first” narrative promised a greater payoff, a more historic victory, a bigger first than even Roem’s. Maybe the reporters crafting Hallquist’s coverage remembered how much readers liked and shared news of Roem’s 2017 victory, so they took the framework of that story, slotted in some new details, and suddenly had a sort of sequel on their hands. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe they didn’t think that hard about it at all.