On Transphobia in Film, and Sex as Sinful

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


If I may, I’m going to use some of the column this week to have a little bit of a rant.

Obviously there is much in the world today to rant about right now, but allow me to focus my emotional energy on one seemingly small thing that I think is actually deeply damaging: Split.

M. Night Shyamalan’s new horror film starring James McAvoy has been branded as “the first outright sensation of 2017”, after the $9 million budget film made $40 million in its first weekend and kept its number-one box office billing in its second week.  

The film is about a villain, Kevin (James McAvoy), who kidnaps three teenage girls and keeps them locked in an underground room. Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder – or M. Night Shyamalan’s deeply incorrect and misleading version of this disorder, anyway.

One of Kevin’s 23 distinct personalities is a prim but ferocious woman who wears flowing skirts and turtlenecks, and is one of the personalities plotting the girls’ demise.

Split is deeply, deeply problematic for many reasons, not least its equation of people with mental-health issues with paedophiles and murderers. But by including a female-presenting personality, Shyamalan is also perpetuating a transphobia that implies that people who are assigned male at birth but don feminine clothes are evil and dangerous.

This is not a new trope; films like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Sleepaway Camp, Dressed to Kill and Insidious: Chapter 2 all perpetuate the trope of the “dangerous, perverted transsexual”. I doubt most people would be able to name an equal number of films that feature trans characters in ordinary, non-villainous roles.

While many could dismiss this as just another silly Hollywood cliché, it’s vital to acknowledge how these stereotypes have real and lethal impacts on how trans people are treated in the world.

In the US, anti-trans legislation preventing trans people from using restrooms of their gender identity is based on assumptions of trans perversion, and the myth of the faux-trans predator.

In January of 2016, Roger Gannam, a senior litigation counsel for the anti-LGBT group Liberty Counsel, objected to an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance by claiming that male sexual predators would pretend to be transgender to commit sexual assault.

Gannam said that “most insidiously, male predators will use the legal cover of female ‘identity’ to gain unchallenged access to women-only bathrooms and dressing rooms. The ordinance would thwart the foremost moral obligation of parents: to ensure the safety of their children.”

What Gannam failed to mention is that there has never been a single reported case of a trans person attacking someone in a bathroom – but violence against trans people is at an all-time high.

In 2015 in the US, there were at least 23 trans or gender non-conforming people murdered. At least 27 trans people were killed in 2016. And three trans people have been murdered this January.

Most of the victims are trans women of colour, and their murders often go unreported, which has sparked an online movement for representation called #SayHerName.

Given these statistics, the resistance to letting trans people enter the bathroom of their choice is increasing the likelihood of violent attacks against trans people.

Bearing in mind the stigma facing trans people, sending trans people into bathrooms – most of which do not have security cameras – with cis people who could easily react with transphobia and violence, is asking trans people to constantly be exposed to harassment and danger as their just try and navigate their daily lives.

When you add in the impact of these cinematic representations of trans people being dangerous, violent and sexually threatening, the danger of transphobic stigma and this transphobic violence is exponentially increased.

That trans people are one of the most vulnerable communities in modern society, yet are still portrayed as violent and evil is a tragic and fatal irony. That M. Night Shyamalan is profiting by further stigmatising trans people by implicitly evoking this trope of the evil, dangerous transgender person is sickening, and feels so sadly regressive.

Let’s remain mindful of how representation promotes stigma and bigotry, and be aware that your couple of hours’ of entertainment at the cinema could be the reason that certain individuals feel less safe in the world.


Dear Roe,

I would like to know if you would be able to advise me on how to move on from the first person I’ve had sex with. 

I used to be very Christian and extremely influenced by the church’s views on sex. From childhood I felt sex to be one of the worst sins, and for women, to be doubly sinful. I felt shame the first time I fancied someone, after my first *awful* kiss aged 15 at a dance with a boy I didn’t know or like, so much so that I didn’t kiss anyone again until I was 18.

I felt shame for about a year about masturbation, which I only started at 17, and shame for a similar time frame when I started watching porn at 18.

I had once been so dedicated to damaging Christian ideals on sex that I wanted to wait until marriage. From my late teens, this watered down to waiting until I was in a relationship, and I hoped going to university would provide a bigger dating pool than rural Ireland.

But anything that ever seemed to be going anywhere quickly fell apart, and whilst I had quite a lot of dates over my UG and kissed a lot of guys, that was it. I came close to having a one-night stand to get rid of my virginity as I hated being so inexperienced.

I craved sex, but still had this Christian guilt affecting me even though I had come to reject the patriarchal shaming in theory. I knew that if the first time I had sex was casually, I’d hate myself and be a mess.

But I moved to England for a year and at the start of 2016, started dating a guy who became my first boyfriend. We quickly started having sex and I enjoyed it immensely. I was glad I had waited.

But it ended badly and suddenly and he hurt me a great deal. I had not felt at home in England until I was with him, and returned to intense loneliness and home sickness.

It did not help that due to that and other personal issues during the year I became mentally very unwell, and I was also a post-grad student and extremely poor from when he dumped me (my funding ran out early and I took on two jobs to survive the rest of my time there).

So I stepped away from dating, and came back to Ireland, as I felt I could not move on from the various hard aspects of the year, and especially him.

He is on his second girlfriend since, and is living in a big city, completing his post-grad training. I know this from the den of all unhappiness: social-media creeping.

I thought coming back to Ireland would soon see me dating again, but I’m back in my undergrad city, working three jobs to get by, whilst applying for jobs in what I actually want to do, which may see me leave Ireland again or move to a different part.

I feel I’ve went backwards in ways, and that life is very static. I envy that he has moved on and his life is on track.

So as lonely and sexually frustrated as I feel – sometimes one more than the other – I don’t want to make deeper roots and get a new boyfriend who I might have to leave very soon, but I would like to try a one-night stand and have come close on a few occasions, but my old Christian shaming is hanging over me still, I think. But my plan of not dating until I get a job is a bit grim, as I don’t know when that could be.

Also, could I be using the excuse of having a busy and unsettled life as a means to not date, to not start to fully get over my ex? But is it also good sometimes to take some time to focus on yourself? Am I driven by shame that I, as a young 20-something, neither subscribe to the heteronormative norm of having a boyfriend nor am having lots or any casual sex?

Since being dumped, the closest sexual encounter I’ve had was a *too quick* kiss with a woman in an LGBT nightclub. This was my first same-sex encounter, and I’ve felt bi-curious for some time.

This woman, like me, had repressed such desires. I would like to explore my sexuality with women more, but yet again I think it’s my Christian past holding me back.

How do I start to move on sexually in 2017? It has been eight months since I had sex, and it’s driving me crazy. I have sex toys but it’s just not the same.

Dear Letter Writer,

Alright my dear, there are a few things to address here, but let’s start with the most immediate thing you can do: stop looking at your ex-boyfriend’s social media.

I know, it’s absurdly difficult to resist the urge and we’ve all done it, but it’s just a form of emotional masochism. It’s keeping you thinking about him, and forcing you into that lose-lose scenario of comparing your life to his.

Remember, everyone puts the fun and impressive parts of their life on social media, so all you’re going to do is get stuck comparing his highlights to the self-judging blooper reel that is all of our day-to-day lives.

I know it sounds like the least of your problems, but seeing as so much of your letter is focusing on shame and pressure, I think it’s vital for you not to get caught up judging your life by other people’s standards.

The second thing I think you need to do is seek out a therapist. You’re going through an awful lot – moving back and forth, the break-up of your first major relationship, exploring your sexuality, and big moves your career.

Anyone would feel overwhelmed by that – and that’s without you also trying to understand how to experience your sexuality after feeling shamed for so long. Many therapists have sliding-scale fees to help you out if you’re struggling financially.

Most Irish people can understand the huge impact that religious shaming can have on our lives, and how difficult it can be to recover from all those deeply embedded messages. Your letter isn’t clear if you still consider yourself a Christian, but I’m going to recommend that as well as seeking out a therapist, you also try connect with some pro-LGBTQ Christian groups, and pro-sex Christian groups.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a Christian anymore, I think it’ll be helpful for you to see how many Christians believe that the church’s teachings regarding sex and sexuality are outdated and incorrect. This blog post from The Christian Left, for example, addresses how premarital sex isn’t even mentioned in the Bible, and is a very new Christian idea.

Seeing how other Christians are dismantling the damaging myths that enforce shame around sexuality may help you feel more at ease, particularly if you want to continue to exploring your attraction to women.

When it comes to your desire to have sex now, it’s obvious to me that lingering shame regarding sex is still affecting you deeply. I think that right now, having casual sex or a one-night-stand might result in more post-sex self-judgement and doubt than it would be worth.

I think your focus right now should be addressing those feelings so that the sex you do have in the future always feels positive and empowering, rather than giving you very temporary relief from sexual frustration before having some very negative emotional side-effects, which could affect your future sex life even more.

You’re right, this is a time to focus on yourself – but, you may be surprised to hear, that doesn’t mean I think you need to do that alone.

Your reasons for not seeking out a relationship right now are incredibly reasonable – and are also an excuse. Relationships don’t have to last forever, and you can have a valuable relationship even if you end up moving away.

After surviving a two-year abusive relationship, I got into my next relationship a few months before moving to San Francisco. When we got together, we both already knew I was leaving, and strangely that made our relationship even more meaningful.

He was sweet and kind and funny, and with the pressure of “Where is this going, long-term?” removed, I was just able to appreciate that. I had five months of feeling loved, and respected, and being treated well – which was exactly what I needed.

When I moved away, I was in a completely different emotional space than I had been before our brief time together. I had learned both that I could be treated well, and also that I could survive a relationship ending. Though that relationship was always going to be short, it was invaluable, and allowed me to enter my next relationship with more confidence and hope and self-worth.

I encourage you to date, so you can see that there are more people in the world beyond your ex, and have some fun – and so that when you feel comfortable, you have the possibility of exploring your sexuality in a space that feels safer and more supportive than a one-night-stand.

I think it’ll be important for you to set boundaries with your sexual partners, and feel comfortable telling them about how you’re feeling emotionally about the prospect of sex, so that you can work through those emotions together.

In the meantime, I understand that not having sex for a while is frustrating, but maybe try change your outlook around masturbation.

Don’t think of it as something that’s a wannabe replacement for sex, but an opportunity for you to really enjoy and play with your own sexuality as you navigate your emotions and feelings around having sex with someone else. Treat yourself to new toys, some outfits that make you feel sexy, spend a little bit on great feminist porn and enjoy it.

Combine this with therapy and being kind to yourself, and I think you’ll have taken some vital steps to experiencing sex and relationships from a much happier mindset.

Good luck.


Do you have a question for Roe? Submit it anonymously at dublininquirer.com/ask-roe

Author:

Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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