“Never Too Late to Live Your Authentic Life”: Later-in-Life FTM Trans YouTube Narratives
Ash Kinney d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin


Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades:
Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019).

The growing visibility of transgender and other gender expansive identities has resulted in an increased surveillance and regulation of trans bodies,[ ((Fischer, Mia. 2019. Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.))] and media representations have followed in this example. Mainstream depictions often stereotype and objectify trans individuals[ ((Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.))] or treat them as outcasts and spectacles. In addition, these media tend to depict trans people through binary and transnormative constructs of gender.[ ((Glover, Julian Kevon. 2016. “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media.” Souls, 18(2-4): 338-357.))] With a few contemporary exceptions, the complexity of trans lives is often flattened in what are predominantly white, cisgender-produced media. In contrast, YouTube has provided the ability to construct trans identities online with more trans-specific values. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) considers queer cultural production “both an acknowledgement of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a ‘world making,’ in the face of that lack.”[ ((Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 118.))] Trans YouTube vlogs are cultural archives and sites of lived experience that embody new ways of trans being and doing that reflect this notion of world making. In my viewing of female-to-male (FTM) transition videos in particular, vloggers self-narrate their life stories and experiences, collectively comprising a more varied and complex representation of trans life that “contrary to mainstream representations of trans people, are directed toward likeminded others, offering a user-created trans male visual culture.”[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge, 69.))]

There is an abundant and insightful body of work on the psychological and educational benefits, community building and archival aspects of FTM trans YouTube. In particular, Avery Dame (2013) has explored these videos and their producers’ status as “experts” that give advice to and educate viewers.[ ((Dame, Avery. 2013. “‘I’m Your Hero? Like Me?’: The Role of ‘Expert’ in the Trans Male Vlog.” Journal of Language and Sexuality, 2(1): 40–69.))] Tobias Raun (2016) has written prolifically about the use of these vlogs for journaling, therapeutic self-disclosure, and as communal archives.[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge.))] Jordan Miller (2019) expanded on this archive with an analysis on the counter narratives of trans and non-binary vloggers of color.[ ((Miller, Jordan F. 2019. “YouTube as a Site of Counternarratives to Transnormativity.” Journal of Homosexuality, 66(6): 815-837.))] The majority of these videos are created and shared by YouTubers that transition during adolescence and early adulthood which is reflected in this research that is focused primarily on the experiences of trans youth. Yet, YouTube has also been a site for documenting transition stories, sharing support and building community for those transitioning during middle age and beyond.

Jack Halberstam (2005) observes that individuals whose lives do not conform to the conventional understanding of time as linear and stable are often pathologized; however, conventional notions of maturity can be disrupted by the queer temporalities and counterpublics of subcultural practices.[ ((Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2-5.))] The subcultural practice of producing FTM trans videos, particularly by “late bloomers,” challenges conceptions of normative temporalities. I watched the vlogs of trans men who transitioned in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to better understand the personal and social impact of the trans cultural production in this demographic. An ethnographic approach with qualitative interviews would help bridge the non-consensual nature of the textual analysis of these videos with the individuals who share them online; until that time, I refer to these vloggers by initials rather than full names or handles.


Screen grab of the YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.
YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.

Similar to trans youth vlogs, individuals who transition later in life also share tips on how to dress and pass, communicate the happiness and sense of relief they feel, and speak about the importance (or lack of) familial support in their vlogs. The vlogs of late bloomers also differ from the majority of those shared on YouTube; most noticeably, their transition narratives fall outside the conventional timeline of growth and maturity, especially as puberty arrives after decades of adulthood. These vloggers identify the age they discovered their trans identity and began transitioning in the title of their videos, for example, “Life begins at 40 | 10 Months On Testosterone (FTM)” and “FtM@50+ – an Introduction.” E.N. shares his experience with a “mid-life transition” and the process of discovering his “authentic self” in his early forties. F.T.I. also describes his life as “just beginning” at 40 years of age, contemplating his developmental timeline as a man from adolescence and straight into middle age. Like E.N., T.L., who began transitioning at 50 years of age, contextualizes the theme of inner truth in his own timeline: it’s “never too late to live your authentic life [emphasis added].” This online culture operates along a temporality that literally “disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity.”[ ((Ibid., 2.))]

It is common for FTM trans videos on social media to depict the joyful discovery of wearing a binder for the first time or—for those that have the resources and choose to have top surgery—their post-surgery chest reveal. While the majority of later-in-life trans narratives on YouTube follow “hormone time,”[ ((Horak, Laura. 2014. “Trans on YouTube: Intimacy, Visibility, Temporality.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(7): 572-585.))] they often focus on the development of the individual’s internal self-image over the physical changes associated with their medical transition. In one video, E.N. shares a written narrative of his discovery of being transgender followed by the process of delving “deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.” After briefly addressing facial hair growth and muscle mass at the beginning of a video, S.M., who began transitioning in his 50s, “wax[es] philosophical” about his career and cautions viewers about some of the language used in the community. Specifically, he rejects the wrong body narrative: “I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body. I understand it, like I understand in some ways it’s the simplest way to share that information with other people, but… it seems a shame for me to classify my body as wrong, because it’s not.”


Screen grab of the written text from a trans YouTube video: This discovery forced me to go deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.
Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.”

F.T.I. also describes coming to terms with his new “internal self image,” highlighting a sometimes less visible part of the process of transitioning—that of loss and grief—for a life lost and a life never lived. Though now in a place of acceptance, he acknowledges the pain and regret of not having experienced his 20s as a young man, explaining that he had only allowed himself to believe he was male prior to transitioning in his 40s. Many of these vloggers have also built decades-long careers, formed relationships and had children which are impacted in different ways by their transition. In Q&A videos, E.N. eschews questions about his medical transition to instead address questions about how the process affected his relationships with his wife and other family members, and T.L.’s videos include his child’s first-person perspectives on their parent’s transition. Overall, the non-linear temporalities, focus on development of internal gender identity and acknowledgment of loss and grief in these vlogs convey many of the complexities of trans life.

The narratives of late bloomers, and trans elders more broadly, are significant beyond their contributions to a growing online trans archive. Last month we commemorated Stonewall and other early protests led by queer, trans and gender non-conforming people, mostly Black and brown, against LGBTQ+ discrimination, harassment and police brutality. Yet three days before a win for LGBTQ+ rights that protect queer and trans workers, the current administration overturned Obamacare regulation prohibiting discrimination against trans patients the midst of a pandemic. At a time when trans futures are uncertain, the potentiality in the world making of these online cultural productions is essential in helping us to envision a trans future beyond survival.



Image Credits:

  1. Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (2013-2019). (author’s screen grabs)
  2. YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas. (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)
  3. Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.” (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)


References:




One Hundred and One Sinkholes: Notes on the Film Loop
Josh Guilford / Amherst College

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Jenny Perlin, installation view, 100 Sinkholes, 2014, ink on watercolor paper, 56 x 83 in.

Upon entering a recent exhibition by the artist Jenny Perlin, the viewer confronts an unsettling display: a freestanding wall made to hold one hundred sinkholes. Arranged with deceptive uniformity in a ten-by-ten grid across the wall, the sinkholes are drawn in a minimal style on small rectangles of paper, monochromatic blots of colored ink that render, abstractly, actual sinkholes in the world. Many are accompanied by mysterious lines, straight or curved, which extend to suggest some arbitrary point in the built environment where a given sinkhole intervened. The blots seem to dislocate the lines, appropriating the frame and making the lines appear fragile and meager, like vague memories of a grand, infrastructural ambition, some dream of rationality dispelled by terrestrial collapse.

Stepping past the display into the dark room behind, one finds a 16mm projector modified to hold a looper with a black pool of celluloid continuously gathering, escaping from the platter on top. The film, which is thrown onto the rear surface of the wall separating these spaces, presents images of the same sinkholes rendered in graphite and arranged in a linear sequence. Each drawing emerges in steps through a process of single-frame animation, then holds momentarily as an image before giving way to the next. The runtime of the film is just over 14 minutes, but the print is joined end to end, with no title card to designate a beginning or conclusion. One after another, a hundred sinkholes cycle in an unbroken loop, surfacing relentlessly but accumulating nothing, emerging to collapse, emerging in collapsing. Through circularity, the film’s time is made to fold, returning by extending forward, progressing to return. Each new image becomes an echo and the gallery itself a sort of eddy that echoes the swirl of celluloid atop the projector. Between the viewing space and the images onscreen, a resonance arises: time as a blot suspended in the white cube.

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Jenny Perlin, installation view, 100 Sinkholes, 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

In both its content and its form, Perlin’s film – 100 Sinkholes (2014), from the exhibition One Hundred Sinkholes (2014) – would seem to affirm an intriguing complicity posited by Maurice Blanchot between the artwork and catastrophe. Examining art’s pursuit of an aesthetic realm separate from reality, Blanchot writes of the work of art as an unworldly thing, an alien arrival summoned by that which “puts the world into question.” “[E]verything that surpasses, denies, destroys, threatens the body of relations that are stable, comfortable, reasonably established, and anxious to remain,” he explains, “work[s] for art, open[s] the way for it, call[s] it forth.” The work of art, Blanchot contends, thrives on interruption, on forces of destabilization that “shatter the validity of the common world.” (( Maurice Blanchot, “The Museum, Art, and Time” in Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997), 23. ))

In this short article, I would like to propose the film loop as one such world-destabilizing force. If “world” is conceived in both concrete and imaginary terms, as “that space of practical life but also of truth as it is expressed, of culture and significations,” then the loop’s capacity to disturb routine modes of practice and habitualized modes of perception does render it a potential threat to the world (( Ibid. 33 )) . The loop can facilitate experiences with the moving image that allow one to stretch or fray the practical and psychic fabric of daily life, opening a seam through which to glimpse other forms of living and relating.

Given the loop’s resurgence as a privileged exhibition form within contemporary art, and the central role looped projection has played in what Erika Balsom has referred to as the “increasing spectacularization of the museum space,” it may seem naïve to argue for the loop as an interruptive technology (( Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2013), 31. )) . When viewed from the galleries of the late capitalist museum, the loop appears as a decidedly worldly phenomenon, a medium of perceptual intensification thoroughly embedded in the financial and attentional economies that undergird contemporary exhibition cultures. But the loop harbors a potential to disturb these economies. It offers a strange, abrasive time that erodes the temporal ground of the common world, providing an occasion for the viewer to slip away from the experiential continuum of daily reality. This erosive temporality – constant, repetitive, mechanical – renders the loop a sort of slow expulsive force, one capable of putting the viewer not violently, but gradually “outside the world, outside the security and intelligence of the world…” (( Blanchot 33. ))

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Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

The temporality of looped projection can facilitate an alternative viewing practice that swerves from conventional modes of relating to the filmic image. Looped installations organize the time of filmic exhibition as an open, durational expanse structured by perpetual repetition. They evoke a “forever repetition,” as the artist Shambhavi Kaul recently remarked – a temporal form that suggests “a cinema playing for nobody.” (( “In Conversation: Shambavi Kaul with Jordan Cronk,” Brooklyn Rail, 3 May 2016, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2016/05/film/shambhavi-kaul-with-jordan-cronk. ))

This open, recurrent, and seemingly inhuman temporality contrasts markedly with the linear and singular structure of traditional cinematic screenings. Unlike the standard moviegoer, who arrives to the theater at a set time, attends to the film as it unfolds, and leaves when it concludes, visitors to a looped installation may choose to view a given work multiple times in a single sitting. This makes the loop a rare context for repeat engagements with films that can be difficult to access, let alone view repeatedly. By providing such a context, the loop can encourage a nuanced appreciation of a film’s internal structure, which often passes unnoticed on an initial viewing. (( Other experimental filmmakers have sought to utilize this aspect of repeat viewing in works designed for theatrical exhibition by repeating an entire film multiple times on a single exhibition print. Peter Kubelka is most notable here for making works such as Adebar (1957) available for distribution on reels containing an individual film two or five times, and for requesting that such films be viewed at least twice in sequence. For Kubelka, repetition serves, somewhat paradoxically, both as a means of memorization, where the spectator is encouraged to get to “know [a film] by heart,” and as a reminder of nature’s basis in perpetual change, where one’s constantly varying perception of a repeated occurrence is valued for its ability to provoke ecstatic dream-states. See the Film-Makers’ Cooperative’s online catalogue at http://film-makerscoop.com/rentals-sales/search-results?fmc_author=438; and Peter Kubelka, “The theory of Metrical Film” in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: NYU Press, 1978), esp. 154. )) But it can also catalyze a distinctly pleasurable attunement to the polyvalent character of the moving image, allowing the viewer to wait and watch as a film shifts over time, revealing itself as a complex nexus of different readings, problems, gestures, balances: a sort of tangle laden with opacities to be teased out and let loose, resumed, mulled over.

The loop’s capacity for repeat viewing may seem to align it more closely with the private and domestic viewing practices facilitated by electronic media technologies. As Laura Mulvey has noted, these technologies do cater to an enduring “repetition compulsion” provoked by the cinema, easing the viewer’s ability to replay privileged moments within a film and thereby attain a sense of mastery over the image. (( See Laura Mulvey, “The Possessive Spectator” in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006). )) But as Kaul’s remark suggests, the practice of sitting inside the “nobody cinema” opened by looped projection must be distinguished from such personalized and domesticated experiences of repetition. Whereas users of such devices perform repetition themselves, affirming self-possession via a possession of the image, the viewer who chooses to remain with a loop relinquishes control, subordinating her or his time to that of the apparatus. Rather than a user, this viewer is closer to a visitor, with all the connotations of externality this term implies. Such a visitor engages in a practice of being-with, a sitting-alongside in a time of estrangement, the yield of which is strangeness itself.

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Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

To be sure, the loop’s invitation to duration is generally declined. As Laura Marks observes, the typical viewer of a moving-image installation stays “just long enough to get ‘an idea of it,’” wresting some minor cognitive reward from the work installed before moving on to something else. Whether prompted by the call to mobility conveyed by the museum’s expansive architecture, the anxiety of completion this architecture induces, or the poor viewing conditions it tends to provide, the distracted museumgoer enacts a viewing practice that tends to reduce the loop’s durational form to a mere “idea of duration,” a potentiality that is largely unutilized in practice. (( Laura U. Marks, “Immersed in the Single Channel: Experimental Media From Theater to Gallery,” Millennium Film Journal 55 (Spring, 2012), 21. ))

But duration is there in the loop if you want it. And looped projection can encourage extended viewings that contrast with the distracted itineraries promoted by the museum, drawing viewers into a mesmerizing, vertiginous engagement with the moving image that few other media technologies can approximate. This is most clear when a linear work made for theatrical exhibition is projected via the non-linear form of the loop. Here, the viewer, who inevitably enters the film in some indeterminate middle zone, watches the film conclude and begin again, projecting this beginning backwards in time to imagine how it would read when positioned before the conclusion, while looking forward to a middle whose moment of arrival is unknown. When this point of entry does return, it returns with a difference, now recontextualized and renewed, invested with a new significance, made to signify differently. It concludes one’s viewing of the work but fails to function as a conclusion, instead giving way to the return of the conclusion, itself different again and somehow incomplete without reviewing the beginning. (( This viewing experience is not exactly novel. As Stanley Cavell reminds us, it was relatively common before cinema adopted the theater’s more regimented exhibition structure. Writing in 1971, he complains of the negative impact that the formalization of moviegoing was having on both the private and public dimensions of cinematic experience: “One could say that movie showings have begun for the first time to be habitually attended by an audience, I mean by people who arrive and depart at the same time, as at a play. When moviegoing was casual and we entered at no matter what point in the proceedings (during the news or short subject or somewhere in the feature—enjoying the recognition, later, of the return of the exact moment at which one entered, and from then on feeling free to decide when to leave, or whether to see the familiar part through again), we took our fantasies and companions and anonymity inside and left with them intact. Now that there is an audience, a claim is made upon my privacy… I feel I am present at a cult whose members have nothing in common but their presence in the same place” (Cavell, The World Viewed, enlarged edition [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979], 11). ))

In such cases, the loop’s structure generates a complex, heterogeneous temporality that facilitates a disorganized viewing experience mediated as much by projection and retrospection as by the presentness of perception. When given the time, this temporality can catalyze a deliberate unraveling of the imperative to immediacy at the heart of contemporary culture. If the latter is increasingly guided, in Jonathan Crary’s terms, by a “hallucination of presence” that envisions human life as “an unalterable permanence composed of incessant, frictionless operations,” the loop can help to blot out this vision, allowing the viewer to puncture the operational surface of communication and sink into the “victorious strangeness” of an otherworldly time. (( Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013), 29; Blanchot 23. ))

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Caption: Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

* This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
All images courtesy of Simon Preston Gallery, New York.