It’s been a while since that Corporal Klinger meme was going around back in July, right after trans folk got booted from the military ― again. But something happened in Maryland back then as a result of that picture that is worth talking about this week ― the week leading up to the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.
It wasn’t big news. It wasn’t maybe more than a local, even just a personal, disagreement. And still it raises issues for many of us in trans and genderqueer communities around our dismissal and the subsequent violence against us.
This is only partly about us trying to serve our country or empty our bladders. Fundamentally, it’s about us memorializing yet another record number of our dead. And finally, it’s about us getting to decide what is helpful in our movement, what is hurtful, and who we are.
The meme was a picture of Corporal Klinger of M*A*S*H on the 4077th base wearing a dress and holding a rifle. The accompanying text (in my feed, at least) usually said something that was friendly both toward the character and toward trans soldiers.
I’ll admit that I’m a fan of Klinger. For a closeted gender/queer kid in 1970s eastern Iowa (or wherever, you know, hypothetically), Klinger was one the better gender-bending characters on television. (If you don’t know, though, that isn’t saying much.) He was a peach. He was flamboyant and also hardworking. He volunteered for dangerous assignments, and at times he performed the work of nurses. He had his friends’ back at the hospital week after week. And in my opinion he showed his humanity – and his sanity – in his efforts to quit the war.
The thing is, though, he’s not trans. He wasn’t genderqueer. I wonder, within the historical fiction of the world he inhabits, whether the character even understood himself to be a crossdresser, outside of the utilitarian objective of crossdressing. If you follow. But it gets even worse.
Not only did Klinger not crossdress for comfort or self-expression, he actually crossdressed to appear mentally ill. Because why else would a man dress that way? Portraying crossdressing or trans folk as psychotic has been for a very long time one of many ways to keep us monstrous, dangerous, dishonest, deluded. (And, adding insult to injury, many of us were ultimately forced to adopt the pathology. Even to pursue it. To get the diagnosis so that we could get permission from gatekeepers so that we could get access to surgeries or hormones or gender marker changes on our documents.)
Klinger’s crossdressing for the purpose of a Section 8 sits at the heart of the transphobia and transmisogyny that has made trans folk into threats to be eliminated. And it is a major avenue at the crossroads of oppression that has killed more than 300 globally this year– overwhelmingly trans women, overwhelmingly trans women of color.
For all these reasons, when our (mostly gay and lesbian) friends who mostly legit support us posted the Klinger meme on social media, some of us tried to engage. Maybe we gently said something mild about him not being trans. Maybe we posted the counter-meme of honest to God real-life trans soldiers out there defending the country. Maxx, a Frederick sophomore, was one of the folks who tried to spell it out for his Facebook friends. Here’s what happened to him.
As a 15-year-old caucasian trans male, I don’t experience much negativity within the trans community. Being male-presenting and white has me generally accepted and far more accepted than most other trans/gender nonconforming people. Though, when faced with cis people in the LGB community, things sometimes get a little more complex.
Upon seeing the Klinger meme, I felt that it was offensive to trans women specifically. So, as a young trans person, I made an effort to bring this awareness to the people who posted it.
Instead of hearing me, throughout my explanation several older cis people told me, “you have equal rights because of us,” and “stop whining!” The irony was that the meme was being posted in the first place because trans/gender nonconforming people’s rights were being removed!
I was talked down to because of my age, because these people felt they had the right to tell me and other TQ+ people how to feel about this meme and about LGBTQ+ history.
After this, I do not know whom I am safe with as a young trans person. This experience has given me a harsh reality check: Not everyone in your community supports you and knows what true allyship is. I was very insecure after this occurred, and I felt very anxious and vulnerable. Since this happened, I’ve learned that being transgender is a never-ending battle, and trust is far more fragile than I knew. My trust in so many people was lost, and I was left questioning who is an ally, and who is saying they’re an ally for their own image?
There is a very fragile bridge between cis and trans/gender nonconforming people, and the ageism opened up by the Klinger meme is slowly burning it for me. These events show what lies underneath seemingly strong communities. The way I was treated is something I never would have expected from other members of the LGBTQ+ community. I was treated as a fragile, ungrateful, whiny little child. In reality, the only thing fragile was the bridge between these so-called allies and gender nonconforming TQ+ people.
If I were as fragile and ungrateful as the ruthless cis lesbian who attacked me portrayed me to be, I would not be where I am today. I would not be fighting for my rights relentlessly, and standing up for my trans/gender nonconforming friends and family. It’s certainly demeaning to be looked down upon by people in your own community for something as simple as age and even gender identity. The question is, who do these cis LGB people actually support?
They lashed out at trans youth, and told a trans person what a trans ally is, even though they have no trans experience. They supported a message that was hurtful to trans/gender nonconforming people, even when the harm of the meme was explained to them, and then they claimed to be perfect allies. The amount of confusion and mistrust within the LGBTQ+ community would almost be comical, except for how toxic it was when this happened to me.
I’m glad that I’m strong enough to move forward and use this event to educate others and spread an important message: Not all people who say they are allies will support you, and it’s completely up to you to decide who the true allies in your life are. You don’t have to tolerate intolerance.
What happened to Maxx is particularly poignant and painful. It shows that the disdain at the heart of the violence – that says we don’t deserve to serve, we can’t be trusted to pee, we shouldn’t be allowed to live – is sometimes coming from inside our house. It shows that no one is immune from oppressive arrogance. It decisively shows how fake the T in LGBT can be.
I know what it feels like to want to be handy and beneficent, only to have the people I’m trying to support withhold gratitude. I’ve been told my help is not helpful by folks, even as I try to distinguish myself to them from the other (bad) white/middle-class/slim/able-bodied/and-so-on people by being nonjudgmental or coming to their defense or posting supportive memes. It isn’t awesome to be told to knock it off. It doesn’t feel great to be told I got it wrong.
But if we genuinely want to be collaborators, we’ll want to know what is actually collaborative.
If our goal is really to be an accomplice, we need to listen. Be willing to pipe down. Assume we don’t know better than the folks living it in their day-to-day. Don’t get defensive. Don’t reprimand the conspirators we’re trying to collude with. If we really are trying to co-conspire. And, for God’s sake, don’t tell folks to be grateful to us.
Otherwise, we’re part of the problem – all of the problem. All of its violence and harm. Otherwise we are as good as another basher, another cog in the machine of systemic injustice. There is just no meaningful difference between the distain and dismissal of an enemy and that of a so-called friend.
This year we buried another record number of our trans family. We need you to care that we’re dying. We need your help. Please listen.