- Referential Sights and Slights
Well before the first episode of the first season of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta (LHHA) aired on VH1, rumors were circulating about cast member Joseline Hernandez and her possible transgender history. Taking a familiar narrative arc, the rumors suggested that Joseline was assigned male at birth and lived as a boy under the moniker Joe until sometime after high school. Speculation about Hernandez’s transgender identity became constitutive to the buzz surrounding the show even before its debut, demonstrated by the numerous hip hop gossip sites who picked up the story and a video that went viral; the video was shot during an Atlanta premiere event, in which an audience member asks LHHA cast members and producer Mona Scott-Young (while looking directly at Hernandez): “Is there a transgender among you?”1 The circulation of this question and the various attempts to address it are the impetuses for this essay, for as the immediate responses bear out, they stage the limits of visual logics in representation while also illuminating the particular conditions of unrepresentability for the trans2 body. This is not to negate the numerous documentary projects—both photographic and filmic—that endeavor to represent transgender people, but rather it is to suggest that what is indexical about the trans body is unrepresentable in visual terms. Raising the question, how does one know that she is viewing a trans body? (And relatedly, how can one really be sure that she is viewing a cisgender one?)
In the form of a reversal, Hernandez is first to respond to the audience member’s question: “ To me you look like a transgender—your hair, your clothes, everything.”3 Hernandez’s response relies on a recognizable form of transphobia, where the logics of visibility most frequently are used to evoke and dismiss transgender difference: there’s something perceptibly unnatural, off, or askew that allows one to identify the transgender in one’s midst. These logics suggest that there is no transgender to be found. Rather, a transperson’s “real [End Page 175] sex” is always present—not as a trace, per se, but as the truth of the cissexual that persists at the surface of the body.
After a round of retorts exchanged between the audience member and Hernandez, Scott-Young joins the conversation, stating, “I have to say this for the avoidance of further doubt. I’ve seen her absolutely naked. There is no penis.”4 As Scott-Young’s comment referentially marks, the visual experience of witnessing Hernandez’s naked body is supposed to quell all doubts about Hernandez’s female identity. And yet, evidencing dissatisfaction with Scott-Young’s response and a substantial skepticism for the commonsense of the visual as proof, the audience member rejoins: “You don’t know that unless you ate it. Did you eat her?”5 At once, the audience member seems to be articulating a connection between transphobia and homophobia, in her request for Scott-Young to engage in queer sex in order to prove that Hernandez is a “real woman.” Paradoxically, if Hernandez is “really a man,” Scott-Young is able to recuperate and maintain her heterosexuality. And yet the shift from the visual to the gustatory, a reworking of the popularized legal adage—“I know it when I see it” to “I know it when I taste it”—at once reterritorializes female genitalia as sites for pleasures rather than proof of cissexuality. (Can one know a trans body based on that body’s experience of sexual pleasure? Is a cissexual female organ defined by its receptivity to oral, non-penetrative sex?) Scott-Young simply replies, “No, I wasn’t hungry,” which responds to the audience member’s question as if one’s desire to perform oral sex is analogous with a need to consume food, circumventing the question’s queer possibilities while sidestepping sexual desire all together.
Yet if one reads Scott-Young’s response as a foreclosure on a set of queer inflected questions about bodies and pleasures, one must also consider how the exchange between the producer and audience member provides another outline for a frequently rehearsed set of articulations about the transgender...