In January of this year, Grantland published “Dr. V.’s Magical Putter,” an article ostensibly about a “scientifically superior” golf club invented by Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. While researching the piece, the writer Caleb Hannan discovered Vanderbilt was a transgender woman, and decided to turn her heretofore secret identity into a central aspect of the story. Shortly after learning of Hannan’s intent, Vanderbilt committed suicide. Following the article’s publication, critics from both the LGBT and cisgender communities condemned Hannan and Grantland for their unacknowledged role in Vanderbilt’s death, as well as for perpetuating negative stereotypes of trans people. Grantland responded with sincere attempts to address their mistake: five days after the article’s publication, they simultaneously released a frank letter from editor-in-chief Bill Simmons and an editorial by ESPN writer and transgender woman Christina Kahrl. Grantland’s attempts to engage, however they were received, helped jumpstart the ongoing conversation about media portrayals of trans people we’ve seen playing out in news outlets all year.
The Grantland story is one example of how an ignorant approach or insensitively phrased question can compound existing prejudices and stereotypes outside the trans community, while also hurting those within it.
In an attempt to help mainstream audiences understand what the media is doing wrong—and right—in depicting members of the trans community, we contacted five transgender people, three women and two men across a range of ages and professions, to share their knowledge, opinions, and reactions.
Avery Edison is a comedian and humor writer from London. She has written extensively about her experiences as a transgender woman for The Bygone Bureau.
Fallon Fox is the first openly transgender mixed martial artist in the history of the sport.
David Guitman is a high school student and aspiring journalist.
Micah is a vocal advocate and educator within the transgender community, presenting at conferences, workshops, and panels across the country. He writes at neutrois.me, where he documents his non-binary transition.
Joan Roughgarden is an evolutionary biologist and ecologist at the University of Hawaii and Stanford University. Her book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People received the Stonewall Prize for nonfiction from the American Library Association.
Special thanks to Nicole Pasulka.
Can you explain what the media does wrong when it reduces the trans experience to a female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF) transition? Is there a way to use these terms correctly, or should they be avoided?
Guitman: The media tends to portray the transition as one single procedure, giving the wrong idea about what being transgender is all about. It is a lifelong process and is not only a physical change, but a mental and social change as well. It is a transition into becoming the person you have always been internally, and matching that with your physical self. This takes time.
While the terms MTF and FTM are useful in providing clarity to others, they aren’t always OK to use. It’s always best to ask the person whether they mind being referred to as FTM or MTF, or whether they prefer to self-identify as a man, woman, or any other gender on or off the spectrum. For some, the terms FTM or MTF could be traumatic or bring up a past they don’t want to remember. Many also say these terms are inaccurate, because, for example, a so-called “FTM” was never really female in the first place. Others take pride in these terms, and like to be referred to as FTM or MTF because it represents their trans identities and shows how far they’ve come. I think the media just needs to understand that transgender or not, we are all different people with wide-ranging preferences and opinions.
Roughgarden: The word “transition,” as used by the media and as implied by the question, focuses on the physical aspects of a gender change, especially surgical procedure to alter genital anatomy. This anatomical definition unfortunately misses the point. The “transition” is the event at which a person publicly declares their identity. This is the transgender counterpart of “coming out” for gays and lesbians. It is a traumatic moment, usually associated with loss of job, family, and friends.
Actually, rather little in a transgender person’s transition involves medical changes to one’s anatomy. Transgender people often spend years preparing socially for their transition and, after their transition, must grow up and quickly mature in their new gender. And then they have to make a life with that identity like anyone else; find a job, find a spouse, relocate, deal with family, etc.
I don’t blame the media too much for their preoccupation with medically supervised anatomical changes because the therapy community is also preoccupied with this, especially genital modification. The media turns to therapists for information on transgender people, rather than to transgender people themselves.
Therapists make a big deal of SRS (sex reassignment surgery), issuing letters to authorize the procedure. But other anatomical changes are more important and manifest. The goal of a surgical transition, if one is pursued, is to help an individual effectively settle into their identity. The media, often echoing the biases and special interests of the therapy community, simply misses the point.
The gender binary is the idea that there are only two distinct sexes and/or genders: male and female. This is false. In fact, gender (as well as sex), is a spectrum.
Edison: I don’t think the media is incorrect to use those terms, as we still need the clear distinctions they provide. I meet people who hear the term “transwoman” and (incorrectly) think it means a woman becoming a man. “Female-to-male” and “male-to-female” may seem clunky or extraneous to those of us who are familiar with terms like “transman,” but I think that if we are to educate, we need to start from a place of understanding, rather than using terms that may needlessly confuse or come across as jargon.
Fox: Those terms are well known, widely used, and promoted by transgender people themselves. They should be used because if we don’t have a focal point to start from, we won’t know what we are talking about when we are referencing transgender people that wish to, are currently, or have physically transitioned. Even with a transgender individual who does not transition, we need something to reference. So, let’s say we have a trans person who was born physically male whose gender is female, but does not wish to physically transition in any way (which is rare). She is not physically transitioning, and her brain did not go from male to female (MTF). Her brain, which is actually her, was always female. However, we need to call her state of affairs something because without it, verbally, she falls within the cisgender male category. We could always come up with a new term to fit this description for non-transitioning trans women. That would require that they voice their concern over this, which, to my knowledge, they have not. But, if they ever do, an effort should be made to refer to them as they wish. The same goes for genderqueer people who fall within the transgender category. FTM, MTF, and Genderqueer are the current acceptable terms in these regards.
Micah: Strictly speaking, those terms are accurate and they are still used within the community. However, there are two issues with them.
It is always best to use a person’s preferred gender term according their present identity, whether this is a transwoman, a woman of transsexual history, a transgender man, or a non-binary or genderqueer person.
The last terms lead us to the second issue: FTM and MTF do not include people who identify outside of the gender binary. Simply put, the gender binary is the idea that there are only two distinct sexes and/or genders: male and female. This is false. In fact, gender (as well as sex), is a spectrum. Similar to how a transman does not feel like female is their gender, and how a transwoman feels male isn’t right for them, non-binary people, such as myself, feel like neither “male” nor “female” reflect their inner gender identity.
While stories about non-binary (also referred to as genderqueer) people are gaining traction, I have yet to see attention devoted to these stories in mainstream media.
In interviews earlier this year, both Katie Couric and Piers Morgan were focused on the “coming out” aspect of the transgender experience. Do you think there is any value in continuing to tell this narrative?
Fox: I believe that there is value in telling our “coming out” stories, but only when we decide to tell them and on our own terms. What Piers Morgan did was attempt to package and frame Janet Mock’s story as “Look here! We have a woman who used to be a man!” But Janet has always been a woman in her mind. Katie Couric’s interview with Carmen Carrera ended up coming off as less of a “coming out” story than an attempt to reach into Carmen’s pants. Both ways of packaging and framing the transgender narrative must change, as both seek to sensationalize the transgender body and are not viable modes for the future transgender representation.
Guitman: I haven’t seen the interviews, but I do have a comment on the value of transgender “coming out” stories. Many trans identified people must come out to themselves as well as to others. This personal coming out process is part of coming to terms with your identity and accepting who you are. Many people often don’t realize that a transperson has as much, if not more, trouble getting used to the identity change as they do. “Coming out” often leads to difficult conversations with people close to us—an experience to which many non trans identified people can relate. In this way, it is valuable; it can make the experience more accessible to others.
Any discussion about the process of introducing the world to a hidden part of you should be handled sensitively, not as titillation.
Edison: “Coming out” narratives are useful tools for introducing unfamiliar audiences to the struggles non-normative people face. “Coming out” stories help generate empathy and have played an important part in the wider recognition of the humanity of queer people.
That said, questions about the transgender “coming out” process can so often be motivated by prurient interest; interviewers can be looking to play up the shock factor of a revelation. I think any discussion about the process of introducing the world to a hidden part of you should be handled sensitively, not as titillation.
Roughgarden: In my view the coming out narratives of transgender people are pretty well documented already and, except in detail, they seem very similar to one another. The therapist Mildred Brown’s book, True Selves, recorded the narratives of her clients, mostly from the Bay Area. I can still recall the pride with which her clients stated that she heard them and truthfully recorded their experience. I’m sure it’s an exaggeration to assert that “Millie said it all,” but I see little news value in reporting the details of yet another transgender “coming out” narrative.
Micah: How do you reach out to those who haven’t realized they’re trans yet? Since it is impossible to research something you’re technically not aware of yet, I tend to be curious about the process leading up to this moment.
That’s why I often ask people, “When did you start putting things together,” or, “How did you find out that transgender people even exist?” By a long shot, the most popular answer is: the media. Often a talk show, news article, or radio show caught their attention and got their wheels turning until eventually they realized, “That’s me.” So however imperfect these media appearances are, I do believe there is some value in sharing the “coming out” aspect of someone’s journey, as it helps people see themselves reflected, perhaps for the first time, and connect with the interviewees’ experience.
That said, acknowledging you are transgender is only the beginning. Going through all the transition steps one wishes to (which is a highly individualized process) can take many years and may continue indefinitely. Being trans is not something you “take care of” and forget about. I’d love for the media to highlight the unique challenges faced even post-transition. You should hear the stories people tell at conferences, ranging from scary struggles to hilarious mixups.
Moreover, the very phrase “coming out” can have a myriad of meanings: from coming out to yourself, to your family, to your co-workers, doctors, acquaintances, friends on Facebook. The media frames it as something you do once, but in reality you come out over and over and over throughout your life.
For trans people, coming out has the added layer of disclosure. It’s really not anyone’s business what is or isn’t in my pants, so whether to disclose is a personal decision one makes with each acquaintance. Some prefer to not divulge their trans history to anyone, treating it as a private medical matter. Others disclose only to their close circles, while others are completely open about it. In general, most people have mixed disclosure depending on circumstances and how comfortable and safe they feel in that environment, and how they think others will react, especially when disclosing may cause others to suddenly treat them differently.
What do you think of the way that Grantland—which published both a straightforward apology from Bill Simmons, the editor-in-chief, as well as a piece criticizing its editors for their treatment of “Dr. V.’s Magical Putter”—handled their mistake? Is there anything you think they should have done differently?
Fox: I was appalled when I read the “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” story. So much so that I wrote an op-ed for Time magazine when it happened. It was clearly a sensationalized and unempathetic piece that was aimed at using the plight of a transgender woman for page views. Grantland dug deep in order to “get the goods” on that poor woman and it ended tragically. They could have left the transgender part out, or just dropped the story altogether to save someone unnecessary grief. In their minds, however, Dr. Vanderbilt might have “had it coming” since she had lied about her past. This whole “Caught you! You were lying! You used to be a man!” framing that the media often uses is a separate issue that also needs to be tackled.
Roughgarden: I was unfamiliar with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Grantland essay. I have now read the essay, the apology, and the editorial.
Having Grantland personnel talk to transgendered people is a waste of time. My advice would be to transgendered people in the future to have nothing to do with them. Stay away from them just like we watch out for other media outlets that aim to profit by sensationalizing our lives.
I skimmed the Grantland essay by Caleb Hannan. I found its tone annoying and would not have read the article if I hadn’t been requested to do so. It has the tone of a sensationalistic exposé I would expect from the magazines on display at the supermarket checkout counter. It’s nothing but a hatchet job.
As the editorial by Christina Kahrl pointed out, while the magazine made many mistakes, Dr. V. herself made a mistake in trying to live as a transwoman in stealth. The desire to go stealth is usually born of deep shame and self-disappointment. People who are trans, like those who are gay or lesbian, often try very hard to avoid being as they are. When they eventually succumb to realizing their identity, they are deeply ashamed of themselves and disappointed with themselves that they couldn’t, after trying ever so hard, live a false life. But stealth is not the answer, self-respect is. If therapists really want to be useful, promoting the self-respect of their clients is where they could help.
The apology by Bill Simmons is astonishingly naive. How could he possibly think that Hannan was writing a simple piece of investigative reporting, happened to stumble on Dr. V’s transgender background, and then made an honest mistake by including an irrelevant detail in his article? I think Simmons is complicit and that his account of the matter is disingenuous. It looks to me like Hannan was put up to it. Simmons wanted a sensationalist exposé, and the transgender stuff just got folded into it.
What should Grantland have done differently? If Grantland is basically just a sports tabloid, which is my impression, then having Grantland personnel talk to transgendered people is a waste of time. My advice would be to transgendered people in the future to have nothing to do with them. Stay away from them just like we watch out for other media outlets that aim to profit by sensationalizing our lives.
Edison: I found the apology from Grantland oddly distancing. Simmons focuses on how the organization had failed the writer of the piece, which came off as callous to me, considering the much larger failure to the subject of the piece. I also thought the use of the second-person in the list of, to paraphrase, “Things the transgender community would have told us if we had asked them to read this article before publication” mitigated the validity of his points and read as a way to acknowledge failures without actually taking responsibility for them.
What could they have done better? Many times in the apology, Simmons says that Grantland should have consulted with representatives of the transgender community before publishing the original article and I think that’s something the site should have also done with its apology. Simple questions such as, “What do we need to apologize for?” and, “What would an effort to make amends look like?” could have resulted in a much more meaningful mea culpa.
I understand, though, that the every member of staff involved was taken by surprise, completely unaware that they had been involved in something so upsetting and damaging. The biggest failure of all is one of culture: that some of our best reporters simply don’t know enough about transgenderism to write stories involving transgender people, and specifically those who wish to keep that part of themselves private.
Earlier this year, Alec Baldwin and RuPaul were criticized for using the word “tranny.” In your opinion, is “tranny,” like “fag” or “slut,” a word that can—or should—be actively reclaimed?
Fox: For the life of me I cannot understand how everyone recoils when slurs are used against other minority groups, and yet when it comes to slurs against us, we are expected to sit back and let them float by without raising an eyebrow. It just goes to show how many supposed transgender allies do not value the transgender experience as much as they value their own or others’. And while some may want to reclaim the “T” word, just as some of African-Americans want to reclaim the “N” word, the majority of transgender people don’t want to reclaim the “T” word, just as some African-Americans don’t want to reclaim the “N” word.
One day perhaps the “T” word can be reclaimed. But that would require transgender people not being upset by the word because of the history of violence and discrimination attached to it. When all transgender people can walk down the street, and hear “Hey Tr*nny!” from cisgender people, and all transgender people are comfortable with that, then it will be an OK thing to do. But not before then. Until then, the only ones who should say or hear it are transgender people who actively promote themselves as the “T” word.
When all transgender people can walk down the street, and hear “Hey Tr*nny!” from cisgender people, and all transgender people are comfortable with that, then it will be an OK thing to do. But not before then.
What’s more, if those who use the word with hurtful intentions see that transgender people are trying to “own the word,” they will likely do one or both of the following: 1) They will keep saying it with contempt; or 2) find another word to call us.
Edison: I detest the word “tranny,” and I don’t partake in the effort to reclaim it. The transgender community, though, is divided, and I accept that there are people who are proud of the word and want to own it. I have no problem with other transgender men, women, and non-binary individuals using the word, as long as they identify with it in a positive manner.
The reclamation of words is difficult when the words themselves have no history of being used in a positive way, but I will have to trust the judgment of my brothers and sisters who feel otherwise.
What I cannot brook are instances of non-transgender persons using the word. Alec Baldwin is a blowhard, so I expect no better of him (although I absolutely believe we as a community were due an apology). RuPaul, however, should know better. “Transgender” is an umbrella term which includes drag performers, but that umbrella does not entitle Paul to reclaim a slur used most aggressively and harmfully against the non-drag contingent of the transgender community. RuPaul should be held to a higher standard specifically because he is seen as a figurehead for LGBT people, and for him to be so callous with such a demeaning and hurtful word is disappointing.
Guitman: I would just like to echo Avery’s sentiment that these labels, along with many others, vary by context and need to be used with great caution. While I think a term like “tranny” can be deployed without harming an individual, words like “tranny” (and “fag” and “slut”) should probably never be used when referring to a crowd, as it would take on a derogatory meaning, and some in the crowd might not be comfortable with the label.
Roughgarden: My reaction to the Alec Baldwin essay is that he’s a narcissist, clearly into himself. The way he referred to an “F to M tranny” is just part of his shock-jock style. I’d leave him be. He’s got issues.
I’m indifferent to whether “tranny” should be reclaimed. It’s all context. I’ve heard blacks use the “N” word to one another, along with ho, etc. Tranny could be used in hate or in love. Context.
What is your perspective on Jean-Marc Vallée’s decision to cast Jared Leto as an HIV-positive transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club? What about his representation of a trans woman in the film?
Edison: I think it is vitally important to cast actual transgender actors in transgender roles. The experience of being a transgender person has not become widely understood enough to allow for an authentic and respectful performance from a non-trans actor. We also owe it to the many wonderful transgender performers who are out there to give them these roles—after all, it’s not as if they’re regularly getting cast in non-trans roles.
Fox: As I wrote in Time, I am quite sure that Jared Leto did his best at portraying exactly what Jean-Marc Vallée wanted in the film. I don’t blame Jared Leto as much, as it is his job to take the script that’s given to him and play it out. At no point have I been under the impression that it was Leto’s objective to conjure up yet another stereotypical role of a downtrodden transgender character for sensationalist reasons. That was, however, the job of Jean-Marc Vallée, and it is one he executed masterfully.
Roughgarden: I found the movie to be disappointing. Jean-Marc was portraying a drag queen, not a transgendered woman. I liked To Wong Foo better.
Most of the recent media coverage I have cited above has involved transgender women rather than transgender men. Why do you think this is the case? Would you say transgender men are facing different biases in the media?
Edison: A superficial reason transgender men have traditionally been a more ignored group in terms of public awareness is that they often “pass” more successfully than transgender women, so they can often seem invisible in society.
But cultural bias also plays a huge part. Our patriarchal culture places men above women, so society has often dismissed transmen with ideas like, “well of course girls want to be guys—men are much better.”
As I was growing up and dealing with my gender identity issues, I could at least see depictions of MTF people, and identify with them. I don’t think the same can be said for transgender men. Everyone should be able to see themselves represented.
The idea of a man becoming a woman, though, is abhorrent to this misogynistic society, so there is a much greater history of maligning the people who transition this way. Attention is purposefully put on them, and toxic stereotypes such as the “man in a dress” or “deceptive tranny” percolate into the zeitgeist as a cultural punishment for going against the sexist grain.
So yes, the media biases transgender men face are different than those faced by transgender women. We transwomen suffer being represented as broken, pathetic, ugly, deceptive, or hyper-sexualized, whereas transmen suffer through not being represented at all.
I know that as I was growing up and dealing with my gender identity issues, I could at least see depictions of MTF people, and identify with them. I don’t think the same can be said for transgender men, which is an undue hardship. Everyone should be able to see themselves represented.
Guitman: I agree with Avery’s answer. “Passing” definitely plays a huge role with public representation of trans people. There is a saying, “Trans men pass in the streets, and trans women under the sheets.” This saying implies that trans men are often mistaken for younger men/boys (depending on which medical procedures they have decided to pursue), while trans women as “drag queens” or a “man dressed as a woman.” This distinction exists because of the irreversible changes that trans women experience with the onset of physical male puberty, such as the deepening of the voice or the broadening of shoulders. Since these characteristics are usually quite noticeable, it can make it more difficult to pass in public. In contrast, most changes trans men experience during physical female puberty are reversible.
With “under the sheets,” the saying is also referencing the fact that, thus far, surgical procedures for trans women have proved more successful than surgical procedures for trans men.
Roughgarden: Two issues intersect with respect to the difference in how the media portrays transgendered men and women: misogyny and passing. Some of the antagonism shown by the media against transgendered women is simply misogyny, which is given a free pass when directed to transgendered women who are generally unempowered to fight back. In addition, transgendered men pass extremely well. Testosterone lowers the voice, brings male-pattern baldness, and facial hair. Transgendered men are difficult to read. Transgendered women, especially if they transition post-puberty, are much easier to read, based on height and voice. Depending on where they are in their post-transition adjustment, their choice of apparel might them conspicuous too. So transgendered women make a much bigger target than transgendered men. The result is that transgendered men come to enjoy male privilege, their views are automatically considered central, whereas transgendered women’s views, like those of other women, are often discounted and considered peripheral.
Micah: If you think of the fact that women’s rights is still a hotly debated topic, you can imagine that gender biases and gender politics absolutely play a significant role in the different ways that transwomen and transmen face visibility, stigma, and discrimination.
I think one factor could be the recent rise of high-profile transwomen such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. They not only excel at their profession, but are extremely eloquent, fantastically delivering their story while at the same time pushing for awareness of broader topics relevant to the transgender community.
There have been a handful of transmen who have reached this level of mainstream exposure in the past, such as Chaz Bono. I personally know many transmen who are outstanding role models, doing trailblazing work to advance trans rights and support the community, who would make fantastic spokespeople. Some have already had their share of mainstream exposure (just look up Ryan Sallans or Aidan Key).
I think it depends on who is “hot” right now (whether they just wrote a book or appeared on a TV show) but also who purposefully places advocacy issues at the forefront and manages to maintains relevancy. Somehow though, the media loses interest if they are not a celebrity.
Fox: The answer to this is simple: Transgender women are scarier to the general population. Many cisgender men don’t feel threatened by what they view was a woman in their spaces, while cisgender women often do feel threatened by trans women, whom they view as male, in their spaces—especially bathroom spaces. Most cisgender men do not fear rape, violence, or potential “advantages” in sports from transgender men. The media therefore chooses to focus on transgender women as a way of stoking the fires of controversy and sensationalism. This would all be a different story if the media were interested in portraying the realities of transgender people so as to promote their positive welfare.
What do people miss or get wrong when they include transgender stories and issues under the LGBT umbrella? Do you feel LGBT as a category is useful?
Guitman: The acronym LGBT has both its pros and cons. It creates a connection between those identifying under L, G, B, or T, but not always an accurate one. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identified people can relate to each other in some ways because they are minorities, who must go through the “coming out process.” However, this label often confuses people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender, leading them to think it relates to sexuality. For instance, I’ve heard many people say that a trans identified person is just someone who is “extremely gay,” and is deciding to live as the opposite gender in order to enjoy the social advantage of being straight. In reality, it is still much harder to be transgender than to be gay in today’s society, so going through the transition simply for an alleged social advantage wouldn’t make sense at all. The LGBT category is useful; I just think that there needs to be more education around the “T” and hopefully around the “Q” as well, which a lot of the time isn’t included as a part of the acronym.
New letters are added to the alphabet soup everyday, from “Q” for queer and questioning, “A” for asexual, and many others that don’t quite fit into the “L,” “G,” “B,” or “T” umbrellas, thus rendering the four letters insufficient for encompassing the actual range of identities.
Micah: While the acronym LGBT includes the T for transgender, when most people say LGBT they are referring to sexuality, completely forgetting gender identity. Sexuality and gender identity, though related, do not necessarily go hand in hand, yet grouping them under the same concept fails to disambiguate the conflation. Some transgender people are straight, and it is their personal decision whether they identify as queer or belong in the LGBTQ community. Other trans people are also gay or bisexual or asexual or queer in other ways, and identify within the LGBTQ umbrella either by virtue of their sexuality, their gender identity, or both.
Moreover, openness to questioning sexuality continues to expand the boundaries toward new territory. New letters are added to the alphabet soup everyday, from “Q” for queer and questioning, “A” for asexual, and many others that don’t quite fit into the “L,” “G,” “B,” or “T” umbrellas, thus rendering the four letters insufficient for encompassing the actual range of identities.
I personally use the word queer—or LGBTQ—to refer to anyone whose identity is outside of the heteronormative “default.” Although not all would agree or even self-identify as such, I find a unifying term to be useful in highlighting that we all have this shared experience of “otherness” when it comes to our gender expression or sexuality. The accompanying alienation in our past and present, along with fears in the future, form a relatable common ground. While the challenges each individual faces are unique, solidarity can be, at the very least, emotionally empowering and, through organized advocacy, bring about greater change in the social and legal landscape.
Fox: I feel that it’s a useful category, although it could be a little bit more inclusive with the “Q.” I think what a lot of people miss or omit from the current conversation in media is the struggle that many of the “T” and “Q” are having with some of the “LGB.” There is an unwritten hierarchy within the LGBTQ that is rarely talked about. For instance some (certainly not all) LGB people believe, and therefore perpetuate, the idea that trans people are really confused people who seek transition for some unknown reason. I suppose the silence on this topic is a matter of wanting to keep things quiet so that the opposition does not know there is an internalized struggle. But, if we never talk about it, it will never get fixed.
Edison: The acronym is useful because it groups us all together as marginalized people, even if our particular labels are dissimilar. So much of homophobia and biphobia comes from the same visceral fears and prejudices that inform transphobia, and it’s useful to form a united front against that darkness.
I’m glad when transgender stories get marked as LGBT stories, because we are a part of that acronym, and we are a part of that group. There is a history of infighting in the LGBT community, and there is resentment on all sides, but fracturing us further by splintering stories off under separate categories only deepens those divisions.
Roughgarden: I do feel the LGBT category is useful, even though it bundles together several very different modes of life experience. The common binding is that all must go through a transition or “coming out,” and all suffer stigma emanating from the same sources. And politically, I’m in favor of large coalitions wherever possible.
Do you think the incidents above have forced us to cycle through different versions of the same conversation, or would you say that these episodes have, in some small way, moved the discussion forward? Where do you hope the dialogue will be five years from now?
Fox: I think that the dialogue has moved us forward a bit. Although some of the arguments might frustrate many, at least these arguments have reached the mainstream. To my knowledge, before this year, there has never been a time when the mainstream heard the voices of transgender women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox speaking up for themselves and the community, nor witnessed a public debate about transgender slur words (RuPaul) or transgender representation in print (“Dr. V’s Magical Putter”).
Incidents like these cause the transgender community incredible amounts of pain and suffering, but they also give us the opportunity to point out the hurt they cause. I think we should remember that our arguments are less about those against whom we are arguing, and more about those observing the argument from the sidelines. We should be arguing in order to turn their perspective into ours.
In five years from now I hope that the dialogue with the “T” will look more like the current dialogue straight cisgender people are having with the “LGB.” I think this goal is not only attainable, but even likely, given the power of the Internet and the momentum we have gained over the past year.
Guitman: I think the discussion has definitely moved forward. Around five years ago, I was barely even seeing news revolving around “LGB,” never mind the “T.” Transgender folks were considered “sick,” “freaks,” or “abnormal.” People now seem to accept that trans identified people aren’t all that different from what is considered our “norm” and have begun to understand being transgender isn’t a decision. This is evident in little things, such as the renaming of “Gender Identity Disorder” to “Gender Dysphoria” in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Acceptance and understanding of transgender people, however, will only make further progress if we make an effort to educate. Hopefully in five years the dialogue will be less about how we can make a transgender person adjust to our society, and more about how our society can adjust to accommodate the needs of transgender people.
Edison: I would not have believed, five years ago, that we would have a transgender woman on the cover of Time magazine in 2014, and yet Laverne Cox did it. In the past several years we have indeed had the same conversations over and over, but the important thing is we’ve been having them more often. The more that people hear our stories and are exposed to transgender men, women and non-binary folk as people, the further we will come in the fight for rights and acceptance. I’m happy to repeat the same messages again and again if it means we spread more awareness and gain more allies.
Five years from now I hope that people will be so educated about transgender people and the issues we face that they become used to our stories in the way our culture has accepted and internalized the gay “coming out” narrative. I hope it will be rare to see public misgendering or mockery of transgender individuals, and I hope the media will embrace genderqueer and non-binary people, and hopefully represent them better on screen, too.
Micah: In a typical news segment, there is limited coverage—both in length and frequency—devoted to a trans guest. The media (and their audience) advance at a slower pace. Consequently, they are continually stuck asking the age-old questions we are tired of hearing: “What were you born as? What’s in your pants? I can hardly tell!”
Naturally the stories they cover will be more simplified than the knowledge we have as a community. However, the people behind the media are responsible for shaping public perception and opinion of what they’re reporting on. Given the transgender community experiences constant violence, discrimination, and denial of rights, addressing these issues while also framing them positively is a powerful way the media can directly enact change.
In particular, this would mean familiarization with current nomenclature used within the trans community, researching critical issues one could report on, figuring out what kind of story you need to tell (hint: Don’t talk about genitals) and how you should frame it to have a (hopefully positive) impact. I realize a lot of the times media goes for the low hanging fruit, which tends to lie in shock value, but there are other ways of entertaining, educating, and amazing, without disparaging. Every interviewee is a person with a unique story to tell; it shouldn’t be that hard to find an interesting angle without resorting to trite, crass, or overly invasive questions. Even when well-intentioned, we can see how harmful this type of reporting can be.
Broader coverage of these incidents, along with continued media presence of key people, have propelled awareness of transgender issues into a wider platform, toward an audience who may be learning about this for the first time.
My hope is that we’ve approached the point where we can move beyond the basics. Enough common ground has been built to grasp the fundamentals (to the point where the existence of trans people is not shocking or newsworthy in itself anymore), deepening dialogue toward advocacy of violence, discrimination, social acceptance, and legal rights.
Roughgarden: It’s hard to say whether the incidents cited above move the discussion forward. Certainly the discussion involves participants who haven’t engaged the material before; however, the content of the material seems all too familiar. It reminds me of algebra class: the subject’s the same year after year, but each class needs to be taught anew.
As to the dialogue five years from now, I must say I wish it would become more scientifically and cross-culturally informed. Biologists are now quite well aware that the heterosexist binary is not a norm, merely one possibility among many forms of gender expression and sexuality. Queer and feminist studies have revealed human gender categories don’t reflect biological truths so much as power dynamics in the society. Enforcing gender categories brings winners and losers, and the winners get to define the gender norms in ways most beneficial to them. One should think of gender and sexual categories in humans as political, not biological—and that comes from a biologist: me.