Nov
01
2007

Transforming Coverage

Transgender issues get greater respect—but anatomy remains destiny

Transgender is hardly a new concept, but until recently it’s been considered by the media to be a topic for tabloid talkshows, not serious news programs. The tide is turning, though; as more and more public figures are coming out as having a gender identity different from their birth-assigned sex, and transgender characters are finding their way into more mainstream entertainment media (on TV shows like All My Children and movies like Transamerica), transgender stories are likewise moving from Jerry Springer to CNN at a remarkable pace.

As of this writing, the major network and cable news programs had nearly doubled their coverage of transgender issues in 2007 compared to the same period of time in 2006. But while it’s an encouraging start, quantity does not necessarily equal quality, and coverage is still plagued with a narrow uniformity of subjects and a relentless and invasive fixation on anatomy.

The explosion of coverage this year can be traced in part to the public coming out of two relatively high-profile figures: Largo, Florida city manager Steve Stanton was outed as transgender by the St. Petersburg Times on February 22; just two months later, longtime L.A. Times sportswriter Mike Penner announced in a column that he would henceforth be writing as Christine Daniels (4/26/07).

Stanton, who had served as city manager for 14 years, had developed a detailed communication plan for transitioning from male to female at work that was pre-empted by the St. Petersburg Times’ “scoop”; city commissioners fired Stanton a week later. It was hardly the first time a transgender person has been fired for transitioning, but it got an unusual amount of media play, no doubt because of Stanton’s high-level public position.

Daniels’ coming out, too, received a good deal of attention, though it was done with the support of the L.A. Times—another indication of media’s shifting attitudes towards transgender issues—and thus resulted in a less dramatic and shorter-lived news story. When Daniels told her boss at the Times that she was planning to transition from male to female, the paper arranged for her to make the change in a column in the paper, and added an online blog for her to write about the process; the feedback, according to Daniels, was overwhelmingly positive and supportive (LATimes.com, 4/30/07).

‘One ugly chick’

Newsweek soon explored gender identity in a cover story (5/21/07). And similar stories have been cropping up in other outlets across the country; the Boston Globe, for example, recently published a lengthy two-part feature on a local family practice doctor who transitioned to female (8/12/07, 8/19/07), and the Rocky Mountain News (9/1/07) profiled a detective who did the same.

The increased attention and apparent seriousness with which media are taking transgender stories today is remarkable; the idea of CNN inviting a transgender media critic to explain to them on the air the appropriate terminology to use when covering transgender issues (11/29/05), for example, would have been unthinkable not long ago, and both the Associated Press and New York Times style guides have recently added editorial guidelines to ensure that transgender people are covered using the name and pronouns they prefer, regardless of their biological or anatomical status—in other words, calling a transgender woman “she,” for example, regardless of whether she’s had any sort of surgery, taken hormones, or looks masculine or feminine to the reporter. It may seem like a small or simple detail, but for transgender people who had long been denied the right to define themselves—with media calling them by names and pronouns they don’t identify with—it’s an important step in the right direction.

That’s not to say that tabloid coverage has disappeared from the mainstream media; both the New York Post and New York Daily News headlines regularly refer to transgender people as “trannies,” often in stories emphasizing crime or scandal. The New York Post (6/13/04) ran an article on transgender Medicaid recipients getting critical hormones under the headline “Tranny RX Sex Scams,” and has no compunction about referring flippantly to transgender people with sensational and dehumanizing terms such as “he-turned-she” (6/2/07) or “transvestite hooker” (11/17/06).

MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson, too, regularly brings up transgender news items to scorn or make fun of them; he has called being transgender a “profound personality disorder” (2/23/06), declared sex reassignment surgery “an act of a crazy person” akin to “setting your hair on fire or blinding yourself” (2/23/06), and often makes derisive and immature comments about transgender people like “That dude is one ugly chick” (10/25/06). “Just because you’re castrated and have a fake set of boobs does not make you a woman,” Carlson insisted (6/1/06).

And sometimes the transphobia is slightly more subtle, as when Paula Zahn introduced a segment on a transgender teenager (CNN, 3/9/07) as being about “a family dealing with a truly bizarre problem,” or Barbara Walters explaining in a preview of her special on transgender children (ABC, 4/27/07) that “only by compassion, and understanding, and enlightenment can we accept them.”

A uniform narrative

What’s notable about so much of the more ostensibly “good” coverage, though, is how uniform and narrow it is. The narrative is by now quite familiar: A somewhat prominent white, middle-to-upper-class man comes out as a transgender woman, her long history of feeling “trapped in the wrong body” is detailed, and her struggles and surgeries are documented, as are the struggles of those around her to understand and embrace her change.

The focus on white male-to-female transgender people isn’t terribly surprising, considering media’s long-standing bias towards white male newsmakers (e.g., Extra!, 5-6/02); people like Stanton, Daniels, the Boston doctor and the Colorado detective, originally living as men, were all in reporters’ and editors’ sphere and on their radar, and so theirs are the stories that tend to make the news.

While Newsweek’s cover story broke that mold with a think piece on gender and gender identity, it was accompanied by five online profiles (5/13/07) of transgender individuals, every one of whom was a professional, white male-to-female. Most of the profiles were simply personal coming-out stories, with only a hint of political critique here and there. In fact, the piece most focused on discrimination was a profile of a vice president at Prudential, who talked about corporations’ advancement in transgender rights and what it’s like to come out at work—from a white senior manager’s perspective. While it’s perhaps simultaneously heartening and depressing that the worst challenge she identified was suddenly experiencing sexism in the workplace, the profile, the Newsweek package as a whole and the prevailing media narrative all project a vision of a transgender reality that hardly reflects the struggles of the many transgender people in positions of less power in their workplace, or those who can’t even get a job in the formal work sector, or those who otherwise face discrimination compounded by factors of race and class.

Statistics are not easy to come by, but one study found that in Washington, D.C., only 58 percent of transgender people surveyed had paid employment, 15 percent reported losing a job due to discrimination and 43 percent had been the victim of violence or crime (Gender.org, 2002). A similar study in San Francisco found that nearly half of transgender respondents had faced gender identity-based employment discrimination and over 30 percent had faced discrimination while trying to access healthcare (NCLR.org, 2003). It’s these stories that go missing while Newsweek muses to the Prudential VP, “Switching from slacks to panty hose cannot be easy.”

‘We’re all fascinated’

Indeed, it’s the superficial assessments that often dominate in media endlessly fascinated with transgender people’s anatomies. The ubiquitous personal profile narrative almost always involves talking about the transgender person’s genital status, and sometimes other extremely personal or intimate details. In that respect, we don’t seem to have come so far from the sensationalist Springer days of putting transgender people on display to appeal to the public’s fascination.

Take CNN’s Larry King, for example. He has plunged into the world of gender identity four times since 2005; one segment was an interview with Stanton that focused on the firing (4/13/07), but the other three were simply about transgender people and their various personal stories. In every single show, even the more ostensibly “hard news” Stanton segment, King managed to ask his guest about their genital status, what the surgery was like or when they were going to have it, and sometimes about their sexual orientation, their sex life—even whether they urinate standing or sitting.

To King, these seem to be perfectly natural questions to ask. When transgender guest Jennifer Finney Boylan reprovingly noted (5/25/05) that “people fixate on the surgery,” King replied, “Well, because we’re all fascinated with what happens.” Later, when Stanton likewise told King (4/13/07) that her surgery was “almost irrelevant at this point. It really is. That was a big focus. That’s the sensational aspect of this story, the sex change, what is he going to wear, when is she going to be. . . .” King’s response was, “That’s because people think about that.”

People may well think about it or be fascinated with it, but that hardly makes it an appropriate subject of journalistic inquiry. There are very few instances in which someone’s genital status or sex life would actually be pertinent to a news story, and the simple fact of being transgender is not one of them.

‘Pretty personal information’

King is hardly the only culprit. When Newsweek covered L.A. Times sportswriter Daniels’ transition, they did so in their “Perspectives” section, which highlights notable quotes from the week and adds an explanatory comment or two. Newsweek’s quote and commentary on Daniels made clear the primacy of the anatomical question in the editors’ minds (5/7/07):

“I am a transsexual sportswriter.”

— Mike Penner, of the Los Angeles Times, who announced his plans to return from a vacation as “Christine Daniels” in a column for the newspaper. Penner did not say whether he will undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

When NPR tackled the subject (8/15/07), host Madeleine Brand asked Daniels, “And will you have the sex change operation or is this it?” Daniels shot back: “That’s pretty personal information. I have not made that decision yet.”

It’s hard to imagine journalists treating non-transgender people in the same way, but unfortunately, in the media as in our culture at large, transgender people’s bodies and what they do with them are rarely granted the same privacy that others are given; the story that the media most often want to tell about transgender people is an anthropological one, describing, defining and explaining them, instead of reporting on the systemic discrimination they face or their political struggles and victories. And the way the media want to define and understand transgender people is by their anatomies; questions about those anatomies, then, seem perfectly germane.

To return to Larry King for an illustration, after asking Stanton how the surgery was and learning that it hadn’t happened yet, King replied: “Well, now I understand. You’re a transgender but you haven’t had surgery. . . . So basically you’re a cross-dresser?”

Stanton responded:

No. I think what’s important is who you are, what’s in your heart and what’s in your head and not between your legs. And that—the genitalia does not define you as an individual. So no, I am who I am. Unfortunately, in our society we do tend to define people in very binary terms. That’s silly.

King, however, couldn’t seem to shake the genital obsession, and immediately asked, “Don’t you feel funny with the wrong genitalia?” Nor did he learn the important lesson about transgender identity that Stanton had attempted to teach him, since just a few months later (8/10/07) he had almost the same conversation with another guest. After asking a transgender woman if she’d had surgery and learning she had not, nor had she taken hormones to change her physical appearance, King replied, “What are you now, are you just a man dressing up as woman? . . . You’re not a transgender at all yet?”

Not defined by genitals

The consequences of media’s fixation extend beyond dehumanizing and disrespectful interrogations; as transgender lawyer and activist Dean Spade told Extra!, such reporting reinforces the idea that “trans people’s genitals are our defining characteristic, which is possibly the single most discriminatory belief reflected in law and policy harming trans people.” Many transgender people can’t afford the expensive surgeries, and others don’t want to undergo them for a variety of reasons, but the widespread misconception that transgender people are defined by their anatomy puts serious roadblocks in their efforts to secure basic rights.

Changing one’s gender designation on official documents like a driver’s license or birth certificate—a critical step for getting a job or simply getting by on a daily basis without facing discrimination or the need to regularly explain and justify one’s identity—almost always requires “proof” in the form of surgery. In prisons and jails, inmates are usually put into sex-segregated facilities based on their anatomy, not on their gender identity—which puts some transwomen in male facilities, greatly increasing their risk of experiencing rape and violence at the hands of guards and other inmates. Similar problematic rules exist in other sex-segregated facilities like shelters and mental health facilities.

They’re serious problems for the transgender community, and they exist because of deeply ingrained misconceptions—misconceptions that instead of correcting, media perpetuate.