Jun 1 2012

Being Transgender in American Media

Most journalists get pronouns right, but issues wrong

Give the corporate media cookies for finally getting pronouns right when reporting on transgender people. That only took dozens of years.

Now if we could curb the media fixation on genitalia, we might be really getting somewhere. Because when it comes to covering transgender issues, media are still asking all the wrong questions, and framing the stories in the most offensive ways.

Jenna Talackova--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Jenna Talackova–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s examine the media swarm around Miss Universe Canada contestant Jenna Talackova. In April, Talackova was ousted from the pageant because of her transgender identity, and then later reinstated.

Sure, reporters and newscasters were practically bursting to show that they knew how to properly refer to Talackova as a woman—no small feat for the LGBT community. But they also couldn’t stop referring to other things, namely her gender reassignment surgery, her upbringing as a boy, and the surprise twist—Talackova has a boyfriend! The reporting made Talackova appear as a cultural oddity, and only served to further isolate and sensationalize transgender people. Underneath the polite headlines and proper pronouns, the content still screamed, “former man in a dress.”

The press instantly derailed from the story about gender discrimination to a story about surgery and sex. The New York Daily News (4/8/12) detailed Talackova’s operations in a clinical coldness. People (4/7/12) wrote that Talackova “even has a boyfriend, a man she says is near her age and is ‘very supportive…just an amazing man.’” Even? At least he’s supportive.

The media lobbed highly personal questions at Talackova, insinuating again and again that her situation verged on the freakish. During an interview on Good Morning America (4/9/12), host George Stephanopoulos asked Talackova when she informs partners about her transformation, saying, “When you meet someone, is it something you talk about right away?”

And when Talackova divulged—after being asked—that she wants kids in the future, Stephanopoulos responded patronizingly, “Good for you.” He could have patted her on the head.

The most distressing questions came from Barbara Walters in an interview with Talackova on 20/20 (4/7/12). Walters told Talackova she was “going to have to ask [her] some tough questions that people really want to know.” Apparently, her journalistic mandate required Walters to ask, “Part of the sex surgery is that the skin of the penis is used to create what appears to be a vagina, is that correct?”

And also, “So if I saw you undressed, you would look like a woman to me totally, yes?” And, “Did you also have breast implants?” Finally, “Are you attracted to men or to women?”

These types of questions made it seem like Walters was taking her one shot at interviewing an alien or Bigfoot—someone (or something) not quite human, an “it” rather than a “she.” Walters singled out Talackova’s anatomy as if it were her defining characteristic, and then asked the audience to point and look.

It’s hard to imagine Walters asking another guest about their genitalia or what they look like naked, but Walters acted entitled to know the private elements of Talackova’s life simply because of her trans status. Why does this matter? The trans community can never gain equality in society when media essentially say that trans people are undeserving of the same rights as others.

Walters’ anatomy-obsessed portrayal of Talackova reduces transgender experience to the purely physical and sexual, when in fact many in the trans community have not had surgery or taken hormone therapy. These are people who are parents, spouses, siblings, doctors, musicians, writers, dog lovers, etc.

Aaron McQuade of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says exploitative and narrow reporting affects the way others perceive transgender people: “It puts the trans person behind a pane of glass at a museum, and they’re like, ‘Ooh, look at this. This is fascinating,’ rather than making them a human being who you would sit across the dinner table with and just talk about the day.”

But the attention to Talackova’s story wasn’t all like 20/20—and that attention may have paved the way for Melissa Harris-Perry’s excellent 20-minute MSNBC segment (4/15/12), “Being Transgender in America.” Harris-Parry featured a panel of three transgender people discussing trans activism and issues like harassment, employment discrimination, homelessness and the criminal justice system—and not a single question about genitalia. The tide is slowly shifting.

Still, there’s a long way to go. With most in the media obsessing over Talackova’s body and sexual preferences, the real issues were almost completely ignored. For example, if gender discrimination is happening in the Miss Universe pageant, where else is it happening in our society? Would the pageant officials’ decision have been different if Talackova were black, or if she hadn’t had gender reassignment surgery?

The media could have—and should have—elevated the conversation. Instead, they called Talackova a woman while simultaneously making a mockery of what it means to be her.