Media misgendering reflects broader transphobia
The transgender community has long been disrespected and mocked in the corporate media, and the summer of 2013 was no exception. Nowhere was this more evident than in the willful misgendering of US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley.
The day after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, Manning came out as transgender. “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” declared Manning in a statement read by her lawyer on the Today show (8/22/13). “I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.”
Despite the clarity of Manning’s statement, nearly all major corporate news outlets (USA Today, 8/22/13)—initially refused to honor her request.
CNN (8/25/13) declared it would continue to refer to Manning as male “since he has not yet taken any steps toward gender transition through surgery or hormone replacement therapy.” The New York Times (8/22/13) announced that it had no choice but to call her “Bradley” because, said Times managing editor Dean Baquet, “readers would be totally confused if we turned on a dime overnight and changed the name and gender of a person in the middle of a major running news story.” Fortunately, a public outcry pushed the Times and a handful of other major outlets to reverse course (MSNBC, 8/27/13).
The corporate media have a transphobia problem that goes far beyond misgendering Manning, as demonstrated weeks earlier when another trans-related story was in the national spotlight.
On August 12, California passed a historic law, Assembly Bill 1266, requiring that public schools allow transgender students to join school sports teams and use school facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
Just as you might expect, the conservative media lost it.
“I think this is social engineering run amok,” argued conservative pundit Michelle Malkin on the August 13 edition of Fox & Friends (Raw Story, 8/13/13). Malkin was most appalled at the idea of transgender youth having the autonomy to choose which bathroom they prefer to use: “Really, I think it’s a usurpation of local, parental and community control.”
Fox & Friends host Eric Bolling characterized being transgender as a disease or contagion passed from one child to another, and warned of a “very scary, slippery slope.”
Co-host Gretchen Carlson, ignoring the often extreme levels of discrimination transgender youth face, was more concerned that horny teens might falsely identify as transgender to sneak a peek at the opposite sex. “Can you imagine now, the boys want to go into the girls bathroom and the girls want to go into the boys bathroom, and they can just say, ‘Oh, well, I was transgender for the moment.’”
While right-wing media were openly hostile towards transgender people, other corporate outlets displayed a more subtle bigotry by providing transphobic individuals a platform to spew their hatred in the name of “balance.”
Randy Thomasson, the head of Save California—labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)—was invited to appear on CNN Newsroom (8/13/13) to debate Masen Davis, the transgender executive director of the Transgender Law Center, about the groundbreaking law.
Thomasson echoed Fox News’ baseless fears about boys using what he called “sexual indoctrination laws” to invade the privacy of female classmates in the bathroom. He claimed that transgender youth were “sexually confused” and linked transgender identity to sexual abuse.
As the segment came to a close, the host reminded the audience that the network “just wanted to make sure we heard both sides here.” Thomasson then signed off by referring to both the host and Davis, a transgender man, as “ladies.” Davis later responded, “Failing to honor the gender identity of a transgender person is a common way for anti-equality zealots to try to undermine our credibility and humanity” (Raw Story, 8/13/13).
At least CNN invited a transgender person to speak—unlike the Associated Press (8/12/13), which failed to include a single quote from a trans person while allotting three paragraphs for the transphobic rantings of Karen England, executive director of the anti-LGBT Capitol Resource Institute.
The media’s willful misgendering of Chelsea Manning combined with open hostility toward the trans community and a repeated failure to air trans voices sends the message that the needs and lives of transgender people—one of the most marginalized groups in the country—are insignificant, and secondary to the comfort of those whose gender identities match the sex they were assigned at birth. Is it any wonder, then, that states are enacting laws to protect their transgender youth from such bigotry?