When reporters write on transgender – common and subtle problems
The subject of this week’s post was inspired when a couple of friends contacted me separately to bring a particular news article to my attention. To each of you – thanks for your interest! And for making choosing a topic for this post that much easier.
The article to which I was directed was published on the 11th December on the website of The Boston Globe Metro, and can be found here.
But before we get onto that, let’s talk about today’s topic title more generally. For the longest time, it was basically impossible to find mention of trans people in mainstream media. It was a topic that made people uncomfortable. People didn’t generally want to hear about ‘that sort of thing’, either finding it irrelevant, uncomfortable, morally outraging, or any combination of these things. Without going off on a massive tangent on this background of LGBT in media, things are slowly changing and finding pieces of mainstream journalism looking at transgender issues is no longer like finding a four leaf clover by the light of a blue moon. However, the problem with more people taking notice is that more people can – to paraphrase Hugh Laurie’s Prince George from Blackadder III – be absolute arseheads.
Aside: Why did society start having a problem with men wearing wigs and make-up anyway?
Many, many incredibly shitty things have been written about trans people. A (perhaps) surprising amount of this has come from feminist and gay/lesbian sources, with (simplistically speaking) some of the former considering trans men to be ‘traitors’ to womanhood, and trans women are ‘just men invading female spaces’. I wish I was exaggerating. A particularly infamous piece of damaging refuse can be found in the form of the 1979 book The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, which contains this charming quotation:
All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves … Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.
In a similar vein, the lesbian feminist journalist Julie Bindel has written some really horrible stuff about transgender people. She was nominated for Stonewall’s 2008 ‘journalist of the year’ award, not exactly a great message sent out from this huge LGB charity (note the absence of the ‘T’).
This offensive horror was printed with Bindel’s 2004 article (linked to above) in ‘The Guardian Weekend’, 21st January 2004. The gist of the article argues that transwomen are not real women, and their experiences as women are invalid. The badge reads ‘I’m a girl’.
So yeah, this stuff is pretty unequivocally offensive – but you could easily be forgiven for asking how this relates to the original link to the news story ‘Led by the child who simply knew’, at the top of the page. I’d like to add, that in writing this piece, I conferred with a few trans and non-binary friends, to see what they thought of this article. I did this because of my cis-privilege. Having this doesn’t make me a bad person, but it is undeniably there, and important to bear in mind when I’m talking about transgender experiences. If I simply bust out a load of opinionated stuff on such issues without ever actually discussing it with someone it affects directly, I would be in danger of speaking for a minority group I cannot claim membership of, and in fact risk silencing that group despite my intentions. So yeah. Obviously the people I spoke to could only talk for themselves, but at least I can say I haven’t made sweeping and unchecked assumptions about how this article may be received.
The problems here are less loaded with malice. More comparable to the accidental but nevertheless cringeworthy racist comments that elderly grandparents can sometimes pop out with. It’s not okay, but to some extent we can understand why it happens, due to lack of a certain specific bit of education. To borrow a term from the (fabulous) writer Julia Serano, the original article engages in oppositional sexism, which Serano defines as:
[T]he belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.
Right from the start, we catch phrases like “Jonas was all boy. He loved Spiderman, action figures, pirates, and swords.” – would he be less so if he didn’t? In the case of his twin, Nicole, is her being female only justified through the presentation of stereotypical feminine behaviour and traits?
It’s not wrong to talk about Nicole’s experiences. If she likes pink, and mermaids, and Barbies, that’s great! But it’s important to not imply that this is what makes her female identity ‘real’. Little boys can like these things too, and not be any ‘less’, even if some people might argue otherwise.
See, Barbie can be fun for some boys too…
It’s also problematic that the name Nicole was given at birth is repeatedly used, and that she is referred to as ‘he’ repeatedly. As a baby and small child, she clearly wasn’t in a position to understand or communicate any gender identity. So why now her personal identity is clear, are inaccuracies of the past referred to? Gender identity isn’t immutable, but to frame the experience as ‘he’ was a boy who ‘became’ a girl implies both choice, and that being defined as ‘boy’ was the natural state of affairs – creating a hierarchy whereby genitals trumps identity. Not good!
The old cliché of “a girl in a boy’s body” is also touted. What is it that makes a body that of a boys? Lack of breasts? Oh hang on, little girls don’t have them. How about the other physiological markers? I’ve already talked about how this doesn’t really get one anywhere. Nicole identifies as a girl. Therefore, she has a girl’s body. Even if people ‘know what you’re talking about’, it’s potentially rather offensive to call a transwoman ‘biologically male’, or vice versa.
The article does do a valuable thing in providing some insight into the experiences of a trans girl and her family. The quotations from her parents about the experience help make the story relatable to people for whom this is totally alien territory. Whatsmore, Nicole’s self expression wasn’t smoothed down to being textbook-feminine:
“I would say my brother got lucky with me. Because we grew up with only boy neighbors, I developed a liking to shoot-’em-up and military video games,’’ she says. “I could have come out a lot girlier.’
It is important to recognise that the breadth of experience amongst trans people, just like cis people, is immense. Not everyone ‘knows’ from such a young age like Nicole, and that’s okay. Not everyone detests the bodies they were born with and want surgery, and that’s okay too. There aren’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ valid experiences of transgenderism. Unfortunately, breadth of experience isn’t something the mainstream media seems to have represented well just yet. There’s only a certain degree to which papers are prepared to challenge their majority readership. This article seems to me to be more sincere than simply a voyeuristic look at an atypical child, but could also be vastly improved upon with just a certain specific bit of education.