Last week writer and activist Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan Live to promote her new book, Redefining Realness, about growing up as a transgender woman of color. During the interview, Morgan said Mock used to be a man—and a descriptor by her name throughout the interview read that she “was a boy until 18,” when she pursued genital reconstruction surgery.
Many trans people, including Mock, do not agree that they used to be the gender they were assigned at birth. Mock always identified as female, and she claimed that identity as soon as she was able. That is, we in the trans community disagree that gender is defined by genitalia, and that surgery can change it. So Mock and others quickly challenged Morgan’s narrative that she used to be a man, with supporters producing a barrage of tweets and multiple hashtags. Morgan mocked the critiques in a string of his own tweets, insisting he was an ally who was the target of “cisphobia.” Morgan invited Mock back on his show the next night to hash out the controversy, where she explained she was never a boy. Yet Morgan refused to learn from Mock’s own story, and even convened a panel during the following segment to discuss the backlash that did not include any trans people. Panelists concluded that Mock was wrong about her own gender.
This followed an incident last month in which actresses Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, also trans women of color, appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show to promote their work—and were asked about their genitals. Carrera and Cox both refused to answer the question, instead discussing why the focus on genitals is dangerous, dehumanizing, and unacceptable. Couric explained in a follow-up segment that she made sure her problematic question and the powerful answers were both aired in the initial segment because, unlike Morgan, she considered Cox and Carrera’s responses a “teachable moment” for herself and her audience.
These two interviews are notable because the women involved were able to publicly push back against tired tropes about gender, identity, and surgery. But the problematic questions and framing by the interviewers are sadly not unique and in fact reflect press coverage of trans women more broadly.
Since the New York Daily News article about Christine Jorgensen’s “sex change” in 1952, the media has been obsessed with giving medical transitions a before-and-after narrative. Journalists have promoted the idea—as Piers Morgan did last week—that it is the surgery that changes a person’s gender. This is not the case.
Everyone has a gender assigned to them at birth based on a doctor’s perception of their genitals, and while most people identify with this gender, many do not. Gender is an identity, not something that can be found in someone’s crotch; in fact, we manage to gender everyone around us without seeing them naked. Yet the media often requires trans women to “prove” their genders. In Chelsea Manning’s case, journalists misgendered her despite her clarity on her chosen name and pronouns, with multiple news organizations saying they would respect her gender only after she transitioned medically and legally.
But conflating anatomy and gender isn’t the only way the press fails trans women. Too often, press coverage is about trans women of color who have been murdered and who experience a “second death” when they are misgendered and written about in salacious, titillating ways. One example is The New York Times’ coverage of the murder of trans woman of color Lorena Escalera last year, which painted her as a seductive sex object and deceptive trans woman engaged in sex work, suggesting a victim-blaming understanding of her murder. Press about trans women paints a prurient image of us as a group, one in which we are only visible as sexualized objects hiding our original gender—whose bodies and identities are open to scrutiny—rather than as full people.