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.
Last month, these tropes played out yet again in Grantland’s recent article about Dr. V. Reporter Caleb Hannan originally set out to write about a golf club, but his editors let him expand the scope of his story when he realized that Dr. V was a trans woman. Hannan based his article around his experience of this “discovery” despite the fact that he had agreed to Dr. V’s stipulation that the story focus on her work, not on her. She committed suicide shortly before the article was published. While it is impossible to draw a direct link between Hannan’s questioning of Dr. V and her suicide, this incident felt disturbingly familiar to many trans women who saw a link between Dr. V fearing threats of being outed, which can have catastrophic results in our transphobic culture, and ending her own life. Grantland Editor in Chief Bill Simmons said part of the failing was not consulting any trans people while editing the story.
But the presence of trans people should not be necessary to prevent basic failures of journalism and human decency. Most mainstream media organizations—including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post—have guidelines for reporting on trans people. Those guidelines aren’t perfect, but they are much better than what actually happens when disregarded in favor of objectifying tropes. For reporters who want to do better, there are resources, including a guide produced by GLAAD and a helpful article with tips for journalists at Poynter (for which I was interviewed). Yet journalists continue to focus interviews with trans women on transition and the state of their genitals. There are examples of journalists interviewing trans women with respect, most notably on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, but they are few and rarely mainstream.
This is particularly sad because there are so many important, compelling stories about trans women that need to be told. As a group, we face staggering rates of discrimination and marginalization by every measure, including housing, employment, healthcare, incarceration, and violence. As statistics, these facts are difficult to grapple with, but they suggest that there are so many stories out there about trans women’s struggles and resistance—stories about the reality of life.
The marginalization trans women face is extreme and needs to be reported more broadly, but stories about the full spectrum of our humanity are necessary to represent trans women as real people to media consumers. The trans women in my life are an incredibly resilient, creative, brilliant, and even visionary group. We deserve to have stories about our lives and accomplishments told in ways that don’t reduce us to our genitals. Journalists should especially focus on positive stories about trans women of color, given they are targeted with the most poor press coverage. Finally, transition is simply not always relevant to a story about a trans woman, and surgical status is rarely relevant unless it’s the particular focus of the a story, which needs to happen much less often. It’s almost always inappropriate to ask a trans person about the status of their privates. Sometimes an article about a golf club can just be about a golf club.