Many supporters of trans issues aren’t equipped with the language to talk about it. And some members of the community aren’t being very forgiving.
This week, Piers Morgan found himself in the hot seat when he hosted trans activist and writer Janet Mock on his show, Piers Morgan Live. On hand to promote her new book, Redefining Realness, Mock was introduced by CNN’s tagline and by Morgan as “a boy until 18.”
While she was gracious and good-natured on air, after the interview went live, she tweeted about the tagline: “get it the f*ck together.” And she added: “I was not formerly a man. Pls stop sensationalizing my life and misgendering trans women.” She was upset at how the interview focused on her physical transition and the reaction from men she dated—both points of which she spends large chunks of her book discussing at length.
She told Buzzfeed: “He’s trying to do info-tainment. He doesn’t really want to talk about trans issues, he wants to sensationalize my life and not really talk about the work that I do and what the purpose of me writing this book was about.”
Almost immediately, Morgan was bombarded on Twitter with Mock’s followers, who lobbed accusations that he was transphobic.
One person wrote: “I WOULD LOVE TO SEE YOU LOCKED IN A ROOM WITH A GROUP OF TRANS PEOPLE YOU ABSOLUTE COCK SUCK.”
Another wrote: “God I really hope @piersmorgan develops a nice bout of dick-cancer, that annoying bigoted little twat.”
It’s true that Morgan isn’t the most delicate of interviewers. At best, he’s smarmy; at worst, he’s a pompous ass. Several questions were about as elegantly worded as a Mack truck hitting a brick wall. For instance, during the interview he asked, “How did I not know anything about your story? I would’ve had absolutely not a clue that you had ever been a boy, a male, which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman. And that must have been what you felt when you were young.”
While this is essentially Morgan saying, “You’re so pretty, I can’t believe you once had a penis,” it’s not transphobic; it’s just foot-in-mouth stupid.
Like other mainstream journalists, Morgan focused heavily on the physical transformation process—an unfortunate and tiresome thing, especially for those of us who’ve long been bored with this Jerry Springer take on trans people. And he focused on how Mock came out to the man who would become her boyfriend, a tension-filled event that frames her book.
But Piers Morgan is right to assert that he’s not transphobic. He is trying to do the right thing by giving a person from a marginalized part of society a very big platform. He is an advocate for equal rights of LGBT people.
What the Morgan v. Mock blow-up highlighted is the way the trans community sometimes deals with perceived—as well as real—slights. To be sure, the trans community has more at stake than even the gay and lesbian community with which they are most closely, if incorrectly, affiliated with. There are higher number of murders and violent crimes committed against the trans community; their lives are in great danger; they are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty; 41 percent have attempted suicide; 61 percent have been physically assaulted and suffer from daily discrimination—right up to where they can use a bathroom in public places.
But the American population at large is still struggling to understand the difference between gender and sex; is just starting to wrap their heads around the idea that someone could be born into the wrong body, and yet is expected to immediately accept and understand new language that has been introduced only in the last few years. Words like cisgendered (used to describe non trans, male-and-female bodied people, often derogatively employed by transpeople), and the myriad alternate pronouns for those who don’t feel comfortable with “he” and “she” (“ze,” “ve,” “hir”) take some getting used to. Give us a minute.
Cisgendered folks like Morgan are expected to keep up with ever-changing guidelines around what was, until recently, commonly accepted language—like the word “tranny,” which was for years an accepted shorthand for “transsexual” and “transgender” and used by members of the LGBT community—but is now regarded as an offensive term.
This hypersensitivity and defensiveness extends to people who are allies and advocates for the trans community. Precious and American Horror Story star Gabourey Sidibe caught flak for her appearance last week on The Arsenio Hall Show when she made a joke referring to “tranny-on-tranny” crime. Actor Jared Leto, who portrays a transwoman in The Dallas Buyers Club, was accosted by a heckler in the crowd at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival who said he was a “transmisogynist” who didn’t deserve his acting awards for his role because straight men shouldn’t be playing transwomen.
When so much is evolving so quickly, the finer points are often lost on those not entrenched in the community, allies like Sidibe included. She wrote on Twitter, “I’ve apologized several times for using the word ‘Tranny.’ I don’t [sic] realize that it was a slur. I’m very sorry for my poor choice of words. I’m also sorry for having made light of a bad situation. It was not my intention.”
While Mock and Mock’s supporters should do their best to correct the cisgendered ignoramuses of the world (like myself) of their misdeeds, they should also take care to not become like the very people they’ve been battling their whole lives—bullies. Many of the people who find themselves feeling the wrath of the trans community are like Morgan—straight white guys who are actually on their side, who become essentially terrified of talking about trans issues in the event they say the wrong thing.
As Morgan told Mock in her follow-up appearance: “I think it doesn’t do you or your community any good service to try and make people like me the enemy and the target of abuse, and you’ve read the tweets, you know what I’m talking about, when actually I’m on your side.”
This mob mentality and p.c. policing is what Sandra Bernhard talked about in an interview with Wag’s Review, in which she excoriated Internet bullies and word-police of all stripes:
“Honestly, because of the Internet, because of people’s stupidity, because of people’s either fake political correctness, or the right-wing fake concern about people using language that they would use in their bedroom (but in a derogatory destructive way), it’s not even worth saying certain things anymore because you just don’t want it taken out of context, and you don’t wanna defend it because the minute you have to start defending it, that means you’re explaining your work, and the work that I do can’t be explained, and I don’t wanna explain it. I’ve never used a word about anybody that didn’t have many, many layers and meanings and double-entendres, and that wasn’t laced with irony. So a few things that I might have said ten, fifteen, twenty years ago pre-social media, I wouldn’t even bother saying today. I’m like, I’m not gonna be your guinea pig. Fuck it. I just won’t.”
The fear of backlash from the trans community is so large that when I reached out to an LGBT activist, he refused to comment: “I’m not allowed to have opinions anymore.”
Morgan’s confusion about Mock’s anger was somewhat rooted in semantics regarding identifying Mock as a boy prior to her sex-reassignment surgery. While Mock was born male-bodied and assigned a corresponding gender, she, like many trans people, maintains that she has always been a girl. But sex and gender is a complex and complicated subject that is hard to dive into in a ten-minute time frame.
He asked her on Wednesday, “I want to learn why it is so offensive to actually just say that you grew up as a boy and you then—because you’ve always felt that you’re female you’ve had surgery to become a woman. To become a real woman as you say in the book, why is it offensive?”
She later answered, “Do I dispute that I was born a boy? I was born a baby, who was assigned male at birth, I did not identify or live my life as a boy.”
Perhaps, next time, Mock could take a page from her good friend, trans actress Laverne Cox, whose quick-witted and razor-sharp responses to Katie Couric during a similarly awkward interview last month, effectively neutralized the discussion about transwomen’s bodies and genitals, and redirected the focus to greater issues the trans community faces, like getting murdered for being themselves.
“I do feel there is a preoccupation with that—the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people,” Cox told Couric. “And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of transpeople’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a transperson of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among transwomen. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”
Perhaps the best mainstream interview covering the ABC’s of trans issues was David Letterman’s purposefully elementary exchange with Chaz Bono in 2011, in which Bono walked Letterman—and the audience—carefully through the difference between sexuality, gender identity, and sex. Not every interview can be so carefully and conscientiously conducted, but as Morgan pleaded to Mock in round two: “Let me learn something here.” Let us all.
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