COVERING STORIES ABOUT TRANSGENDER PEOPLE CAN BE CHALLENGING
By LEO E. LAURENCE
Copyright © 2008 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved
The Fox News Channel got into trouble in August by airing “a crude and obnoxious segment concerning the recent announcement of America’s Next Top Model’s first-ever Transgender contestant,” as described by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
“Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett and Us Weekly editor-at-large Ian Drew spent (a segment on August 14) insulting the … contestant, using dehumanizing terminology, inaccurate and inappropriate pronouns and offensive references to her anatomy,” said a GLAAD “Call to Action.”
“While laughing and joking, Jarrett mocked Isis’ description of herself as a woman whose ‘cards were dealt differently,’” and said, “That’s an understatement.”
Drew said on the air, “They are not exactly the most high-class group of women.”
Responding to GLAAD, Us Weekly issued this statement: “We apologize if any group was offended by our editor’s comments, as it was by no means his intention.”
Fox News did not respond to GLAAD, according to “The Donna Blog” that followed this story.
Historically, Transgender people have occupied an unusual place in community life. In the last decade, they have been adopted by many in the Gay & Lesbian community, which is often called GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender), though in some cities, Lesbians have insisted in being listed first as LGBT. There remains, however, considerable friction between Gay men, Lesbians and Transgender people in many cities.
Many Gays believe Transgender people should develop their own separate community, apart from the Gay Community because Transgender people often are not Gay or Lesbian. Indeed, many Trans-gender people lead a “straight” lifestyle, dating partners opposite to the gender with which they identify.
“I told my parents I was Gay, but I never really felt Gay because I didn’t feel like a woman,” said Tony Weeks in an interview with Zenger’s Newsmagazine in San Diego. Tony was born female, but lives and looks like a man.
“But, there was no other category to put myself in (referring to Gay). So, since I didn’t even ‘feel’ that, I didn’t feel part of the human race,” Weeks added. He lives a straight lifestyle, living with Ashley, a male-to-female Transgender person.
“One of the benefits of being with her is that, by me being able to accept her as a woman, it made it easier for me to accept myself as a (female-to-male Transgender) man before we had our surgeries.
Zenger’s editor Mark Gabrish Conlan asked Tony: “One of the quirkier aspects of this whole thing [is] what you talked about the mix-up between gender identities and sexual orientation. You’re dealing with someone and you’re thinking, ‘She’s attracted to me because she thinks I’m a woman. But I’m really not a Gay woman; I’m a straight man.’”
Tony responded: “Yes. You see where it could make you feel like you’re just nuts.”
Ashley added: “I knew that I wasn’t straight, so I thought the only alternative was that I was Gay. I lived that lifestyle for some time, and I knew that it really wasn’t me, but it fit better than ‘straight’. Later I got involved with the Bisexual community, and I found that a lot of Bisexual feelings are similar to Transgendered feelings.
“Most people don’t understand the whole thing of Transsexuals. I can’t totally explain it. I can just tell you this much, it’s not easy. It’s not like you transition and everything is great in your life,” Tony explained.
If life itself is complicated and difficult for Transgender individuals, journalists have a particularly difficult job in reporting in our stories.
While Transgender individuals are now included in the sphere of influence of the Gay & Lesbian community (e.g., the acronym “GLBT”), many Transgender individuals do not consider themselves to be Gay and live a straight lifestyle. Consequently, many Gays, especially Gay seniors, are uncomfortable relating to Transgender individuals.
Indeed, some Transgender persons seem to be overtly homophobic. One, Alysa Wolven of San Diego, a male-to-female Transgender person, has been actively involved for years in “getting rid of those homosexuals who cruise Balboa Park at night.” She proudly waged a major campaign to push the city’s Parks Department to denude the historically Gay Sixth Avenue Area of the park of all brush so the police could more easily spot Gays simply walking in the wooded areas.
One problem facing journalists covering these issues is the difficulty in defining the terms, some of which not even Gays understand.
What is a Transgender vs. a transsexual vs. a transvestite? “While the term Transgender” includes all transsexuals, most Transgender people are not transsexuals,” according to the “Sexinfo” Web site of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“The word ‘Transgender’ is a broad term that describes all people who feel that their anatomical sex does not match their gender identity, and/or whose appearance and behaviors do not conform to the societal roles expected of their sex. This includes male-to-female transsexuals, female-to-male transsexuals, as well as drag queens and drag kings.
“Transsexuals are people who intend to live as a gender other than that assigned to them at birth. Many transsexuals alter their primary and secondary sex characteristics with hormone treatments, surgery or both. Transsexuals make up only a minority of the Transgender community.
“A transvestite is a person who dresses in the clothing of the other gender, or cross-dresses. They usually keep their gender identity according to their sexual anatomy. Nevertheless, their cross-dressing places them in the broad category of Transgender people,” the UCSB Web site explains. Transvestites are often straight and do not identify with the Gay community.
As a practical matter, drag queens, especially those who regularly perform in Gay bars, culturally consider themselves to by Gay and do not identify with the Transgender community; though the UCSB academicians consider them to be part of it.
Historically, life was much more simple 39 years ago in the closeted homosexual community. Then life suddenly and dramatically changed, when the closeted community was “outed” and Gay Lib was first launched in San Francisco, then later at the Stonewall riots in New York City.
Gay men clearly dominated the scene in the late 1960’s. They were numerically larger than Lesbians in the general population, and remain so today. But as Lesbians became more vocal and took a leading leadership role, the all-inclusive term “Gay community” became “Gay & Lesbian community.” In some cities, Lesbians won the right to be listed first.
As Bisexuals emerged more prominently in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the name changed to “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual community.” Then more recently, the name changed again and now we have the “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community,” usually abbreviated “GLBT” or “LGBT.”
Clearly, there is no unanimity in the GLBT community that Transgender people make a good fit. As a practical matter, however, it doesn’t appear that any fundamental name change will occur anytime soon.
Journalists need to understand these complexities of all the different titles assigned to the widely diverse lifestyles within the GLBT community. As is often said, it includes everyone from “leather to lace.”
Reporters also need to avoid the degrading comments made by Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett and Us Weekly editor-at-large Ian Drew on August 14 when they made crude and obnoxious comments about the first-ever Transgender contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” program.
This piece was originally written for the National Committee on Diversity of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at firstname.lastname@example.org