By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Prior to the last year or two, the question of whether trans people and
identities would achieve widespread cultural acceptance and support felt like an
open one. Ignorance abounded in mainstream reporting on trans subjects, and trans
women and men were still punchlines, rather than characters or guests, on shows
like “South Park” and “The Colbert Report.”
During a remarkable period between August 2013 and February 2014,
however, that appears to have changed, as a series of events, some of them painful
and tragic, resulted in a kind of public consciousness raising around trans people in
While it’s something of an arbitrary starting point, I would say this began
with Chelsea Manning’s declaration of her identity. Following her conviction, on
August 23, 2013, the soldier released a statement saying, “I am Chelsea Manning. I
am a female.” In reporting on this, mainstream, prestigious media outlets, such as
NPR, NY Times, The Washington Post and others all showed enormous
incompetence and insensitivity, pondering aloud about when they might recognize
Manning’s identity, such as when the government that had just convicted her agreed
to do so, or when she’d had the surgeries her jailers would not allow her to attain.
For days, they continued misgendering her, and referring to her former name, a
display that suggested not only that they had no trans staff members in their
organizations, but that they felt no need to respect the feelings of the trans people
and their allies in their audiences.
The public outcry about this, on social media, and directly to the outlets
themselves, led them to quickly change their approach, and affirm that trans
individuals have the right to determine their identities, while others have the
responsibility to respect their wishes.
After a quiet few months, in November, the Senate debated and voted on a
trans-inclusive ENDA, and not a single Republican Senator said anything negative,
even in a coded way, about trans folk, a show of restraint indicating a new level of
civility around trans topics at the political level.
January 2014 might be seen in retrospect as a kind of watershed month for
trans people. On January 7, Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox appeared on Katie
Couric. Couric asked the former about surgery, and Carrera demurred, gently
critiquing the host on her invasion of privacy. When Cox came out the three had a
discussion about the invasive focus the media places on trans people’s physical
This episode made public a grievance that had long simmered in the trans
community, that of the cis community’s blithe speculation on trans people’s genitals.
Julia Serano’s book “Whipping Girl” explored this at length back in 2007. Carrera
and Cox’s status as celebrities allowed them to voice this complaint at a national
venue for the first time. Couric came under a great deal of criticism, both for her
query, and the non-apology she made about it being a “teachable moment.” It’s
worth noting, however, that Cox returned to the show later, and credited its host for
not editing the moment out, as she easily might have.
In mid-January, the punk band Against Me!, fronted by trans woman Laura
Jane Grace, began streaming its album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” The album
was the first the band had made since Grace’s transition, and was searingly personal
throughout in addressing its title topic. The band’s record was fantastically well-
received, with rock critics making none of the mistakes their news peers had
committed regarding names and pronouns five months prior with Manning.
Against Me! had released several records before Grace’s transition, and this
album rollout, while marred by a few horrible radio interviews, like that with LA DJs
Kevin & Bean, provided a template for how a public figure could be respectfully
received in the media when transitioning.
On January 15, an article appeared on the website Grantland called “Dr. V’s
Magical Putter,” that, because of its tragic handling of trans issues, caused an
online firestorm. It’s author, Caleb Hannan, sought to investigate the inventor of a
new putter, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. He found discrepancies in her past,
regarding her credentials and background. He also discovered she was a trans
woman. Hannan, in pursuing his story, outed Vanderbilt to her business partners,
and would not agree to keep her trans identity out of the story, even after she
threatened to kill herself. In the course of Hannan’s reporting, Vanderbilt did
commit suicide. Mindboggingly, Hannan’s story, which can still be found on
Grantland, documents all of this with no awareness that anything transphobic or
problematic had occurred, and repeatedly conflates her trans status with her false
credentials, suggesting they are equally fraudulent.
This episode led to widespread discussions among journalists about the
importance of sensitivity when covering trans subjects. The site’s editor published a
lengthy, occasionally problematic, apology, attempting to explain how such a story
could be published, and pledged to do better, with regards to trans topics. Following
this, because of the horrible human cost involved, it became unthinkable that such a
thoughtless event could recur.
Finally, on February 5, Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan. The activist,
who was promoting her memoir, was asked invasive questions, while captions on
the screen said things like, “Was a Boy Until 18.” After the show aired, Mock took to
Twitter, accusing Morgan of “sensationalizing” her story, and telling his show to “get
it the f*k together.” If Couric and Grantland offered examples of gracefully handling
mistakes regarding trans issues, Morgan displayed the opposite, trying to shout
down his critics on Twitter for hours, and, in the process, resembling Old Man
As with genital issues on Katie Couric, Morgan’s queries touched on issues
trans people had long decided they don’t like: the designation “born a man,” being
asked how they think their partners feel about our birth assignments, etc. Mock was
ready speak back about this, and her followers heard her loud and clear. While
future interviewers might venture into these areas again inadvertently, or stumble
into other transphobic tropes, it’s hard to imagine anyone knowingly displaying the
arrogant insensitivity shown by Morgan.