August 2013 to February 2014: America’s 6 Month Trans Education

Trans History PhotoBy 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

our society.

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

transitions.

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

Privilege.

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.