Seven questions about transgender issues you were afraid to ask

Janet Mock at an LGBTQ event In New York last year. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Trevor Project)
Janet Mock at an LGBTQ event In New York last year. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The Trevor Project)

A flap erupted between writer and trans activist Janet Mock and CNN host Piers Morgan last week after Mock appeared on Morgan’s show to promote her memoir, “Redefining Realness.” Morgan repeatedly asserted that Mock had been “born a boy” or that she “used to be a man.” After her appearance, Mock expressed her disappointment on Twitter.

Morgan invited Mock on his show a second time, where he vociferously defended himself as an ally of LGBT rights, and demanded that Mock explain what he’d done wrong. He said that Mock’s supporters had “abused” and “vilified” him by calling him out on Twitter.

Why were so many people furious with Piers Morgan?

There were several problems with the language Morgan used. For starters, he repeatedly asserted that Mock had formerly been a boy. He also said that Mock had surgery to become a woman. Mock was a woman long before she had the surgery she felt she needed to reflect that. Part of the fight for transgender rights and justice is a fight for self-determination: to be able to proclaim who you are without anyone else adding caveats.

But these problems aren’t limited to just Morgan. Katie Couric made similar mistakes when “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox was a guest on her show. Couric asked invasive and personal questions about Cox’s surgery, which Cox called “objectifying.” Too often, there is a focus on an individual’s transition and surgery that bears a distinct whiff of “Jerry Springer” or “Maury” and can have the effect of reducing a person to the genitalia they happen to possess. (You can read more about Mock and “Redefining Realness” in my colleague, Dan Zak’s, story here).

After Mock’s second segment, Morgan invited three more guests, all pundits or journalists, to tell him what he’d done wrong, and Amy Holmes reduced his transgressions to “semantics.” This seems a little rich, given that all of these people work in an industry whose currency is words.

This sort of sensationalist approach, even if that’s not its intention, can have profound consequences, as “Grantland” found with ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter.’ Gerri Jordan, Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s ex-girlfriend and business partner, believes that Vanderbilt may have committed suicide in part because she feared being outed as transgender in the “Grantland” article. Said ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte:

Critiques of the piece, in my mailbag, on media sites and in blogs (such as here) were sometimes brilliant in their insights into transgender lives (often their own) and condemnation of the way the corporate media cover communities they so often marginalize.

Vanderbilt, or “Dr. V,” was a trans woman who was the subject of a “Grantland” piece that was slammed by transgender rights advocates. Vanderbilt was the creator of an amazing, oddly-shaped golf putter. She was also a con artist, and in his due diligence, author Caleb Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt lied about her credentials as a scientist. However, where “Grantland” went wrong was in breathlessly depicting Vanderbilt’s gender as just another lie in a string of deceptions. Not only did she not attend MIT, she used to be a man! It fed into the worst narratives about trans people: that they are inherently duplicitous; that they are trying to convince the world they are something they are not, that by presenting themselves as the gender they believe they are, they are simply running a con.

What does cis mean? What does it mean to be cissexist?

When someone is cisgender, it means that their gender reflects the genitalia that they were born with. Cissexism means assuming that everyone has this same experience, and that anyone who doesn’t is inferior or somehow deviates from what’s normal. Morgan was accused of being cissexist for saying that Mock was “born a boy.” Insisting that a trans woman use a men’s restroom, or that a trans man use a women’s restroom because it makes someone uncomfortable is a common example of cissexism. Irreverent Feminist, a South African woman living in London, wrote about her experiences with cissexism on her blog.

Where I fear cis-sexism is as a lesbian partner of a trans woman I fear that I won’t be seen as a real lesbian, on account of the fact that I’m not with a real woman. It prevents me from going out and getting involved in the scene. I won’t go out to a lesbian club unless I am certain that she’ll be accepted. I just don’t want to be in that situation. This is where I think loads of feminists get it completely wrong. Cis-sexism is just another form of elitism and acts at excluding people by virtue of their past physical history, how is that fair?

What’s the difference between sex and gender and why does it matter so much?

One of the things that seems to trip up many people is the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to your genitalia, but your genitals don’t define or determine your gender. So it’s possible to be born with male genitalia and have the doctor who delivered you identify you as a boy. But if you’ve known you were a girl from the moment you developed any level of self-awareness, you’re a girl. Put simply, sex is your anatomy. Gender is what’s between your ears. When they match, you’re cis. And when they don’t, you’re trans. Not all transgender people get sexual reassignment surgery to make their sex reflect their gender; the procedure can be prohibitively expensive, especially when it’s not covered by insurance. This doesn’t make them any less male or female. See: Buck Angel. Additionally, not all trans people know they’re trans from an early age. Some don’t realize until puberty, or until later in life.

Sometimes it helps to think of gender as a spectrum instead of a binary where everyone fits neatly into two little boxes. Some people’s gender presentation is hyper feminine, others are hyper masculine, and some fall somewhere in the androgynous middle.

If you’re a cis man in a relationship with a trans woman, aren’t you gay? Why is that considered insulting?

It’s not clever to say this; it’s insulting, because once again, you’re asserting that the trans woman isn’t a “real” woman. A lot of this boils down to self determination. Someone says she’s a woman: fine. She’s a woman. Period.

What is reading? What is stealth?

When you suspect someone is transgender and you begin studying them and their body for signs to confirm your suspicion, this is called reading or clocking. It’s rude because, well, didn’t your mother teach you not to stare? But it’s also rude because you’re actively trying to discover what’s different about this person instead of treating them normally, and that can be alienating. When a trans person doesn’t pass as cis, they can be read. For some people, this is a huge deal, and for others, it’s not. But the bottom line is to simply respect people’s humanity. When a trans woman passes all the time, and no one around her has knowledge of her previous gender presentation, she is stealth. Vanderbilt was stealth, which is why her outing was painful for so many. She did not wish to live as a trans woman, but simply as a woman, and she feared that wish was going to be violated.

When activists say they want to talk about struggles faced by transgender people, what are they talking about?

People who are trans-identified are much more likely than their cis counterparts to experience violence or harassment because of their gender identity. They face higher rates of unemployment, suicide, homelessness, poverty, and discrimination. Transgender prisoners face more danger when they are misgendered and placed in the wrong prison, as CeCe McDonald was. McDonald is a Minnesota trans woman and activist who was recently freed after serving 19 months of a three-year sentence in a men’s prison. She pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter after she and a group of friends were attacked as they were passing by a Minneapolis bar. According to the charges, the white bar patrons were yelling homophobic, transphobic, and racist slurs. The group confronted the patrons, and a woman pushed a bar glass in McDonald’s face. She needed 11 stitches to close the resulting wounds. Dean Schmitz, one of the alleged instigators, pulled McDonald out of the fight, and she stabbed him in self-defense. Schmitz died at the bar.

A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 

  • 41 percent of those surveyed reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population
  • 78 percent of grade-school children who  are transgender or gender non-conforming reported harassment, 35 percent were physically assaulted, and 12 percent reported sexual assault
  • 16 percent said they were compelled to work in the underground economy — either through sex work or selling drugs — for income
  • 19 percent reported encountering housing discrimination; they were denied a home because of their gender identity
  • 46 percent said they were uncomfortable seeking help from the police
  • 15 percent who had been to jail or prison reported being sexually assaulted

Additionally, the report stated, “People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined.”

What’s ENDA and what’s happened to it?

ENDA is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a piece of legislation that would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It passed the Senate last year, but House Speaker John Boehner has vowed that that the bill won’t get a floor vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said recently that he would support the president if he chose to end discrimination for federal contractors via executive order. While a federal law would cover workers everywhere, the executive order would offer protection for 16 million federal workers according to a report by the Williams Institute. This is important because currently, 33 states offer no protection for trans workers, which means if they are harassed or fired because of their gender identity, they have no recourse.

Ninety percent of respondents to the survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality reported workplace harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination because of their gender identity. More than a quarter reported losing a job because they were transgender or gender non-conforming.

RELATED: Stories from 14 people who have transitioned gender

UPDATE: Facebook adds more gender options, including androgynous, bi-gender, and intersex

 

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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