“Don’t read the papers
Read between the lines”
- Darby Crash
Some days, it gets to be a bit much.
On every billboard, on every magazine cover, I see beautiful cis people wearing gorgeous clothes. The names of cisgender movie stars adorn advertisements for their latest films. Turn on the radio and hear lovely cisgender voices talking on a wide range of topics, or listen to songs by cisgender recording artists. In the papers, on the internet, on TV, cis people are making news. They are fighting in wars. They are ruling the world. They are becoming rich, or losing massive fortunes. They are getting married and having children. They are having scandals. They are publishing books. They write the reviews, too. They write the editorials. They write and draw all the comics. In fact, they write the whole damn paper.
When they die, nobody puts the wrong names in their obituaries.
The barrage of cis media can be hard to bear at the best of times, even when it contains nothing overtly transphobic, even when its sins are only of omission, of totally forgetting that we exist. But whenever the cis media actually does have something to say about us, my instinct is to cringe in anticipation of pain.
Pardon me for noticing a pattern, but at this point it seems like there must be a manual of style somewhere for cis journalists dictating all the shitty, condescending, passive-aggressive or outright transphobic things they are supposed to do and say in the course of a journalistic piece about a trans person. It doesn’t matter what the piece is about– whether the trans person in question is a model or a politician, a husband or a wife, somebody’s child or somebody’s parent, a criminal or a victim of violence. The same standards, the same hypothetical manual of style, applies.
What are these elements of style, these journalistic conventions around trans people? Well, some of them include:
- Using the wrong name or pronoun for an entire article.
- Putting our names or pronouns in scare quotes (e.g. “him,” “Christina”)
- Publishing our birth names. Even if they have no relevance whatsoever to the article. Even if we haven’t been known by them for decades. Even when our names have been legally changed.
- Publish “before” pictures, even when we haven’t looked like that for decades.
- Reference a trans woman as being “born male” or a trans man as being “born female” (we are born men and women too, thanks– but born transgender!), or refer to a trans person’s “biological” sex, even if they have had surgery, or refer to their “actual” sex, even if they have legally had their gender marker changed.
- Focus excessively on appearance and “passability.”
- Focus excessively on medical history and story of transition, even when it has no relevance to the piece.
These are just a few of the tropes frequently occurring even in pieces about trans people purporting to be “positive” about trans people. (Remember, trans “positivity” in the mainstream media means little more than daring to suggest that perhaps we should not be murdered and that maybe being trans is not a mental illness. Trans positivity in the mainstream media rarely goes so far as suggesting that our identities should be truly respected rather than merely indulged, or that maybe government projects to benefit us are not a complete waste of taxpayer money.)
These tropes reinforce the ideas that trans people’s medical histories and the details of our anatomy should be public knowledge, that our appearances are up for cisgender scrutiny, that our assigned genders and names will always be the most real things about us. They send these messages to cis people, further validating their entitled behavior towards us. They send these messages to trans people, further eroding our boundaries and self esteem. Above all, with every media story about a trans person which treats their transness as the most interesting, relevant, novel, exciting, real, impressive thing about them, the world learns that trans people are one dimensional. We cannot be writers, politicians, musicians, business owners, artists, athletes, not in the way that cis people can be, because our trans-ness makes everything we do gimmicky, droll, illegitimate. Everything we do is considered questionable because everything we are is considered basically invalid.
Since the media itself takes this line, how can it fail to sympathize with others who do as well?
I remember the coverage of Gwen Araujo’s murder. That is how I first learned what a transgender person was. I was thirteen. Gwen was seventeen. The media portrayed this teenager, who had been brutally beaten to death, as a deceiver who had tricked men into sex, almost as bad as a rapist. She had “stolen” these men’s precious heterosexuality, and they had reacted with “appropriate” horror. Although lip service was given to grieving her death, it was merely a cloak for sanctimonious victim-blaming and and tut-tutting– “what did she expect?”
From the case of Gwen Araujo I learned that I didn’t want to be one of those people. I learned that there were consequences to being transgender, and that most people would see those consequences as deserved.
Straight, cisgender boys and men learned another lesson in bigotry, and were taught once again that violence was an appropriate response to the presence of transgender women in the world. They also learned that the consequences of their violence would be slight.
Trans people learned that there is little law on our side. Parents, friends and family of trans people learned, as Gwen’s own family did, that the justice system does little to protect the ones that they love.
I don’t wish to treat the occasion of a young woman’s death as an opportunity for politics, but since it already was– and for politics of the most vile, crass and repellent kind– let’s just imagine for a moment how different things could have been if only Gwen had been treated with respect by the media after her death. If only her privacy, dignity and humanity had been considered valid. If only her killers had been framed consistently as the true villains of the piece. And if only the media could have provided a real outlet for the rage that was felt at their very lenient sentencing.
If only, in other words, the media had done something other than spit on Gwen Araujo’s grave and drag her through the mud again, and again, and again, if they could have treated her reasonably, decently, sensitively, and with a modicum of respect, some very different lessons might have been learned all around.
In America, we trust the media to define reality for us. Even those of us who are cynical cannot escape the onslaught of information, presented as factual, with which we are bombarded every day. Even those of us who wish we could opt out cannot help but absorb these loud, powerful messages. The media matters. It tells people what to think and believe, and thus influences how we behave. Do not doubt that the media is a major player in the perpetuation of prejudice of all kinds, has always been, and always will be for as long as oppression exists. A few small words in a one-page article can make a major difference when multiplied by the millions of minds who will absorb them. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of articles, TV segments and radio interviews, and you’ve got the entire consciousness of this culture with regard to transgender issues.
The media influences how we are treated by the world. It’s time to start broadcasting a different signal.