The media’s tipping point: Covering gender is the next frontier

laverne_cox_time_mag_cover is pleased to post its first contributor’s feature article by Prof. Katherine M. Bell of California State University-East Bay on media and gender. The article launches a series of articles on media issues by leading journalists and scholars. In her article, Prof. Bell draws on her journalism background and academic research to provide a timely analysis of “gender trouble.” That is, how media struggle – and often fail – to cover the emerging issues around gender, including transgender persons. 

By Katherine M. Bell

Actress Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine in June 2014 signals a new level of media attention in the struggle for equality among transgender people.

Cox’s cover was a first-ever for the iconic magazine, a move that was said to hail the arrival of transgender rights, and Cox herself, in the mainstream.

Transgender rights are a “tipping point” and “America’s next civil rights frontier,” Time declared. If so, it is a landscape marked by rocky media terrain. As with many issues where deep social change is afoot, news accounts tend to employ predictable themes. There is less treatment of issues in the lives of transgender people and more emphasis on stock coming out narratives accompanied by reams of before and after pictures. It’s not unlike the coverage of gays and lesbians in the 70s and 80s, when the media took a furtive look into the homosexual lifestyle, as they called it, peeking into bars and using gay pride parades as the news bite that stood for all of gay life.

“I think transgender coverage is kind of where gay and lesbian coverage was 20-25 years ago,” said Nick Adams, director of communications and special projects for GLAAD, an organization that works with U.S. media on coverage of LGBTQ issues. “It’s still that coming out story; it’s still the very basic transgender 101 stories.”

News accounts frequently say that someone “used to be a boy” or “is actually a girl,” references that carry a disaffirming bite for many transgender people. Some news organizations reject the person’s preferred pronoun, as with early coverage of Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment and gender transition. Such references treat transgender people as if their own identity is less authentic than the gender they were assigned at birth.

The media’s rationale is based on the notion that gender identity has a biological truth to it that trumps everything else. As much gender and queer theory tells us, and as many transgender people will say, gender flows from many things unrelated to biology (the biology of sex and gender is not solid anyway). Gender is certainly a deeply held notion of self; some theorists call it a performative way of expressing identity. Most of all, gender is neither fixed nor a male-female binary.

Transgender and gender nonconforming people battle the enduring myth that they’re making a lifestyle choice, that they’re subverting their so-called “real” gender, or that they’re just putting on clothes. At best, media accounts that insist on biologically based understandings of gender don’t capture the breadth of human experience. At worst, they perpetuate stereotypes, discrimination and violence.

Gender Trouble

Author and academic Jennifer Finney Boylan has been dealing with media for years and says the level ignorance can be exhausting. While discussion of gays and lesbians has moved beyond sex to themes of love and family as marriage equality barriers fall, the media conversation about transgender people remains on bodies.

“We’re still stuck in the transgender equivalent of talking about gay sex,” Boylan, also a board member of GLAAD, said in an interview. “Instead of talking about people’s right to determine their own identity, their right to live authentic lives, we have these conversations around things like bathrooms and toilets and surgeries.”

Former CNN host Piers Morgan’s February 2014 interview with author and activist Janet Mock epitomizes the more problematic aspects journalism’s “gender trouble,” to quote theorist Judith Butler’s iconic argument against the solidity of gender and sexuality. Morgan introduced Mock in a segment about her book Redefining Realness by remarking favourably on her looks.

“Had I not known anything about your story, I would’ve had absolutely not a clue that you had ever been a boy, a male, which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman,” he said.

In essence he was congratulating her for being able to ‘pass’ as a woman. While the remark seemed intended as a compliment, it belies an assumption that the ideal of transgender womanhood is to be undetectable. That assumption is born of privilege and steeped in highly circumscribed notions of womanhood, the same ideals of beauty that pressure all women to conform to impossible body standards.

“It’s a way that society polices gender,” says Jade Gee, a trans woman who manages social media for a Seattle clothing company. “When a trans woman passes it’s like ‘you get a gold star!’ But if you don’t blend in or your identity isn’t aligned with a gender binary then you have a long uphill battle.”

The politics of passing

While some people view their transition as a binary journey from one gender to another, others see it as more fluid. Many factors influence whether someone can or wants to ‘pass’ as non-transgender, including identity, finances and gender politics. This may be a challenge for members of the mainstream media who want a solid, immutable definition transgender identity. But fluid and changing expressions of gender are a social reality.

CNN’s Morgan kept saying Mock was “born a boy,” or that “you used to be, yourself, a man.” He focused on Mock’s coming out to her boyfriend, which occupies a small part of her book about growing up, surviving harsh circumstances and thriving as a woman of color. Mock tweeted that the CNN host didn’t get it. Morgan had her return to his show, where she talked about the power dynamics of their interview and of life as a trans person to explain why she didn’t correct him at the time. He was angry, reprimanding her for tweeting remarks that “vilified” him. Morgan ultimately insisted it is a biological fact that she used to be male and he was simply reporting the truth.

In fact, people’s stories have a multidimensional complexity that daily journalism struggles with. Journalists’ training as storytellers is to find the dramatic elements of the human experience. Professional news culture teaches journalists that viewers, readers and listeners need a blunt human drama, a clear beginning, middle and end, to grab their attention. But the stakes of storytelling are high for all groups that have been stereotyped or rendered invisible in the mediascape.

Cox, whose Emmy-nominated role as the canny prison inmate Sophia on the Netflix dramedy Orange is the New Black has been a powerful voice, particularly for transgender women of colour. In January veteran TV journalist Katie Couric had Cox and model Carmen Carrera on her talk show. She asked Carrera if her “private parts” are “different now.” Carrera recoiled visibly.

Later Couric turned to Cox: “(Carrera) said that people who are not educated about this or are familiar with, sort of, transgenders, they’re preoccupied with the genitalia question.”

Cox’s response ricocheted through social media.

“The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we’re targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you’re a trans person of colour it’s four times the national average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest among trans women and when we focus on transition we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

In a few sentences Cox offered a media primer: Write about discrimination, violence and incarceration. Yes, write about success stories such as Cox, Carrera and Mock. But write about the not-so famous as well.

And interview transgender sources for stories that have nothing to do with trans issues. The focus on LGBTQ life as a continuous spectacle of transition and coming out is an act of oppression. It ignores that people want to be part of wider societal discourses too.

It’s not about the pantyhose

Author and academic Boylan has published 13 books of fiction and non-fiction. She taught English at Maine’s Colby College for 25 years, and is taking a post as writer-in-residence at Barnard College. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, the Today Show, Larry King and others. Yet her transition story is what she says mainstream media remain most keen on.

“The Oprah Winfrey show was at my house and all they wanted was footage of me putting on my pantyhose, and I was like ‘did you ask Toni Morrison to put on her pantyhose?’” she said.

“I can tell you I’ve almost never left any of those programs without feeling a little bit like I wanted to cry. Because as a writer, as a professor, as a scholar, I have a lot of things I can talk about with these issues that are really interesting.”

Couric’s use of “transgenders” as a noun in the Cox-Carrera interview is a usage akin to ‘the gays’ or ‘the blacks’. In journalism’s lore she was asking tough questions, satiating a public desire for knowledge. But, as she admitted later, she didn’t have the research, the knowledge of the community at hand. She didn’t think of asking people about their genitals as an affront to their basic dignity and humanity.

Couric responded to the criticism of her missteps like a pro. She had Cox and others back on her show to use herself as a teaching example. Her panel talked about issues such as discrimination and violence that disproportionately impact transgender people. Adams of GLAAD says Couric’s follow-up shows progress.

“Journalists do seem much more open to the idea of moving on to sort of a 2.0 way of talking about trans people in the media.”

The consequences of media ‘outing’

Yet, media coverage of transgender people and issues can bring tragic consequences. Sports news site Grantland outed inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who devised a putter she hoped would revolutionize the game of golf. Reporter Caleb Hannan discovered she was transgender and told one of her investors while researching the story for the ESPN-affiliated site. Her gender identity had no identifiable relevance, as the editor and ESPN ombudsman, later said. Dr. V, as she was known, committed suicide and his outing of her played a role. suggests journalistic “dos and “don’ts” for reporters. GLAAD has media resources. Boylan offers a primer for the general public. In general, to write credibly journalists will need to come to grips with the fluidity of gender, and the fact that no one person or group represents the totality of a community.

There is no universal view of transgender issues, no single definition of transgender or other gender identities. Terms are contested and meanings are not fixed. Facebook now lets people choose from more than 50 ways to identify, including genderqueer, gender variant and gender nonconforming. Some journalists will see this as political pandering. In fact, it is about dignity, about people who have experienced oppression claiming the right to be heard on their terms.

Adams of GLAAD sees signs of the media narrative maturing. He cites reporter Adolfo Flores of the Los Angeles Times, who covered the death of activist Zoraida Reyes. She died under suspicious circumstances in June, and Flores got to know her community and family in order to write about her as a multidimensional person.

Jade Gee wants more stories of everyday transgender people who aren’t celebrities. Though she has struggled, Gee has a college education and a job. She says she’s the exception in her community, something she attributes partly to white privilege. She wants media to care about brutality against transgender people, and the fact that it happens with alarming frequency.

“Those are the faces we need to put forward, are the people who truly suffer in a trans phobic society, the people who are unable to get jobs and get the health-care that they need and get mental health care that they need.”

Adams, Boylan and Gee look forward to a day when being transgender is “boring” from a media perspective.

“We won’t get there without addressing the profound violence and discrimination that trans people face,” said Adams


Links for media:
Williams Institute – UCLA School of Law
GLAAD media reference guide
Egale: Canada Human Rights Trust