Gives Good Headline: How the Media Loves its Sex Changes

Not too long ago, Calgary City Council voted whether to change the title of “alderman” to something ungendered, such as “alderperson” or “councillor.”  They voted the idea down, leaving them the last major Canadian city yet to do so.

In covering this, the Calgary Sun had a field day, printing the headline, “Council Nixes Sex Changes.”  Yep, anything to give good headline.

And of course, there’s so many people that you can’t pick on, anymore.  You can’t make a bogeyman out of someone because of their race or because they’re female or because they’re handicapped — you can’t even make them sound like their existence is a danger to society because of their sexual orientation, either… unless yours is a religious press. 

Transgender people are another matter entirely, and it is still socially acceptable to ridicule, insult, deride and speak epithets about anyone who doesn’t fit strict “male” and “female” gender stereotypes.  Even sitting to pee can be seen as a reason to lampoon a man.  And if you crossdress or are a transsexual, it’s open season.  Sometimes, I think we should get a medal for providing ample work for comedians and media people.

Case in point is the ongoing coverage of Thomas Beatie, who sprang into headlines as the “pregnant man.”  Coverage has been widespread, mostly vapid and venemous, from Oprah’s message boards to WorldNetDaily to the New York Times.  Fox News predictably leads the charge, with one commentator (Greg Gutfeld) saying “Twenty years ago, this person would have been traveling in a carnival… people would be paying a dollar.” To this, Tracy Byrnes added, “I hope when he pushes that baby out, it is the worst experience of his life… It’s months seven, eight and nine that you want to kill yourself, and I hope that that’s what happens here,” and a third panelist stated that “This little ewok that she’s about to crap out might even have a third eye.”  Bill O’Reilly was one of the most vexatious, repeatedly muttering “You imagine a poor kid getting born into that family” (as if it would be worse than being born into the family of a pedophile or an impoverished, war-torn village somewhere — geez, this kid will be born into a family that went to an extreme because they really wanted to have her… oh man!).

One would expect better from newspapers that have managed to rise above tabloidism and build reputations for serious objectivity.  Not so with the Boston Globe, where columnist Jeff Jacoby drubs over and over that Thomas’ name is really “Tracy” (despite it having been legally changed), insisting — as do many of the Far Right Wing Concerned Conservative Christians Who Should Have the Right to Mandate How Everyone Should Live© (it is partly for these people that OII has proposed study of a new mental illness, homochromosexuality) — on using only the pronoun “she,” before proceeding to equate the story to the raid on a polygamist compound in Texas (geez, didn’t I just talk about something like that?) and the investigation into an incest-riddled family in Australia.  He does this to assert: “That is why human societies have always constrained sexual behavior with equally powerful taboos and moral standards.”   In his previous column, Jacoby speaks out against abortion, and criticizing how in some nations, selective abotion is used to prevent having unwanted daughters.  With science being close to isolating the “gay gene” and possibly a biological source of gender identity disorder, one would have to wonder if he would buckle on his abortion stance in order to advance eugenics to prevent gay or gender variant children as proposed (and advocated?) by Drs. Aaron S. Greenberg and the perenially discredited J. Michael Bailey?

But Jacoby is not alone.  In fact, while positive and supportive press exists, it’s mostly relegated to inconsequential weblogs of equally marginal people that no one listens to — sort of like this one.  Even Oprah’s clout couldn’t convince people to view Beatie objectively, so Jacoby and company are still free to drub people with their sensationalism bat until the public is whipped up into a circus frenzy and calling for the authorities to remove the child from the family when it’s born, strip Beatie’s legal status as a man (and possibly that of all transsexuals who’ve transitioned), and whatever else they can provoke. 

Some of these journalists really have to learn to educate themselves about an issue.  “Gender Dysphoria” is a condition recognized by the medical community, and treatment follows the standards of care established by WPATH (formerly HBIGDA), which include Genital Reassignment Surgery (GRS).  It is currently listed as a mental health issue, but as GID therapists concur, this is only because a specific biological trigger has not yet been determined (although there is ongoing study of both genetic “brain sex” and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals which appear to possibly lead to a better understanding of its origin).  As much as mainstream society and some journalists would like to believe that electroshock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, conversion therapy and lobotomy would help transsexuals “just get over it,” modern medicine has realized that this approach simply does not work, and usually results in suicide or extreme anti-social behaviour.  Aligning body to mind, however, has enabled transsexuals to become valued and successful people in society — people like Erica Rutherford, Ben BarresGeorgina Beyer, Renee Richards, Amanda LeporeParinya Kiatbusaba (Nong Toom), Marci Bowers, Christine Daniels, Alexandra Billings, Lynn Conway and a host of others that we can respect.  But the bottom line is:  attempting understanding doesn’t sell papers.

So here’s a few ideas for the purveyors of media integrity, so that they can ignite social hysteria without offending the aforementioned groups that it is not “cool” to offend.

1. Line up several photos, some of genetic-born women (make it a challenge, too, and pick out a few subjectively “mannish” -looking ones), some of intersex women living as female, some of post-operative transsexuals, some of pre-operative transsexuals… maybe even throw in a photo of a pre- or non-op female-to-male transsexual for good measure.  Then, without identifying which is which, ask the public, “Which of these people should be entitled to use the ladies’ restroom?”  This one will be a hit as a discussion topic at the watercooler or at parties, because everyone will have a different opinion.  And if you handle it with just the right amount of paranoia, you can freak out your female readership into fits of terror everytime they use a public facility, wondering if the girl in the next stall might be a transsexual.  This will surely have people coming back to your paper, in hopes that you’ll better arm them with the means to identify and eject any such person… as well as to keep in touch with the legislative war to strip away transsexuals’ right to pee.

Sound preposterous?  It’s worked like a charm in Montgomery County, Maryland, where Citizens for a Responsible Government has for the moment successfully used the spectre of male sex predators in skirts waiting in the loo to ambush peoples’ daughters, in order to garner support for a petition.  It’s an argument that assumes that all transsexuals are male and that all males are sex predators, and in no way reflects realistically on transgender people, but it can sure raise the panic quotient if you overlook that little fact.  At one point in the melee (and I apologize for having lost the reference), one concerned letter-writer even suggested that transgender people should have to wear something to designate that they are presenting as a different sex than the one they were born as.  Funny, the last time someone proposed such an identifier, the legislators spoke German.  If you think I’m exaggerating, listen to the transgender apocalypse predicted by Amy Contrada, of MassResistance:

“A hotel or convention site will not be allowed to turn down a transgender/cross-dresser or BDSM (whips & chains, sadomasochism) convention. A restaurant will not be able to turn away a special party for she-male prostitutes and their clients, or cross-dressers. A museum or library will not be allowed to turn away a GLBT activist seminar promoting BDSM, public nudity, public sex, or legalized prostitution. A function facility will not be allowed to refuse a seminar on breast removal and hormone treatments for women ’transitioning’ to men. A Catholic church could even be forced to hold a forum on homosexual or transsexual ’marriage’ or polygamy. These behaviors and activities could all be considered ’gender expression’ and these venues are could all be considered ’public accommodations.’”

Of course, it might be a little embarassing to be siding with a hate group, but the sentiment gives good headline.

2. Start referring to everyone by their birth name, regardless of what their legal name now might be.  Why should we dignify “Sting,” when he’s really Gordon Sumner?  A lot of those gangsta muthas would get their comedownance too, although a lot of your readership might have trouble determining who you’re talking about.  Single-named performers can just deal with it, as Cher becomes Cherilyn Sarkisian and the like, while married names can also get the boot.  “Hillary Rodham” (I’d give the Wikipedia link, but it appears that someone has vandalized her publicity photo) may not have as much name recognition, but at least it is “real.”  After all, if Thomas Beatie has legally changed his name to “Thomas Beatie” and has lived as such for over ten years but is “really” Tracy LaGondino, then I don’t see why this rule can’t apply to everyone.  To make it easier for media folk in the event that I die and it’s printable for whatever reason, my birth name was Boogersnot Fuqnutz.  Print that in your paper.

3.  Change the AP Stylebook.  Of course, we realize that many never reference the stylebook when it comes to the handling of trans subjects, what with referring to people who’ve long lived as their identified gender as “crossdressers,” the ample application of the perjorative terms “shemale,” “he-she” and “tranny,” but it would be more convenient for the media to do away with the existing recommendations.  After all, it could be embarassing that the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association provides stylebook protocols for the Associated Press, and the recommended etiquette for treatment of transgender people and issues is viewable on the web.

tranny: Often a pejorative term for a transgender person, it is now being reclaimed by some transgender people. Caution: still extremely offensive when used as an epithet and should be avoided except in quotes or as someone’s self-identified term. — From the stylebook.

Still, this is often not what happens.  Although the stylebook says that “To determine accurate use of names or personal pronouns, use the name and sex of the individual at the time of the action,” the media’s favorite approach to dealing with transsexuals is to put the current name in quotes, like an alias, and using the birth sex pronoun.  For any other human being, blatantly denying these basics about how a person is living their life would be unacceptable, but it exists because journalists insist on reinforcing the religious right take that our identities are “not real” and that we’re living fake lives, that our identities are fabrications.  Which goes to show that many of them have not even tried to educate themselves on the subject, or even realize what the DSM-IV (bible of the medical community) has to say about Gender Dysphoria.  For many of us, it was in fact that time prior to our transitions that we were putting on the superficial false fronts, pretending to be the “boy” or “girl” that everyone else wanted or expected us to be — and being miserable, struggling to function emotionally / psychically / spiritually / economically (it’s hard to be productive with something like GID constantly nagging at you) / maybe sexually, and often suicidal as a result.

And there you go: three basic ways to get the most out of your next “tranny” headline.  Unless, of course, you want to actually take the time to educate yourself about the subject and develop some detailed understanding about why people mysteriously out-of-the-blue wake up one day and decide it would be cool to alienate themselves from the rest of the world, lose their jobs, lose their families, lose their churches, lose their spouses, lose their children, lose their right to marry, be priced out of their apartments, and become potential prey to killers that society sympathetically feels are perfectly justified in killing someone because she’s a girl with a penis or a boy with a vagina.  You’d think that with that kind of risk, that whatever drives a person on would have to be important.

For some, I’m being unkind, mainly because I’m very angry.  Some journalists have made very serious effort to understand and objectively report about us and who we are.  It is very appreciated and I don’t mean to overlook those who do abide by stylebook and treat transfolk with respect.  Locally (Alberta, Canada), two such journalists who have treated transpeople with dignity have been Jeremy Loome and Andrew Hanon, and there are similar writers across the Western World that deserve such kudos.  One paper in the U.S., The Nashua Telegraph, has even made an exceptional run to educate its readership on trans people and their issues, in spite of a backlash.  Sometimes these people make mistakes, but that can be forgiven — they’re making the effort.  And in fact, I’m not even proposing that transgender persons should be given favorable or sympathetic treatment, so much as given the same objective regard given to everyone else.  My anger and frustration is with those who don’t care because they’re more interested in how sensational they can make a story.

  1. damn. you rock.

  2. Spot on. Absolutely spot on.

    • Anonymous reader
    • April 14th, 2008

    This deserves a digg!

  3. This is a great, great post. I took the liberty of cross posting it to the Women in Media News Blog? (for which I write sometimes)? If you would rather I not do this, let me know and I’ll take it down. The URL is http://www.wimnonline.org/WIMNsVoicesBlog/

    I think this blog may be the smartest thing I have read anywhere about this whole story. You can email me at jb@jenniferboylan.net if it’s okay. If not, that’s okay too, and I’ll take it all down. Thank you so much for this.

    • emily
    • April 14th, 2008

    Maybe next time Jeff Jacoby plagiarizes someone, we should put some pressure on the Boston Globe to fire his ass. Last time, n he wasn’t fired was because he is a “token” conservative. Oh yeah, and call Micheal Savage Mike Wiener (his birth name)

  4. Fantastic. Sorry you were so angered that you felt you had to write this, but thanks for so ably expressing our frustrations!

  5. Terrific piece! Again, thanks for elucidating the frustration that many of us have felt over the sensationalism and blatant transphobia exhibited by many – but thankfully, not a majority – of the mainstream journalists.

    • Margaret
    • April 16th, 2008

    I always tell people who are bigoted and ignorant that, “Yes. One day I was extremely bored and I thought I would liven things up by making myself about as miserable as it’s possible to be without being on fire.” It shuts most of them up.

  6. Mercedes, thank you for such a thorough and eloquent expression of our concerns. I shall be “favouriting” this so as to have the points you raised at hand for future reference. :-)

    • Jloome
    • April 21st, 2008

    And the battle between progressives and conservatives trudges on in all its incremental glory. Thanks for the plug. Jeremy

    • Dianne Kelly
    • May 29th, 2008

    Hi Mercedes,
    I’m doing a third year unit on Contemporary Health Issues at Deakin University in Australia. I was hoping you would allow me to reference your excellent posting for my next assignment – Media and Gender. Many thanks,
    Dianne Kelly

    • Kai
    • December 11th, 2008

    Hit the nail on the head. Infinite kudos for a job EXTREMELY well done.

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