Janet Mock, a People.com associate editor, has critiqued media coverage of trans people in her Fish Food For Thought essay Trans In The Media: A Call To Elevate The Conversation. This is her essay, and it’s crossposted here with permission.
By Janet Mock
When I told my transition story in Marie Claire, I led with my adolescent journey of having genital reassignment surgery, a quest that took me from my hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii, across the Pacific Ocean to Bangkok, Thailand, at 18 years old.
Going public with my story, I was acutely aware that I unconsciously gave people permission to ask about what lied or did not lie in between my legs. I gave the world an opportunity to ask after the most personal things in my life. I think this is what any person revealing themselves publicly as trans inherently does whether they like it or not: they sacrifice their anonymity and privacy to hopefully increase visibility and awareness.
Recently, I read a Tweet from Laverne Cox, reality television producer and actress, that she’d be on The Joy Behar Show with Chaz Bono of the Emmy-nominated documentary Becoming Chaz, Harmony Santana, star of Gun Hill Road, and America’s Next Top Model Isis King. I was elated, as this appeared to be a groundbreaking panel not only with Trans folks, but moderated by CNN host Don Lemon, a newly out gay man of color.
On Monday night, I set my DVR, told my boyfriend Aaron to keep quiet, and stayed up past my bedtime to only be dumbfounded by the interview, where Lemon asked Bono some pretty inane questions. The CNN anchor, who was leading the conversation in Behar’s absence, seemed to have unknowingly communicated his own insensitivity to trans folks’ struggle when he asked Bono the most insensitive of his slew of questions:
I have to ask you this: I look at you, I see you on television, you’re a dude now, you have facial hair and everything to go along with it. I mean do you like that? Is it cool?
Asking Bono, who has bravely transitioned under the media’s glare, therefore helping bring the trans conversation to the masses, about his facial hair (a prideful marker of his masculinity and manhood), is as offensive as a reporter being astonished by Lemon’s own masculinity as a newly out gay man. Or even as offensive as a non-Black reporter being astonished by Lemon’s articulateness during an interview.
“Is that something that you have to get used to though?” Lemon pressed. “Do you have to get used to shaving cause you didn’t have to shave before – and all of a sudden you’re a grown man and you have to shave?”
Then it just got worse…
“Even I do, as a gay man, I have trouble, sometimes when I talk about you…I get the hes and the shes mixed up. Is that a big deal for people who are in transition?”
I caught myself yelling “WTF?” at the screen more than thrice in a matter of minutes. I had regretted subjecting myself to this. I then took my frustration to Twitter: ”These questions @donlemoncnn are [asking] @Chazbono are symbolic of how #trans people are often seen as oddities – even by LGB people.”
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Lemon’s questions, which could have been attributed to the show’s producers, reminded me of something Jennifer Aniston eloquently said in Vanity Fair in 2005 about Brad Pitt when he began globetrotting with Angelina Jolie and her son Maddox just weeks after announcing the end of their marriage: “There is a sensitivity chip that’s missing.”
And that’s what I felt when I watched Lemon, who may have been in over his head with four compelling subjects and not enough time to actually target questions beyond Bono’s facial hair, new shaving regimen, his relationship with Cher and other “Trans 101” issues as Bono so eloquently pointed out.
“I thought we were here to talk about trans people in Hollywood,” Bono said after Lemon introduced Cox, King and Santana to the panel. “We’ve got three unbelievably talented women up there and we’re talking about transgender 101 here.”
“Not everyone is as informed as the people on this panel,” Lemon said in response. But that wasn’t the issue in my opinion. It’s not about the American people; it’s about preparation, sensitivity and a proper, fuller, vibrant portrait of what it means to be trans. You can’t have four dynamic trans figures on your panel and not fully tell their varying stories and journeys.
And by putting Lemon at the helm, producers may have made a glaring assumption: Just because Don Lemon is an African-American gay man does not mean he has the tools, sensitivity and objectivity to wholly report on the trans community without his own inherent transphobia and male/socioeconomic privilege getting in the way.
I don’t know Lemon or the producers of the show, but I do know as a journalist you must check your own privileges, bias and perspective at the door. And when you don’t do your homework, you end up with a lackluster story, and that was what Monday night’s segment on being “Transgender in America” (that was The Joy Behar Show‘s producers tagline) was in my opinion. I applaud HLN and Lemon for this groundbreaking trans panel, but we as journalists have to do better.
And I wasn’t the only trans person upset about Lemon’s line of questioning. Jenn Burleton, executive director of TransActive Education and Advocacy, a Portland-based non-profit which supports trans youth, Tweeted of the interview: “Don L. interview w/ Chaz B. What a bunch of stupid, exploitative, leering, stereotyping questions. He may be gay, but he doesn’t get it.”
And that’s the bigger issue here: Lemon symbolizes many of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, who just don’t get us trans people. We inherently shake their own notions of what it means to be a man and a woman in our society to their core. Until we are able to actually be open to the gender-variancy that is in nature, naturally, we’ll never be able to move forward and not only demand gay and lesbian rights, but transgender rights; civil human rights.
As a journalist, I’ll identify the gaping holes in the producers’ and Lemon’s line of questioning. There were many issues that I, as a journalist, would have had Lemon ask this “inspiring transgender panel”:
To Laverne Cox, who is a busy actress and produces television shows which she hopes “changes the hearts and minds of the general public around transgender issues”: How have you gone about seeking and creating roles for yourself in Hollywood? How have you funded projects about transgender people?
To America’s Next Top Model Isis King, who’s returning to the 17th cycle of ANTM in September: How does it feel to return to the show that helped bring a transgender woman into African-American homes? I hear you were once homeless, how have you been able to persevere past your circumstance?
To Chaz Bono, who has three Emmy nominations for his documentary: Instead of “When were you defined as a man?” Lemon could’ve asked, How does it feel, after years of searching and struggling, to finally be who you are fully? And how does it feel to have three Emmy nominations? How are you using your celebrity to continue this conversation?
To Harmony Santana, who revealed that she’s living in the Green Chimneys homeless shelter while being a star of a lauded film: What do you want to say to inspire LGBT kids who have dreams but no homes?
Instead when Santana revealed her plight of not having a home, Lemon said, “Interesting.” He should have said, I find it interesting that you have this inspirational story of starring in a film but no home of your own and that you represent the 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBT.
That’s how we teach and pull at the heart strings of America, by using someone’s story to shed light on the plight of what it means to be different, to be oppressed, to live in a world that doesn’t quite understand you. Our jobs as journalists and writers and editors and news reporters and anchors is to shed light on how we are failing young people like Santana.
When it seemed the door in the conversation had opened to shed light on trans people’s struggles, Lemon would say, “We’re going to have an in-depth conversation…” about this or that and segue to another topic about Bono’s transition, which seemed to irritate me and the famous interview subject.
“I was a little frustrated on the Joy Behar show last night,” Bono Tweeted of the interview, where it appeared that he was the bad guy for calling out Lemon’s inane line of questions. “I was told we’d talk about trans people in entertainment industry. But such is life.”
We can’t continue having the same conversations about trans people with a revolving door of new trans figures. We are not entertainment and our stories aren’t just for mere consumption. We must ask the hard questions beyond surgery and facial hair and ask how are they really doing now that they are in the bodies of their destinies? How are they navigating in the world?
We need to see trans men and women as just that – men and women who want and desire and love and seek and thrive and yes, fall. And when they fall we must ask ourselves if we care. Do you care? And how are we failing them?
“When they see us on television and see us in films, it makes a difference,” Cox said during the interview. But seeing and hearing us is essential to actually making a difference. America needs to hear our stories and feel our plight.
Why wasn’t the fact that two trans women of color on the panel (King and Santana) have been homeless explored in this conversation? As a woman of color, I was shocked that Lemon, an African-American man, didn’t use the show as a teaching moment, to shed light on the fact that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.
The trans portrait Lemon and the producers of The Joy Behar Show presented wasn’t even a sketch. It was a mere doodle as to what it means to be an oppressed group that apparently has no place in – or out – of the LGB community.
So where is our place? There’s a question that’s better than “do you have to get used to shaving” your stubble.
Janet Mock is a writer and a journalist, a daughter and a girlfriend, a believer in happily ever after and a vintage shopping enthusiast. She’s also a woman of transsexual experience.
Janet works as an Associate Editor for PEOPLE.com. Outside the cubicle, Janet weaves her daily A-ha! moments into stories on her blog Fish Food For Thought — named after her forthcoming book Fish Food: A Memoir, about her adolescent journey through genders in high school. Living in New York City, Janet has a BS from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an MA from New York University.
Get in touch with Janet Mock at her website janetmock.com.