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Emerson Whitney Headshot

Trans Representation in the Media

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CHAZ WASHINGTON
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Last night, I slouched in the center row of a mostly empty theatre while a gaggle of teen queers passed around a fuzzy microphone, reflecting on the importance of the Gay-Straight Alliance at their local high schools.

A teen with flamingo-pink leggings and immaculate eye makeup stood to address the crowd. "I don't know if you guys watch TV," they said, "but you've probably heard of Chaz Bono."

The audience cooed.

"Most of the things I've found online about him are ugly and bigoted and awful. People call Chaz 'she,' and people call Chaz 'it.' Chaz is not an 'it.' Chaz is a man. When is this going to stop?" the high schooler begged. "I am a transgender person. And the things I hear about transgender people and read about us in the news hurt. Treatment of gay and lesbian people have changed a lot, but respect for transgender people is really far behind."

This young-adult queer very clearly articulated to a room full of dumfounded adults how they are failed by consistently negative and uninformed media coverage of trans and gender-variant people. I couldn't help but hang my head.

I am a thread -- albeit tiny -- in the current media fabric. I work as a professional reporter and writer, and I am also a flaming gay, glitter-loving transgender person.

Last week, I was disgusted by the media's response to coverage of Tammy Lobel, an 11-year-old transgender girl who was recently featured in a CNN article titled "Transgender kids: Painful quest to be who they are." The article detailed the use of hormone blockers as part of "gender identity disorder" treatment for some underage kids.

Fox News in particular -- no surprise there -- launched an attack on Tammy's parents, who are, coincidently, lesbian-identified and therefore, according to Fox, are making Tammy into their own image of sapphic femininity. The article screamed of "child abuse."

But Fox News is only the most obvious media specter. An overwhelming majority of news media have fallen short of earnest reportage by sticking with transgender story headlines that read like: sex, hate crime, job discrimination, sex, death, jail, sex, suicide, porn, child abuse, sex, sex.

And unfortunately, using "it" as a pronoun for trans people is not at all uncommon. Recently, in an episode of the USA Network show Psyche, a main character proclaimed, "Forget about her, or him, or it -- if it's transgender." (Screen shots here.)

Last February, GLADD published an article titled "Ignorance of Transgender Issues Apparent in Media" after a now-infamous Saturday Night Live skit that openly mocked trans women on hormones.

"The media's main problem -- and its biggest responsibility -- both come from the fact that it delivers the vast majority of the messages the public receives about what it actually means to be transgender," wrote Aaron McQuade, GLAAD's Deputy Director of News and Field Media. "The simple fact is that an overwhelming majority of Americans simply don't know any transgender people. According to a study we commissioned in 2008, only eight percent of Americans said they knew someone who was transgender."

And maybe even more troubling is the percentage of actual trans people behind the making of news -- just in case you weren't sure, it's jaw-droppingly low.

As a budding reporter, the only reference point I had for a writer like me was that of a Los Angeles Times sports correspondent who came out as trans and then, horrifically, committed suicide.

Because of sheer oversaturation, I imagine that someday we will move away from the trans narrative that is now so familiar to us: a white, privileged person is "trapped in the wrong body." Questions about genital status and other bodily changes related to hormone therapy ensue. Followed by an inevitable over-sexualization, sideshow-esque curiosity, or hopeful period of normalization.

I welcome a new news, a positive, inclusive, varied account of trans people within a larger conversation of race, gender, and class.

As a trans person, I do not readily fit the description of those most often portrayed. My gender identity is androgynous. My preferred pronoun is "he," with a masculinity that is most closely related that of Shakespearian fairies -- fluid and slight. I am bookish, fay and a glam-rock fanatic.

As a reporter, I hope that new media will grow to encompass transgender and gender-variant expressions as varied as my own. Awareness of trans issues is expanding, and we deserve expansive news sources, too -- a news media that opens to a new level of earnest sensitivity and accountability for information they provide about trans/genderqueer people, if only for those teen queers looking for positive, accurate reflections of themselves in the world.

The Best and Worst Trans News Last Week

Best: The Root, "Black and Transgender: A Double Burden"

Worst: Fox News, "Male or Female? Boy Given Drugs So He Can Pick Gender"