02/12/2014 10:12 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Speaking for Ourselves


Last week we saw the continuation of the Janet Mock/Piers Morgan saga. What started off in the first interview a week earlier in a manner that seemed to please both the host and the interviewee degenerated into a situation where both protagonists ended up speaking past one another. Still, I believe that however difficult it has been for everyone involved, it is ultimately all for the good.

To review the facts as I know them, having watched both CNN programs and read about the explosion in social media, I have a few thoughts. The most important is that, finally, we are seeing trans persons speaking for themselves, and about themselves, in the mainstream media. This has been the case in social media for some time now. Still, it is significant when a major mainstream media outlet finally takes the time to bring the trans community to light.

As I've mentioned in previous weeks, I've lived through Psycho, Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer, Tales of the City and Silence of the Lambs. I've watched theLaw & Order franchise move from outright hostility to grudging admiration and acceptance. America is changing, and while it is not happening quickly enough, particularly compared with the recent acceleration in gay acceptance in the U.S., it is still moving very rapidly. Ms. Mock's appearance on CNN is evidence of that progress.

I don't know what the discussions pre-interview were like. Were the questions to be asked discussed? How important was the book's content going to be for the interview? Were any questions out of bounds? Janet is not a novice, and she has a history of media appearances, beginning with the Marie Claire article. I presume Janet has a book agent and publicist, and that she has a media adviser as well. The way the first interview proceeded, and Janet's apparent pleasure with it, led me to believe that things worked out as she expected.

I will say, speaking for myself, that while some of the questions asked were salacious and invasive, they are the questions I have come to expect when I teach and lecture. I answer them forthrightly, but I make sure to add that these questions are often considered rude by many trans persons and are not acceptable in polite conversation. For a lecturer trying to teach, to share, to engage, they're acceptable as long as the boundaries are laid out in advance. I take it as my responsibility to have that discussion beforehand. I also realize that as a surgeon I am much more comfortable speaking about the human body, and I speak freely about genitalia and brain sex. One of my main goals over the past decade has been to educate others on the fact that human sexuality is primarily a brain function, not a genital one, and to try to move people away from obsession with their groin area. It is not easy, and I do not expect that large swath of Americans who, if they think about trans issues at all, think about genitals and "sex changes" will absorb it all anytime soon. Moving the general populace away from equating gay people with their sexual behavior did not happen overnight. It was a multi-decade effort, only recently coming to fruition.

So I believe that trans persons, and particularly trans women, who are in front of the media and want to tell their stories are going to have to lower their expectations and accept some lack of control over the questions being asked. The way we become humanized is to engage with dignity and grace, but we've got to meet our interlocutors somewhere in the middle where their ratings are, or we probably won't be invited to speak.

When Janet announced on social media that she felt her story had been sensationalized because she noticed, on observing the video, that the banners and chyrons were indeed scandalous and off-topic, the trans community erupted. What appears to have happened is that while the interview proceeded in Janet's comfort zone, the banners and captions sent a different message to the viewers, one which was highly offensive. Upon her return, Piers didn't seem to understand those mixed messages, confused because he thought the original interview had gone well, and he also thought of himself as a good ally.

He probably is an ally, though still a very ignorant one, ignorant because over the decades, the media messages about trans persons, from gay and straight media alike, have focused on sexual bodies and sexual behavior, and not humanity writ large. Janet was upset that she hadn't the chance to speak on the issue of her choosing, that of her activism. Both were clearly troubled and hurting, and the second conversation ended in a stalemate.

Then CNN compounded the general misunderstanding by promoting a panel that included two right-wingers and only one person from the left, the right-wingers being proudly rude and uninformed. That Ben Rosenberg can claim that he knows what the medical community believes is disgraceful. The panel overall was a waste and added to the ire of the trans community.

My takeaway is that while Janet has had a difficult two weeks, she's done a great service, one that will lead to improvements in the near future. The executive producer appears to be the one at fault, undermining the tone of the interview with the ugliness promoted on the crawl. I learned about the importance of the EP a decade ago when Chris Matthews did a show on a trans issue and the background showed a continuous loop of queens in a pride parade, undermining the message promoted on the show. I complained, he gave me the executive producer's number, and the problem never recurred.

Everyone would have been served better had the ground rules, covering all aspects of the program, been agreed upon earlier. And given that she has appeared twice, though the second interview had not been planned, it would have been preferable had the interview originally been planned as a two-parter, with the first playing out as it did, and the second focused on her activism and the need for the media to move off viewing trans women as sex objects and focus on the whole person. That was the format for Chaz Bono's interview with David Letterman, and it played out beautifully, having a positive impact on at least one person I know who did not expect to be enlightened. It wasn't to be for Janet Mock, but this was a teachable moment -- here's one example from a good ally -- and I hope America learned from it. We will undoubtedly have to respond to the usual questions many times over, but there is hope, as Janet tweeted, "Nuance in media is nearly impossible but I do hope we continue to write the records of our own lives & relay that nuance."

All we ask is that you listen, closely and respectfully.