Saturday, March 22, 2008

more media coverage

There was an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine last weekend about a transguy who goes to Barnard, which is a women's college. I've met the guy a time or two, and he seems like a good guy, so I'm particularly glad that this was, on the whole, quite a good article.

It brought up the 'trans issue' not in a sensationalist way, but rather as a thoughtful examination of an interesting ramification: the issue of non female-ID'd students at women's colleges is a fraught topic, and I am sure that it's going to continue to be in years to come. The author was respectful, did good work talking to a variety of folks, and generally produced a good, informative piece.

Still, I found a couple of things to take issue with. There's that note about "asked that his given name not be printed to protect his privacy." That implies that, had he not asked about that, the newspaper would have printed the name. Why oh why do journalists (of all stripes, not just print media types) feel the need to print trans people's old names?

Hard as it appears for some folks to understand, I changed my name because I didn't want it used to refer to me anymore! Why do you think it's appropriate to ask me what it is? Let alone print it in a public forum! I personally am rather fond of my old name- it was a beautiful name- and haven't taken great pains to hide it, but I'm still not comfortable with it being used to refer to me, and I'm certainly not comfortable with complete strangers who didn't know me in the past knowing it.

Also, what's with the gratuitous bottom surgery reference? Towards the end of the article: "He received no “bottom surgery,” as it is known — few transmen do, in part because the operation is thought to be too rudimentary and in part because many transmen view it as unnecessary."

These references to transguys not getting bottom surgery have become the party line, and it is only a bare half step better than previous references to The Operation or The Sex Change, which imply that manhood is contingent squarely upon one's crotch. I'll be the first to say that it's supremely irritating when one surgery (and usually without even acknowledging the variations and options that exist within that surgical procedure!) is used as synecdoche for an entire transition, and I'm glad when stories about trans folks don't focus on lacking/seeking to obtain the 'proper' genitals.

But actually, maybe it's not better. It's good to acknowledge that not all transfolks choose to pursue the same options/surgeries as part of their transition, but statements like this swing much too hard in the opposite direction, and really marginalize men who DO choose to pursue lower surgery of some variety. Besides the fact that statements like "it's too expensive and it doesn't really work" are hurtful and insulting to folks who have already gone through with such surgeries, there remains the equally important point that such tropes perpetuate an outdated, fearmongering perspective that brings with it its own form of peer pressure.

Surgery is really expensive, yes, and that sucks, but to imply that a surgery is "not worth the price," whatever the price, is to place a value on the happiness and fulfilment that can come with eradicating (or at least ameliorating) dysphoria for a lot of guys. That kind of relief, as the cliches and commercials will tell you, is priceless.

Furthermore, there are a wealth of surgical options contained within the terms "lower surgery," (check this site out for some basic introductions) and those options are being practiced and improved and expanded upon by a variety of highly skilled and experience doctors every day. Leaving aside the irritating assumptions about what constitutes "successful" or "functional" genitals, surgically modified or not, it's just not true that "very few" transmen pursue these surgeries, or that they "don't work." The techniques are changing and improving all the time, in no small part because the surgeons are performing them frequently!

So while it's certainly not something that needs to be considered a limiting or trumping factor in transitioning, and it's true that it's not something that everyone pursues, it's still frustrating to see lower surgery constantly insulted in print like this.

Which leads me to the original point- why does this guy's surgery status or ambitions even need to be mentioned? There is plenty of material to talk about in an article about a (trans)man attending a women's college without inviting the readership to peek into his underpants.

That being said, I do try to understand why journalists/interviewers routinely employ these offensive tactics such as dredging up old names, or bringing up surgery, particularly genital surgery. This article is actually quite good, in comparison to many- it's positive in tone, respectful and consistent with pronoun use and appropriately gendered terminology, it doesn't harp on the surgeries.

And so if I'm being generous of spirit, which I usually try to be, I wonder if maybe this is the only way journalists know how to broach a daunting or unusual topic to a wider audience. To most people (and thus, most of the readership of this article, though I imagine that the NY Times readership might be a little more up to speed than, say, the Spokesman Review of Spokane, Washington), transgender people are a complete unknown. The only thing they're familiar with and understand is that boys will be boys unless they cut their dicks off and go on Jerry Springer and then they're Sex Changes.

So to try to bridge the gap between that world and the trans-savvy world, where we are familiar with terms like gender identity and transition process and the nuances of people who are not comfortable with the sex assigned to them at birth, journalists have to try to keep us trans people grounded in framework that the rest of the world still operates under, that framework that believes the doctors when they say "It's a girl!"

So references to our former names allows people to understand that I used to "be" a girl, and while now I "am" a man, I'm not a normal one and pretty much never will be.

There are some folks, I know, who believe that the answer to this is to try to limit such journalism, try to stop bringing the details of trans life into the public spotlight because it makes our lives harder when we're trying to be normal people. A little bit of information is a very dangerous thing in the minds of a still-mostly-misinformed public, and when somebody reads something about trans people somewhere, whatever information or assumptions they cultivate from that article will henceforth be projected and branded onto any trans people they happen to encounter in the future.

And that sucks, and agree that it probably DOES make our lives harder.

But I still don't think that invisibility is a good approach. It's harder to go increase the education so that people aren't still making and projecting those frustrating limiting assumptions onto us...particularly when there isn't exactly common agreement about what information that education should consist of. It'd maybe be easier to just try to keep quiet and not broadcast info about trans folks. But I think it'd only be easier in the short run.

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