Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Another weekend, another irritating article in the Sunday Style Section

Is it just me, or has the pendulum swung back a bit in terms of media coverage and trans folks, such that nowadays, it's transmasculine people who are all over the popular media, rather than being a sidebar to all the articles about trans women?

In the last year alone, there have been various in-depth features in the NY Times (usually in the Sunday Styles or the Magazine). Maybe I've missed out on others- the NY Times is the only newspaper I consistently read, so maybe it's just some NYT staffers who have a personal transman fascination. (Although looking on their website for stories tagged with "transsexuals" it seems that there are plenty of stories about transwomen, too, so maybe it is just my own perception.)

Anyway, the latest was published this past Sunday. [n.b: since I've procrastinated for so long on finishing this post, the actual irritating article which inspired it is now two weekends old, and I was pleased to see that there were no stories (irritating or otherwise) about trans folks in this weekend's paper] It's riding the coattails of the media circus about Mr. Pregnant Man, that went on back in early April.

I just gotta say, I am so sick and tired of getting a sinking feeling in my stomach when I see a trans-related headline in the newspaper. The stories are always disrespectful, always uncomfortable, even when the author is trying hard not to be...and at least some of them are trying now! Reading through that NYT archive of trans related stories makes it clear that here has been at least some progress. Authors consistently use the right pronouns and names now, even if they do often sneak in gratuitous references to the person's "old" name. (Though it's interesting to note that trans folks aren't the only minority group that is consistently disrespected in print in such a fashion!)

This most recent article is a study in ups and downs. I'll say first, albeit grudgingly, that it's not as bad as it could be. The author consistently uses the right name and pronouns for Mr. Beattie, never refers to him

But first, there's the title. "He's Pregnant. You're speechless."

Well, no, actually, I'm not. I realize that the title is pandering to the majority of readers of the Times, who probably are unfamiliar with the notion of male pregnancy, but wow, way to make assumptions about your audience and render invisible those of us who are not speechless...like, say, we men who are also capable of or considering becoming pregnant. There are plenty of us (trans and non-trans) who read the Times and are rendered speechless not by Mr. Beattie, but by the gauche articles like this which acknowledge the fact that "anatomy does not define woman or man" and then turn around and spend a paragraph discussing in minute detail Mr. Beattie's genitals.

Which is, of course, my main frustration with this piece. How on earth can you include such a great quote from Prof. Sedgwick, pointing out that gender identity does NOT hinge around the state one's genitals, and then go on to splash private details about this guy's dick across the New York freakin' Times? Since you've just quoted an expert telling you that trans people prefer NOT to be defined by their genitalia, how can you not see how disrespectful it is to spend the next paragraph discussing said junk?

Not only is it a gross invasion of privacy to once again reduce this trans person to being only as important as what he's got in his pants, it's insanely rude and disrespectful to say something like "Mr. Beattie does not have a penis."

He may not have a penis that looks like yours, Guy (although whoops, there I go, assuming what's in your pants. Too bad nobody has written in a national newspaper about the size and shape of YOUR dick, Guy, or else I'd be able to quote my sources!), but that doesn't give you the right to make pronouncements about his genitals...pronouncements, furthermore, that anyone who reads this article is going to generalize to apply to other trans men. I don't need people speculating about whether I've had surgery, and whether my junk "mimics" a phallus or not. (Do I even need to go into why it's offensive to tell a man that his genitals "mimic" a penis?)There are enough people projecting their values and judgments onto my body without you fanning the flames, buddy.

Also, using the phrase "more radical surgeries" to describe having a hysterectomy? What possible good does it do to refer to getting a hysterectomy as a "radical" step, besides furthering inflaming the reaction of nervous or confused parents and friends of trans people? More than 600,000 hysterectomies are performed in the United States every year, but if a trans guy wants to have one, all of a sudden it's a 'radical' step? Let's try to keep the melodrama to a minimum, please. I don't need more drama surrounding my already fraught personal medical decisions.

And then, to ice the cake, the author goes on to quote Judith Halberstam on the matter of trans men obtaining lower surgery. Seriously? I'm frustrated that once again, a non-trans person (who has, from what I know, a rather contentious relationship with trans issues) is called in as the expert to make a pronouncement about what transmen do or do not want to do about their genitals.

To her credit, I appreciate that what she's trying to do is further the notion that there isn't one universal notion of a sex change. Not all of us who were born female but identify as male are seeking the same set of medical options- some of us want lower surgery, some don't. Some of us want to keep our reproductive function, some of us want to remove those organs as quickly as possible.

What makes this a one step forward, two steps back situation is the way in which she tries to accomplish this. And again, trying to be fair, she's not the only person who does this. The narrative of the "too expensive/unsuccessful bottom surgery" for trans guys is well-perpetuated, but it's a frustrating myth, and I'd rather not see it perpetuated in print by people who are quoted presumably because they're experts in the matter.

It's true that there is no one "sex change operation" (ugh, I dislike even using that term) that is universally sought after by trans guys. It's very important to recognize that not everyone wants lower surgery of any kind, and that it's perfectly valid NOT to pursue it.

And yes, like most gender-confirming surgeries for trans folks, lower surgery is often very expensive, not covered by insurance, and is not going to give you a body exactly the ones inside Playboy or Playgirl. It'd be nice if there were a "snap your fingers and have the body of your dreams!" operation...but if there were, trans people wouldn't be the only ones lining up to take advantage.

What needs to stop happening is the establishing of an inferiority complex for trans bodies (whether or not they've had surgeries) when compared to non-trans body. My body may be different than a non-trans (or cissexual) man's body, but that doesn't make it less valid as a man's body.

Furthermore, should I choose to pursue bottom surgery, I'll do it having fully weighed my options and deciding for myself what I do and do not want; I don't need folks like Halberstam saying "Oh, trans guys don't want lower surgery because they don't want small dicks!"

There are a lot of guys who are actively pursuing bottom surgery (which, btw, is not a monolithic category, comprising as it does a variety of options and procedures, all of which are being perfected and expanded upon by surgeons around the world), and it does a disservice to them to say things like that. It does a HUGE disservice to the guys who have already had lower surgery, who made the best choice for themselves and are very happy with their results.

And all of this just goes on top of my general irritation that genitals have to be present in the article at all. Because, naturally, you can't have a feature about trans folks without talking about their genitals! But besides the fact that (like most folks, I imagine!) I don't want my genitals talked about in a national newspaper, I've got a complicated relationship with my body, and I don't want the decisions I make about how to live comfortably in my body to be colored by judgements from others.

/righteous indignation.


Duda said...

Here in Brazil our Minister of Health announced during LGBT Conference, supported by government, the treatment for FTM and MTF by public system health (I dont know if this is correct to say) and the periodics just say "Government will give free sex change" and a lot of people are talking about in not so good manner, I received a lot of e-mails by christians against this benefit to trans people.
Nobody knows what is a Transman or Transwoman, but in Brasil Transwomen is very common, in other hand transman is like invisible. When editors thought about articles they don't search experts in the particular case, but generic Phds. In all countries is the same thing.

Trish said...

I just found your blog from Mimi's diary. Thanks for your thoughtful and open posts here. I was wondering if you have any reading recommendations for someone trying to understand the essence of what it means to be transgender, and also to help sort out some common terminology? (For instance, today is the first time I've seen the word "cissexual.") "Whipping Girl" and "Nobody Passes" have been mentioned--are those good starting places, or do you have other suggestions?