Note: the following is an archival post of my recent blog piece at Huffington Post.
Earlier this week, Piers Morgan interviewed transgender advocate Janet Mock for his CNN show, focusing on her new book, Redefining Realness. The interview quickly set off a critical response on social media as Morgan focused his questions on Mock’s transition history and the moment she came out to her partner as transgender. The captioning on the program (and Piers Morgan’s tweet to promote the interview) referred to her as formerly being a “boy,” and Morgan himself used similar language throughout the interview. He also referred to Mock’s male-typical birth name several times.
When I watched the interview, it felt like the questions towards the beginning of the interview, focusing on Mock’s gender expression through adolescence, were leading specifically towards one of the media’s favorite tropes regarding trans women: surgical status. When Morgan actually asked the question, it came out about as awkwardly as one could imagine:
“You’re going through school, you’ve gone from Charles to Janet, from boy’s clothes to girl’s clothes, and you’ve coped with all the teasing and the bullying, and you’ve come through and it’s made you like as strong in your head enough to say, I’m gonna go through properly with this and become a woman, and have a transgender operation… Tell me how you felt when you were actually approaching the operation.”
Mock answered the question gracefully, stating in part, “That was a big step in a long journey… for me it was a step for me to move closer to me. It was a reconciliation with myself.”
However, the question itself is extremely uncomfortable, pretty much regardless of the answer. For one thing, does the framing of the question imply that a trans woman who decides against surgery hasn’t “properly” become a woman?
Further, while personally I’m not totally opposed to discussing surgical status in the type of interview, and some trans people are fine being totally open about it, I would at the very least ask for the framing of the question to acknowledge something like, “Hi, I’m going to do something out of the ordinary in this interview, which is that I am going to ask you about your genitalia. I would appreciate your openness if you were comfortable discussing something so personal, but if not, that’s okay too.“
I strongly feel that without this type of framing, this question about surgical status necessarily buys into the idea that transgender bodies are somehow public domain, and therefore the question is completely irredeemable.
Morgan’s line of questioning, however, only went further into this mentality, as he lead into the commercial break with the sensationalistic comment
“In 2009, you meet a man, and you fall in love with this man, but there’s something you have to tell him, there’s something pretty big you have to tell him that he doesn’t know, which is that you used to be, yourself, a man.”
At this point, Morgan is not only touching on the idea that trans women’s bodies are public domain, but is dangerously closing in on “deception” tropes, which is the idea that if a trans person engages in romantic or sexual activity with a cis person who is unaware that they are attracted to a trans person, then the trans person has somehow committed deception. This social myth has at times even been employed in an attempt to justify sexual assault and other forms of violence, in particular against trans women.
In April, 2012, a University of Montana transgender female student was consensually dancing with another student. At a later point they went outside and he began to kiss her and fondle her aggressively and she pushed him away. Instead of taking no for an answer, the man put his hands down her pants, and then, realizing that she was trans, he punched her in the face. In the aftermath, the attacker tried to hit the trans woman with two classic victim-blaming myths: claiming on the one hand that she was responsible for his sexual aggression because she had danced with him, and on the other that she had deceived him because he didn’t realize she was trans until he sexually assaulted her.
In the case of 18-year old Angie Zapata, a man on whom she had performed consensual oral sex later killed her when he similarly discovered her trans status. He grabbed her crotch at which point she smiled and said, “I’m all woman.” The man’s attorney later stated, “When (Zapata) smiled at him, this was a highly provoking act, and it would cause someone to have an aggressive reaction.”
But the true aggression in these scenarios is the idea that trans women’s bodies are public domain, or the simply nonsensical belief that no cis man would ever be (knowingly or unknowingly) attracted to a trans woman. These together are two of the factors that lead to the alarmingly high rates of violence experienced by trans women of color in the U.S.
If the media wishes to continue asking sensationalized questions about trans bodies, the very least they could do is to acknowledge that they would never ask similar questions of a non-trans person.