Over the past couple of days, we have seen a bit of an internet temper tantrum coming primarily from some in Britain, centering on some voices in the British commentariat, who are very upset about the fact that trans activists and allies have critiqued an unfortunate line in an article and rather blatantly transphobic comments on twitter by journalist Suzanne Moore (see for example my own previous comment about the issue here). Moore initially made an awkward, de-gendering reference to “Brazilian transsexuals” in her NewStatesman piece, followed by a blatantly transphobic tirade on twitter when gently approached about that odd line in the original article.
Let’s say something off the bat to put all of this in some context. The news media (as well as most every other media, in fact) has a long history of writing about trans people, and trans women in particular, in ways that are extremely sensationalistic, exploitative and ultimately damaging to our lives and livelihoods. These types of media tropes about trans women, habitually dehumanizing and de-gendering us through words, serve to stigmatize our bodies and our lives and therefore promote the discrimination, marginalization and violence that the vast majority of us have experienced quite commonly. I myself have experienced some measure of all of these, however trans women living at the intersections of racial oppression, poverty, and others tend to experience these even more dramatically than someone like myself with white privilege.
For examples of this type of media reporting in the U.S., consider a local TV report covering the murder of Coko Williams in a Detroit neighborhood back in April 2012. Coko had her throat slashed and was shot, yet the news story said little about the loss of human life, instead airing grievances of a neighborhood man who complained of street crime and finding trash on his lawn. When the loss of human life was alluded to towards the end of the interview, Coko’s name was never used and she was inappropriately referred to with male pronouns; further, another resident basically said she had the murder coming because she was trans. Finally, even when a queer website covered the murder, the picture included with the story featured a picture of trash from the first interviewee’s lawn rather than a picture of the woman who had been murdered.
Then there was the New York Times coverage of the passing of Lorena Escalera who died in a fire last May. The NYT story focused on details of her sex life and reported what amounted to rumors about surgery a neighbor believed she might have had. Of course, the NYT (or any reputable news source) would never report such sensationalized details after the passing of a cis woman (or probably anyone else, for that matter).
Meanwhile, as detailed by Trans Media Watch in its submission to the Leveson inquiry, elements of the British Press have shaped exploitative and damaging reporting about trans people almost to a twisted art form; this includes outing trans people regardless of any dangers they might face and publishing exploitative pieces about a trans child whose life and images were put on display in a sensationalized manner that invited public ridicule and abuse.
Then of course there are the endless array of plot lines of movies and shows such as CSI in which trans people, and trans women in particular, are presented as freaks or psychotic individuals, not to mention the sitcoms on which trans women are commonly presented as nothing more than a joke.
It is of course within this wider context of sensationalistic media coverage that most any comments about trans people in the press will be received. Therefore it is in this context that such comments must be viewed, including the line from Suzanne Moore’s original article:
“We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
As myself and many of my fellow trans activists have pointed out over the last few days, this final phrase is odd and alienating. As I pointed out earlier, it represents body-policing, and it’s anti-feminist. Although she has objected strenuously to this characterization of her words, the comments that Moore made on twitter when approached about the issue clearly revealed a much deeper prejudice about trans women and trans women’s bodies.
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