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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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Anti-trans ad produced by the Institute for Canadian Values

A firestorm of criticism has erupted in response to an ad that recently appeared in the National Post and Toronto Sun. Placed by Charles McVety’s so-called Institute for Canadian Values (ICV), the ad features a wide-eyed young girl accompanied by the phrase “Please! Don’t confuse me”, followed by, “I’m a girl. Don’t teach me to question if I’m a boy, transexual [sic.], transgendered, intersexed or two spirited [sic.]” (The original version misspelled “transsexual” and “two-spirited”).

The ad attacks a new Toronto District School Board (TDSB) resource guide that provides teachers with an age-appropriate approach to sex education that incorporates both sexual and gender diversity.

For example, in an activity outline called “‘Pink versus Blue’ – Challenging Gender Stereotypes,” students are asked to divide a group of toys into “girl toys,” “boy toys,” or those that are gender-neutral. Students are asked to question why they associate gender with certain toys. They are further asked how a child might be singled out if they do not conform with traditional gender norms, such as a boy who likes to skip rope or a girl who plays sports better than the boys, and how that might hurt the child’s feelings. The lesson is clearly aimed to prevent bullying. It is not designed to convince a young girl she should consider becoming a boy, or vice-versa.

That being said, there is the possibility that someone in the class might have some such inclination— I did. Growing up in rural North Carolina, I knew from around age six I was somehow different. I knew that while my body was ‘boy’ and others viewed me that way, I felt more like one of the girls. I didn’t completely understand it or know what it meant (I first heard the word ‘transgender’ around the age of twenty), but I was a smart kid and I knew that if I shared my feelings I could expose myself to isolation and violence. So I hid myself and, though it wasn’t intentional, I gradually internalized that fear as deep shame.

It took about twenty years before I could seriously begin the process of unlearning that shame, overcome (ironically) self-imposed isolation, and begin living as myself. That process was not always fun but I survived it, which is an immense source of pride for me today.

The ICV ad is meant to tell my story, only with the opposite conclusion: trans children, intersex children, anyone who does not conform should learn silence. Silence is often taught through bullying.

Consider the case of an intersex child, who has no choice whatsoever about the fact that their body may not conform to either female or male. There is no shortage of horror stories about surgeries performed on such children, combined with attempts to force conformity to either normative gender category— only to have them reject such assigned roles later in life, often resulting in great misery or even suicide. This is why an intersex child must be afforded safe space to work out their own gender, which will not happen in school without strong classroom guidance.

The ICV ad attempts to undo that, calling on provincial party leadership to “stop confusing” the little girl in the picture. This effectively acts to silence intersex and trans children into shame and self-erasure, possibly even reinstating bullying as a means to accomplish that.

As a result of the backlash against the ad, the National Post was at least compelled to issue a ham-fisted apology (the apology itself confuses gender identity with sexuality).

Unfortunately, some responses even from LGBTI organizations have been less than stellar, with many describing the ad as “homophobic” or “anti-gay”. The ad certainly does contain (mostly implied) homophobia, which must be condemned. However, the ad aggressively targets trans and intersex individuals. Make no mistake, this is intentional— the religious right believes that by attacking more marginalized members of the LGBTI community they will eventually create an opening to attack the entire community. The appropriate response is not for mainstream gay organizations to avoid discussing trans issues, but rather to stand up forcefully in order to disarm such an attack.

What’s worse, avoiding the issue acts as yet another erasure of trans identities and trans and intersex bodies— ironic, considering that is the intent of the ad itself.

On October 2, the heat was turned up further when it was reported that Progressive Conservative candidates in recent provincial elections were distributing flyers projecting a similar message, claiming the TDSB manual promotes “cross-dressing for six-year olds.” Such bizarre claims obviously represent an intense fear of trans and intersex acceptance that must be countered with a forceful response. We must call on both the Toronto Sun and the PC provincial party for a public apology, and for mainstream LGBTI organizations to stand unwavering in the face of anti-trans hate speech.

A version of this article appeared in the University of Toronto’s
the Varsity paper, as well as on Bilerico.


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