Guest Blogging: “Transgender people should no longer have to prove that we exist”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Bethany Grace Howe, a doctoral student who has written extensively on issues pertaining to the transgender community, discusses the importance of journalistic standards in coverage of transgender people. In the wake of the White House’s recent move toward the banning of transgender troops and the media coverage of the shooting death of a transgender woman in St. Louis, this seemed particularly timely and helpful for journalists.

You say you’re a Christian. Prove it.

Teaching journalism as I do, I’m often tempted to tell my students this should be one of their questions when interviewing people about subjects of religion.

“Excuse me, Mr. Francis, but I notice your rosary beads are shorter than Mr. Benedict’s. Are you sure you’re Catholic?”

No, I am not singling out Christians. But living in Eugene, Oregon, Christianity is the majority religion around here, and I really want to see evidence they’re a Christian. If I was teaching in Saudi Arabia I’d ask the same of Muslims, Japan the Buddhists, and so on.

And no, this is not singling out religion.

If I they’re writing a story on a leader in the LGBTQ community I’m tempted to have their subjects prove they’re gay. If they’re interviewing the director of La Raza I’d like them to prove they’re Hispanic. And so on and so on, assuming that the claim I’m investigating is in fact how they publicly identify.

I don’t do this, of course. For one thing, I’d probably get fired. The University of Oregon is a pretty free-thinking liberal place, but there are limits. More importantly, however, I know how insanely unfair that question would be – because transgender people have to deal with it all the time.

Always have, still do.

In her defining work, “The Empire Strikes Back,” Sandy Stone outlines the history of transgender self-identification in America, a history largely defined by the narrative that transgender people suffer from a disorder and therefore need help. On the surface, this seems benevolent; psychologists and surgeons wanting to help those in need.

Then as now, however, there was no mental or psychological test which could determine if someone was disordered, dysphoric as the condition is now labeled, or simply transgender, as many non-cisgendered people prefer to be identified. Equally confounding, the mental and emotional process in each patient could not only vary greatly from one another, but they weren’t even consistently differentiated from the rest of the general population.

For a doctor to cure a disorder, however, there must be evidence of one – so they “discovered” one. By the 1960s nearly every therapist engaged in diagnosing transgender patients started with psycho-dynamics, the mental and emotional processes developed in early childhood as they related to adult mental states: “It started young, and I’ve been miserable the whole time,” or something like that.

More than just common knowledge among doctors, however, the “evidence” of transgenderism was common knowledge among patients. And as transgender people began to assert their need for help in the 1960s, they very quickly learned that the only way to convince doctors to help was to talk about a lifetime of distress and dysfunction. Regardless of what symptoms they truly felt, Stone writes, they “unambiguously expressed (their feelings) in the simplest form: The sense of being in the ‘wrong’ body.”

A half-century later not much has changed; the media knows what it wants to hear us say. Just as early doctors wanted to hear stories of distress and struggle, the media and others want to hear about struggles, surgeries, evidence of what we’ve done for ourselves – or to ourselves – as some type of “proof” that we are who we say we are.

You only need to look as far as Katie Couric vs. Laverne Cox, Piers Morgan vs. Janet Mock: They want proof that we are as we say we are, something “only” surgery can provide. Couric and Morgan might argue that they are simply asking the questions that people want to know. But in doing so, they are every bit as complicit in wrongly defining the transgender experience as those physicians 50 years ago.

This constant demand from the media, the mental health establishment, the academy, to prove that we exist is not only debilitating, it is unique. Cisgender people are assigned at birth, race can be determined by a blood test, lesbian, gay and bisexual people are usually now taken at their word; why would they lie? People choose and even switch religions and it’s literally accepted on faith. Only we must “prove” we exist.

Certainly there are bona fide tales of struggle, and many transgender people do choose to consider their choices as their own personal barometer of transgender status. That is not, however, every transgender person’s story or actions – and it never has been. I certainly do not define myself that way. I am a transgender woman, and I do not need to prove it to the media or anyone else by virtue of what I choose to do with my body. I won’t pretend I have not struggled with what medical procedures I wish to have. But that struggle does not define me; it is not evidence that I exist.

Journalists need to ask themselves what motivates their questions when they talk to transgender people. Is it because the answer might illustrate a greater truth? Or is it because you want to verify to your audience that this transgender person has credibility? That they are “serious” about who they are?

Transgender people should no longer have to prove – to anyone – that we exist, nor how we should define that existence. Indeed, Janet Mock called these narratives that are demanded of us – by the media, by doctors, by scholars – the most damaging of all: those that would demand we prove our realness. Indeed, I would ask you to consider this: the fact that each transgender person’s ultimate agency – the right to control and determine the nature of their own body – remains in the power of another: what does that do to a person, a culture, a discourse?

No, that’s not your question to answer (though I’d be happy to talk to you about it). But as a journalist it is in your power to change it.

Leave a Reply