Reframing the Media Narrative: Trans Bodies Are Not Public Domain

From Huffington Post:

Savannah Garmon

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 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.

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