Possibly inspired by Laverne Cox and Orange is the New Black, I blurted out the title of this post at a recent panel about media coverage of transgender issues, as I was trying to put into context the quality of coverage of transgender issues today, as compared to gay and lesbian issues in the early 1990s. It has stuck in my head since.
Back then I was working at GLAAD and gay and lesbian people were still seen by the mainstream media as one-dimensional. They asked questions that directly related to or skirted around our sex lives, because that’s what they thought their audiences wanted to know. They were probably right, for the most part, and it took a lot of time, education and activism to get the media to cover gay and lesbian issues — and people — more substantively.
For example, the coverage of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy when it began was more about showers and submarines than service. It was primarily about men, too, even if lesbians were discharged at a much higher rate. The guys made better, more sensational headlines. When DADT was repealed in 2010, the stories were, pun intended, an entirely different story. Because activists did a better job and because the culture and the media changed.
Which brings me to the swift, growing visibility for transgender people we are seeing in the media. Transgender characters in entertainment were always around, but as the punch line. When it came to news, it was usually about a hate crime. And I can tell you from personal experience even that coverage had to be fought for, from Brandon Teena to Fred Martinez to Gwen Araujo.
But increasingly, we are seeing transgender actors, activists, filmmakers, politicians and people from every walk of life coming out and telling their stories. We just saw the first transgender focused TEDTalk by Geena Rocero, who got an instant standing ovation as she finished.
The release of the groundbreaking “Injustice at Every Turn” report by the Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011 showed the media the devastating impact discrimination and violence have on transgender and gender non-conforming people and is now a reference point for data the media can go back to, which is a critical piece of educating the public.
Which brings me back to that panel at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Of course, we talked about Piers Morgan’s recent ham-fisted and very unsatisfying interview with author and activist Janet Mock and the controversy afterwards. In my opinion the underlying tone and language he used were not even good journalism. He asked the same kind of leading questions he always does and botched the opportunity to explore the life of an amazing woman. And obviously he did not have to point out repeatedly that she was assigned male at birth. But does it make him transphobic?