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Transgender Woman Challenges Radio Contest Expectations

Avery Mitchell
Avery Mitchell
Avery Mitchell
Avery Mitchell
Avery Mitchell
Avery Mitchell
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When Calgary’s AMP 90.3 Radio announced their "Breast Summer Ever" contest in June, the media response and outrage was predictable. What wasn’t predictable was the end result: That Avery Mitchell, a transgender woman, had won.

Buzz Bishop, the DJ at AMP Radio who announced the winner on July 20th, did admit at first glance that the whole contest seemed sensational. When you give away breast implants, people immediately think of the sexy cheesecake image. Some of the initial media coverage of the contest even ran with images of Pamela Anderson and Dolly Parton.

Buzz was one of the contest’s most vocal defenders, telling us "...radio stations all the time give away luxurious make-a-wish sort of prizes...so this is just another one of those, I can NEVER afford to do that, but someone’s going to give me a chance to do it, sort of prize....it’s not for everyone – and we will admit that – but we did get 600 entries."

AMP then chose ten finalists who recorded a video explaining their situation, and from this group the public could vote for their favourite. In a way, these ten finalists helped change the contest into something beyond what everyone was expecting, Buzz told me. "We used the term breast augmentation...but we opened it up to people who wanted a reduction, who wanted a lift, who wanted a tuck. It was $10,000 to give to a surgeon to have something done to your chest." As it turned out, many women had very compelling reasons to enter this contest.

Since our society is still somewhat nervous when it comes to discussing female body health issues, many don’t realize numerous women may have serious reasons to seek surgical solutions. Because of illness, or injury, or genetics, or changes in lifestyle, they may cause them to develop overly gigantic, overly tiny, or even lopsided breasts. There were some women who suffered traumatic illnesses in their youth and consequently that part of their body was either scarred or didn’t develop normally. In one situation, one of the three finalists was a J cup originally. She went on a diet and lost weight yet still was a double F and wanted a reduction.

"There was a variety of circumstances. I’m sure a lot of people who were criticizing [the contest] thought it was going to be a bit of a...Bar Star thing," Buzz said. On the contrary, AMP wanted women who had reasonable expectations and who wanted the operation for the right reasons.

Critics, of course, rushed to label this as something sexist. Yet Buzz challenged those people to actually look at the contestants: "...the people we brought forward – our ten – were articulate, positive, brave...I don’t think there was ANYTHING bimbo-ish, dumb, shallow, vain...I think they all came from organic places." These were people who thought about it for five to 10 years AND were willing to go public about a very private health matter.

Buzz’s opinion is that breast enhancement does have a bit of a stigma attached to it (even though it is an expensive voluntary surgery women are lining up for). "It’s kind of become this Voldemort – the thing we don’t talk about." Many people, Buzz continued, are outraged to hear when mentioned that media figures undergo the surgery, clamouring that it’s wrong.

Much to their surprise, the radio station welcomed intelligent, articulate debate. Unfortunately, despite the invitations Buzz made to openly discuss the issue, no one would come on the air to talk about it. They were content to write a letter from a computer, or spray-paint graffiti in the dark of night on the station’s front entrance.

Apparently critics felt, no matter what, the contest was demeaning, sexist and misogynist. Never mind that AMP Radio’s promotions person (a woman) and station manager (also a woman) both promoted and signed off on it. Never mind that it was a transgender woman who eventually won...and by a landslide.

Speaking of which, this was the biggest surprise coming out of this contest, especially since it happened in Alberta. This is a province that is traditionally portrayed as "Texas North".

"People paint us that way," Buzz said, "...but when you look at who the mayor of Calgary is, and the changes he’s going to make, and the attitude Mr. Nenshi has, I think Calgary’s a little bit different at its heart. We’re a vibrant and diverse community."

That being said, Buzz believes there were a lot of people in the transgender community in Calgary, and internationally, along with their supporters, who may have tilted things in Avery’s favour. Especially since her story was picked up by LGTBQ blogs and social media: "her support was more global and widespread."

Certainly the financial support Avery received from winning the contest will help. She’s a little over 6 months along in the process of transitioning, and when I spoke with her, she was still a bit surprised by her win.

In case you forgot, in 2009, the provincial Tories decided any new applicants for gender reassignment surgery will not be covered by healthcare.  This left people like Avery covering the very steep costs all on their own. Avery has not figured out the full price of all procedures, but she did give us a ballpark rundown: "I pay around $100 a month for hormones...trachea shave – get your Adam’s Apple taken off is $2000, facial feminization is $6000, I believe the full genital reconstruction is around...I think $20,000."

Which is why, on one level, Avery knew she had to go public – information about the struggles transgender folk face had to get out there. She never had a second thought about entering the contest: "During the whole thing I didn’t feel like stepping back...I believed in it so much. I knew how much it would help me so I didn’t feel any fear towards any of that."

Though, as Buzz mentions, it helped that she had support and a positive reception for entering the contest. Her family, who had reservations at first, have come around to support her. Attendees at a transgender support group to which she belongs voted for her. And as a transgender woman, she garnered a lot of support internationally. "I wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t for all those people. The word just spread out across the internet."

While it is fair to say that both family, friends and international support helped her win, you could say our society’s changing attitudes may have also swung votes her way. Consider the target audience of AMP radio: younger Calgarians. This demographic probably voted for Mayor Nenshi en masse. They grew up watching Will and Grace. They saw activists struggle for equal rights for LGTBQ people. For them, it was the right thing to do.

What made it even more beneficial was the fact that it got people to talk about transgender issues, Avery noted. "I’ve been contacted by the parents of transgendered [individuals]....I received a couple of emails from people saying thank you for getting that information out there." Especially since these children get harassed a lot as they are going through school - "everyone around them has no idea what they’re going through or why they look like they do."

Times are changing. The mainstream media gave her a positive reception in interviews after she was announced as the winner. The only small bump, as she tells us, is that people may not know the right gender terminology to use because there isn’t the education out there in the general public. "A lot of media...they’re just kind of learning about it. I try not to get too stuck up on it...it’s new to a lot of people."

It may be new to a lot of people in the mainstream community; however it’s not new to our own community.  Avery and GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine do want to stress to our readers: if you think gender reassignment surgery should again be covered by Alberta Health, then take the time to contact your MLA and insist it should be re-listed.

The public has voted in support of one transgender person. Perhaps we’re ready to vote in support of ALL of them.(GC)

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