GayCalgary® Magazine [copy]

Gives Good Headline

How the Media Loves its Sex Changes

Trans Identity by Mercedes Allen (From GayCalgary® Magazine, August 2008, page 50)
In early December, 2007, Calgary City Council voted on whether to change the title of “alderman” to something ungendered, such as “alderperson” or “councilor.” They voted the idea down, leaving them the last major Canadian city yet to do so.

In covering this, the Calgary Sun had a field day, printing the headline, “Council Nixes Sex Changes.” Anything to give good headline.

And of course, right-wing Fundamentalists and radio shock personalities complain that there are so many people that it is socially unacceptable pick on. You can’t make a villain out of someone because of their race or because they’re female or because they’re handicapped — it’s even become taboo to make someone sound like their existence is a danger to society because of their sexual orientation… unless, of course, yours is a religious press.

Transgender and gender-queer people are another matter entirely, and it is still tradition to ridicule, insult, deride and speak epithets about anyone who doesn’t fit strict “male” and “female” gender stereotypes. Even sitting to pee can be seen as a reason to lampoon a man. And if you cross-dress or are a transsexual, it’s open season. Sometimes, I think we should get a medal for providing ample work for comedians and media people.

One case that has illustrated this dramatically has been that of Thomas Beatie, who sprang into headlines as the “pregnant man.” Coverage has been widespread, from WorldNetDaily to the New York Times. One would have expected better from newspapers that had managed to rise above tabloidism and build reputations for serious objectivity. Not so with the Boston Globe, where columnist Jeff Jacoby, in an article entitled, “Pregnant, Yes, But Not A Man,” drubbed over and over that Thomas’ name is really “Tracy” (despite it having been legally changed), insisting – as do many of the Far Right – on using only the pronoun “she,” before proceeding to equate Beatie’s story to recent news about a polygamist compound in Texas and an incest-riddled family in Australia. But Jacoby is not alone. Even Oprah’s clout couldn’t convince people to view Beatie objectively, evidenced by the severe backlash on her message boards.

As the media tends to take things to the extreme, and it’s always about “sex changes” or bathrooms or identity issues – and also because transsexuals draw most of the media disrespect and ridicule purely by the frequency of occurrence – much of what follows will be specific to that. Here’s some basic understanding about transsexuality that one doesn’t get from the mainstream media, because they often don’t “get it,” themselves. “Gender Dysphoria” is a condition recognized by the medical community, and treatment follows the standards of care established by WPATH (formerly HBIGDA), which include Genital Reassignment Surgery (GRS). It is currently listed as a mental health issue, but as GID therapists tend to concur, this is only because a specific biological trigger has not yet been determined (although there is ongoing study of both genetic “brain sex” and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals which appear to possibly lead to a better understanding of its origin). As much as mainstream society and some journalists would like to believe that electroshock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, conversion therapy and lobotomy would help transsexuals “just get over it,” modern medicine has realized that this approach simply does not work, and usually results in suicide or extreme anti-social behaviour. Aligning body to mind, however, has enabled transsexuals to become valued and successful people in society — people like Erica Rutherford, Ben Barres, Georgina Beyer, Renee Richards, Amanda Lepore, Parinya Kiatbusaba (Nong Toom), Calpernia Addams, Marci Bowers, Christine Daniels, Alexandra Billings and Lynn Conway.

But the bottom line seems to be that attempting understanding doesn’t sell papers. This is how legislation designed to protect the rights of people in employment, housing and public interaction based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, can turn into panic-mongering from the media and religious right about fictional male sex predators in skirts waiting in the loo to ambush peoples’ daughters. This argument, which has surfaced in Maryland, Colorado and Florida, makes overly wide assumptions that all transsexuals (MTF and FTM) are male and that all males are sex predators, and in no way reflects realistically on transgender people – these claims actually have no historical precedent (otherwise, you can be sure that they would be trumpeting it).

Respect doesn’t sell papers, either. Consequently, there’s a push to dig up one’s birth name as their “real” name, regardless of their legal name. This would never be acceptable anywhere else – they would never insist that musician Sting is really Gordon Sumner, or that Cher is really Cherilyn Sarkisian. “Hillary Rodham” may not have as much name recognition, but it is “real” by these standards. After all, if Thomas Beatie has legally changed his name to “Thomas Beatie” and has lived as such for over ten years but is “really” Tracy LaGondino, then I don’t see why this rule can’t apply to everyone. To make it easier for media folk in the event that I die and it’s printable for whatever reason, my birth name was Boogersnot Fuqnutz. Let’s see the media print that.

The AP Stylebook has a completely different approach... but many never reference the stylebook when it comes to the handling of trans subjects, what with the ample application of the pejorative terms “shemale,” “he-she” and “tranny” that continue to find their way to print. It continues to be more economically feasible to ignore the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association -provided stylebook protocols for the Associated Press, and the recommended etiquette for treatment of transgender people overall.

From the Stylebook: “tranny: Often a pejorative term for a transgender person, it is now being reclaimed by some transgender people. Caution: still extremely offensive when used as an epithet and should be avoided except in quotes or as someone’s self-identified term.”

Still, this is often not what happens. Although the stylebook says that “To determine accurate use of names or personal pronouns, use the name and sex of the individual at the time of the action,” the media’s favorite approach to dealing with transsexuals is to put the current name in quotes, like an inaccurate alias, and using the birth sex pronoun. For any other human being, blatantly denying these basics about how a person is living their life would be unacceptable, but it exists because journalists insist on reinforcing the take that our identities are “not real” and that we’re living fake lives, that our identities are fabrications. This is all dependent on the belief that transsexuality is a “choice” - just like the Fundies still assert the archaic notion that homosexuality is simply a choice - which goes to show that many of them don’t even realize what the DSM-IV (bible of the medical community) has to say about Gender Dysphoria. For many of us, the fabricated part of life was in fact that time prior to our transitions, when we were putting on the superficial false fronts, pretending to be the “boy” or “girl” that everyone else wanted or expected us to be — and being miserable, struggling to function emotionally / psychically / spiritually / economically (it’s hard to be productive with something like GID constantly nagging at you) / maybe sexually, and often suicidal as a result.

I fail to understand why people still persist in thinking that we mysteriously out-of-the-blue wake up one day and decide it would be cool to alienate ourselves from the rest of the world, lose our jobs, lose our families, lose our churches, lose our spouses, lose our children, be priced out of our apartments, be viewed as “freakish” by the public, and become potential prey to violence that society feels is perfectly justified. You’d think with that kind of risk, that whatever drives a person on would have to be important.

For some, I’m being unkind, mainly because I’m very angry. A number of journalists have made very serious efforts to understand and objectively report about us and who we are. It is very much appreciated and I don’t mean to overlook those who do abide by stylebook and treat transfolk with respect. Locally (Alberta, Canada), two such journalists who have treated trans-people with dignity have been Jeremy Loome and Andrew Hanon, and there are similar writers across the Western World that deserve such kudos. One paper in the U.S., The Nashua Telegraph, has even made an effort to educate its readership on trans people and their issues, in spite of a backlash.

And in fact, I’m not proposing that transgender persons should be given favorable or sympathetic treatment, so much as given the same objective and respectful regard given to everyone else. My anger and frustration is with those who don’t care because they’re more interested in how sensational they can make a story.

”Mercedes Allen is a writer who blogs at, has been featured on, PageOneQ and others, and has also developed the website at as a resource for transgender information and support.”


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