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Katie, lemme explain trans* violence.
By Zack Budryk
“Stupidity has a certain charm; ignorance does not,” Frank Zappa once observed. It was hard not to be reminded of that sentiment watching journalism-strangling fluff-merchant Katie Couric’s cringeworthy interview earlier this week with actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera, probably the two most prominent transgender women working today. Both women have done impressive work in their respective fields—Cox in particular, in her role on Orange is the New Black, has brought us what’s probably the most three-dimensional, respectful portrayal of a trans* person in the history of television. Couric, being Couric, was not particularly interested in any of this and preferred to ask questions relating to Cox and Carrera’s physical transitions, asking the two to “educate” her audience, who weren’t “familiar with transgenders." (This is a common turn of phrase among really clueless people trying to sound progressive, like your grandmother talking about “the gays” or Donald Trump boasting of his “great relationship with the blacks.”)
This theme is recurring in media coverage of trans* people, and Couric’s wasn’t even as bad as it gets; for all her faults, her tone wasn’t actively hateful. Comparatively, last August, when Private Chelsea Manning came out as trans* after her conviction for spying, she was misgendered throughout the media, with CNN using the lede “Bradley Manning says he wants to live as a woman, called Chelsea.” The Daily Beast took it a step further, publishing a column by Mansfield Frazier (a former prison inmate) suggesting that although “celibacy probably won’t be an option for Chelsea Manning” (because rape, you see), she still stood to “become the queen bee” in prison. It takes a lot to have a more disgusting response to an LGBT issue than even Fox News, which contented itself with juvenile bullshit like playing “Dude Looks Like a Lady” over a segment on Manning’s announcement.
There are a lot of things the mainstream media are terrible at covering—scientific developments, crime, whether or not Paul Ryan is credible—but there’s an element of deliberate scorn in their coverage of trans* issues. The ignorance seems willful: “Of course we don’t know what we’re talking about, because it’s weird and gross.” It’s a common attitude towards the trans* community, this mélange of baffled contempt and voyeurism; 20 years ago, when transgender man Brandon Teena reported his sexual assault by the male acquaintances who would eventually murder him, Richardson County Sheriff Charles Laux subjected Teena to a humiliating, lewd line of questioning that, much like Couric’s interview, was mostly concerned with anatomical minutiae. (Laux’s negligence would result in a settlement of nearly $100,000 to Teena’s mother).
Cox herself responded to Couric’s ignorance in a way that was both dignified and immensely satisfying to watch. “The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community,” Cox said. “Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans* person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans* women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.” Specifically, Cox cited the case of Islan Nettles, who was murdered last year in Harlem after the men catcalling her realized she was trans*. Her point was clear: while you obsess over whether or not I have a dick, people like me are literally being killed in the street for existing.
One thing Couric said was true: a lot of cis people do have myriad questions about the concept of trans* people, as the confused nature of the media coverage proves. But here’s something else that’s true: Cox and Carrera weren’t on Couric’s show for the trans* equivalent of the “Ask a Black Dude” segment from Chapelle’s Show. They were there because they have accomplishments and careers just like famous non-Kardashian cis people do, and are entitled to be recognized for those rather than being gawked at and reduced to their gender identity. There’s nothing wrong or bigoted about not entirely understanding the idea of trans* people, but to demand that everything be put on hold so you can be spoonfed or chuckle like Beavis at the concept is the height of presumptuousness.