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We Don’t Value Trans Voices — Even On Trans Issues
Mainstream media still doesn't center trans voices on trans issues
I wrote this piece for the now defunct website the Establishment back in 2015. It is, unfortunately, still relevant.
When students at the University of Missouri began protesting against racism earlier this month, many mainstream sites included reporting and commentary by black reporters and writers. Jamelle Bouie covered the story for Slate; New York magazine reproduced tweets from scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom and writer Roxane Gay, Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote a much-shared piece on the relationship between protestors and the news media for The Washington Post.
This isn’t to say that mainstream sites are sufficiently inclusive. Black journalists remain underrepresented in news media, and the numbers, upsettingly, are getting worse, not better. Still, the media at least dimly recognizes that in a story about racism and black protest, black voices are important. As a result, many sites make at least a perfunctory effort to include such voices in their coverage.
When the media covers trans issues, however, trans voices are often ignored entirely.
In coverage of a recent story about Germaine Greer’s transphobia, for example, few if any mainstream sites have featured reporting, commentary, or interviews with trans women.
Greer is an influential feminist writer and thinker. She also has a long history of transphobic comments; in her 1999 book The Whole Woman she argued that “Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognize as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it,” and added that: “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.” Recent comments about Caitlyn Jenner demonstrated that she has not changed her views.
When Greer was asked to speak at Cardiff University this year, students started a Change.org petition asking that the invitation be rescinded in light of her transphobic comments. The university never seems to have seriously considered the petition, but Greer decided to cancel the event rather than visit a campus where some students might criticize her. Many writers in mainstream and left publications weighed in to declare this a threat to free speech, including Zoe Williams at the Guardian and, in a viral article, Katha Pollitt at the Nation.
But, as trans activist and writer Julia Serano told me by email, “Most of the articles that I read in the wake of the Germaine Greer/Cardiff University story did not include any trans women’s voices, or if they did, it was a brief quote or two directly from the petition.”
Serano is the author of Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive — and she told me that excluding trans women’s voices from media accounts is a serious problem. “Because the writers who penned these pieces are not transgender themselves, they were oblivious to the many-decade-long history of certain feminists (like Greer) working to undermine transgender rights and trans people’s access to healthcare.” She pointed particularly to anti-trans feminist Janice Raymond, who was intimately involved in ending federal support for trans medical care in the early 1980s.
“Most non-trans writers are inclined to see Germaine Greer’s views as mostly innocuous — they portray her as a single person who has questionable views about this one issue. They can do this because they are not personally impacted by her views,” Serano said.
“But as a trans woman, I may (and often have) encountered people with opinions almost identical to Greer’s at my doctor’s office, at the DMV and other government agencies, from police and airport TSA officers, at my workplace or university, and so on. It is impossible for me not to see the connections between Greer’s repeated public statements about trans women, and the everyday problems that I face.”
Katherine Cross, a trans feminist and cultural critic who writes frequently about issues of inclusion and free speech, argues that absence of trans voices is part and parcel of the discrimination trans people face. “We are the conversation piece in cisgender living rooms,” she told me by email.
“We are an object of academic theory that demands explanation, not human beings to be engaged with . . . Who we are, when it is seriously countenanced at all, is still seen as outlandish; we are the nadir of ‘PC gone mad’ to some, people who change gender and sex, who trouble one of the most fundamental, bedrock assumptions of our society. Better to dismiss us as sideshows and debate about us like a coffee table abstraction than to seriously engage with who and what we are.”
That dismissal is possible in part because of people like Greer. In her essay on the Greer controversy, feminist Katha Pollitt argues that Greer’s views do not concretely harm trans women. “Violence against trans women is the fault of feminists?” she asks incredulously. “I doubt the brutal men who assault and murder trans women have even heard of Greer.”
The testimony of women like Serano and Cross argues otherwise. In fact, Pollitt’s article in itself is an example of how anti-trans feminists damage trans people, and trans women especially.
Feminists would object vociferously if a debate about, say, abortion rights, did not include women. But because writers like Greer and Janice Raymond have historically excluded trans women from feminism, the absence of the voices of trans women is seen as acceptable and natural. Pollitt doesn’t feel she needs to talk to trans women, or quote trans women, to write an article about them. Pollitt insists that feminists like Greer are valuable in part because of what they get wrong. But she doesn’t even allow trans women to be right. Greer, and those like her, have helped create a mainstream in which trans women must listen silently to the free speech lectures of others.
This may be slowly changing; an important article by Serano about free speech and Greer was, belatedly but gratifyingly, picked up by Salon. “There is increasing media willingness to allow trans people to speak on our own behalf, but it is usually limited to personal stories about our childhoods and transitions,” Serano told me. “The media rarely gives us a chance to talk about our firsthand experiences with discrimination.”
Along those lines, most mainstream venues seem content to wring their hands about Greer’s no-platforming without considering the way in which their own platforms are quietly but effectively closed to trans women. Greer was invited to Cardiff and she could still speak there if she wanted to. But trans women aren’t invited, or able to, participate in debates directly affecting their lives.
Whose speech is free?
“What rights and liberties we have access to, whether as citizens of our respective countries, or as human beings, are often determined by these debates cisgender people have in the media without our participation or consent,” Katherine Cross told me. She added:
“We should be heard. When we are not you get the murders of trans women because we’re seen as ‘freaks’ or as ‘men pretending to be women’ or ‘chicks with dicks,’ you get what happened in Houston when the HERO legislation was scuttled because it protected trans people. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can convince people to throw more.”
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