Transphobia: ‘Fear or hatred of transsexual or transgender people.’ (OED)
Whenever there is a news article about Barack Obama, it is not pointed out in the introductory sentence that he is the proud owner of a penis. You would probably be surprised if you read the following: “Hilary Clinton, who was born with a vagina and developed breasts during puberty, considers herself to be a woman, and is also a politician”. Whilst the genitalia of cisgender public figures remain untouched by the media (excuse the pun), why do many journalists choose to focus on the bodies of trans people, sensationalising information about their gender and eclipsing information about their lives and achievements? Too often, discovery of somebody’s transgender status is presented as an Agatha Christie style mystery. Is society still so chronically phallocentric that the private, voluntary loss of a penis is considered news-worthy murder?.
In December 2012, Richard Littlejohn publicised and condemned school teacher Lucy Meadows’ transgender status, a move which was quickly followed by her suicide; earlier this year, Dr. Kate Stone was labelled ‘sex swap scientist’ in a news article after she was gored by a deer; and after publicly declaring her transgender status, Chelsea Manning was quickly the subject of a ridiculously contentious debate over her request to be referred to using feminine pronouns. These are just a few instances in which the media have chosen to focus on the transgender status of their subjects, rather than the lives which they lead.
Most recently, Caleb Hannan published a lengthy article on Grantland publicly outing Dr. V, the scientist responsible for inventing a highly successful new golf putter, as a transgendered woman (a status which, to Hannan, seems to be synonymous with ‘liar’ and ‘con man’). Throbbing behind Hannan’s version of events is another story – that of a creepily intrusive, profoundly bored journalist hounding a woman who simply wished to talk about her invention, not her private life or her body (“the science and not the scientist”). Fortunately, journalist Paris Lees has summarised the article perfectly over at Vice. She has also boiled down my thoughts on it to a simple sentence: “What the hell […] has someone’s genital status got to do with their ability to design a golf club?”. Hannan’s failure to think with this kind of logic (which hardly requires a great stretch of intellect) led him to continue on his investigative mission until Dr. V committed suicide. Although it may be too simplistic to blame Hannan directly for Dr. V’s death, his transphobia is certainly representative of the kind of prejudice which may have led her to such a tragic ending.
Perhaps what I’m about to say is the rambling of a pretentious literature student, but there seems to be something significant in the imagery of golfing, here. Whilst Dr. V’s focus is on the golf club she invented – indicative of her hard work, intellect and successful career – Hannan is only interested in determining the “truth” about Dr. V’s body. He is aiming for a journalistic hole-in-one, a Sherlock-worthy denouement, and (forgive my bluntness) he is only interested in revealing a certain biological hole. Not only is he enforcing a particularly insidious, particularly prevalent transphobic sentiment, but he is engaging with that age-old horror we call misogyny. As a man, a scientist is allowed his privacy. As a woman, a scientist is essentially expected to strip naked for the media.
The focus on transgender bodies, rather than the lives and achievements of the owners of said bodies, is terribly commonplace. A basic Google Image search for well-known transgender figures throws up suggestions regarding their pre-operative identities. The popular search “Before and After” is simple proof of the widespread obsession with scrutinising those in the public eye, and in this case critiquing their transitions. Model Carmen Carrera and actress/producer Laverne Cox confronted the problem of transgender objectification eloquently on Katie Couric’s chat show. Quite rightly, they drew attention to the media’s preoccupation with transitional surgery, to the detriment of the rich and eventful lives which trans people are able to experience. Furthermore, they said, it prevents people from confronting and acting against the prejudice which many trans people face every day.
Whilst it is important to that focus is drawn away from the genitalia in order to combat objectification, it is also important that there are openly trans people like Cox and Carrera raising awareness and tolerance. With the Internet as omnipresent and powerful as it is, and with the ability for virtually anybody to broadcast their views (however offensive), it is crucial that we are all educated enough to question the views put forward by hit-mongering, prejudiced sensationalism. The reality is that forming our opinions on a person based on their sex and/or gender is counterproductive, unnecessary, and downright damaging.