Whenever I am fortunate enough to be on national television, it seems to get a lot of attention in the trans community. Usually NCTE will hear from transpeople and allies and enemies and usually, no matter how good or bad I thought the particular appearance, we get both positive and negative reviews. Oddly, this time, it was not my appearance on CNN news last week that got the attention and comments, but my giving background information on the telephone to a reporter from CNN.com. We don’t actually keep track, but I think this is the media mention that has generated the most comments in NCTE’s history—both good and bad—and I find that really interesting.
At NCTE, all of us have learned to listen to the comments and learn from them—sometimes we learn to communicate better to the media and sometimes we learn that we need to communicate with transpeople better.
It is clear though that, at the very least, we haven’t adequately communicated to our own family about how and why we do media and what are the things we’d like you to take into account when you hear us in the media. First, be assured that we have a very passionate commitment here to do the very best we know how to do to make a positive difference in the lives of trans people. We may not always get it right, and we recognize that as transpeople we don’t always agree, but everything we do is with an eye towards furthering trans equality.
Let’s talk about what was in the CNN story and how it happened and then I’ll explain why I stand by what I said—though I believe it was given more emphasis than it should have.
Last week, as most of you know, a celebrity was reported to be transitioning. The celebrity in question is not someone I have ever met. Neither he nor his publicist has been in touch directly with NCTE. However they did issue a statement confirming the transition and asking for privacy. This meant that NCTE was going to get calls, but we are very resolute about respecting every transperson’s privacy. If a reporter asked a direct question, giving a “no comment” or too evasive of a response could be read as a negative comment (i.e. we have some issue with this person in particular and that’s why we won’t say).”
The first thing we do at NCTE when a potential big news story emerges is gather a group of experts and advisers and consider a) what is the right messaging and b) who are the right messengers. We take our messenging very serious and approach it thoroughly, thoughtfully and professionally. In this case, the who was much clearer than the what. The half dozen or so folks who met about this initially agreed that one of the best parts of this story was that it was among the first times a celebrity or potential celebrity was going public from the FTM spectrum. This might be a chance for us all to address the relative invisibility of transmen. With that assumption, we all agreed that the best spokespeople for this story would be transmen. Thus, I did almost no media interviews, background or otherwise—just the very first CNN request, a Florida newspaper when a reporter I knew called, and then the CNN television thing when none of the several prepared transmen were available to be near a suitable studio.
So before we had assembled and discussed a strategy, a reporter from CNN called and said something like “so I suppose you have heard that Chastity Bono announced she is having sex change surgery.” I said something like, “be careful, that is not what the announcement from his publicist said. It said he was transitioning.” The reporter said something like “I don’t understand. Don’t you need to have sex change surgery to transition?”
I then explained factually, as I have done over the years to dozens and dozens of reporters that no, transitioning is first and foremost not about surgery but about gender identity and living and expressing that identity. For some people surgery is desired or necessary, for others it is not. For some there are medical contraindications that preclude surgery. And many, if not most, trans people just can’t afford it and many others don’t feel surgery is necessary for them to live consistently with their gender identity. In fact, most transpeople do not have any kind of surgery.
I know that the general public and even transgender people find that surprising, but it is nonetheless true. Every study that I am familiar with supports that. The findings from a survey of 6,500 transpeople that NCTE has jointly conducted with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will be released soon and that study supports this as well. I have no doubt about the accuracy of what I said. Whether it is interpreted to be about “transgender” people, “transsexual” people or even “transsexual people who are living consistently with their gender identity,” it is still accurate. Very few trans people ever have surgery. More importantly though, and the point I made to CNN, is that the important thing for them to consider when covering transgender people is gender identity not surgery.
We have seen that the media and public preoccupation with transition-related surgeries has had demonstrable negative impact on policies that affect transpeople. It should not be acceptable to us or to society that people’s human rights or access to appropriate ID documents or ability to live safely be dependent on their ability to be able to afford surgery which most transpeople cannot. And the preoccupation with our surgeries and the assumption that we all have surgeries or want surgeries makes these bad realities acceptable to the public.
As our collective work to make medical care more available to transpeople succeeds, the numbers of surgeries are likely to rise, but we have an obligation to discuss the realities of transgender lives in ways that are true to who we are and also help advance humane and useful policies.