Interviewers and newspeople, I don’t ask for much. But seriously, you have got to stop asking people who are transgender about their transition surgeries. Please. Just stop. Especially when it has absolutely nothing to do with what they’ve come to you to discuss.
I bring this up because Katie Couric has done it so, so wrong. She recently had Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox — trans* women who are a model and an actress, respectively — on her show, ostensibly to interview them about projects they are working on as well as trans* issues. So naturally the conversation turned toward what is in their pants!
You can read a good summary of the interview here, or you can watch Carrera’s and Cox’s interviews. Suffice it to say that Couric asked Carrera about whether her “private parts” are still in tact, and then revisited the issue of whether or not it’s something that should be discussed with total strangers during her interview with Cox. Carrera even tried to shush Couric when it became clear that the question was coming.
I hope that it’s self-evident why this type of question is super inappropriate. You wouldn’t normally ask people about their personal medical histories, and it’s not OK to do that when said medical history includes possible sex reassignment surgeries. Nobody owes you that information, no matter how public they are about their transition. It’s one thing if it’s information a trans* person wants to volunteer. It’s quite another for anyone to demand that the issue be addressed.
That’s not to say that people who ask those kinds of questions are doing it with malice. For most people, I think nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that it’s coming from a place of ignorance, with unfamiliarity with the process of transitioning and the many facets it can contain. However, it’s not up to trans* people to educate you. They can if they want, but it’s not their responsibility. There’s this thing called the Internet, and it’s got a lot of resources for you to read. And, for the love of Thor, if you want to ask about such things on your daytime talk show, be sure to ask your guest if it’s OK.
What Carrera and Cox put so elegantly in their interviews is that focuses on a trans* person’s genitals obscures very real issues facing the trans* community, especially trans* people of color. The amount of violence and harassment trans* people are forced to endure is appalling. Focusing on what type of genitals they have reduces complex individuals into one thing.
Furthermore, can such a focus be any more gender essentialist? What if someone born male wants to present like a woman and identifies as a woman, but for reasons that are no one’s but hers (remember how other people’s medical histories aren’t our business?), chooses not have that particular procedure? So what? Who am I, a cis-gendered individual, to tell this person that they are actually a man because they have a penis? The same goes for a trans* man who makes a similar choice. Your gender is much more than what you carry around between your legs. People are wonderful and complex, and no one should be treated like an interesting artifact. If you want to be seen as more than just your genitals, it’s only fair to give other people the same respect.
This is the point in the post where I encourage you to watch the interviews if you haven’t already, because these woman kill it. They are so perfect. And, really, they are who you should be listening to. This is their lived experience. Hopefully this is the awkward phase we have to go through before there is more complete transgender acceptance. And hopefully it will be short.
Photo Credit: KatieCouric.com