In the past few days, the furies have been unleashed on Katie Couric (and the general public at large, Couric being seen as a poster child for the ignorance, bigotry, etc., of the non-trans community) over an interview she did with transgender stars Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox. At the center of the controversy is limited questioning about the surgical phase of their transitioning. Immediately, issue was taken with what was clearly a rehearsed portion of the show and whether non-trans people have a right to be interested and curious about all phases of transition, including one of the most profound aspects of it, gender affirmation surgery.
From Salon.com to Transadvocate to Mother Jones to myriad other news sites, stories seething with anger and judgment, accusing Couric (and, by extension, all non-trans people) of transphobia and objectification and a host of other mortal crimes began to appear, and, by and large, all of the comments to these stories were affirming of the slander against Couric (and, by extension, all non-trans people) and the lionization of Carrera and Cox.
Well, almost all of the comments.
There are some of us in the trans community who genuinely do not understand the demonization of people who are finally trying to understand us. I have engaged in electronic debate with quite a few people in the past few days, and we seem to be standing on opposite ends of a huge gulf, and I have been accused of intolerance of those more unwilling than I am to share details of their transition story. But openness versus privacy is not what I think the real issue is, and that debate is secondary to the real problem, which is the attitude that many people have regarding people’s curiosity about the transgender experience.
I believe people have a right to be curious and to ask questions, and it seems that most others do not.
In an article on Huffington Post entitled "The Fatal Transgender Double Standard," Phoenix native and national transgender activist Brynn Tannehill writes (in response to the Katie Couric thing): "Is there societal acceptance of someone who beats a woman when he finds out she's a quarter Jewish? Are men required to tell if they're circumcised? Women have to announce if they're had a clitoral hood piercing? Is it self-defense if you murder your boyfriend because you found out he's not a gold star gay like you? How about throwing your girlfriend off a balcony when you find out she identified as bisexual before she identified as a lesbian?"
How do you go from a few banal questions about a step in the transition process to this? The asking - and honest answering - of these questions is neither objectifying nor disempowering, and open, carefully crafted answers will always go a long way towards helping people truly understand the process. While I agree that the decision to answer that question is wholly an individual's (though I personally don't understand the reluctance), I also believe it's incredibly hypocritical to try and take away another person's right to want to know. Not answering doesn't make somebody a hero (nor does answering), and asking doesn't make one a villain.
This is the only birth defect I know of where the affected have to fight tooth and nail to be believed, but when someone does believe, I seem to diverge from the mainstream in thinking they deserve a little leeway on their journey to understanding. We tend to forget, most of us having struggled with these feelings all of our lives, just how foreign the concept of disconnect between body and programmed gender identity is to people who aren't trans, and it really seems like many of us assume that that foreignness is somehow intentional, is malicious, and we accuse people of thought crimes in an attempt to reclaim...I don't know...what are we reclaiming? It can't be our dignity, because I think the crosses onto which this community has ascended in the last few days have taken that away far more than innocent transition-related questions.
I have commented more than I ever do to internet articles in the past few days, all regarding this "scandal," and I have met with far more disagreement with my opinions than assent. We take ourselves way too seriously sometimes. Maybe it's because, so many times, an extended hand has swatted at us, so we don't trust the hands that are just reaching out to hold on. I don't know. I do know, though, that we need to extend what we demand – understanding – and we are not doing that right now.
I may be in a minority here, but I have read all of the articles praising Laverne and Carmen, and each makes me feel that all of this outrage from allies is some sort of an overcompensation. Advocacy groups and much of the LGB community have been seen for a long time as keeping us at arm's length, and now everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon to reverse that, and it feels like they are swinging the pendulum a little too far in the opposite direction.
But back to the central issue at hand: should asking about our surgical state (pre or post) be off limits?
Transitioning is a deeply personal experience, but it's not done in a vacuum. Whether I talk about it or not, anyone who knows me knows exactly what's involved. They know that, at some point, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I'm going to undergo major reconstructive surgery. It will be expensive, extensive, and painful, and, next to the social transition process, it is, by far, the most traumatic part of this whole journey. Leaving it out of the storytelling is like cutting vital whole chapters from a very intriguing book. (Read “East of Eden” and then watch the 1955 film version; you will understand what I mean.)
Eleven years ago, there was an HBO movie (a play adaptation) made named "Normal." It starred Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange as a couple who journey through the husband's transition. Hayden Panetierre played their daughter, and there is an incredibly well-done scene where her character (who is very affirming of her father) is explaining vaginoplasty to her friends at a sleepover. It was neither sensationalized nor pandering nor objectifying, but it explained something so complex in a few seconds in such a brilliant way. Why did the writers of that play include that scene? Because it is important. Because knowledge is important. It took the question off the table, and I firmly believe that a lot of tables are going to have to be cleared before we reach the next level of understanding.
Many of the commenters to the stories I have been reading have suggested that, if Katie Couric and others wanted to know about genital reconstruction surgery, they should “look it up on the Internet” or “read a book.” Those are very valuable resources, provided that all someone wants to know is technical information about creating a vagina or forming a penis and scrotum. Many people, however, simply wish to know how it felt (or how does it feel) to have such disconnect between our genitalia (which, like it or not, are extremely important and powerful parts of our bodies; thus, the outrage) and our minds, the sense at our core of who we really are. Central to the answer to that question, that desire to understand, is information about our genitals, and we can either remove the question by answering it or shame the questioner, and they will only gain that knowledge by someone taking the time so have a conversation about it.
When I first transitioned, I was so conscientious about how I looked that I figured I was “obvious,” easily readable. I decided it would be easiest to deal with that by just outing myself when I met people so as to answer the question (“Is she?”) and move on. There have sometimes been more questions, but I could control that. I took ownership of every encounter. When I talk to people now about my transitoining (which I do all the time), what I have and don't have going on down there is always central to my story because it's central to my experience. By addressing it, however, I make it a non-issue, and I will never be convinced that, in the end, that doesn't help people to understand more easily than being enigmatic would.
Someone accused me of being jealous of Carrera and Cox based on my not praising them and my saying that they do not represent the average trans woman (and saying that that they represent us in the same way Gwyneth Paltrow represents the average genetic woman). “Who is the average trans woman?” I was asked. I had not really thought of that, and while I am no expert at any of this, I do believe I have an idea who she is.
The average trans woman is best typified by the slightly frazzled woman you see who is constantly paranoid about the shadow on her face, the timbre of her voice, the size of her (obviously gargantuan, she is certain) hands and feet. She had to settle for using the three-week-old razor at home in the shower and just barely managed to shave this morning before throwing on something from Goodwill that she hopes covers up her Adam's apple, throwing it on even though she wore it three days ago and there is a huge coffee stain on it. It was picked because it was the only thing that matched and would be long enough to cover up the junk she has no hopes of being able to afford getting rid of anytime in the near future.
She is scared and exhilarated at the same time; frightened of the always real threat of violence and scorn, exhilarated at finally being herself; frightened of the monthly obligatory phone call from home where, if she forgets to lower her voice, she is met with icy silence, exhilarated that she even has that problem; frightened to fall in love and having to explain her unexpected surprise, exhilarated that someone finally called her beautiful. She is scraping to get by and has not been able to afford electrolysis or laser hair removal or a decent wardrobe, much less the essential surgery that discriminatory insurance practices prevent her from getting. She has lost her natal family but has created a new one who loves and accepts her completely.
She is the bravest woman you will ever know, and you should thank her for that.