Guest post by Heather McNamara
I had to smirk at the TV as Piers moaned about how vilified he was by “abusive” people on Twitter. Lauren and I didn’t say much to each other after Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan’s show last night. We griped a bit on Twitter about Piers’ gratuitous use of the word “boy” and constant interruptions just as Janet was about to lead the discussion away from her surgery. We rolled our eyes and gawked at Piers’ defensive and offensive tweets and we clicked the favorite button on some particularly humorous snipes in his direction, but there wasn’t much going on behind the laptops in our house. We held hands. I got the Kindle version of Janet’s book and we skimmed over the first few pages together and we got ready for bed with the quiet parallel understanding of the overwhelming and uncomfortably close mess forming in the media. We’ve been there before.
This past August, as Chelsea Manning received the verdict at the end of a highly publicized trial and subsequently revealed herself to the world as a woman, my family had some new challenges to face. Lauren had been called as a witness to the trial and, as a transgender woman herself with a tie to the case, found herself invited on several news networks for brief interviews on the subject of transgender issues in prison. For a while, our sons and I were squealing with delight and calling family and friends to brag whenever her face was on television or her voice on the radio. We were excited and proud.
But our adventure (yes, admittedly, primarily Lauren’s adventure) was not without a price. One of her interviews on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper aired on the television in the waiting room at the doctor’s office as I waited with my sons to get an ear infection checked out. At first I was excited that I’d get the opportunity to watch the interview live though I was away from home, but my enthusiasm quickly turned to horror. My sons, who simply knew their stepmother as a “woman born with a boy body” watched as Jake Tapper described her as somebody who “used to be a gay man.” They listened as the other patients in the waiting room snickered and as their stepmother patiently attempted to explain Chelsea’s needs to somebody who insisted on calling her a man. Red-faced and near tears, I confronted the loudest and most obnoxious jerk in the waiting room who was, no surprise here, a masculine looking guy complete with beard, tattoos, and a shit-eating grin. “You think that’s fucking funny?” I asked him, my gaze hard.
“Yeah” he responded and continued laughing. The women at his flanks, apparently unrelated to him, joined in.
I had more choice words for him that I’d have let fly if I hadn’t been worried about being dropped as a patient from the one queer-friendly physician Lauren and I had grown to trust. I wrote about it when I got home and confronted Tapper on Twitter, pointing out that his disrespect of my partner’s gender was unacceptable to me. Tapper and I ended up speaking on the phone and after much defensiveness and belittling of my concerns, he asked me to write a letter to the “higher-ups” at CNN which he would pass on for me. I wrote that letter and it was reprinted and quoted and nothing changed. Lauren and I wrote an article together about our experiences attempting to enlighten Tapper and the CNN staff. We were quoted by trans people desperately hoping some sort of quotable would lead to an end to this hell, but nothing changed.
It was a difficult time for us as a family. More of my coworkers, friends, and even barely acknowledged acquaintances who did not previously know about Lauren’s transgender status were informed via television. When the buzz died off, this would be a vehicle to getting to know who my real friends were, but at the time, it was a dizzying experience of heightened awareness and distrust. I fielded more questions than I’d have liked about her gender, whether she’d had surgery, and what this meant about my sexual orientation.
These questions, as they often do, came from people who had neither the knowledge nor the vocabularies to process the real answers. Awkward, over-simplified half-truths were my replies. “Surgery is a complicated question, but she has… medically transitioned” I would say instead of “she’s been on hormone replacement therapy for a little over a year, has completed a name change and could change her birth certificate in some states but not in others because we cannot currently afford the orchiectomy and…” you get the idea.
The week that Chelsea came out was a sickening one culminating in a lot more anxiety attacks than I usually have, some fights we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and some calls to a therapist who didn’t exactly specialize in anxiety but whom we could at least trust to know what a transgender person was and not suggest treatments based on not being that anymore. Count your blessings if you’ve never had to take that into account when searching for a therapist or physician.
Since then, there isn’t much to say to each other when this sort of thing comes up. We know that when trans people get into the news, slimy little tendrils of ignorance will squirm into our lives and we’ll find ourselves answering more basic questions with oversimplifications. We’ll have to explain what bigender is to our friends and why asking Carmen Carrera about her genitals is inappropriate. We’ll have to explain why Leto’s performance on Dallas Buyers Club did not amuse us. We’ll feel overwhelmed by the thousands leaping to his defense because at times like this it seems like everyone in the whole world can identify with the person erasing our experiences, lives, and years of carefully crafted confidence and nobody can seem to learn from or identify with us. We’ll know, as they sneer at us in reply, their faces blank and uncaring, that they’re thinking the same words Piers said on his Twitter account last night.
We’re not alone. Though not much can approach the impact on our lives of the Chelsea Manning controversy, our internet social circles lit up with activity as Piers Morgan dug his heels in with tweets about how “dimwitted” his accusers were. Trans people all over the world consoled one another by talking about how shitty this is, by bickering with one another about what should have happened, and by developing minimum criteria for an acceptable apology that will never come. We reach out to each other through crowds of ignorance and exhaustive attempts at teaching the uninitiated and we surround ourselves in the cocoon of each other.
When Piers went back on his show tonight he argued with Janet about how he’s fairly sure that since he called her pretty and didn’t refer to her as “he,” he did all that he really needed to do. He didn’t know that his colleague Jake Tapper went through this with us only a few months ago because he didn’t bother to pay attention. He didn’t see anything wrong with confronting Janet over and over again about her surgery in spite of what just happened with Katie Couric. He stubbornly continued to refer to Janet as having once been a man because that is the only way he cares to understand us.
Thousands and thousands of people who tuned in will also feel that in spite of the disproportionately high homelessness, murder, rape, and suicide odds that trans people face, they too shouldn’t have to do more than call Janet “pretty.” The poor arguments and ignorant bloviating they’ve learned from listening to Piers and his even more ignorant panel of assholes will seep into our lives and come out of the mouths of coworkers, the Facebook statuses of friends, the mouths of our sons’ peers, and the conversations at family gatherings.
Concepts like “essentialism,” “dysphoria,” “misgendering,” “identity erasure,” and “tone policing” fly over their blissful cisgender heads as surely as the words that describe them. Our oversimplified half answers: “I was born a boy” were thrown back in our faces as they are whenever we ask for a bit of understanding, and often with, as Ben Ferguson said in his sick response: “science says you were born a boy.” Our lessons, patiently given, were used as weapons against us.
And, you know, Piers Morgan was “vilified.”