Janet Mock is one of the most visible, active, and outspoken women of colour in US media today. A former editor at People with a lengthy and impressive resume to her credit, she’s celebrating the release of her book Redefining Realness this week. Janet also happens to be transsexual, and much of her work (including her book) surrounds trans causes, especially violence against trans women of colour, the case of CeCe McDonald, and many other issues trans women face in the US and around the world. Her advocacy work spawned the beloved #girlslikeus hashtag, used by trans women around the world to tell their stories and change the dialogue surrounding gender, sexuality, and who gets to shape narratives.
Transsexual women are typically spoken about and for, rather than being allowed to speak for themselves. Trans women of colour face a dual knife-twist of transmisogyny and racism; the rise of women like Janet Mock and Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox is nothing short of remarkable in a media landscape and culture that prefers to deal out death and silencing tactics to women like them.
But even with their high visibility, dedicated followers, and well-established careers, both women are subject to the typical treatment of trans women when they dare to interact with mainstream media—they are objectified, turned into freaks, quizzed with the usual invasive questions about their genitals, their birth names, and their past. Even as both women have tried to open up to the mainstream media, they’ve found it a difficult journey.
That was exemplified this week with a by-now extremely controversial interview on CNN with Piers Morgan, where Morgan subjected Mock to an excruciating ten minutes of being flayed alive for the pleasure of viewers. He repeatedly referred to her by her birth name, stressed multiple times that she ‘used to be a boy’ (the chyron on the segment even said ‘was a boy until 18’), and asked her invasive and personal questions about her genitals, what it was like to come out to her partner, and other details of her private life.
Mock, of course, was doing the interview to publicise her new book, which discusses many of these issues, including the details of her childhood and life as a trans girl. She repeatedly tried to redirect the conversation both to her book and to less sensationalistic reframings of trans people, only to be repeatedly driven back by Morgan; as, for example, when he repeatedly needled her about what it’s like to tell people ‘you used to be a boy’ and when he asked if her partner had ‘run screaming’ when Janet talked to him about being transsexual (spoiler: unlike Morgan, her partner is not a transphobic arse, and instead only affirmed his love for her—and the two are still together).
Instead of being an interview about a bold, outspoken trans activist who has made a name for herself in media, pop culture, and activist circles by fighting for her community, it was yet another dehumanising treatment of a trans subject in the media. This followed hard on a horrific Katie Couric interview in which the news personality asked Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox very direct, personal questions about their genitals—instead of, for example, their careers, their work, trans activism, and transmisogyny at work.
Notably, all three women are trans women of colour, and this plays an important role in how they were turned into objects of spectatorship rather than being taken seriously as human beings. For centuries, white society has considered women of colour to be fascinating zoo exhibits—sometimes quite literally‐and when the zoo exhibits happen to be trans, so much the better.
This isn’t even the worst that mainstream media has to offer when it comes to the abuse of trans women. In a bizarre recent Grantland story, writer Caleb Hannan proudly detailed how he hounded a trans woman to death; Dr. Essay Vanderbilt’s life and death were written up, again, as objects of fascination, with a greedy gleam in the author’s eye, and no consideration of the fact that an actual human being had died for the sake of journalism.
It is always difficult to be a trans woman, especially a trans woman of colour, but the last few months have been especially difficult. At the same time visibility of the trans community is rising, so are journalistic and media abuses like these, where trans women are turned into entries in a curiousity cabinet with dehumanising and awful interviews and media profiles that aren’t about who they are as human beings, but what’s between their legs.
In a world where trans women want to reach out, want to educate members of the public, want to show young trans people that there are #girlslikeus (and boys, and genderqueers, and everything between), they’re facing a tough call when asked about media appearances: to agree, and run the risk of being treated as a scientific experiment, or to refuse, and make it that much harder to reach out to the cis community?
Perhaps if the cis community wasn’t so obsessed with genitals, it could be finding something better to be getting on with, like the amazing and determined activism that women like Mock and Cox are doing as they fight for a better world for #girlslikeus. However, that would deny people the opportunity to engage in prurient speculation about chicks with dicks, and that’s no fun at all.
Much to Morgan’s surprise, Mock had zero interest in being mischaracterised and turned into something out of a zoo. After her interview, she took to Twitter with a handful of polite Tweets asking Morgan to correct his characterisation and apologise: ‘@PiersMorganLive I was not “formerly a man.” Pls stop sensationalizing my life and misgendering trans women. #redefiningrealness,’ she wrote. Many supporters joined her in asking Morgan to address the issue, and he responded, as cis ‘allies’ so often do, by going on the defensive.
He insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong, said he was a strong ally to the LGBQT community, and resolutely refused to examine the issue Mock had brought up. Instead, he claimed that he was being bullied and hounded on Twitter—a man who had used an internationally respected media platform to refer to a trans woman as someone who ‘was a boy until 18’ despite the fact that she was sitting there in the studio telling him that her transition was a long process that started at a very early age.
As Mock herself pointed out, his framing made it sound like she wasn’t a ‘real’ woman until after she had genital confirmation surgery at 18—a reflection of a very real and dangerous attitude about trans women. Needless to say, Janet Mock may have been assigned male at birth, but she was always a girl, and she grew up into a very classy, fierce, defiant lady. She was, in her own words, ‘born me,’ and just needed a little extra help to find out who that was and make that happen—just as many other people do. She was fortunate enough to have a loving, supportive family and community, and she wants the same for other girls like her—not a such a strange wish, is it?
As Morgan doubled down on what a great ally he was to the trans community, with supporters citing other work he’d done for LGBQT rights, he then turned to threatening her, saying “I’ll deal with you tomorrow night on air @janetmock – never been treated in such a disgraceful manner. Be proud.” As indeed he did, by inviting her back for a followup interview…and following it with a ‘panel’ of three cis people who debated Mock’s humanity and life choices.
This, apparently, is the voice of balanced, trans-friendly journalism: ‘To all the ignorant, bigoted transgender community members continuing to abuse me re @janetmock – I’m bored of you now, go away. Thanks.’
With friends like these, who needs enemies?