Asking the Question: When Public Interrogation of Trans Women’s Bodies Turns into Open Sexualized Violence

While the media has a long history of sensationalizing stories involving trans people, in the last few months a number of debates have erupted in response to mainstream media figures asking prominent trans women invasive and inappropriate questions about their bodies during interviews. While the response from those media figures to criticism over this line of questioning has varied from equivocation to petulant outrage, what is often lost in the discussion is that one reason trans women object so strongly to this is that we are so accustomed to receiving questions like these in our private lives (or at least, what should be our private lives).

Beyond being merely invasive, there are situations in which trans women can detect a seed of violence in these kinds of questions, which in numerous cases has manifested in actual violence. Last week in Atlanta just such a situation led to an extreme and violent incident in which two trans women were attacked, and one was beaten and forcibly stripped naked in public, evidently as a form of punishment for resisting such interrogation.

Last Tuesday, two trans women, Janell Crosby and Tyra Woods, were walking to a MARTA transit station when a group of cis men approached and starting yelling inappropriate questions at them. Not content with publicly gawking at these two women in public, they began following them, even taking pictures of them on the subway platform without permission.

Janell Crosby later told Atlanta’s WSB-TV News, “[They] just kept of asking us was we real… Like really trying to get us. ‘Are you real?’ ‘Are y’all this or that?’ Just trying to embarrass us.”

“They were trying to find out if we are men or women,” said Tyra Woods. “I shouldn’t have to disclose who I am to [someone] I’m not even interested in talking to.”

However, the situation dramatically worsened when both of these women and the male harassers boarded the train. During transit, Crosby resisted their harassing behavior by telling the men off, to which one of them responded by kicking her. A melee ensued in which one of the men violently ripped the clothes off of Woods while beating her, exposing her breasts and genitalia. She ended up defending herself while completely naked.

An intensely disturbing video of the incident has been posted online that makes the intentions of the men who attacked them abundantly clear: submission and humiliation. In particular, the man who ripped off Tyra Woods’ clothes is clearly attempting to shame her about her body, as a kind of answer to the question: “What are you?”

These events are only more disturbing considering that while there were apparently dozens of onlookers, not a single one attempted to intervene at any point, nor did any of them bother to call 911 or alert MARTA authorities, during or after the fight.

Indeed, one observer filmed the graphic video mentioned earlier and then posted it online in order to continue gawking and further humiliate the two women, which is made clear by the tagline on the page, “2 Trannies Get Into A Fight With 2 Guys On ATL MARTA!” [The page with the video can be seen here]. The video has gone viral, with a large number of commenters chiming in with similar transphobic language and expressing disgust at these women’s bodies, as well as some pushing victim-blaming narratives regarding the violence they experienced.

The voyeuristic element of this incident is reminiscent of an event from April 2011 in which trans woman Chrissy Lee Polis was brutally attacked and beaten by two young cis women (one of them only 14 years-old) in a McDonald’s bathroom in Maryland.

In her own words, Polis stated in the aftermath of the incident, “They said, ‘That’s a dude, that’s a dude and she’s in the female bathroom,’ … They spit in my face.” The two attackers were so brutal that they ended up dragging Polis across the floor of the restaurant by her hair and she eventually fell into a seizure.

Meanwhile, an employee of the restaurant (who was later fired) filmed the incident while some onlookers laughed, and later warned the attackers to run as police were on their way. The video was again posted online with the intention of gawking and humiliating the trans woman victimized in the attack.

“I knew they were taping me; I told the guy to stop,” Polis said afterwards. “They didn’t help me. They didn’t do nothing for me.”

Of course, not every time someone asks a trans woman an invasive question does this necessarily come from a place of violence; however, while plenty of shades of grey exist between Katie Couric asking Carmen Carrera, “your private parts are different now, aren’t they?” and some guy yelling out, “Bitch, are you a man?!” on the streets, the fact is that all questions along this spectrum are rooted in voyeurism, and usually misogyny as well. The latter point is evidenced in part by the fact that these questions are most often directed at trans women and trans-feminine individuals, especially on the streets where we are most vulnerable.

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A further important point that is often lost in discussions on this issue is that when media figures force these invasive questions into the conversation, they are implicitly setting examples for real-world social interactions, and that includes people watching at home that may have never even (knowingly) met a trans person before. Casually asking trans women inappropriate questions about their bodies mirrors a society that views interrogation of trans bodies so casually that a man could violently strip a woman naked in pubic, almost certainly well aware that he was being filmed in the act, and show no care or concern for any potential consequences whatsoever.

Indeed, this belief is borne out in the subtle fact that in their news report, WSB-TV News made the unfortunate decision to blur out the faces of the men who attacked Janell Crosby and Tyra Woods on a MARTA train — for some reason choosing to protect the identities of men engaged in a public act of sexualized trans-misogynistic violence.

And while of course many trans people have been generous enough to share intimate details of their stories in books, interviews, and elsewhere, it is partly with this important point about modeling real-life interactions in mind that I have previously proposed that if media figures insist on asking trans people these kinds of questions, the very least they could do is to frame those questions by acknowledging the fact that they would never ask similar questions of a cis person.

Along these lines, one trans woman who has kindly shared her story with the public, author and advocate Janet Mock, recently beautifully exposed the invasiveness of these types of media questions when she flipped the script in an interview with journalist Alicia Menendez. Mock, who had previously had her own experience with gross, misgendering questions on Piers Morgan‘s now defunct CNN primetime show, asked Menendez about her history as a cisgender woman with questions like, “When did your breasts start budding” and “Do you have a vagina?” Even though Menendez graciously agreed to go along with the scenario from the beginning, as soon as the interview ended she instinctively cringed, acknowledging, “That was awful!”

Once it is acknowledged that we would never ask similar questions of a cis person, I think it becomes quite difficult to justify asking them of a trans person, especially when they have no relationship to the ostensible topic at hand. And again I emphasize that part of the reason trans women object so strongly is because these are similar to issues we deal with in our own personal lives, and that oftentimes these questions form a component of badgering or intimidation we face in the real world. From my own perspective as a trans woman who has moved around a lot, I have myself experienced variations on this type of public interrogation in many different places and cultural contexts.

In one incident, during a visit to Dresden I was riding a tram home from work late at night when I gradually realized two men talking loudly behind me in German were attempting to draw other passengers’ attention to my presence. While I couldn’t understand precisely what they were saying, the basic meaning was certainly made clear a couple of stops later; as they passed my seat while exiting the tram one of these men tapped his finger sharply on my upper wrist — where I have a bit more hair than the average woman — and stated loudly for everyone on board to hear, “Ja, it’s a man,” suddenly finding it useful to employ English.

Other experiences I have had with these kinds of interactions have varied from misguided curiosity from strangers to acts of intimidation even more outright than the incident in Dresden. Keep in mind, these are my experiences as a white trans woman from a middle class background who is not nearly as vulnerable on the streets as trans women of color like Janell Crosby and Tyra Woods, or trans women who need to rely on sex work to get by.

To their credit, MARTA spokesperson Lyle Harris has stated that MARTA is investigating the attack that occurred on board their train and has pledged to take action (although I notice they still have not even issued a press release about the incident on their website). From this point, the LGBT community and allies should all remain vigilant of the issue in order to ensure they follow through.

That having been said, this incident should also serve as a wake up call to some allies within the community itself who have all too often been dismissive of the issues trans women face and how media shapes public perception of our lives.

And finally, this is also a moment to push the news media — which so far seems to have basically ignored this story — to do better. Considering the media’s long history of sensationalizing trans women’s lives, sensationalizing trans womens’ deaths, and in some cases almost certainly contributing to their deaths, having them extend some basic sensitivity in how they present our stories is long overdue.

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Savannah is a queer trans woman and physicist who was unleashed into the cosmos from the great state of North Carolina. She has been active on LGBT diversity issues in physics and also writes on trans feminism and other social justice issues on her blog leftytgirl, preferably while listening to metal. Savannah presently works at a university in Osaka from where she misses her amazing cat Zinfandel back in North Carolina very much. Follow her on Twitter.

Savannah has written 12 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    Great piece. Your Dresden story takes me back to a run in I had with a friend from college and a friend of his. Mid-conversation my friend switched to Hindi for a moment and motioned to me and said, I don’t speak Hindi, but said what I knew was the word frequently used to refer to transwomen which is हिजड़ा (hijra). His friend’s head back whipped back at me with bug eyes. My friend switched back to English and I was at work anyway and let the bewildering moment pass.

    Which of course is nothing compared to the wealth of times since transition I’ve found out that a friend has introduced to me a male friend of theirs, new male friend tells my friend “Your friend is really cute,” and in reply they’re told “You won’t believe she used to be a dude! Beard and everything,” sometimes producing one of my pre-transition photos to drive the point home. If I’m not around to play this game live, they’ll just use their smartphone, and I’ll never even lay eyes on these people they told.

    The friends who’ve done this that I’ve talked to tell me a variety of reasons to explain why they thought that was okay in the moment. But all I hear is “I told someone you don’t know that you used to be a man. Have fun looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life!”

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      Wow, the story about your friend switching languages mid-conversation to talk about you right in front of you is so gross and objectifying. And it seems like it’s always phrased something like the “you wouldn’t believe” or “you should know” thing or whatever, isn’t? It’s like some guy supposedly *needs* to know about our status, because he has to figure out where to place us in his wider objectification scheme for all the women around him.

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      I don’t get why people think this shit is ok. How are you a friend if you think it’s fine to share someone’s personal info with people they’ve never met? It’s infuriating. If I ever met a friend of a friend for the first time and that person knew personal info about me, I’d feel incredibly vulnerable. How do you trust that “friend” again? And I’m not even trans – I’m sure sharing info like that would be even worse, since the stuff people could share about me likely wouldn’t cause violence. In high school, I made the mistake of accidentally (and, it turns out, incorrectly) outing a friend (although we were kind of falling out at that point). I really didn’t mean to, but there we are. I did, and it got back to her. Nothing came of it, thankfully, but I still feel bad about it 12 years later. It was never my place to share personal (and incorrect in this situation) info about someone else, even to non-strangers, and I really effed up. Even when I did so accidentally, I knew I had done something wrong. How do so many people not have that moral conscience in the back of their heads?

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      umm…the ‘getting off this planet in a big, friendly company’ idea for ‘nice mortals’ might not quite work as intended. because 1) without in-vitro cloning there is no point for non default-reproductive sentients to set their foot on a mixed-crew ship, only to be deprioritised and considered to be mission equipment 2) once one has secured cloning vats in addition to life suspension/ftl – there in turn is absolutely zero need for a reproductive host species and therefore zero need for the risks associated with personnel inherently unstable due to their evolutionary heritage.

      Unlesss….well, i’d vote an individual of (basic) history to be eligible starting at 40% body mass of cyberconversion, so they would be able to fully function in a society and be able to partake in the core concepts – hardware, software, modularity, installation, cyberpsychosis/body integrity spectrum and the apprentice system of the parenting guild – from a 1st person perspective. My heart goes out to the people growing up without an intuitive understanding of the hardware/software neo-Cartesianism and instead seeing themselves as ‘one’, like a mid-20th century clothes iron or a vacuum cleaner or a pet or something. No point in creating a hierarchy, segregation and ghettos from the get go, an enlightened society should prioritise everyone. Inflicting 4 cyberlimbs on people otherwise alienated is a small price for harmony.

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    I have way too many thoughts on this to post them all in one comment, but I feel like I need to say something. First, I want to express solidarity. I’ve been there (I am there). Every time I’m laughed at, called out, sirred, slurred, or harassed in any other way, it doesn’t just hurt. I don’t know how to describe the depths but it’s beyond anything I had ever been prepared for pre-transition.

    But here I am almost 4 years since I transitioned, 4 years on this bumpy road. And I know that I’ve dealt with almost nothing compared to many of my trans sisters. I spent the majority of the last 4 years in a mostly queer-friendly progressive bubble. But knowing the things that friends of mine and myself have experienced even in one of the most queer-friendly cities in the US is absolutely frightening.

    I’m happy with my life and I want that to define me but it’s so hard when all of these things are happening. We live among a society that doesn’t just disrespect who we are but acts as if we’re subhuman – the dregs of society – and questions any attempt we make to lead a happy life, if, even, we have that opportunity. I feel so overwhelmed and unsure how to support my community while also just trying to live life facing so much oppression.

    And all of this is to illustrate the personal crisis I go through. Every time I’m questioned. Every time someone invades my space. Every time I or another trans* individual is harassed, beaten, or killed because someone decides they aren’t worthy of their own body or their own life. When my body is brought into question, it’s because someone doesn’t believe I own that body. Someone believes I have an obligation to share it with them. That is pervasive among every one of these examples, whether some so-called ally is “just curious” or a random person throws things at me from a moving vehicle (true story), it is all the same. It is all harmful. It all contributes to our oppression. And it’s about damn time that stopped.

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    Yeah, so I live in Atlanta and take MARTA to work every night. This is insane to me, because I have NEVER seen anyone being harassed, verbally or physically, on the trains or in the stations. I am beyond enraged at the people on that train–FILMING that attack, not calling the police or intervening themselves. Did they not realize that if they all banded together and fought back against the attackers, they could have stopped that crap before it even got physical? Or did they just not care that two human beings were being BEATEN in front of them? And how did MARTA police refuse to take a statement from the victims? It’s the most disgusting, awful thing ever. NO ONE should be hurt or made to feel unsafe like that. I can guarantee that if I’d been on that train, I would have said our done something–even if it had just been alerting the conductor to stop the train and call the cops. And the fact that both victims are moving out of Atlanta because of this is heartbreaking. Hatred like this is an epidemic, and it needs to stop, somehow. It’s just enraging.

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    This disgusts me, I’m shocked and horrified that the crowd did nothing but I’m outraged that the officer ignored her attempt to report it. What the hell is he being paid for if not to stop or at the very least report the incident. I think he should be sacked for dereliction of duty. I’ve been really lucky in my dealings with the public but I never realized just how lucky I was living in a fairly progressive college town. I hope someone identifies the men and they are prosecuted to fullest extent of the law.

    The lack of media coverage just drives home how little we matter to the men in charge, men terrified of losing their privilege who uphold and support hateful and violent attitudes towards us on shaky bigoted legal ground. If it had been two Ciswomen who were attacked and stripped in public then you can be sure that the media would have jumped all over it and the men would have been apprehended in less than a day, if they weren’t stopped outright on MARTA by the crowd that was perfectly willing to watch Transwomen get harassed and assaulted. All my love and support to both of them but I have to stop ranting now or I’m going to break this library keyboard.

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      Inés I had the same question! My friend brought me to this specific article because I expressed dismay at everyone for having linked to the video, so I was VERY disappointed to see it here.
      The author is basically saying,”this voyeurism is transphobic, misogynistic and violent, watch it here!
      Why would I want to participate in that violence?

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        I did not say “this voyeurism is transphobic, misogynistic and violent, watch it here!” or anything close to that. I framed the video by carefully cataloguing the social context in which it exists, to guide the viewer on the meaning and the intentions behind someone making the video and posting it online. It is up to them to make a thoughtful decision for themselves about whether or not to watch the video. If someone made a similar video involving me and posted it on the internet, I would expect those who call themselves my ally to watch it, understand it, and use that knowledge to speak out against not only the video itself, but also the underlying social forces that made the events in the video and the act of posting it online possible (or perhaps I should say, socially ‘intelligible’) in the first place.

        I watched the video myself in order to write this article. Are you really going to claim that makes me a voyeur?

  5. Thumb up 1

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    this issue isn’t just a trans issue.

    my friends ex has short hair and without make up looks male, they were threatened in the pub toilets and 3 of us had to shout the girls down.

    i know its mostly a trans issue, if this happened to a non-binary person i would defend them

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