MSNBC Talks To And About Trans People For An Hour, Doesn’t F*ck It Up

We’re only about 30 seconds into MSNBC’s 20-minute “Transgender in America” segment when host Melissa Harris-Perry describes herself as “cis,” explaining that “cis” means that “the sex of the body I was born with, the gender I was assigned at birth, and my personal identity all match. She then pointed out that “being ‘cis’ does not make me “normal” or “natural,” it just makes me cis.” After last week’s shitshow with Barbara Walters and Jenna Talackova, the last thing anybody expected from a mainstream (if left-leaning) news organization was to hear the definition of “cisgender” on National television. It gets better from there.

The National Center for Transgender Equality, in its press release, said of the MSNBC program that:

“For the first time in recent memory, a major television network will dedicate an hour-long panel to discussing transgender social and political issues. NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling will be a featured guest on the show joining other recognized experts on trans issues. The panel will focus broadly on advancing transgender equality and other political issues.”

“When we see transgender people like Chaz Bono or others in the media, we’re often encouraged to see the spectacular, not the person,” Harris-Perry explained before introducing three guests: author and activist Kate Bornstein, the aforementioned Mara Keisling and Mel Wymore (a Democratic candidate for the New York City Council). She later brings out Allison Kilkenny of Citizen Radio who also chimes in on issues within the LGBT community that don’t really apply to the “T.” The importance of non-discrimination policies were addressed at length, including the Prison Rape Elimination Act, as well as the importance of inclusiveness within the LGBTQ community. They went into how issues like same-sex marriage and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell have very different impacts on different segments of the LGTBQ umbrella and how crucial it is that the LGBs understand that.

After going over some of the harrowing statistics about discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment, school and the criminal justice system, the story of African-American transgender woman Crishuan “CeCe” McDonald is introduced. CeCe was, as Kate Bornstein describes it, “beaten savagely by a group of folks and she fought back and ended up, in self-defense, killing one of her attackers. She was charged with second-degree murder, and put in the slammer, and that’s that.”  Harris-Perry compares CeCe’s situation to that of Trayvon Martin and Kate mentions the online petition that you should all sign to get her out of jail.

“Transgender people are just normal people in most ways,” Keisling declared. “but nature loves diversity.”

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The ensuing 15 minutes, which were devoted to discussing the Obama administration’s refusal to sign the executive order against discrimination by employers with federal contracts based on gender identity and sexual orientation, which Jillian T.Weiss writes about on the Bilerco Project today.

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All-in-all, a pretty solid program and an excellent antidote to the Barbara Walters situation. (Although I was a little surprised by the section where Kate and Melissa seemed to imply that most trans people don’t use/like binary-identified pronouns — what did y’all think of that part?)  In response to the Jenna Talackova 20/20 interview, many hoped that the sort of horrifying way in which that was covered would at least open up a door to discussing trans issues in a more serious and less sensationalistic way. This piece would suggest that the door is opening, and that people are walking through it. And that’s pretty fucking awesome.

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Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

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50 Comments

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    I’ve never heard of anyone who transitioned using anything BUT binary-identified pronouns. But then again, I do live in Sweden and the trans* community here, especially when it comes to transsexualism and those who transition (I don’t even think we have a term for Transgender), seems radically different then what it appears to be in the states.

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    “Although I was a little surprised by the section where Kate and Melissa seemed to imply that most trans people don’t use/like binary-identified pronouns — what did y’all think of that part?”

    I haven’t watched this, but I can tell you that Kate Bornstein has a tendency to be problematically subversivist, and has said and done many things that make binary trans people uncomfortable. She probably makes me sad just as often as she makes me happy.

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      You know binary identified trans folks do have an advantage over non-binary trans folks right?

      It’s so rare that we even get a mention, especially when it comes to mainstream media coverage. Instead we get to hear the same normative stories told over and over again, so if Kate Bornstein brings up nonbinary folk during a bit that centers almost entirely around binary identified individuals it’s a good damn thing.

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        Ew, I really could have done that better. I want to apologize for my first sentence there. There are other important contexts to consider when looking at the experiences of nonbinary vs. binary trans folks and it’s not as simple as a monolithic advantage. I know that, and I’m sorry.

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          Well I don’t really know about this particular show, I tried watching it but I have too many distractions and I just can’t focus on a video. I only commented because Kate has a history of saying things that are dismissive of binary identified trans people, things which imply that all trans people are non-binary, and it sounded like the same thing was happening here. If this really is just an instance of acknowledging that there are non-binary trans people along with binary trans people, then that is a good thing and I’m sorry that I commented.

          It’s late and I’m tired so I don’t know how much I can say about this now, but I do have to say that there definitely is a problem with people conceptualizing all trans people as being non-binary, and I feel like it’s just as bad as the problem of people conceptualizing all trans people as being binary. The fact that both of these things are happening helps contribute to this situation where everybody loses; non-binary trans people struggle to be respected as non-binary, binary trans people struggle to be respected as binary. So I’m going to be pretty critical of anyone who does either of these things.

          I think a lot of non-binary people don’t realize how often binary trans people have to deal with being ungendered by being seen as non-binary. Just because binary trans people are overrepresented in the media doesn’t mean that society understands it that way.

          And for what it’s worth, I identify as genderqueer. But my situation is a little complicated.

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            Yeah, I know that this is a problem among the “Smash the gender binary, gender doesn’t even exist!!” set. The attitude is definitely dismissive of binary folk, and that’s not cool. In the video Bornstein doesn’t do that, but I get how you’d be critical.

            I just feel like the nuance is that every time it comes to mainstream media discussion all the public ever hears is “X born in a Y body, yadda yadda” which is not even close to accurate for people like me, and we have to admit – a non negligible chunk of the trans community. The vast majority of my experiences have been that the public at large does think of trans folks as binary. I really have to disagree with you there.

            I’m floored that nonbinary people were even brought up. So, I guess hearing that someone bringing me up on tv makes binary people uncomfortable makes me upset because I’m pretty uncomfortable that no one even knows that I exist.

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          Thanks for your addendum to that statement. Because racism, class, educational opportunities and safety, denial of medical care, unemployment, homelessness, violence and sexual assault are waaay bigger markers for oppression within the trans community than what you mentioned. What you first mentioned is very true among media presenting trans people (because they don’t want to really connect with the diversity and human rights oppression within the community) but it’s also a fact that the overwhelming number of murdered trans women are binary-ID’d and that the overwhelming number of trans people represented in LGBT organizations are non-binary FAAB folks. So yes, non-binary people often get ignored but Kate Bornstein has a problem with not acknowledging something like “in my personal experience I didn’t feel like a woman or a man, but others…” (I have a lot of other problems with other crappy stuff she says as well). Maybe it’s time to get someone else as genderqueer’s anointed spokesperson, there are lots of great people who could do it better.

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            No, yeah. I’m sorry for that. It was total fail and I obviously need to watch my reasoning/put things in better context when I’m hot under the collar because I know better.

            I don’t know if my particular community is just that far behind, but explaining nonbinary identity in spaces that are meant to be trans friendly has been next to impossible for me. Working for inclusion has been a real struggle and that may be why I was remiss with the perspective. On a larger community scale I have seen a flux of representation for (white, fairly class/ability advantaged) trans dudes, masculine identified FAAB genderqueers, and nonbinary FAAB femmes of a certain aesthetic (Though I have further beef with this one. I’m already rambling, I’m trying to stay on point.) So I can get behind what you’re saying about the discrepancy between who is represented on that level vs. who’s actually experiencing violence and needs the more urgent attention.

            My main complaint is that we’re giving really sucky Trans 101 to the public. And you’re right, folks who are habitually too broad when passing on that information shouldn’t be doing it.

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    “Although I was a little surprised by the section where Kate and Melissa seemed to imply that most trans people don’t use/like binary-identified pronouns — what did y’all think of that part?”

    I did watch that part and did find it slightly disturbing. It was like an noninclusive transgender umbrella had kicked out all of the transsexuals!

    However, to be fair, I can wear the gender queer label and be fine with that but I prefer lesbian and trans* labels.

    I don’t know that the binary must be broken but at least make a nod to those of us that are stuck outside of the traditional boundaries….I *HOPED* they were doing.

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    I watched this and I was confused because I was ready to rage and nothing happened. I had my mother watch it and the something magical happened, she was able to sympathize and this morning she was talking to a family friend and used the word “cis-gendered” when referring to herself. That shit cray guys in a good good way!

    I’m pretty sure some unicorns were born because of this non-fuck up when talking about trans* people.

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    Shameless plug – Ryan Sallans, author and trans* activist’s memoir came out this week. It is called Second Son. I can’t speak highly enough of his work – if you have anyone who wonders about the seriously personal things going on during a FtM transition, pick up this book. I love it because he is from Nebraska and still resides here, which gives a different perspective than I have seen before, and really illustrates the down to earth humanity instead of the “spectacular”-ness of Chaz or Kate B. Check it out pleeease!

    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/second-son-sallans/1109436976?ean=9780982000960

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    Wait what. Mainstream media talking about more than half a second about transgender issues without fucking it up.

    this comment was edited by the autostraddle community managerettes in an effort to meet our monthly quota of rainbow unicorn realness

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    Mara Keisling is a rockstar trans* activist.

    Shameless plug here: She is the keynote speaker at the Louisiana Queer Conference, which is being held at Louisiana State University on Saturday, April 21 in Coates hall. For more information, go to laqueerconference dot org.

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    She didn’t ask a single question about their genitals or their transitions, because she clearly realized it was irrelevant to the conversation! Fuck yes.

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    While I was extremely glad no one was asked their “real name” or to describe their genitals, I don’t really agree it was an especially great panel. a) Kate Bornstein is not an activist. She has nothing to do with the trans community in terms of activism and she honestly never has. She is slightly involved with the queer community. And yes, I wish should would have clarified that just because she doesn’t feel like a woman, that doesn’t mean all trans women are third sex. I find much of what she says to be offensive and not especially representative of what many trans people are going through; b) I admit, I’m not a big Mara Keisling fan. For me, I feel as if she’s sold out trans activism to Gay Inc. including the HRC. So no, I’m never comfortable having her a key spokesperson for trans people. c) Where were any people of color from the trans community… didn’t see any. d) I have big issues that she felt the need to have cis people supposedly talking about trans issues. While I very much respect Allison Kilkenny, but I’m truly curious to know what special experience she brings to trans issues.

    Was it Babara Walters bad… certainly not. Was it a serious discussion of human rights issues facing the trans community… nope. Maybe next time.

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      ….None of your criticisms were actually about the piece. They were all about the people speaking. I don’t think it’s fair to discount the whole segment just because you don’t like the speakers they brought on. If those people didn’t say anything that actually offended you during the segment (besides that whole trans people can’t be binary thing, obvs) then I don’t see a problem with it. It was still a great piece.

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        It’s still valid and important to question the authority of people who are speaking on behalf of an entire community on television. Kate Bornstein certainly speaks for a very specific demographic of trans people.

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        That there were no trans persons of color on the panel is a problem no matter what was said. That there was a cis person speaking on the trans issues panel is a problem regardless of what they said (would you want straight ally ‘experts’ speaking on a lesbian panel?). In my experience of 7-8 years of listening to Mara Keisling being selected as the ‘chosen mouthpiece’ of the ‘reasonable trans activists’ (in other words, approved by the HRC) she never says ANYTHING which challenges the Gay Inc. party line. Even in the second segment when her milquetoast ‘criticism’ at Obama going back on his words was mentioned, she basically soft-pedaled and delivered cream of wheat. She’s incapable of delivering a criticism of Washington Insiders without making it sound apologetic and humbly thanking them for even listening.

        As to the content… other than the welcome mention of CeCe MacDonald’s case (and why was Kate Bornstein talking about her… I’ve never seen her write a word about the case) there was no real hard content. Again, yes, kudos for them not mentioning genitals and ‘when did you tell your boyfriend’ question… but for a group talking supposedly talking about human rights issues and political action, not offensively fucking up isn’t the same as a win.

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          “(would you want straight ally ‘experts’ speaking on a lesbian panel?)”

          I have to answer this with a “maybe” or even a “probably” depending on who these experts are and what their area of expertise is.

          If the subject is something to do with policy, government, or law, people whose area of expertise is policy, government or law applying that expertise to something related to lesbians and sharing their perspectives is something I would consider appropriate.

          For example: if it was a panel on same-sex marriage legal cases I’d be happy to see Ted Olson or David Boies included. Their perspectives would be relevant. As ally perspectives can be. Including allies does not necessarily mean drowning out the voices of the people they’re allied with.

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            Hmmm, I don’t know about your analogy. What if Olson and Boies were on and suddenly, instead of the very specific court case they’re involved in, they were asked general questions about ‘what lesbians deal with on a day to day basis’ (oh yes, and instead of inviting a lesbian woman of color or, say, a butch, they invited two non-gay attorneys instead to fill those seats instead). In general discussions, I would much rather hear Allison Kilkenny speak than either Keisling or Bornstein, but on a panel very specifically about trans people, I thought she was a bizarre addition. What, were they worried the trans people wouldn’t be able to speak concisely enough about issues the trans community faces??

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    I like this story! I had one thought:

    “the story of African-American transgender Crishuan “CeCe” McDonald is introduced”

    I think that “transgender” should be followed by a noun. I know there is some disagreement on this issue but I feel like it’s more respectful to use it as an adjective. Also I realize this could be a typo :).

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    I’m so glad you covered this. I was floored when MHP started off with saying she’s cis and then describing what it means. Overall, I enjoyed the panels and thought it was a good start to discussing trans issues in a more serious way.

    On a different note, I was beyond thrilled when it was announced that Melissa Harris-Perry was getting her own show and I think she’s doing a great job considering how long the show has been on. At this point, my weekend mornings always start with Up With Chris and the MHP show.

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    I have so much respect for MHP. She’s one person I think I would have trusted to do this well.

    I wasn’t so happy with the “trans people are like everyone else!” line of conversation for various reasons having to do with my feels on assimilationist political strategy and what it does to people who still fall outside the traditional idea of what it means to be an ideal American citizen, even after their trans* status is accepted. Although if I get too into that y’all will have to suffer a full essay from me.

    I didn’t really hear Kate imply that the bulk of or all trans* people prefer “they” pronouns. She did bring up that a lot of trans* folks do use “they” pronouns, and people need to hear that. I’m actually really tired of being called “subversivist” for wanting people to bring me up in talk of trans* issues, even on a minor level. So I was really happy about that.

    Overall I was jazzed about the piece.

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    This is the best media coverage I’ve seen yet. As trans person (and not a polititian) I agree with Mel Wymore, that the solution to ending intolerance is when we all can join together as a human family that most values acceptance and even altruism. If we were kind/tolerant versus “other” I believe we could win out!

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      Funnily those comments were the ones that annoyed me the most, though I should preface that by saying it’s so nice to be able to have a conversation about transgender coverage that’s about content and substance rather than having to focus on framing: props to everyone involved in the show for that (though I’d agree with ginasf’s criticism of the panelists, it’s a common problem with a lot of talk shows).

      The problem with the politically friendly “lets all focus on human rights, isn’t that better” rather than focusing on “divisive” issues is that until we’re at the point where we’ve managed to dismantle most of the hierarchical oppressions in society and address the issue of privilege more fully this kind of rhetoric plays into the hands of privileged thinking; wherein people use the experience of their own lives as their primary reference.

      I understand a certain amount of pragmatism is necessary to push beneficial legislation, and I even agree that it is really all about “human rights” but we’ve seen how erasive this rhetoric is before and lived with the gulf in rights and entitlement it’s left in western democracies, in favour of privileged segments of society. It’s the same attitude that, frankly, has done immense damage to the Trans* community in the struggle for Lesbian and Gay rights.

      It’s not enough to say “lets all be tolerant” and assume that soldiering on with our own values, even when you are not consciously throwing other people under the bus. We need to go further, much further this time. Even if all intolerance ended today it would not end systemic abuse or address the legacy of discrimination and it’s impact on minorities today.

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    I don’t have time to watch this right now, but I will later, from what you guys have said it seems like an amazing step forward for the public discussion on trans* issues.

    One question, were there any trans* men discussed or on the show? Other than the chaz bono show mention?

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        Why would that make her any less amazing? I think that everyone should be allowed to self-identify however they want; I really, really prefer queer over lesbian because it fits my sexuality, my person, and my politics. Everyday I own queer as my identity. I’m not a lesbian, though many people would put me in that box, and under the definition of “girl who likes girls”—yeah, I fit that. But I don’t, really. It’s not exactly the same but as a bridge…

        I guess a lot of people would put MHP into the box of being mixed race or biracial but she owns her identity as a black woman. I think her point is that race is more a mechanism of social and legal constructs rather than biology and under those constructs, she’s black, and that’s her perspective and her life personally and politically. Fractions of white heritage do not give neat and easy fractions of white privilege. Though arguments can be made that the lighter your skin, the more privilege you get in society, it’s not a direct relationship and there are so many other factors. When MHP grew up “there was no such thing as biracial”. She isn’t against the term and thinks 21st C kids can use it if they want. Honestly though, I will never know the perspective or experiences of MHP or any POC because I’m white. I think “learn first, talk next, judge never” is the way to go w/ this stuff. Lady can do what she wants! (…and probably I got stuff wrong here, which anyone should feel free to correct).

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          I didn’t say it makes her any less amazing, just that I didn’t know how to feel about it, it’s something that brings up a lot of mixed emotions with me (excuse the pun). It’s definitely not my place to decide how she identifies, but it does bring up “feelings”.

          I was in interracial opposite sex relationships for 10 years and this topic was something that we discussed ad nauseum in my last relationship.

          As someone who always assumed that she would be the parent of a biracial child (and I still might be, who knows?!) I have just always felt strongly about the possibility of being discounted from the equation by my children. I also feel strongly about biracial or multiracial children having great role-models to look up to who identify as biracial, that way they feel that they don’t have to “choose sides”, things are definitely a lot different now than they were in past decades, and I understand why people felt forced to choose in the past.

          Probably shouldn’t have said anything, because it’s a topic that gets heated almost immediately, but I don’t think any less of her for identifying as black, and I apologise to anyone who might be offended.

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          I read and considered MHP’s perspective on this a few years ago. Her African-American heritage is a definitive part of her personal history, identity, life and work. And the majority of African-Americans have some European ancestry and are thus technically multi-racial or biracial in some way – and still consider themselves, and are considered by others, to be black. There’s considerable nuance and variation in people’s personal/family histories and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way for someone to self-identify.

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    I’ve been in love with her show since it started. She’s super badass and is always bringing up women’s issues and race issues and handling the discussions really well. I was so excited about this segment.

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    “Although I was a little surprised by the section where Kate and Melissa seemed to imply that most trans people don’t use/like binary-identified pronouns — what did y’all think of that part?”

    It didn’t seem to me like they implied that MOST trans* people don’t use gendered pronouns. Just that more are now than used to. (Does that phrasing make sense?)
    (Hello, Ilyssa, nice to meet you. I’m trans*, beginning transition, and prefer non-binary pronouns. Now you can say that you have and I gather that that is seemingly rare in Sweden so you have something rare, yay! :D )

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    This segment did not discuss in as much detail as I would have liked about trans communities of color. In the segment on President Obama, no discussion whatsoever was made of immigration policy–a HUGE piece of what should be at the forefront of LGBT dialogue and issues. Also, wtf, Melissa Harris-Perry said that Obama has good policy in Iraq. What gives?

    As to the idea of unity across factions of oppression, it is important, of course, and does not have to mean erasure of groups’ experiences. Is it less comfortable than Mel said? Certainly. Is it possible and necessary? Yes, especially because plenty of people live ON THE LINES of multiple axes of oppression that are pitted against each other.

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    I have no idea who those people on the panel are, I stumbled upon this article by chance and it intrigued me. My best friend is a Non-Binary Transgendered person, I love them very much. Even seeing something even remotely positive about transgendered or gender queer people is a luxury where I live. On the streets of Outer Western Sydney, being Transgendered, Gender Queer, or any kind of Queer other than a Lesbian, will get you killed. This is not OK, why can’t people just see a human being rather than a gender or what that person does in their private time? I may be cis-gendered, but I still hate to know that people suffer for something that is inherent to who they are, whoever they may be.

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