Our (Extra) Ordinary Evening Watching Nightline’s “Transgendered Special”

ABC’s Primetime Nightline aired a “Transgendered Special” on last week called My (Extra) Ordinary Family. The program has caused some online buzz since it first ran on August 31, with The Advocate billing it as  “The Trans Special You Shouldn’t Miss.”

So Sebastian and I decided to watch the program together and discuss our reactions to it. The following piece is a collection of our dialogue during the broadcast, divided into the different segments of the show. We’ve posted the entire program here so you can watch as well! (Spoiler alert: it’s cissexist and offensive.) I recommend pausing after each segment to read our commentary and share your own feelings in the comments section below!

 

Annika: Sebastian, I have to be honest, I’ve only read the official description of this show and I already hate it. It’s full of pronoun fails and problematic terms like “biological girl/boy”…

Sebastian: Yeah, it looks like it’s going to be one of those “documentaries”…

 

Introduction

Narrator:  Born this way? Inside the worlds of little boys who dress like little girls…

Sebastian: Ugh. This is so sensationalized and outdated. Also, where are the trans guys?

Annika: Don’t you know? Nightline thinks you’re boring. Trans femininities make for much better exploitative TV! Also, did you notice how he said, “Born this way?” as a question? Which is another way of saying, “Are trans people real?”

Narrator: …to a cross dressing teen who travels south of the border to pay for surgery in cash…

Sebastian: Ok seriously? She’s a woman, not a cross dresser.

Cynthia McFadden (the host): First, a warning. Some of the themes and language in tonight’s program are graphic.

Annika: What she really means is “Warning: icky queers ahead!”

 

Handout: Cheryl Kilodavis

Segment One – Princess Boy

This segment introduces us to the Dyson Kilodavis and his mother, who is the author of the children’s book “My Princess Boy.” Dyson is a five-year-old boy who loves wearing dresses, and we learn about his mother’s initial reaction and eventual embrace of her son’s gender expression.

Sebastian: I really like his mother. I appreciate that she’s honest about her mistakes in trying to redirect her son’s behavior.

Annika: Yeah, she’s great. I love that she wrote a book too!

Sebastian: Omg, did you just see what they flashed on the screen? A Twitter question: “Should boys be allowed to dress like girls?”

Annika: So stupid. Gender policing much?

Sebastian:  Ok, I think the first section wasn’t too terrible. Mostly because Cherly Kilo-Davis was the one who was essentially narrating. I think it is also good to start off with a boy who is just breaking gender norms. I’m not sure if he will identify as a girl in the future or not, but he has a family that is going to give him the space to figure it out for himself.

Annika: Yeah, the only thing I’m concerned about is that they might try to tie it into the main narrative of “boys who want to be girls,” with Dyson presented as a less extreme version of the others.

Sebastian: We’ll have to see how it takes off from here. I’m getting the feeling that this program does nothing to educate about trans* or gender issues. It just presents vignettes with questionable narration.

 

ABC News

Segment Two – Jackie

In this segment we meet Jackie, a ten-year-old trans girl who recently transitioned with the support of her parents.

Cynthia: What if your son were to tell you that he is not a boy at all, but a girl? We spent months with one family as they struggled with the wrenching decision of what to do when their 10 year old son, Jack, said he wanted to become Jackie.

Annika: Again with the simplistic and wrong transformation narrative. Jackie is the same person she’s always been- she’s not a “boy who wanted to become a girl.”

Sebastian: Why is Cynthia using male pronouns? I mean, really? This is so disappointing.

Jackie’s mother: One day [she] came up to me with tears in [her] eyes, and said “I’m a girl and I can’t do this anymore.”

Sebastian: That’s so moving. I love how supportive and understanding her parents are!

Annika: Typical shots of Jackie putting on makeup. The programs focuses so much on the physical aspect of transition; why am I not surprised?

Medical Expert: We often ask parents, “Would you rather have a dead son than an alive daughter? These kids have a suicide rate that is astronomical. You don’t make a decision about your gender identity. It’s not something you decide.”

Annika: Such a powerful way of conveying it to parents. This expert definitely knows her stuff.  But then they have to cut to Jackie’s Grandpa Richard, who doesn’t approve of her transition, as some sort valid counterargument?

Cynthia: So you don’t use the pronoun “he” anymore? You’ve abandoned it?

Annika: How shocking!

Sebastian: So, thoughts on this segment… the expert was great and Jackie’s parents are wonderful too. One of the best families I’ve ever seen in a documentary like this. I love how they say “we don’t think we should have to hide our family behind closed doors.”

Annika: And Jackie looks so happy! I can’t help but smile thinking of all the stuff she’ll never have to deal with. Again, the worst part of the segment was the narration.

 

ABC News

Segment Three – Vanessa 

This segment is about a 19-year-old Latina trans woman named Vanessa, who is traveling to Mexico for breast augmentation and facial feminization surgery because she cannot afford these procedures in the United States. She helps pay for her surgeries through sex work.

Cynthia: Beneath the makeup, Vanessa is biologically a 19-year-old boy.

Annika: No, she isn’t. She is a girl. Makeup or no makeup. How is this such a difficult concept to understand?

Cynthia: [Sex work] funded her drug of choice- black market estrogen to feminize her.

Sebastian:?!!?

Cynthia: Now she saves up for her new body by selling her old one in cheap hotel rooms–

Annika: Omg, this is so fucking offensive. They think they can get away with talking about her in such a degrading manner because she’s a trans woman of color. There’s absolutely no discussion about employment discrimination for trans* people, the abysmal state of trans*-inclusive health insurance, or that fact that the illegality/stigmatization of sex work leads to inherently dangerous situations.

Sebastian: And just for the record, that is definitely not a cheap hotel room.

Annika: Why are they spending so much time showing her surgery? Do they really think that is all the transition is about? The physical aspect?

Sebastian: Hold on, did they really just pass judgment on the results of her facial surgery?

Annika: Not everyone can afford to go to Cynthia’s cosmetic surgeon, after all.

Cynthia: You could always get a job at McDonalds tomorrow [instead of sex work].

Annika: Oh no she didn’t just say that. Privileged white cis woman telling a Latina trans woman to go get a job at McDonald’s? Who does she think she is? And anyways, has she not heard about what happened to Chrissy Lee Polis earlier this year? Or in 2009, when a teenage trans girl applying for a job at McDonald’s in Florida was told “We do not hire faggots”? McDonald’s isn’t exactly a safe space for trans women.

Cynthia: But for now, it’s back to the cheap hotel rooms.

Sebastian: I thought the way they presented this segment was really offensive. It really shows the difference in how trans women of color are portrayed by the media. The way they handled the sex work was repulsive. And there was hardly anything about her social transition or family issues.

Annika: It’s disgusting they way they tried to portray her. So many wasted opportunities here to discuss the very real problem of discrimination. Her family seemed sweet though.

Narrator: And next, what this man has to say to transgender teens. He’s had two sex changes operations, going from a man to a woman, and back.

 

ABC NEWS

Segment Four- Charles

Charles Kane is a man who transitioned to female at age 37, and then transitioned back to male after 7 years of living as Samantha.

Annika: I can’t believe that they’re giving Charles Kane his own segment, as if he is a valid counterargument against transitioning. Have you read about him before? He says things like “people who think they are a woman trapped in a male body are completely deluded.”

Sebastian: At least they acknowledge that his “trans regret” is not typical.

Annika: I feel like I’m repeating myself but again, this so much focus on the physical changes…spending $100,000 on surgeries does not make someone a woman!

Charles Kane: I was a transsexual female. I wasn’t a genuine, natural female.

Annika: Pardon me, Charles?

Charles Kane: I don’t think that anybody is born a transsexual human. Areas of the human brain get altered by female hormones… so you’re altering a person who is otherwise a normal male.

Sebastian: Um, no.

Cynthia: As for their sex life- I asked.

Annika: Of course she asked.

Cythina: They were able to reconstruct the penis? But can you have an erection? So that’s not quite as good as the original.

Sebastian: Omg this whole segment was awful. And that comment about phalloplasty! My skin is crawling.

Annika: According to Nightline, gender is defined by our body parts.

Sebastian: And any attempts to alter our bodies, by the way, are just attempts. Never as good “as the original.”

Annika: I just hate how much of a voice they gave to Charles Kane. I’m reluctant to ever question whether someone is an “actual” trans* person, but let’s just say that he doesn’t speak for me. He’s just a confused attention whore with too much money for his own good. Which can be said about a lot of people, but in this case he’s doing the trans* community a huge disservice by claiming to understand us and our supposed delusions. And he essentially said that doctors tricked him into thinking he was a woman by giving him female hormones! There are many problems with trans* healthcare- but a lack of “preventative barriers” to transition is certainly not one of them.

Sebastion: It’s also disheartening that the show presents Charles as this wise older adult figure, trying to prevent a younger generation from making a horrible mistake by transitioning. They could have easily chosen to interview one of the many happy, well-adjusted trans* adults instead, but they didn’t. Please let the next segment be decent…

 

ABC NEWS

Segment Five- Kim 

Kim Petras is a 19-year-old German trans girl who has a successful career as a pop singer. She has been featured in various news stories for transitioning at young age: starting estrogen at age 13 and having SRS at 16.

Cynthia: …and when you see her, you may be surprised that she was once a “he.”

Annika: Translation: prepare to be shocked- she doesn’t look like an inaccurate stereotype of a trans girl!

Cynthia: At 16, Kim made headlines by becoming the youngest person in the world to have the penis he was born with turned into a vagina.

Annika: “The penis he was born with?”

Sebastian:  Kim said “I didn’t think I was any different from the other girls.” Such a good way of explaining gender development for some trans kids!

Cynthia: [Before SRS, Kim was] stuck in an undefined place between male and female.  She was desperate for what is called “bottom surgery” to change her gender.

Annika: Newsflash, Cynthia: gender is not defined by anatomy or surgery!

Sebastian: I’m totally fine with someone feeling that their genitalia is totally wrong. But this narrative presents it as the rule, which it’s not. I love the way she talks about her surgery though. That she said it just made her complete but it didn’t answer all of life’s problems.

Cynthia: So, this is a very personal question. Were they able to construct a vagina from the penis?

Annika: More invasive questions about genitalia. What makes her think it’s her right to ask these sorts of things? Kim was way more polite in her response than I would have been. I would have been like, “So, Cynthia, I head that the labia begin to sag when someone reaches your age. Has that been your experience, and if so, do you plan on having surgery to address it?”

Sebastian: Ok, this show is finally over. At least they ended the segment with her song, “This is the Real Me.” That made me feel a lot better. Like I felt a lot of tension released in my body. But then the fucking narrator goes and asks people to weigh in on a heated discussion of whether or not these supportive parents are hurting their children. I just think it’s absurd that they think it’s okay for people who don’t know shit to weigh in and pass judgment on our lives. It’s so barbaric. They wouldn’t even do this about gay kids now.

Annika: The narration had its own agenda, that’s for sure. And it’s so cissexist too, they’re like, “we as normal people, do you think trans people are real? And should we be nice to these freaks? Have your say online!” And I hate how throughout the program, they make transition out to be this purely physical thing. Like the weren’t the least bit interested in understanding who these kids really are.

Sebastian: Now I’m just angry. I’m so grateful for the families who tried to present a positive and honest story of trans* and gender issues. But the way that Nightline framed it, it’s like the modern day traveling circus with the freak show. Except you know, more civil, because some people support it. You’d think that in 2011, someone on mainstream TV could get it right, but I’m so disappointed.

 

So there you have it. Nightline’s “Transendered Special” was inaccurate, racist, cissexist, sensationalized, and offense. The families and their children were all wonderful, and did a great job trying to articulate their experiences to a mainstream audience. Hopefully their example of acceptance and unconditional love will reach other parents who watch this program. But it was clear from the start that Nigthline had already decided how they were going to frame the discourse, regardless of what these families and trans* kids had to say. Sadly, is anyone really surprised? Please feel free to share your feelings about the show with us- there were so many problematic elements that we could only highlight a few!

 

Avatar of annika

I'm a 23 year old femme lesbian living in SF. Once upon a time, I was a USC frat boy ;) I ♥ music so please recommend your favorite artists to me!

annika has written 21 articles for us.

70 Comments

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    I literally LOL’d at the McDonald’s comment (derisively, of course). It may have been filmed before that incident happened, but come on, they could have left that out, and it was so ignorant and snotty of her to say that so flippantly.

    I was annoyed that they didn’t include any FTM’s on the program either, and Charles Kane? Seriously? This is why I don’t usually watch TV.

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    Thanks for writing this article! I was so angry after watching this, but I ran out of people to whom I could rant about it.

    I’m sickened that they gave Charles Kane a segment. He is not even relevant in a discussion about transgendered people. Nightline has a chance to bring the world some of the facts, and what do they do? They treat it as though we should still be questioning the validity of trans people’s experiences. And, like you said, Annika, they barely touched on gender identity, choosing instead to focus on the physical aspect.

    I did really appreciate the honesty and the support of the families in the show, though. They were a breath of fresh air.

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    I think I saw this exact same program, with the same narration in 1990. Great to see how things have progressed!

    <3 to the families and individuals involved in this. But gah! Shame on Niteline. I already highly dislike "news" segments anyway. They are geared primarily towards older generations and it annoys the heck out of me the way they sound.

    Seriously, it's 2011. People can watch something that's positive and if they don't like it, go vent on the internet. They don't always have to include that "well what if" or "HOWEVER" or "Insert highly offensive passive aggressive commentary that always goes along with 'taboo' topics."

    Also, obvs racism anyone?

    I was especially offended as well by the lack of other trans issues or the guys.

    I was ESPECIALLY ESPECIALLY offended by the focus on the anatomy.

    Where's the part of my body that says I'm queer? Where's the part of my body that says I have ADHD? Where's the part of my body that shows that I had to go to church growing up, but I don't anymore, but it doesn't matter because I never believed in a christian god anyway?

    I had surgery to remove my appendix because I was hours away from dying. So I guess that was a choice in life and now I'm some non appendix having person. Do I need to get another kind of surgery to identify my non appendix status to others? Should I have it put back in? If I do can I have a guest spot on a TV show to talk about how no one should ever have their appendix removed?

    !!!!!!

    Love you 2 for your commentary and thank you for sharing.

    #feelings

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      There was a documentary out of the UK a while ago on trans children and adolescents that was so similar to this – the families and friends and children were using correct names and pronouns and yet the narrator continued to misgender them and raise the question of whether all or any of this was appropriate! My reaction was the same – how many years later and there seemed to be no progress in the way the subject material and families were handled and and addressed!

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    i think you guys were kind of harsh actually. i’m sure i’m going to get a shitstorm of hate for this comment, but it seems like you all were focusing a lot on the failures and did little to acknowledge the positives… just my two cents.

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      Hmm, it’s possible. I just think that as trans* people, we are hyper-aware of the common mistakes that documentaries about us make, and this program managed to fail on nearly all of these counts. Maybe I’ve been living in a queer bubble and expect too much from a mainstream program on trans* issues in 2011? Cynthia’s “investigative” tone really turned me off as well :/

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      i think that it’s annika & sebastian’s task to approach this with a critical eye — and they will be more sensitive to its failures because this video claims to represent other trans folks. i would expect their feelings to err on the side of criticism, just as my critique of season six of the l word would be harsher than some random straight guy at entertainment weekly’s would be, yannow?

      regardless, i think they did point out the good things about it — the first two stories being great, cynthia’s narration being obnoxious. i saw it and i felt the same way about her narration. other points they raised i hadn’t thought of myself while watching it, but i think they’re correct in these assessments.

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      I think that our harshness comes from the responsibility we (correct me Annika if I’m speaking for you incorrectly) believe programs like this have to address things with accuracy and fairness.

      And while the show had positive aspects (the stories themselves) it was handled so poorly that I would have preferred it not to air. My thinking is that this is going to be MANY people’s first look at trans children and even transgenderism in general and people are going to walk away terrible misinformed which will lead only to further prejudice and violence (in all its forms) against trans ppl and trans children.

      I was thinking about my relatives in Kansas who have for the most part been supportive and who have learned a little about gender diversity and transition. Will they watch Charles Kane and decide that it was the hormones or bad psychologists that convinced me to transition? Will they suddenly feel uneasy about my transition.

      And the people who watch this who knew nothing and then in the coming weeks or months or years have a loved one come out as trans… this kind of show does real, palpable damage and that is why I was so angry.

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        “And while the show had positive aspects (the stories themselves) it was handled so poorly that I would have preferred it not to air.”

        I had the same feeling watching the clips and reading your commentary! I could see this being used in a classroom setting to “educate” about trans* issues in a harmful way and that makes me sad.

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      This isn’t really the best comparison, but it’s what comes to mind.

      Imagine a documentary about an ethnic minority that questioned the validity of the minority’s culture instead of simply presenting it. Imagine a documentary about French-speaking Quebec which asked questions like, “Are they REALLY French?” Such a documentary isn’t approaching the topic in good faith. A better approach would be to explore the linguistic diversity of the French-speaking world, and how the dialect spoken in Paris was forced upon the rest of the country, and how they spoke something different in every corner of that marvelous hexagon until relatively recent. A better approach would be to simply focus on the experiences of all the people who identify as French, and hear their stories without questioning them.

      Like, I have friends who speak French as their first language and have been to Paris and sometimes they’ll encounter people who basically sneer and start speaking in English to them, as if to say, “We both know you’re not REALLY French.”

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      I see your points, and they make sense. thanks for clarifying. i watched the show when it aired and although I shared a lot of the sentiments you made (particularly about the damaging narration) I definitely didnt pick up on all the ways the program failed. I guess i was just so thrilled to see really wonderful models of parenting that I missed a lot of the other things you all mentioned. and honestly, I completely dismissed that charles kane character. i found that entire segment utterly ridiculous and i suppose I naively thought others would think the same thing.

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    I managed to stomach my way through this, somehow, and your critiques are spot on. For the first couple of segments, if they just got rid of fucking Cynthia and let the families tell their own story, I think those would have been perfect. But the rest of the segments are so beyond fucked, it was disgusting to watch.

    I really wish they had shown more of the expert from the L.A. clinic, she was awesome, and her perspective was definitely needed more.

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    It’s so disturbing to me that Advocate.com said this was one not to miss, without any critique or warning. Is the LGB so far removed from the T that they could not see the blatant cissexism in this show?! Autostraddle tends to suggest not (Thank god for all y’all), but so many of the mainstream “LGBT” news sources and commentators are as blind to cissexism as ABC and Fox News.

    For another critique check out ThinkProgress’s Five Things Nightline Could Have Done Better…:http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2011/09/01/309882/five-things-nightline-could-have-done-better-in-its-special-on-transgender-children/

    I’d say five things nightline SHOULD have done better.

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    i saw this too and had a lot of feelings about it — i hated the sensationalized narrator and i was shocked they managed to find that crazy ass guy at the end.

    i was wondering if you guys had any feelings/insight about vanessa’s inexpensive doctor? was that safe? i got really worried probably b/c i’ve seen too many nightline specials about surgery in other countries going wrong and killing people. i thought it was weird how they brushed over it as if she was just getting a notebook at wal-mart instead of at urban outfitters and it was nbd, but maybe it is?

    i also was furious about the mcdonalds comment, regardless of even the transphobia you both brought up (good point!), it’s soooo obnoxious and ignorant and i hate it when ppl say shit like that to sex workers — she could work at mcdonald’s 40 hours a week and make as much money after taxes as she probably makes in an hour doing sex work. i hate how that categorizes sex workers as somehow lazy or making the easy choice which is really fucking ignorant and classist and demeaning. the system is broken, cynthia! i could go on and on and on about this and probably explain my point for real but i’ll stop.

    Jackie’s parents were so great and heartwarming, sidenote. It gave me a lot of hope, how her peers were okay with it — and i think proof of how if kids aren’t taught to hate people who are different from them, they won’t.

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      Dr. Sonny Cardenas in Guadalajara is a not terribly good surgeon who is extremely cheap and often frequented by young transwomen sexworkers and ‘gender illusionists’. He does certain procedures (like lower rib removal) which are not legal in the US. And yes, he’s had several patients die from infection (in fairness, some of those patients were already pumped with industrial grade silicone before having surgery).

      I thought this was the most powerful segment and I wish they’d expanded it (not that McFadden and Co. would have done a good job with it). There are so many young trans women who end up in the sex trade and, sadly, many of the other organizations promoting the health and safety of sex workers purposely exclude them from their discussions. This is the exact group which has the highest murder rate in the country and makes up nearly 40% of the murders among LGBTQ people. Those organizations love to include them in their statistics when it comes to fundraising but give a damn about them when it comes to their health issues, inability to find work, issues of violence, mentorship and issues about aging out of the foster care system. Somehow these kids are never as important as issues like marriage equality or DADT.

      We need to take care of girls like Vanessa because they’re being tossed aside and murdered at an alarming rate.

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    Ok, I’m absolutely going to try and watch this thing. But i had to say, all i’ve seen is the before title intro and i’m already disgusted with the way they’ve handled the story.
    I feel like if the writers had maybe tried some google searches for what is the appropriate way to present information on trans* kids, this would have gone a lot better for them.
    Reading/watching on…

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      ok, after watching the whole thing (i skipped the charles kane segment and just read your commentary) i feel much like everyone else. I was glad the families were all so sweet about it.
      I think it just made the narration sound blatantly stupid and dated. hopefully i’m not the only one who thought that. I generally avoid nightline documentaries and tv in general because their attempts to sensationalize everything is absurd to me. but i feel heartened by the families who were all so good. i feel like 15 years ago, this show would have had families that were all not letting their kids be themselves with kids sneaking around to be able to be themselves. so at least that’s something.

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    Oh, you two are so spot-on with everything. Everything you said is what I thought watching this, so I don’t think you’re being too harsh. Especially troublesome to me were the lack of any adults who are well-adjusted and thrilled to have transitioned (which pretty much sums up most of the trans* adults I know IRL), the complete lack of trans* men, and the ongoing racism. I was really disappointed and angry at the end of it, even though I’m glad those kids are getting the support they need (including Vanessa, whose parents seem to really love her, even if it’s a stretch for them to see her as she is).

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    I think that even if the people behind this show were knowledgeable about good ways to talk about trans kids, they might still have this idea that they have to present it in this way — the misgendering, the overfocus on surgical and physical aspects, the validation of the idea that all SRSes can be described as a straight-up transition from one gender to another (“He had his penis taken away, which transformed him into a woman!” rather than “a woman had some surgery and was still a woman, just with a change in body parts”), the struggle to present a counterpoint to every point, even if some of those points are facts with which ignorant people disagree — because there are so many people who don’t know anything about the subject. I think there’s this idea that if it’s mainstream media, if you’re talking about trans people, you have to present it in a trans 101 way (and not even do that accurately, because you don’t want to challenge the misconceptions that people are comfortable with), because otherwise, all of the people who don’t know anything about it already aren’t going to understand it and aren’t going to relate to it, and so you have to take baby steps with them.

    That practice is so condescending! If they used nuance and accuracy and didn’t just, like somebody else said, do the same program they did in 1990, their audience could keep up. If you treat people like you think they have the capacity to keep up with the information you’re giving them, they might surprise you. It’s like Cynthia was supposed to be the mediator between the trans people in the show / their families, and what Nightline thinks the “average American” is. They really underestimate their audience, which is frustrating.

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      I think this is totally true and it reminds me of how, at the beginning of my intro to women’s studies class, my prof would use “gender” and “sex” interchangeably even though she was going to teach us two weeks later about how they weren’t the same things, because..it was just easier? I don’t understand why.

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    What I’ve learned, apparently gender is whether you have a penis or vagina.

    Gender =/= Sex

    I’m not going to finish up the last segment on Kim as this is already incredibly frustrating. And why is it only trans women? Why is it that not conforming to gender stereotypes make people believe that the individual must be only trans or gay? It seems to me it is mostly okay for women to partake in some masculine activities, but people lost their shit is a man enjoys traditionally feminine activities. I feel as if masculinity is more of a valued trait, because you sure as hell don’t see people getting worked up if a woman enjoys activities considered to be masculine. That ended up being a bit of rant, but I have much more to say on this and I feel like a good deal of people need to re-examine the way we view gender identity and sexuality.

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    jeez i wanted to punch that narrator lady in the face. “drug of choice”??? really???how did producers think it was okay for her to say… basically everything she said? the kids and families were really great, and kept their cool well in the face of that lady’s obnoxious questions. ug some people are just grr. i feel like that lady shoulda had a giant neon sign saying caution: privileged idiot.

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    I wanted to pass out from disgust while I was reading this – I have no idea how you guys managed to stomach the whole thing.

    The worst part for me was the stuff about Vanessa… ugh ugh ugh. Cissexism, racism, spitting on sex workers. I don’t even have words.

    I am sorry you guys have to deal with this kind of hateful misinformed shit being directed at who you are.

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    I am seriously impressed that y’all managed to get through this whole thing, even if scotch may have been involved for Sebastian. I probably wouldn’t’ve lasted more than five minutes before throwing something at the TV/computer/other media-watching device and proceeding to write an apoplectic letter to Nightline.

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    “Cynthia: Now she saves up for her new body by selling her old one in cheap hotel rooms–”

    That is where my brain shut off from too much WHATTHEFUCK!?!

    I rarely watch shows like Nightline, 20/20, Inside Edition, etc because it’s all the same sensationalist condescending bullshit. I feel so bad for the guests on this show being humiliated by this show’s fucked up agenda.

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    Those children and their families were so amazing to watch. It gave me hope that someday all transpeople will be able to transition at whatever age they feel is right. Cynthia then took that bit of hope and put it through a paper shredder and made me remember that there are still a lot of people like her in the world.

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    YOU GUYS RIGHT NOW ON THIS WEEK’S EPISODE OF “OUR (EXTRA) ORDINARY FAMILY” they are telling the exact same story but this time it’s about obese kids. She’s obsessed with how he’ll look after gastric-bypass surgery and not about any of the other issues, just the physical, just the food laid out there for us to see,her narration is really condescending and judgey… i don’t know what that means, really. HOWEVER, she’s really really happy while talking to these kids about how they’ll turn out, she was not this happy for the trans kids.

    This is kinda weird, maybe it’s this show. They pick people who they’re still socially allowed to question/challenge parents, condescend to subjects, and trust that everyone will be ok with it b/c society is still ok with being mean to this or that group, regardless of what it actually means to be in that group. I mean the fact that she can tackle obesity in the same way she approached being trans is really telling. I hate Cynthia!

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    First time commenter, long time Autostraddle reader.

    Annika and Sebastian’s posts have been so fantastic to read and have definitely made me a much more informed and supportive ally to the trans community. But even with all of the perspective I’ve gained, I still sometimes feel at a loss for the vocabulary that I need to ask (appropriate) questions and really discuss the trans visibility issue in my LGB world. I see what’s clearly wrong with the phrase “biological boy/girl,” but half the time I read comments, I don’t recognize (mostly innocent) linguistic missteps until Annika and/or Sebastian point them out. Basically, what I’m wondering is: how do non-trans folk get this vocab down when the English language is so against us? I’m in the queer community and still can’t get the hang of it. It definitely makes me have a little sympathy for that ridiculous narrator because if someone like me (who is surrounded by gaymos with their queertalk) has trouble, how does a person in the hetero community even begin to grasp the language issue?

    ALSO I read all of Annika and Sebastian’s comments and was all like, stop being so nitpicky! And then I watched the first two minutes of the video and had to turn it off. Awful. AWFUL AWFUL AWFUL.

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      i think the key is to think of annika and sebastian’s criticisms of the language other people use not as things you were supposed to already know, but as things they want you to know. and by reading and caring i think that’s important.

      so things like this is how you learn or whatnot. i think that in the case of like, a tv producer doing an hour-long show on the topic, you would expect them to do some research before jumping in, before narrating these stories, there are literally manuals they could’ve read for press people — that’s part of their job. But for those of us not standing in front of screens telling the stories of trans people, i think we just learn as we go along. i don’t know everything and didn’t know anything and still learn things. i’ve had to go out there and do the research because of my position @ autostraddle, but i’m not sure it would be fair to expect a random reader to take that initiative. that’s sort of the idea behind making sure we use this platform to tell stories that you can’t see anywhere else, and to start breaking down some of those walls. i don’t know what i’m talking about anymore

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    Okay. I need some assistance. Someone please talk to me about cissexual, cisgender, cisfillintheblank. I’ve only recently become aware of these terms and have been trying to read up on it but only become more confused. Explain it to me like I’m a 4 year old.

    *raises hand meekly* Another question, and I hope I can phrase this correctly so I don’t seem like a douchebag.

    Cynthia: Beneath the makeup, Vanessa is biologically a 19-year-old boy.

    Annika: No, she isn’t. She is a girl. Makeup or no makeup. How is this such a difficult concept to understand?

    Isn’t everyone *biologically* going to be whatever sex they were born as for all of their lives? I mean, you can’t alter chromosomes, right? I know chromosomes don’t define gender-I get that she’s a girl, make up or not but the “reporter’s” qualifier of biologically makes Annika’s comment confusing for me.

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      This is long, but I am wordy tonight. I firmly believe in THE POWER OF EDUCATION so hopefully I haven’t screwed anything up here, anybody else feel free to correct me or chime in:

      Cissexual, cisgender, cis. etc. are basically words for people who do not fall under the trans-whatever umbrella. “Cis” is the latin opposite of “trans”, it means “on the same/near side”. It is a way of saying that a person identifies with the gender corresponding with the sex they were born as, i.e. a woman who was assigned female sex at birth or a man who was assigned male sex at birth. It’s used to replace words like:
      “normal people” (which implies trans people are weirdos) “biological men/women” (a trans person’s gender doesn’t fall out of the sky, it also comes from brain and body processes)
      “genetic men/women” (chromosomes aren’t the defining characteristic of gender OR sex)
      “natal men/women” (a good chunk of trans people see themselves as being their gender since birth, so they would also be natal men or women)

      The cisgender/transgender split comes about for similar reasons why the homosexual/heterosexual one did. You don’t say “normal people and homosexuals”; just because homosexual people are statistical outliers it doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who have a sexuality as such, a sexuality that can be considered apart from other factors such as their sex and gender. Same with cisgender and transgender– it puts all persons on an equal footing with regards to having both a gender and a birth sex which can be considered separate from one another. Saying “cisgender” or “cissexual” allows scientists, gender theorists, queer people, etc. to turn the critical eye on BOTH trans people and people who are not trans (who don’t usually have that eye leveled at them).

      The cis/trans split can get complicated when referring to people who lie in between categories, such as people who are intersex or were born with an intersex condition and people who identify as genderqueer, third gender, multi-gendered, etc. Some of these people aren’t really clearly cisgender/cissexual or transgender/transsexual and might be offended as being labeled as one or the other. Intersex people in particular often have concerns that lie outside both the cis community and the trans community (intervention at birth to change the appearance of sex organs, various medical issues that come up with intersex conditions, etc.). Genderqueer and other non-binary gendered people (i.e. not male/female) have overlapping concerns with the trans community, but if they don’t appear visibly male or female, or change gender presentations regularly, then their issues can be much different than a “classic” female-to-male or male-to-female trans person’s.

      On “Beneath the makeup, Vanessa is biologically a 19-year-old boy.”:

      My take is that if Cynthia weren’t such a total fuck up, this might have been a technically-incorrect-but-harmless mistake. But in the context of her insistent “Cynthia on the scene to get to the bottom *wink* of her REAL gender” tone, it sounds like she’s saying something like: wipe off Vanessa’s makeup and you get a smelly hairy pimply 19-year-old dudebro. Often in talk of trans people, trans women in particular, their trans status is discussed as fake, a veneer, a pretense, etc. In the context of Vanessa being a sex worker this is particularly icky since trans woman sex workers are often derided as men pretending to be sort-of-women, or fetishized as women-hiding-something. So the “biological” isn’t necessarily the bad word here (at least in my view, Annika might differ), it’s the fact that that sentence happened the way it did. If Cynthia had said something like “19 year-old Vanessa was born biologically male. Part of her daily routine is using makeup to make her face look more feminine.” it would not have been half as bad. Still a little iffy, because Vanessa was probably born “biologically” female as well (because again, trans-ness isn’t this spooky ghost aura that comes out of a trans(LOL)dimensional warp, it’s still something that happens in the brain and body) and because it’s yet another thing in this documentary that focuses on physical transition. But it wouldn’t have had the connotation of “pulling back the curtain for the big reveal” that the original did.

      On the general issue of trans people “biologically” always remaining the same sex as at birth: While it’s true that you can’t alter chromosomes or some other sex-associated characteristics (bone structure excluding the face, height after a certain age, certain aspects of the reproductive system, etc.), these things are up to the individual trans person to assign importance to or not based on their experience of their gender, their body, medical history, and so on. For many trans people, especially if they are on hormones and have had reassignment surgeries and other alterations, for all intents and purposes their body *is* the sex that corresponds to their gender. Not just socially (other people recognizing their body as male/female) and personally (recognizing their own body as male/female), but biologically in many respects as well– a female-to-male person on testosterone for example will have many male sex characteristics. So it’s really not useful to paint all of his experience with the broad brush of saying “well, he’s still *biologically* female”– that doesn’t tell us much about either his personal conception of his gender or his actual medical history (what he was born with and what he has now). If you were a doctor or scientist wanting to know that person’s chromosome makeup, it would be more accurate to ask, “what sex chromosomes do you have?” And really, apart from medical science, when else would you ask? So the question of what a person’s sex is, “biologically”, doesn’t really matter most of the time; if the various details of that (chromosomes, birth assignment, genital arrangement, etc.) matters to a particular trans person they will let you know, and you shouldn’t point out their so-called biological status otherwise.

      Also as a factoid: there are intersex conditions which can cause one’s assigned sex at birth to change partway through life to another sex, such as this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5-alpha-reductase_deficiency. So it’s not even really true that everyone is going to be the same sex they were at birth as long as they don’t have trans related medical intervention.

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        This. I don’t like the term “biological male/female” for the reasons that kat listed above, but by far the worst part of Cynthia’s statement was “Beneath the makeup…” because it feeds into this stereotype that trans* people (and specifically trans* women) are “imposters” out there to trick poor unsuspecting cis people. It’s the reason why so many men who commit acts of violence against trans* women use the “trans panic” defense: “I thought she was a real woman but then I found out she was actually a dude so I killed him.”

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      I recommend you read Asher’s “Not Your Mom’s Trans 101,” I feel like he explains a lot of things succinctly, and manages to not oversimplify trans-related ideas while still remaining accessible. http://tranarchism.com/2010/11/26/not-your-moms-trans-101/

      I believe he answers your questions better than I can, but I’ll give it a go anyway. Cisgender and cissexual basically mean non-trans. Women assigned female at birth are cis women, women assigned male at birth are trans women. Cissexism and cissupremacy (simplified) are the belief that being cis is superior to being trans or intersex.

      Moving on, the problem with that particular quote. “Beneath the makeup” suggests that Vanessa is a boy in drag and that her gender is a costume. I think Asher covers why it’s problematic to refer to a trans person as “biologically this” or “biologically that,” although he doesn’t address that phrase specifically.

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    I don’t need any kind of made-for-tv documentary or movie to validate myself to the mainstream. I don’t need to prove I am legitimate, cuz for all I know, and all we don’t know, trans is just another social construction. I don’t need to “legalize” who i am, i just need some fucking respect. And if that’s what this show brought out in some people, respect for those who are different, then maybe it will make the world a better place.

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    I agree that it seemed like the families were just trying to get their message across that trans people can and do live ordinary, loving lives, but Cynthia and the producers just steered it all into a shit pit. I was on the verge of tears while watching it and I couldn’t tell if it was because the stories were so touching or because the narrator was such a goddamn jackass. Extremely disappointing that mainstream coverage of trans issues can’t not be sensationalist and offensive for once.

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    I know it’s asking too much, probably, but I wish programs like these would include non-binary people like me, even if they do sensationalize it. I’d like to see myself reflected in the mainstream media at least once. I’m not sure even my parents (who are really liberal, accepting people) really get what genderqueer is.

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    I actually don’t think this was /terribly/ done. Part of a journalist’s job is to take people dumping info on them and put this info together in such a way as to convey a story…and overall the message I’m getting is allow your kid to be who they are – and fears about someone not fitting in/etc. may be misfounded. I was so happy to hear that these kids have great friendships, etc. Even when the journalist asked “stupid” questions that seemed to question the validity of the trans identity, the responses she got were usually lovely. Sometimes journalists ask questions that they know their audience will ask – so that they can get answers to those questions – not questions that actually reflect their own bigotry. Furthermore they chose some very hard hitting quotes in the segment with the young trans woman sex worker that I think do allude to discrimination, issues with health care, etc. There’s only so much time in a documentary, and this said it all “I would tell her, there’s other ways, and she would say, what ways? And I wouldn’t have an answer.”

    I may be speaking prematurely because I didn’t watch the last segment – but again the last segment’s mere inclusion does not invalidate the “documentary” (which, sure, attempted to tell a more personal rather than scientific story). In fact, including crackpots gives people a chance to make their own opinions. Like, wow, this guy is a crackpot compared to the well adjusted awesome families I saw for the rest of the video!

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      And yes, I agree that there were some problems with word choice/etc. in the narration but in terms of how the quotes were selected, and what stories were told, I think it did a very good job of telling an accurate story with some facts and truths that may be enlightening to many people who are not in the queer community.

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    Wait – what about the interview with Vanessa is racist? I didn’t see any evidence of racism. Class-ism? Totally. Moralistic? Very. Boneheaded questions? Just like all the other segments. Racist? Evidence please.

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    The problem I see with these kinds of programs is they are supposed to be news based. By making trans* people ‘news’ it removes the fact that they are normal people trying to make things right for themselves, just like everyone else.
    Why don’t they do a special about hipsters drinking tea? I find the two things equally normal. I cannot remember who said something like ‘just because it’s common doesn’t make it the norm.’ Sensationalism is so overdone. It could have been a lovely educational program, detailing the battles the kids are facing, peer acceptance, proper pronoun usage, appropriate questions, etc. instead they were like FUCK THAT we’re gonna be bigoted assholes and perpetuate harmful stereotypes, so later we can ‘report’ on hate crimes against LGBT+ persons.

    My communications professor worked at ABC for 23 years, I’m going to ask her about this shit next week.

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    i cannot fucking BELIEVE how rude that woman is! rude doesn’t even begin to cover her absolute derision of the people that she’s interviewing. fucking hell; surely there was a better candidate for the slot. i am appalled

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    Reading the commentary and comments about this piece shows how far in the wrong direction the media can go. However, some years ago, Barbara Walters produced an extraordinary piece about three trans* children (ages 3 to 16 – 2 transgirls and one transboy). I don’t know if it is available, but if I had to show some parents questioning their child’s actions and intents, this would be one of the pieces I would show them. Thanks for your honest and frank review of the segment.

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    That was quite honestly the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen. Go Jackie! Seriously, how stupid can you be to think that is a boy? What kind of ignorant idiots think that way? The narration to this is just ugly.

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