“Trapped in the Wrong Body:” Katie Couric Talks to and About Trans* People with Limited Success

On February 26th, Katie Couric’s daytime TV talk show Katie, aired “Growing Up Transgender,” a segment focusing on the experience of trans children and their parents. You can watch it on the show’s website.

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image via katiecouric.com

Those of us who are trans*, or otherwise immersed in trans* issues, may feel tense as early in this article as “daytime TV,” knowing how often media fails to portray us as anything but troubling curiosities. And even grim curiosity seems like a relatively new development, the days of shocking Jerry Springer dating exposes not far behind. Portrayals of transgender children often manifest both progress and backlash, representing at once the increased awareness and acceptance needed to detect and treat gender dysphoria early, sincere efforts to understand trans as a thing experienced and expressed by human beings, the cultural obsession with youth as subjects of enchantment and intense concern, and brazen attempts to profit from all of the above.

When I was asked to write about this episode of Katie, I was ecstatic – that is, until I realized that I needed to catch a broadcast TV show in the middle of a Tuesday. I work in a hospital, and could hijack a waiting area if it wouldn’t mean being a surly Amazonian watching a potentially nauseating presentation on My People in a room full of strangers, some there on the worst day of their entire lives. After a few hours of frantic hunting, Couric’s Facebook people put me out of my misery and confirmed that they’d stream the episode later that night.

The web presentation is a slightly different experience. Each segment is broken up by a quote, twitter excerpt, or explanatory blurb. A column on the right tempts you with related stories. This is where we find our first problem: wrong body wrong body wrong sex, slapped over the layout like a flagellant’s mantra. Phrases like “born in the wrong body” upset trans people. They are first a shibboleth of the Sensational Gender Deviance Story, a phrase calculated to attract cis people who find trans* shocking, mysterious, and exotic. The problem is that we’re essentially right here with you in the room, so to speak, and not trapped behind glass like the human mermaid at a sideshow. Explaining this to cis people can be frustrating, because it’s never really happened to them. They get to be normal, and what could be more normal than innocent, excited curiosity?

The danger of these clichés is they build up the idea that we have a cookie-cutter narrative. Sure, I’ve felt “trapped in my body” before, and gosh that was horrible, but other trans people understand their feelings in very different ways. Many people who are not trans are surprised to learn of how strictly our allowable stories have been or are policed – how in many circles we must either report a narrow range of feelings that appeal to the clinician’s sexist and subjective idea of what The Transgender Story is or be denied medical care that we need to survive. Imagine you’re in the ER with a gaping chest wound, but will only get treatment if you describe the pain as “stinging” – if you say “burning” or “dull,” you’re a faker pervert and it’s out the door with you. The notion that I must feel a certain way about my childhood actually prompted me to declare it a no-go zone. I refused to really analyze it until well after I’d begun living full-time “as a woman” and no one could stop me for thinking the wrong way. It’s a sore point, and something I can’t help but be on guard for.

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There’s more to talk about before I clicked the first “play” button. Giant type reveals the strange and terrifying questions asked by gender-dysphoric youth, punch-out links ask: what would you do?, and the great sage Chaz Bono is summarily credited with the phrase “gender is between the ears and not between the legs,” as though no one had thought to say such a thing until the year of our Lord two thousand and eight. There is one high point – the first paragraph does establish that clothes are not gender, and trans kids don’t simply want to wear fancy dresses or ride the big wheel. This is more than a lot of people seem to understand. Time for the actual segment, yeah?

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image via katiecouric.com

The first participant, Coy, is introduced through a brief play montage remarking on her transition. The whole “playing with girl toys” thing is tough to watch. Remember that bit about having a narrative forced on you? But, for children, it’s probably hard to avoid. That’s what kids do, they play, and they do find themselves in a stratified, gendered environment from day one. With the montage finished, I find myself more at ease as Couric interviews Coy’s parents. I find myself liking them, and thinking that they treat their child with seriousness, warmth, and respect. As the four discuss Coy’s rejection by her school and the family’s pending legal action, they are unwavering in their support. Whatever I might feel about this segment, it’s clear whose side Couric feels she is on: mine.

Of course, wanting to be a good ally and realizing that quality can be very different things. Both Couric and the family attorney attempt to seriously address the feelings of parents who are uncomfortable knowing their child may share a toilet with A Transgender, with one of Them. Obviously, I think this was a mistake. It’s a pearl-clutching question: yeah, they seem nice, but would you let one pee with your sister? The facile, bigoted nature of these complaints is made clear in this CNN article about the lawsuit. Claims that discomfort is natural and sensible as Coy’s “male genitalia develop” are uncritically parroted here as if puberty blockers and HRT were not in play and the bathroom were a place where everyone throws their genitals around. Or perhaps not everyone, but we’re made to understand that a freak would.

That’s the sort of filth you only legitimize by engaging. Attack it or ignore it, don’t tell me “It’s a difficult situation for everyone.” It’s a difficult situation for a child who finds that her ordinary bodily functions are suddenly everyone’s business. I understand that overcoming your own prejudice can be difficult and uncomfortable, and I do not care. It is not my problem. It is not a child’s problem. That’s why there’s only one right answer – fuck you! Tell YOUR kid to use the staff bathroom if you’ve got a problem.

On to segment two, and our first expert, Andrew Solomon. Trans 101 starts well enough, if along gender binary lines. The question of how children can possibly know then sends us into dangerous territory: the Expert Andrew Solomon opines, well, there are children with cross gender affiliation who aren’t really trans so it’s all a bit of guesswork (verbatim, jovial.) Couric intensifies. “Didn’t Kinsey say that everyone’s a little gay?!” I see red and take a short time-out.

Solomon does impress me on one point – he advocates what to some would be unthinkable, that is, permitting children to transition in a reversible capacity and seeing what happens. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal that is. It’s a huge benefit to dysphoric kids, and it can be very conclusive for others (who might otherwise obstruct these children) to see the effect of even some relief on a person’s happiness. Solomon and Couric sour my mood with another quick back-and-forth on how confusing trans is, but key points are made – rejecting and obstructing trans people has lethal consequences. At no point is this presented to the audiences as a novelty. It’s serious and sad, just how I like my coffee and just as it should be.

I’m caught by the web copy again as I scroll towards Couric’s interview with Devon, 19. If this Palin-botherer thinks she’s the first to introduce a trans woman as a pretty girl with a HUGE SECRET, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Alaska. Foreshadowing serves us well, and Couric can’t help but ask how many boys she’s scared off, you know, with that. The Surprise.

I need to get very real here. That is not an okay thing to ask, and that’s not an okay way to ask it. Dating men means living with a risk of brutal, unprovoked sexual violence if you don’t have a penis. Trans women have a staggeringly high risk of being murdered by an intimate male partner. Just the other day, I saw a woman trying to raise money for SRS who explained that apart from all the typically understood reasons for pursuing surgery, she fears it would make the difference between surviving a sexual assault and being tortured to death. That’s the battlefield we’re on and the sort of logic we find ourselves living with. How can you joke about something so heartbreaking and deadly?

Couric continues, doing herself few favors: does being exposed on live television scare you, or what? You had a pretty big secret until now, didn’tcha? Did taking the hormones help you transition, huh, huh, did they? You want that surgery really bad, huh? Poor Devon laughs this and other questions off and remains composed and outspoken, but should she have to?

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image via katiecouric.com

Expert Number Two is up, and immediately earns my respect. Couric approaches Dr. Michelle Forcier with a predictable story about being a tomboy, and is effortlessly defeated by the power of thinking about things for one second. Did you want to be a boy? No? Q.E.D. Dr. Forcier rapidly shuts down a long list of boogeymen: what puberty blockers and hormones do and do not do, what professionals mean when they say “listen to trans children,” and more. Unlike Dr. Solomon, she completely refuses to engage Couric’s leading questions, all clearly intended to resonate with the audience’s presumed shock and confusion regarding trans identity. Her affinity is with her patients, not the uninformed, and she would never coddle them by laughing off identification of trans youth as “guesswork” – distinction between trans and gender non-conformity is laid out simply and unambiguously, as are various connections and non-connections between gender and sexuality. I like Dr. Forcier a lot.

Our third trans participant is Chris, a young boy. However shockingly inappropriate some of Couric’s questions may be, they continue to make me feel as though she’s at least trying to create an understanding that trans children are essentially legitimate and Okay. It helps that Chris and his mom maintain the cool, self-assured advocacy of the earlier guests. Chris’s mom says two very important things: “my true choice was between a live son and a dead daughter,” which is actually used well in the web copy, and “I did not know that children can transition, and that’s what I regret.”

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image via katiecouric.com

Where Couric asked a trans women how many boyfriends she’d “scared off,” she approaches Chris’s dating life differently. Are you open? How do you handle disclosure? Simple, polite, and allows Chris to talk about how being trans has impacted his romantic life in the ways most meaningful to him. Maybe it’s Chris’s age, or it’s that he doesn’t have to live under the stereotype of trans woman as deceptive seductress. Maybe Couric was just trying too hard to relate to Devon as a young woman. Regardless, it’s a meaningful difference. Despite being much younger, Chris is asked questions more fitting of an adult with responsibility for their own difficult story. I was happy to see him rise to the occasion.

The final guest, Dr. Renee Richards, made history when she fought for and won the right to compete in the U.S. Open in the 1970s. Here is someone who has seen a lot, who’s survived and triumphed over more than I’ll ever have to, and is in an astonishing position to discuss everything that’s changed for transgender people over her 78 years. But when the time comes to ask, who does Couric turn to first? Dr. fucking Solomon, in the audience, all grave sympathies and posh boy pathos.

I can see the hurt on Dr. Richards’ face. Even today, we struggle to be treated as authoritative, credible sources about our own lived experience in ways that cis people take for granted. Dr. Richards would have seen the very worst of this tendency, during the most vulnerable and frightening periods of her life, and here in an instant she sees it again. When looking for a definitive answer, Couric turns to a cis man who’d already had his turn. She turns to Richards second, after Solomon has answered and a graphic overlay promotes his book, Far From the Tree. Solomon clearly cares about trans people and wants to serve our interests, but that title says it all. Having actually had to fight people I love dearly for reasons they don’t clearly understand, and having felt the loneliness and alienation of transition, I would never make light of an aphorism like that. The show concludes.

It’s hard not to feel torn, watching these kids. I began my transition nearly three years ago, at age 22, and I wasn’t spared the height, the hands, the hair, the thyroid cartilage, or the painful confusion of boyhood. As I watch this, my more visceral reactions would be identified as a man’s voice by a listener in the next room, because it’s late and I’m home and I have years of very fine muscle memory left to re-learn. Of the many good and bad lessons our world teaches us, I got the ones arbitrarily marked “boy.” Male puberty had physiological, emotional, and practical consequences that I will face for the rest of my life.

I don’t blame my family or myself for that. I experienced my differences at an early age, but like Dr. Richards, I understood enough about our society and too little about the possibilities. What I knew I kept to, and later from, myself. There was apparently one therapist who picked up on this as a thing to keep an eye on, but it simply wasn’t a consistent part of my behavior. Everyone’s different, and I have few regrets. At 24, I have a career that gives me passion and hope, brilliant friends, and someone I want to grow old with. I’m now healthy and self-assured in ways that I can’t remember ever experiencing before, and I’m grateful for that even if so many others can take it for granted.

But I am happy to see this becoming something that’s caught early. I’m blown away by how some of these kids carry themselves and exert agency over their lives. Even if you start early, you still face many of the same horrifying obstacles. We’ve all had to wage terrible war against ourselves and others, we all must live daily in hostile territory. There is tremendous value in treating trans people when and as they would like to be treated, and Couric’s segment did get a lot of very important things right. She and other media figures need to drop tired, hurtful clichés, inform without sensationalizing, and most of all, defer to us as those most able to comment with authority on our lived experience. Finally, but no less importantly, it would have been smart to include the voice of even a single nonwhite person. The burden of gender dysphoria and living in a transphobic society is felt most by those already facing other forms of oppression.

I’ve had strong words for this segment, and hope that they will be read as intended: as a way to convey the discomfort I feel viewing it as the subject matter, so that Couric and others may listen and make good on what seems like a genuine desire to help.


 

Olivia is a scientist, lab manager, and huge dork cooling her heels and finishing transition in San Francisco before starting med school this summer. She lives with her girlfriend of six years, three housemates, and a tiny tortoise.

Olivia has written 2 articles for us.

55 Comments

  1. *hugs* I wanted to send you lots of love for suffering through this piece so that we don’t have to! Thank you so much for doing this in depth, intense and thoughtful write up and examination of this story. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to actually watch the video after seeing a clip of Devon and just being infuriated by the way Couric approached her…*sigh*

    *WARNING RANT AHEAD* :P
    For me personally, I HATE the cookiecutter narratives because if I try and justify my identity through those, I pretty consistently fail to hit any of the “criteria”. I NEVER was the effeminate boy, the boy who played mostly with girls and “girl” toys, the boy who hated his penis, or the boy who dreamed of long flowing hair and dresses. No, I was the boy who was depressed, who was a featureless lump wandering through life, doing just enough to get by unnoticed. My journey to my womanhood has been going on for more than 8 years and it’s still nowhere near “complete”. Only in the past year since starting hormones (April 20th!!!) have I truly felt like myself for the first time in my life. I’m a person for whom transition gave them their life back, my anxiety and depression are more manageable now (if more emotionally intense), I’m finally able to see myself as truly beautiful, my stutter has gotten less severe, I’ve discovered my passion for public speaking and advocacy, and for the first time in a long time I’m able to completely connect with the people in my life.
    *END OF RANT*

    I’m just tired of these media circuses treating us as less than the sum of our parts…

  2. This was amazing! I have not watched this segment but I was given an article from a friend about a young (very young 6 yrs) child who is not allowed to go to the girls’ bathroom. As much as I love to read stories about trans* issues, I have grown more sensitive to *how* these stories are written outside the space of trans* writers. I don’t even bother with the comments in some of these articles. While wading through the problematic writing I was just happy how the child is being supported by her parents and you summed it up perfectly:

    “[But] I am happy to see this becoming something that’s caught early. I’m blown away by how some of these kids carry themselves and exert agency over their lives.”

    This, is what I respond to when reading stories are trans* children.

    Yes!

  3. It so good to see our TV Media and people like Katie Couric stepping up to finally help us. I come from Renee Richards era but I was denied any help in the early 70’s from Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD.. My mental evaluation test they took were used in the Harry Benjamin Standards still used today. It was like living in a nightmare back then and hiding your true feelings and identity was a way to survive from being hurt or killed. I never lost hope and did transition at age 58 but within 5 years I lost all of my wealth but not my family. Unable to get work because of my age, bad credit, no degree and questionable gender for 4 years I took my social security at 62 and that is all the income I live on today. I have forgiven all from my past because they didn’t know or understand what was happening or why people were like this. I wish I had more money to finish that final surgery needed but after 40 years of trying it looks hopeless. I don’t have much but enough to survive on and I’m happy and have peace of mind with myself. Most people that know me like my family and friends like me for me and could care less who I use to be.

  4. it’s late and I have to go to bed. I found your blog in a haze of nearsuicidal loneliness. Found the ‘L’stop. I just can’t read the whole thing now. The first 4 paragraphs are brilliant. Really good. “…flagellant’s mantra.” Yeah, my story fits, but it doesn’t, you know; it strays in major ways. But I would so like to hear Bruce Springsteen sing “Born in the wrong bod-y” sometime. Like that’ll happen.
    Thank you!

  5. Hey, I just want to point out that “wanting to be a boy” doesn’t necessarily make one trans, by any reasonable definition, and it seemed like you implied that, at least to me.

    I have wanted to be a boy as far back as preschool, and if I could have snapped my fingers at any point during my childhood and turned into one, I would have taken it, and I think it would have been the right choice.

    Even though I’ve adjusted to being a woman, and it doesn’t really bother me that much anymore, I still might choose being a boy if it were presented to me and it were relatively cost-free.

    Anyway, it might be interesting or useful to clarify how being trans is different from wanting to be different sex, for you and by definition?

    • This comment confused me for a bit, since I sort of thought that “wanting to be a boy” is sort of what being a trans man means. Then I realized– that isn’t it at all. At least for me, the difference is between wanting to be a boy, and *knowing* you are a boy, despite what everybody else tells you. Ditto for trans women.

      At least, this was my experience of trans-ness early on in life. It might be different for others. But I personally just *knew* I was a girl, no matter how much other people tried to convince me that I wasn’t.

    • There’s a range of trans* experiences and, in part, I suppose it depends what “being a boy” means to you; much like Y. says. Although the narrative you describe could match the experience of many trans* men, I suspect the difference is in the detail. Peeling apart gender roles and gender identity is tricky, and I imagine children often do not see the difference when they are young: I know I struggled to. Like Y. I never wanted to “be a girl”, though I often wished it was easier for me to socialise with them. I figured I was just a different sort of boy, then over time I realised I was a girl, after a lot of mental hunting around and confusion: when I was thirteen I remember paging through an encyclopedia and wondering if I was intersex, because I had never heard of “boys who became girls”, outside fiction.

      I wonder if it is usually more apparant for more binarily gender identified trans individuals, that there is a disconnect, when they are very young? My mother encouraged the young me to not be constrained by gender roles when I expressed an occasional preference for stereotypically feminine things and it was the 80s and my heros were crossdressing-bishounen-pop-idol-mecha-pilots anyway.

      Anyway, I have met people across the whole range of the trans spectrum, and I’m sure there are people out there who might be comfortable with who they are irrespective of their physiology, but my own experience of the difference is that, if you minimise gender role expectations (which are a part of it too), it’s very much about the body and how you relate to it, to whatever degree: How you respond to it psychologically and physiologically and your sense of your sexual identity. I understand it best as the counterpart to sexual orientation, in a way: not about who I am attracted to but how, and how I express that and relate it to my body. And I experience that disconnect very strongly, though not as strongly as some. For many transgender people sexual physiology and the body are a big part of it.

    • Hey! Thanks so much for your feedback. You’re dead on that “wanting to be a boy” isn’t the conclusive sum of the trans experience (speaking here within the transmasculine experience, to avoid confusion.) It’s simply one of a wide array of statements and private understandings that a trans* person might have or express in order to convey their discomfort, preferences, and/or sense of self.

      There were italics in my post that got lost in publication, so if it was at all unclear, the “did you want to BE a boy” part was referencing the exchange between Couric and Dr. Forcier as it took place. Katie Couric was bragging about her tomboy phase, and how doing boyish things made her proud. The implication was, since of course Couric is *not* a boy, it must be terribly mysterious and difficult to make the right assessment about a GNC or trans child. “Guesswork,” to use Solomon’s highly unfortunate phrasing.

      Dr. Forcier’s reply was not meant to delineate the whole sum of permissible ways to be trans, but to demonstrate in clear concise terms why what Couric was talking about was completely different and unlikely to result in a misguided transition. In other words, the point there is that Couric did boy things and liked them, but did not want to be a boy, think she was a boy, know she was a boy, etc. And of course, that is just an example of what a child might say, what they mean at the time and come to understand as they grow to adulthood can be much more complicated.

    • Hi, Leni,

      As was said, everybody is different. You have hit on some pretty interesting questions in the definition of transness. I have always had a lot of trouble with the idea of wanting to be a woman. Did I? Oooh, yes! Do I want to relocate to Tuscany and make wine for the rest of my life? Amongst other things. It’s not the same thing. Transitioning is something I would have skipped if I could. It’s a huge ordeal – it has been for me. I hope it is getting easier for the young ones. Or if I could “snap my fingers,” sure. It was more of an overwhelming need and my life kept running off the rails without giving that need full attention. I’m not one of the ones who knew at an early age just what that feeling was that kept me from understanding why I felt out of sync with the rest of the world, but as it sank in, I realized that transitioning was going to be the only thing that would make me whole and nothing else would work until I came to terms with it.
      Am I glad I’m a woman (what’s that???). Oooh, yes! Did it cost everything. Pretty much. Do I want to put that behind me and find true love. Oh, yes.

    • I’ve heard a bunch of women say that they didn’t like being a woman or would prefer being a man, and when I ask them to develop on that they always give me reasons I’d qualify as “external” – things like, they don’t fit and dislike society’s expectations of what a woman is supposed to do/like/be, they don’t identify or get along with women who do fit those expectations, they’re not feminine or feminine enough (according to society’s standards), they get along better with boys, they feel like they don’t get the respect they deserve in the professionnal field, etc.
      Basically they feel like being women keeps them from being as free or as happy as they could be were they men (#BOTP). Since gender norms are enforced on us pretty much since birth, that may be why you felt like it wasn’t right for you even though you were too young to grasp why.

      I’d say that being trans* is more of an “internal” matter – it’s not about the things society tells you your gender is supposed to be about, but about your gender itself. Like, you can love playing with dolls and rock the hell out of that dress, but it just feels weird or wrong when people call you “miss” or when you’re directed into a women-only space. I’ve known I’m not a girl since I’m 3~4 years old, but I’m actually pretty ok with a lot of the stuff that comes with being raised and treated as a woman (minus the icky misogynist crap ofc).

  6. I can identify with being torn when I learn about trans* children being able to start physical transition before reaching adulthood. On the one hand, it’s a totally awesome thing: it reflects evolution in our society’s way of thinking and it spares the children untold horror. On the other hand, I’m a perpetual ball of seething envy with tons of trauma to work out precisely because I *didn’t* have that opportunity.

    It’s like I want kids to be able to transition earlier more freely, but something horrible that dwells within me just can’t deal with hearing about them. Guess I’m a basket case.

    Also: fuck that line of questioning that Couric gave Devon! Seriously, it doesn’t deserve a more articulate or specific criticism. Just fuck it.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. While broadcast TV and I have a hate hate relationship it is nice to know that at least a few good points were made and the visibility of the Trans* people in the segment, despite the “journalist” attempting to frame them as bizarro, will help some folks out there. The fact that Dr. Richards was snubbed upsets and doesn’t surprise me. The inherent sexism under the difference between stepping “up” to male position, or leaving it to “be a woman” is laced through every level of the trans* experience. Misogyny is at the root of so many things. Bleh.
    But again, thank you for this wonderful piece!

    • “Misogyny is at the root of so many things.” Yes. Preach.

      I share your distaste for broadcast TV and having grown up watching “Is it (always “it”) a Man or a Woman?” type programs on Maury, Jerry et al. I don’t bother to tune in to these shows any more – even now that they promise a more sympathetic approach. I’m glad that these shows seem to be treating us less like sideshow attractions to be gawked at and laughed about, but I’m not sure that treating us as poor confused souls whom the audience should just feel SO bad for is any better. Either way our lives are being sensationalized and we aren’t considered whole human beings. Witness the snubbing of Dr. Richards in favor of a cis man to talk about our experience and the treatment of Devon.

  8. So insightful and eloquent Olivia; as a woman of trans* history, (the term I find easiest to relate to at this point in my life,) I’ve been bothered many times by the insistence of the cis world on a common, “cookie cutter narrative”; it seems like the surest way to ensure that trans* people remain marginalized as curiosities, while the wise people in charge tell us about our own lives.
    I understand it to a degree: it’s compartmentalization, but it’s lazy at best, and at worst, dangerous as, it inevitably keeps us isolated and objectified.
    Thank you for saying so well what needed to be said. I hope that one day, we will see you in a chair being interviewed by Katie or whomever, because you obviously possess the wherewithal to eloquently and effectively combat with such dangerous lazy complacency! (C;

    • Thank you (and everyone else!) for your kind words. I really enjoyed writing this piece, and hope that I have a chance to do more soon. I hadn’t really thought of it until reading your post, but who knows? Someday I really might be willing and able to throw myself on one of these shows, and that could be really cool. Just so long as I convince myself that I’m not going to go all Ben Wyatt with stage fright!

      I just wanted to add that I’m a big fan of the “of trans* history” concept, however expressed, and I’m happy that you and others are able to feel that way about yourselves. It’s more of an aspiration for me right now, and I don’t know how I’m going to navigate wanting to be an open advocate and wanting to be “just” a woman, in the sense of feeling as though my medical and personal history is not all that I am in the eyes of others. I also don’t want to conceal something that’s made me who I am unless it proves necessary for my safety, as it does for many others. But these are struggles that a lot of people have in common, really, and I’m sure it will work out well.

      • Yes, there seems to be an implicit insistence when one is able to stand strong and eloquently represent their own experience in a genuine way, that they become an advocate and represent the community’s collective voice, but then- as we’re trying to point out, there indeed is no collective voice, nor ought there be. I share your desire to simply live my life as a woman, and the balance I’ve found is that I only talk about my trans* history/experience when I want to. It speaks to the autonomy all women strive for to control our own lives/images, etc.
        None of us is a symbol (object), nor should we be.

  9. I loved this article and you articulated how it felt to watch so well. I transitioned in my early 20s too and watching these things always kind of annoys me because I think there is some jealously on my side but more so I can’t stand the lines of questioning. It just brings up so many bad feelings from when I was trying to “prove” my womanhood despite my maleness…
    Thank you so much for this.

  10. Katie Couric is trying to capture the Oprah audience… she’s doing that by completely mimicking how Oprah dealt with trans-related shows 10 years ago. Literally every reaction and leading question was straight from Oprah’s playbook. What’s especially sad about this is that, if you look at trans-related shows by someone like Phil Donahue in the 1970s-early 80s (who Oprah modeled her show on) he’s more respectful and open-minded towards his trans guests than Oprah and Katie are now who are both mired in the lowest common denominator Trans 101.

    My big issue with the show (apart from its sensationalistic title) was how much they relied on cis people to explain trans people. Andrew Solomon is sincere in his support of the trans community (and, for some reason, he’s on the board of Trans Youth Family Allies) but he’s actually not had that much exposure to the trans community so why is he our supposed guide into being trans? (yes, I know, he had one interview in his recent book with Kim Reed… instant expertise)

    I was personally NOT happy to see Renee Richards on the show. Yes, she is a kind of a pioneer but she’s also made numerous media appearances disparaging trans and intersex athletes and basically declaring they shouldn’t compete against women. She’s been hauled out by the media to make commentary on trans-related issues mostly because her name is well known (by people my age) and because she’s expressed a lot of regrets about her transition. So she was brought out to this show for what reason… to show an “old school” “pathetic” trans woman (in Julia Serano’s words) compared against someone like pretty teen Devon? Like these kids need Renee’s blessing? There are hundreds of trans women from Dr. Richard’s era who did actively participate in changing laws and creating an infrastructure for transition we benefit from today, is it really that hard to get any of them on to talk about “the old days” of young transitioners if that’s what they want?

    My other issue with trans children shows is that I believe there are real issues and repercussions to being an out trans person and that a 6-year old who is hauled out on tv (and Internet) to show how these kids exist is, in practice, having any control of disclosure of her trans identity taken away from her. There are ways of doing this that don’t permanently out children. When she’s Devon’s age, she can decide how she wants to share this information… her decision. Coy seemed very uncomfortable and didn’t deserve to get the “Jerry’s Kids” treatment… being wheeled out to be an exhibit, get public sympathy (or scorn) and get ratings.

    • RE: Dr. Richards’ history and appearances, I didn’t know that at all! Thanks for filing me in, that’s really unfortunate. I agree wholeheartedly about the thematic issues, too.

      “My other issue with trans children shows is that I believe there are real issues and repercussions to being an out trans person and that a 6-year old who is hauled out on tv (and Internet) to show how these kids exist is, in practice, having any control of disclosure of her trans identity taken away from her.”

      I agree, it’s something I don’t envy. There’s plenty that would have been good about starting that young, and plenty that could become deeply traumatizing and unsafe. Not to say for a second they shouldn’t do it, but it really makes me worry for them to see their lives made so public. Just ask any of the millions of homeless queer kids who weren’t invited to speak.

      • Renee Richards on S. African runner Caster Semenya who she said should not be allowed to compete with women:

        http://www.cbssports.com/columns/story/12111173

        Richard’s advice to trans woman bike racer Michelle Dumaresq:

        “Richards, a 70-year-old pediatric ophthalmologist in New York, is not optimistic about Dumaresq’s quest for acceptance. ” ‘Cease and desist,’ I would tell her,” she told a Canadian newspaper in 2002. “It’s very sad for her, but that ultimate satisfaction, she will not get.”

        Richards on trans woman golfer Mianne Bagger:

        “As for Richards, she has recently surprised the sporting world with her vocal opposition to both the IOC ruling and Bagger’s fight to enter the LPGA. Arguing that mtfs are mere “facsimiles” of real women, Richards says that they should not be allowed to compete with female athletes. She has compared hormone therapy to steroid use, and claims that no amount of hormone treatment can change basic physiological differences.”

        I respect what Dr. Richards went through in the 70s but she’s projecting her own crappy feelings about herself onto other trans people and I find that inexcusable.

        • I’m struck by how profoundly racist Richards’ commentary on Semenya is, too. “This little 18-year-old from South Africa” certainly knows what chromosomes are after losing her career over them, and I doubt she’d appreciate sympathy expressed in such a patronizing way. That is a shameful way to talk about another person.

    • Though I didn’t like that someone who isn’t trans was given priority over a trans person in the questioning, I’m not happy that they included Renee Richards either for the reasons you state. There are other recognizable trans people who would make a better choice if the intent was to truly increase understanding. She does fit right into the faux-sympathy angle they seem to be working.

      I agree that trotting kids out for ratings and potentially placing them at risk – and taking away their sense of agency – is unconscionable.

  11. TBH one of the issues with the cookie-cutter “born in the wrong body” narrative isn’t just that it’s the one cis people are the most used to or understand best, but it’s also that – from my experience in the trans* community – LOTS of trans people identify with it (which is ok) and strongly oppose any other kind of narratives to be publicly talked about (which isn’t).

    The reasoning behind that is always that either the ones who don’t identify with it are “fake” or “not trans enough” and therefore their experience is invalid, or that giving any other definition of transness would “make them look bad” – i.e. force them to view themselves or be viewed by others as anything else than ” ‘normal’ (read : cis) people with a medical condition”.
    Since this P.O.V. is usually held by binary-identified transsexuals whose goal is to “blend in” as much as possible and they’re the only kind of people under the trans* umbrella that mainstream media knows/wants to talk about, it kind of becomes a vicious circle.

    Now I know how much it sucks when people don’t understand or misinterpret your gender and your experiencing it so I’m not mad at them, but silencing different experiences and presenting yours as the “only” and “right” one because it’s easier for you if people only know about yours just isn’t right – and we can’t expect the cis world to acknowledge and respect the variety and diversity of trans* experiences if the trans* community itself isn’t willing to do it first.

    • I have totally seen what you’re talking about, and they have websites dedicated to their wackaloonery. I’m not going to list them (because NO), but I remember when I decided to physically transition about 2 years ago and stumbling across that. I felt so put down, and I AM binary-ID’d transsexual. Having a less-than-narrative-typical childhood and being more worried about passing than my nether regions at the moment was already blacklisted. It’s a really toxic phenomenon.

      • I absolutely know what you mean Alexandra, I’ve been stumbling along the road of transition since I was about 14 (7 years ago) and those first couple of years were so difficult because I felt so “wrong” but couldn’t find ANY stories/experiences that made sense to me and connected with my history.

        • I’ve only been stumbling for 2 but i think i know what you mean. It is just so hard to find stories tat make sense, like hell was there any queer trans* representation if there was any at all.

          Part of me is glad it took so long though, i mean i’ll forever be annoyed at the fact i got to 6’2″ and have UK size 13 feet, which means i’m confined to things classified mens shoes and all-stars forever, at least by the time it came to come out people were a lot more mature about it, even if a lot of them still fail with pronouns and stuff.

    • “strongly oppose any other kind of narratives to be publicly talked about (which isn’t).”

      GV, who are you talking about and how are they specifically silencing discussion or representation of non-binary issues? Do binary trans people have any power with the media non-binary persons lack? Yes, middle of the road media covers trans people (especially women) a certain way because they want to exploit sexualized or freak show aspects for marketing purposes (which is why they often ignore trans men and trans masculine people). At the same time, there are a lot of gender studies programs at colleges and universities which strongly emphasize non-binary representations of being trans over binary ones. It does go both ways. But if you have examples of this I’d like to hear them.

      • “At the same time, there are a lot of gender studies programs at colleges and universities which strongly emphasize non-binary representations of being trans over binary ones. It does go both ways. But if you have examples of this I’d like to hear them.”

        You bring an interesting point! I just realized that when it comes to non academic spheres the narrative in my experience has been “pro” binary trans* experience. Experience that focus on transwomen. In my queer/gender studies at NYU it’s usually a transman or a transmasculine voice leading the dialogue.

        *Ponders*

      • Gina – I wasn’t talking about people in position of power but about the ‘mainstream’ trans community as a whole, like IRL support groups and big online communities. From my personal experience in those places, people who don’t fit the cookie-cutter narrative are made to feel unwelcome if not flat-out attacked, and the group leaders/moderators who stand by and watch when they’re attacked will shut them up when they defend themselves to “avoid conflict” – and it’s not just non-binary people but also binary folks who don’t fit it in some way.

        I’d also say that binary trans* folks do have more power as a whole and not just with the media, given that we live in a binarist society.

        As for the gender studies and college stuff, I’m not familiar with this world but I feel like it’s more of a closed private bubble that doesn’t have much influence outside of the upper-middle-class/college-educated queer crowd, who are basically the only people who can afford to go to college to learn about this stuff and care about doing so.

        • I’ve had the unpleasant experience of not being welcome and basically asked to leave a group because I didn’t fit the group’s expectations. When I anxiously attended my first support group meeting about 13 years ago the other women in the group seemed uncomfortable around me and didn’t come up to greet me as they did the other new attendees. I’m 6.5 feet tall and before I started hormones had a masculine build to match, as opposed to the others who were smaller and infinitely more passable than I was. As it turns out this was very much a “binary-identified transsexual women only” group and everyone was expected to fit a certain image. I am in fact a binary identified transsexual woman but I was still figuring that out at the time and made the mistake of introducing myself as a transgender woman. I could see the change in people’s eyes when I said that. During the meeting one of the women “helpfully” suggested that I was probably a cross-dresser and was at the wrong meeting. Later another woman told me, “Oh she just said that because of what you look like.” Gee thanks, yeah I kinda got that. The whole experience sent me back into the closet for several years.

          • )C=
            Kate, that’s awful! I’m so sorry you went through that.
            For what little it’s worth, *hugs*
            and- even though I’m sure you know this, your womanhood is genuine.
            I hope I don’t sound preachy, I was just really moved by your story.

          • Thanks Evie! That was a long time ago and I eventually found a more supportive community. Things are much, much better now. :)

        • There might be some kind of geographical component to this as well. I think being binary ID’d might play out better in most places in the US (I haven’t had enough exposure to generalize about anywhere else), being a queer trans woman in a major East Coast urban center has been different for me. I feel present in queer women’s spaces very much at sufferance, while trans-masculinity and non-binary identities and expressions are (rightly) celebrated.

          Overall, I think you’re right. But the communities many of us dwell in (and the urban queer women’s community and particular) have different track records on gender identity.

        • I think what you’re mentioning is part of the trans community in-fighting which isn’t only binary/non-binary, but also cross generational, racial, medical transition/non-medical transition, economic, how long one has transitioned and passibility/visibly gender variant.

          I’m sorry and disgusted you encountered that kind of vibe within the support group and I’m not the least surprised that happened… it occurs in a large number of poorly moderated support groups. Unfortunately, many IRL groups have less to do with support and more about “who been in the group the longest, a member of the clique and who’s the ‘most passible.’ They can all too often be very toxic environment for anyone approaching transition. It sounded like the group you went to had more issues with ‘passible/non-passible’ than binary or not. That said, when I first took steps to finding a group, I actually attended a non-binary group (even though I was pretty much binary-ID’d… but it was free and convenient) in the city I lived in and it had much the same toxic environment, level of competition and unasked for bad advice. Especially going back 10-15 years, most transitioners had so little support they tended to be very insecure.

          As to web sites and media stories… the truth is, non-binary people need to make it happen themselves. Most of the larger trans forums were started 10-15+ years ago either by people in the crossdressing community or by people who ID as ‘binary-transsexuals.’ That’s who created that online infrastructure of trans support. There are places like Reddit and TUMBLR where there are a large number of non-binary people but, yes, you will get the same unwanted advice, visiting transphobes and even attractiveness/passibility rankings you find elsewhere… it is the Internet.

          There was at least one non-binary autobiography in the past year (Nick Kreiger’s) and there have been quite a number of books about non-binary experiences (I’m thinking Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Leslie Feinberg, s. bear bergman, and anything Kate Bornstein touches). These are all books which are heavily taught (over binary trans narratives) in gender studies departments and those departments are HIGHLY influential both in the queer community and larger society. People in those departments are educated, largely white, go to top schools and have money (sounds a lot like many of the people at Autostraddle). They get good jobs at Queer Inc orgs, health-related non-profits, women’s orgs, and work for media outlets both mainstream and queer-ID’d and have a lot of influence over how trans people and experiences are portrayed.

          Mainstream corporate-controlled media (as it does with everything else) will continue to dumb everything down to white, highly sexualized and freak show and celeb culture versions of the trans community. That doesn’t change unless people get involved with intense media activism.

          • Oh hello, passive aggressive comment about AS.
            I am not white (and, in fact, an enrolled tribal member, which is a ridiculously tiny demographic), I have no degree and I’m not in school, and I’m broke as fuck working at a pizza joint. I have found AS to be one of the most diverse mainstream queer lady sites. MOST of the people I’ve interacted with on AS are like me: WOCs, trying to figure out school, and surviving on an hourly wage. That’s why I love AS. There are TONS of people like me.
            Just thought I’d put that out there.

          • Sela, I acknowledge there are women of color and working poor women on AS, but in a variety of threads which discuss issues like college attended, etc. there is a clear heavy slant towards extremely expensive, private and overwhelmingly white institutions. So, I apologize for the passive/aggressive aspect to my comment, but my feelings about the demographics stand. And if I didn’t think AS had every ability to evolve (as it has greatly done in regard to trans issues) then I wouldn’t be here.

          • In the group that I attended it was both passability/non-passability and also a requirement to fit the appropriate narrative and desire for surgery etc. In addition, there was strong transsexual vs. transgender infighting going on there that I unwittingly stepped into. Ironically, many parts of their supposedly appropriate narrative DO fit with my experience but I never got past the their passability issue with me and based on the way I was treated had no desire to. In the end I found better support through individual trans women and men (both binary and non-binary)whom I met following this unfortunate episode.

          • And sadly, passibility and all its toxic ramifications continue to impact all corners of the trans community (and how the cis community relates to us). There is still a correlation between passibility/attractiveness, fitting gendered archetypes (including queer ones) and the perceived “authenticity of one’s gender” than most people, cis and trans, want to admit. That in the queer women’s community, trans women who pass and are pretty are far more easily welcomed into those spaces than trans women who are perceived as “still looking somehow male” or even gender variant. And although the term ‘passibility’ has become a no-no word in the trans and queer communities, a hierarchy of it still exists and pervades how seriously people are taken. It’s a conversation which needs to be continued and not swept under the rug.

  12. I am bad at writing thoughts i have but the main gist of what i tried to write is thank you AS trans* community (and cis community too) for being awesome. Also cookie cutter bullshit sucks, especially when it’s apparently what people who are meant to diagnose GD use. That was a terrible appointment and i’m glad i never have to see the dude again.

  13. Hi Olivia,

    Thank you for this great article – I agree that Dr. Michelle Forcier did a fabulous job. The next time a cis-person asks “how did you know you were trans?” I will reply “how did you know you weren’t?”

    The “Didn’t Kinsey say that everyone’s a little gay?!” part was infuriating to me. Sexual orientation and gender are different topics. The End.

    The dating questions Devon vs. Chris made me wonder if Couric is showing us a good dose of male privilege, on top of perpetuating the “deceptive” stereotype. Sample applies to asking Solomon’s opinion over Richards’ because, as we all know, male-whatverness always knows better.

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