Friday, February 26, 2010

The Chosen

A recent article in the SF Bay Times (a local GLBT rag) caught my eye about a ftm/queer spoken word performer, Gabriel Burke (AKA Trashcanpoet), who did a performance piece about how Chaz Bono "should shut up and not presume to speak for underprivileged and less-than-famous transgenders." While I suspect this was, like many performance pieces, meant to force people to challenge their assumptions, it reminded me of feelings I've had throughout the years about who media decides is a "spokesperson" for the trans community.

Chaz Bono, by virtue of being an A-list celebrity spawn, C-list celeb, and well known Olivia cruise ship passenger/HRC fundraiser figure in the LG community, is our newest entertainment figurehead. Larry King talking about trans stuff... get Chaz. Entertainment Tonight doing something about trans... Chaz is so there. TMZ mentioning something trans-related... go Chaz. Before Chaz it was Alexis Arquette and Candis Cayne and Christine Penner (RIP) and Susan Stanton and Amanda LePore.

Rather than actually get someone with tight community connections, a background in trans activism, or a long-time transitioner to give perspective about how trans people actually fit into society, we can get a C-List celeb who's newly transitioning, or someone who commercially trades on their transness (eg. drag scene) to provide 10 second media clips. As with all media depictions, it's so important to realize how media crowns its spokepersons for highly specific reasons.

Pick your team
Spokespersons mostly much fall into four categories: 1) the aforementioned minor-celeb transitioner (Chaz/Alexis Arquette); 2) the current "going through hell aren't you glad you're not me" middle-aged transitioner (Penner/Stanton); 3) the freaky-deaky shemale/draggy/silicone-bootay transsexual/transgender—used as nouns (LaPore, any Transtasia contestants) 4) the passable, educated, "you actually look like a normal person!!!" transitioner (white, academic middle class people... (most FTMs fall into this group, although Buck Angel is the lone FTM with his feet in both groups #3 and #4). Btw, trans people of color, and working class trans people, read the 'rules,' don't expect to be assigned to any category other than #4

In fairness to the Chaz Bonos, Susan Stantons and Christine Penners, it takes fortitude to transition in public and appear in front of millions at such a vulnerable and destabilizing time in ones' life. It's understandable to hear someone declare 'rather than having others interpreting my life's events, I'd rather try and speak for myself and my community.' Unfortunately, these three know all too well how media uses spokespersons to basically deliver its own message. All is filtered through the framing of the spokesperson's story, editing, background music and the ever present "comments" given by news-anchors & bloggers after the quote.

Wanna appear on Oprah or Tyra... fine, but you'll soon find out you have zero control as to how they present you, on the editing of the material, future rights to the material (especially with Oprah, who has a vicious team of lawyers second only to Disney or McDonald's) and, no matter what you think you're doing, you will be presenting their agenda. Period. If you appear on Larry King, Larry will be asking you stupid, ill-informed questions, repeating questions about things you've already answered, mis-interpreting what you've just clearly stated and pretty much be certain to inadvertently insult you at some point in the interview. Larry ain't exactly Einstein. Even when, a few years ago, Larry had a well-spoken trans woman named Jessica Lam on his show, he managed to have a shot of her in her bra just to liven up the festivities. *sigh* Larry, Larry, Larry.

Ouch, ouch, ouch
A problem comes when some of these "spokesmodels" open their yaps and very ugly stuff has been known to spew out. Few in the trans community can forget the cringe-inducing comments newbie Susan Stanton made about how she's not like the ridiculous "men in dresses" who think they're women. Or when Candis Cayne sat on The View and declared, "transgender and transsexual are the exact same thing." Or as Amanda LaPore recently stated to a Sydney, Australia newspaper, "When I grew up, transsexuals really just wanted to get married and blend in and fool guys." Then, of course, there's gay, male-identified RuPaul, who is always ready to be a spokesman for trans women as when he defended a Dallas Gay newspaper's use of the word "tranny." Really, thanks Ru?! And kisses to all our spokespersons for those thoughtful and well-considered statements.

The message is in the medium
So in terms of media agenda, what are all these spokespersons here to prove? Chaz Bono proves everything is okay with transpeople, and transitioning means wearing an expensive suit and walking with your wife down Rodeo Drive, dealing with Paparazzi and going to fundraisers. No problems, no trans youth being attacked in school, no health care problems, no job discrimination, no trans women of color being murdered... just a good time for all and everybody gets that Chaz thinks he's now a man and we all support him. It's the 'good newz' transition.

The media message of Susan Stanton and Christine Penner was, "see how screwed up middle-aged men can be. Look how a mid-life crisis can mess you up not to mention your wives and children. Everyone... behave or this hell could happen to you." All the hoochy-mama transsexual spokesladaays are there to confirm how transwomen are fake, really-truly gay men/drag queens, their ideas about womenhood are obviously absurd and they're doing this just to get fucked by guys who are creepy enough to like them. It's good tv.

Cute sells
Another category of spokesperson increasingly appearing on media are transgender children. Of course, understanding their issues and how families are supporting them is a crucial goal for the future of our community. They need all the understanding, support and care all of our community can provide. They are cute, not 'wrongly-misgendered' looking and, most importantly, break through a lot of media's need to try and sexualize trans women. Moreover, they also reiterate that, for most trans people, their transitions are related to lifelong gender identities and not adult lifestyle choices.

Jerry's Kids?
I do have concerns trans children may, in future, be used by media/fundraisers as the new versions of Jerry's Kids. You may recall how many adults with Muscular Dystrophy complained how the MDA Telethons only paraded children in front of the camera because adults with MD were "too disabled looking" and therefore, more threatening to the audience. That children on telethons gave a feel good message which ignored many of the realities of living as a disabled adult. As has often been in the past, 'attractive looking, gender normative people' (which these children usually represent) may become the primary spokespersons for the binary trans experience (and GQ/CD/GV people aren't even mentioned).

The 'M' Factor
In fairness, there is one very important spokesperson I've left out and by sheer number of interviews and media quotes alone, she's in a class by herself. Mara Keisling is the dowager tsarina of media trans spokespeople. Ready to speak on any gender-related issue even if it has little to do with her brand of Washington "advocacy." Every time a respectable trans spokesperson is desired, they haul out Mara, the leader of the 'T in the LGBT'. And what do you get for your two minutes of Mara... transgender, blah, blah, blah, coalitions, blah, blah, blah, Washington Insider, blah, blah, works well with others, blah, blah, blah. Ultimately, I don't blame Ms. Keisling for her media appearances. She's invited, she goes, and she does whatever the hell it is she does. Fair enough. What I do blame is unimaginative, uninformed, and highly restrictive media who are unable to conceive of anyone better to represent trans activism.

Buttoned-down Gay media types appreciate calm, professional Mara because she never says anything controversial, is ever so careful and highly solicitous not to step on any of her betters' toes. She's our designated collaborationist leader. It's all delivered in a monotone, non-threatening delivery easy to zone out on. She combines just the right amount of category #4 (white, educated, not too scary) with a dollop of category #2 (middle-aged "once-male person" who fills media's trans quota but affirms business-as-usual). She's the equivalent of the "well-spoken negro" celebs/spokespeople who were paraded on tv during the 60s-70s because, heaven forfend, any radicals or angry black people should make the desirable white viewers nervous. Mainstream and gay media is allowed to determine who is a trans leader and who isn't. Nice how that works, huh?

It's a free country, but advertising costs $$$
As previously mentioned in the performance by Gabriel Burke, our community spokespeople would do best to understand how they're being used by media and to respond accordingly. Burke stated, "Bono was warned that interviewers are patronizing him and treating him as a curiosity." Very true. Moreover, no matter what prompting they receive to the contrary, Bono and others owe it to emphasize their story is just their story and not representative of the wide range in the community. It's flattering to be on tv, interviewed or invited to events, but don't pretend you can control the message ultimately put out by cisgender media. Being a visible token is nowhere near the same as letting all corners of our community truly speak for themselves about their own experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! I have been saying this for so long.

    Let us not forget how well the elites in our own trans communities pick our spokespeople. When HRC’s Joe Solomnese fley in a few years ago to meet with our community leaders over the ENDA mess, only a few trans leaders were invited to meet with him. What was the criteria? Who was deemed worthy of leader status to meet with him. I know, but like Prop 8 proved, do not challenge the established leadership.

    In the SF Bay Area, if you are not in SF, forget about it. I run the only trans program in Alameda County. Forget about any support from SF community leaders. I produce the Counties TDOR every year in Oakland, I can count on one hand how many SF Community leaders attend, and that’s if I invite them even though they live in Oakland.

    Let's not forget category $5) The trans entertainer/Celebrity who shows up occasionally, like once a year, to do a trans program/HIV/AIDS fundraiser and you would think she has invented sliced bread. Those of us slogging away everyday in this field dealing with budget cuts, clients dying, police harassment on outreach are invisible.

    Calpurnia Adams just did this a few weeks ago in San Jose. While grateful for her appearance benefiting the San Jose Trans Community and program, let’s be real about it. She was promoting her Cabaret Act and acting career like she was at the Trans March and SF Pride last year.

    Thanks for being real with the facts.

    It its very much appreciated.




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