Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mega Male Misgendering Mayhem

If any of these Rehoboth beachgoers are found
to have a penis, then they're men. Got that?

As previously mentioned in a prior post, never under-estimate cis journalists in their ability to make an utter mess of their stories about trans people. The newest example of that concerns the dozens of news stories about topless sunbathers at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach last weekend. It seems there was a complaint from some other beachgoers who "came up to the lifeguard and said they were alarmed and unhappy with the females showing their breasts." Police Chief Keith Banks goes on to state:
The lifeguard responded and saw that they were males." Banks said police were called because the men originally refused to put their tops back on, but had consented before police arrived. Officers made sure the situation was under control, and no citations were issued.
Clarity... what clarity?
Under control!? What's wrong with this picture? The complainants were concerned about females showing their breasts. The story then shifts to "saw that they were males." No explanation of this seeming discrepancy is given. Furthermore, virtually all the stories about this little affair (including AP) were given the headline: Transgendered men go topless in Rehoboth. Yes, in virtually all the headlines related to this story, they were referred to as "topless transgendered men."

Yes, AP has guidelines for reporting on trans people...
but don't let that get in the way of a good story

And now, because the situation was clearly not under control, no matter how many times organizations have tried to inform online, tv and print news media about pronoun usage, all hell breaks loose. "Transgender men" is repeated ad infinitum in countless blogs and news stories. A few more cautious stations used terms like "transgender individuals" (AKA "it") out of fear their confusion would be called to task. I know of no source which clearly stated "non/pre-operative trans women went topless."

Alex Blaze at Bilerico, wrote a thoughtful piece about the misgendering and how he initially thought this story was about trans men pre/post top surgery, as with the case of Dominic Scaia, a trans guy who got censored by YouTube and Facebook for showing images his post top surgery results. The confusion is understandable.

Social context not required
Moreover, literally not one of the news sources thought to bring up the very real issues surrounding trans women being considered as legal males. Several sites actually said "the men" were lucky to not be arrested the way women would be in this situation. Maybe, but their luck doesn't extend to being placed in the proper jail setting since they very likely would have been put in with the male jail population (or in "isolation") as usually happens wrongly gendered trans people who are arrested.

100 years of unapologetically misgendering people

What this story also brings up is how, in the world of Internet linking, one confused reporter creates hundreds of incorrect posts in the blink of an eye like an oldschool AP newswire on steroids. How people displaying the misgendering in the linked story virtually never go back and question the information nor correct any mistakes which might have been in the link. This was graphically seen with the global misgendering of Malawian Tiwonge Chimbalanga. While a few commentators like Peter Tatchell did examine whether they misgendered her, virtually none, including AP, UPI and Reuters, actually acknowledged their mistake and started to call her "she." Those which did question their pronoun and the use of "gay couple" emphasized whether there really are "western-style" transgender people in a country like Malawi and how acknowledging her as female would be cultural imperialism. As if the very concept of someone being gender variant or trans is purely a social construct (as opposed to, say, being gay).

Likewise, with the topless sunbathing story, some of the sites which have been called on their misgendering have responded by stating the sunbathers had penises (or were assumed to, anyway), were legally men—no more discussion required—case closed. I saw a recent program on PBS discussing the future of news departments in the world of YouTube and online news sources. YouTube's head of political and news coverage said, "in the future, anyone can be a reporter but few an be journalists." Perhaps he was referencing people with cell phone cameras taking snapshots of demonstrations, train wrecks or explosions in far-off countries and posting them online within a few minutes.

The reality is, virtually none of the "professionals" providing us with news over traditional means are professional journalists either. Even those that are, once they're out of their comfort zone and specialty, are hopelessly stumbling about trying to cover subjects about which they know little. Expertise in 0 to 60 in two days. The concept that a truly professional journalist can competently cover any subject is extreme narrow-casting (as in, an evening news surface level of coverage), wearing cultural blinders and hopelessly old fashioned. I might wish for, in this promised future of interactive journalism, where readers can provide instant feedback (whether it's read or not is another question) and supposedly, journalists will consult with the communities they're covering in real time. Those reporting on such stories as the Rehoboth Beach affair will actually ask trans people for their insights into what happened and their perspectives on covering such a story. Conversation... what a concept.

Postscript: AP has finally posted a corrected version of their initial story.

Addendum to the Postscript to the final addendum to the supplement:

I believe this is a photo of the persons in question. If so, they sure do look transmasculine to me and therefore... virtually all the coverage of this episode (including mine) is a total farce! I love this story.


  1. That corrected AP article isn't much better than the original. Yes, it does lessen the chance that one might get the impression that these women are trans men, but with the focus on "surgically enhanced breasts" and "male genitals", it's clear that the AP's focus is still on convincing us that "trans women" really means "men".

  2. Jessica, doesn't AP stand for "Atrociously Pervy"? :-)

  3. Gina I just want to make a comment on this blog in general. I think it is one of the most insightful and accessible blogs on how transfolk are perceived in the media out there. I can't understand why you don't have tons of comments on every entry. Then again you probably screen out the riff raff, and the rest of us are already in the choir being preached to. STILL, you and this blog are brilliant. Another blog I read all the time is Stuff White People Do, that analyzes cultural racism and media from an anti-racist pov. At one point I was toying with the idea of of starting Stuff Cis People Do type blog in the same spirit of anti-cissexism, but you already went there. So thank you THANK YOU THANK YOU for doing all this. Seriously.l


  4. Gina: I never knew that, but it makes perfect sense to me now! :)

  5. Gina fantastic story once again:

    "Conversation... what a concept"

    This is that thing that only happens when trans women feel violated to the point of visceral rage. As in...

    "I'm so glad this has started a conversation in the community"


    "This is a great conversation, tell me again why this horrid word isn't just neutral slang?

  6. @Jane: I'm usually an avid commenter, but very often when I reach the end of one of Gina's entries, all I can say is something like "excellent." Nothing to add! She really does do a great job.

  7. That being said, this story (not your write-up on it) is kind of pissing me off. First because so many media keep writing "transgender men" or some variant on that, even now. But also because I'm just not clear on what went on, on how the women in question identify, and why they did what they did. And I'm annoyed because the publicity from this incident (I almost wrote "stunt") has all been bad.

  8. The 'transgender men' crap started with the Sacrilegious Reich being insulting on their websites.

    Now the rest of the MSM has run with it.

  9. the people in this story identify on the transmasculine spectrum. they are genderqueer, trans, and transmen, not transwomen. they were at no point questioned by the police, they spoke to one lifegaurd who seems to understand, but then were approached by another lifegaurd who in one breath said: put on your tops the police are on their way. In fact, they were told that this particular section of the beach was not only gay friendly, but clothing optional. They are from out of town, and are speaking out in hopes to prevent backlash in Rehobeth against gender-nonconforming and trans people, including anyone who might be forced to face gender policing. They are also trying their hardest to stay anonymous while doing so, and are asking people online to spread their story to balance the overwhelming hay day the media is having.

    GENDER POLICING DOES NOT WORK. It is not the job of trans & gender nonconforming folks to be clear to cissexist thinking authorities. It is our job to take care of ourselves and each other. It is our job to express our genders in a way that is healthy for our psyches.

    These folks didn't ask for media attention: the media picked their story up without asking them how they identify! Please consider uniting with them at least on that basis.

    with love for the struggle of all gender nonconforming and trans and queer people!

  10. @re: They don't seem to be doing a great job of getting the word out. I've been pretty obsessed with the coverage of this story and it leans heavily toward implying that the folks in question stated that they had "male genitalia." I've been misquoted in the press myself, so I understand how imperfect the media can be, but if anyone's trying to set the record straight, even anonymously and in the community, it doesn't seem to be working. Which is too bad; I'd love to hear the whole story from folks who were actually there.

  11. The confusion continues... in my pathetic need to find out what actually happened at Rehoboth, and what the reporters, lifeguards, and cops are attempting to communicate, I came across this link—it is soundless... on my browser(s) anyway.

    It seems to show a cellphone camera shot of the sunbathers in question and they certainly do look FTM spectrum/transmasculine to me. It's hard because lacking sound, I'm having to make the assumption these are the people in question, so that's another issue. But if they are the ones in the photo, then they are transmasculine and I'm not sure where the breast augmentation references came from? The lifeguard also mentioned how several had a penis and I wonder if those were packers???? This has to be some of the most confusing coverage of any trans-related story I've ever seen.

  12. Gina, I can't see the whole link. If you don't know how to code a link (sorry, I'm a geek), maybe you can use TinyURL or something similar.

    I agree, though, this has been very confusing.

  13. Veronique, I've included the photo at the end of the story. Again, because there was no sound on the link I can't 100% verify these are the actual people, but I'm pretty, mostly, sorta sure they are.

    This is classic!

  14. So hard to tell, but if that's a picture of the people involved, my guess is that there are at least some born-females among them.

    Un grand mystère et boule de gomme!

  15. In my head this story is like "trans people go to the beach, confuse all".


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