This has been a big year for transgender people in the media, most notably with Janet Mock’s book hitting the New York Times Bestseller list, and Laverne Cox’s rise in fame due to her appearance as part of the cast of Orange is the new Black. The latter even landed on the cover of Time magazine. In the wake of her appearance in Time, it stands to reason that other magazines would seek to cover “transgender” in their own pages. When that happens, too, some are bound to get it wrong.
Enter The New Yorker.
In the August 4, 2014 edition of the magazine, an article titled “What Is A Woman?” by Michelle Goldberg was published. The subhead read, “The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.”
I’d like to think that maybe I’m misreading the article entirely. Perhaps it is a sly piece of satire, something akin to their “Obama as a radical Muslim fist bumping his commando wife” cover from 2008. Sadly, I don’t think they were being quite that sly.
The article itself is more than a little one sided. This isn’t a piece about the dispute so much as it is a tale told from the opinion of someone clearly on one side of a debate, with little more than lip service provided to those on the other.
The article itself hits about every trope. It speaks about how transgender people “feel female,” or “have women’s brains in men’s bodies.” This implies that a transgender person is nothing more than a whim, a passing fancy at best – and mental illness at worst. This flies in the face of decades of science.
Speaking of such, the article opts to include Dr. Ray Blanchard. The author does note that Blanchard’s theories are “highly controversial,” but still gives plenty of space for the discussion and acceptance of his work.
Those who have been in the transgender community for any length of time have heard his name. This doctor doesn’t believe that transgender people exist as such – rather he views transgender people as either some form of homosexual that would rather accept themselves as a straight woman versus a gay man, or as an “autogynephile.” The latter is his pet theory that transgender people are nothing more than men with a fetish for feminizing their bodies. In his eyes, there are no exceptions to the above. Many other researchers have discredited his theories.
Much space is given to the “radical Feminist” view in this piece, but very little is provided in rebuttal. Indeed, one transwoman who had been interviewed for the article, Julia Serano, has noted on her own blog that most of the content of her interview was cut.
Meanwhile, the author reprints hearsay about violent transgender vandals as if they were fact, without proof to back them up, and paints an unfair picture of transgender people overall.
Yet even with all that, at least they seem to acknowledge that transgender people are human. This seems to be more than Science Magazine opted to do for their July 11th cover photo.
The cover proclaims it a special issue, dedicated to “staying a step ahead of HIV/AIDS.” The cover image shows two women of color in tight dresses and heels, from the neck down. Two other women, similarly dressed, are in the background. It is easy to tell that the women portrayed are sex workers.
Many spoke out about the cover, noting that the image dehumanized the women by cutting off their heads. Jim Austin, an editor with Science, chose to respond on his Twitter account. “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?”
The conversation devolved, with Austin even falling into considering how “interesting” it might be if a man gazing lustfully at the people on the cover “found out” they were trans women. As if this cover was a good case study into anti-transgender violence and the transgender panic defense, I suppose.
Even California Congresswoman Jackie Speier took the magazine to task saying, “The prevalence of the ‘trans panic’ defense, in which perpetrators of violent crimes justify their actions by claiming shock at the identity of a trans person, make this an abysmal motivation for Science’s choice of cover are, particularly since transgender people are disproportionately subject to hate crimes.” She also criticized the cover for sending “the message that women and minorities still do not fully belong in the ‘boy’s club’ of science.”
While The New Yorker has not addressed any bias in the piece by Michelle Goldberg, Science Magazine CEO and Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner has apologized for both the cover and Jim Austin’s “unauthorized” Twitter replies.
I have no doubt we’ll see worse examples to come. While I think Science Magazine’s failure will be the end of it for them, I think the Goldberg piece in The New Yorker is far more problematic. It codifies a one-sided story with very little rebuttal. Much like it quotes Dr. Blanchard, others can and will quote that article as gospel.
This is why it becomes all the more important that people speak out. Not just those within the transgender community – who are certainly the most at risk of harm from such reporting – but also our allies. We need everyone to be willing to speak out against falsehood, including lies of convenience and omission.
We need to tell our own stories, too. The New Yorker should hear from us, Science should hear from us, and any future such issues should be countered with fact. We need to keep standing up and keep speaking out.
It’s a big year for us. Let’s keep that going, and raise our voices.
Gwen Smith hopes she is doing her part. You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com
By Gwen Smith