By Elliot DeLine
The media has a poor track record when it comes to portraying transgender individuals. The mainstreamrepresentations are inaccurate in numerous ways, and do more harm than good for transgender people.
As far as the average American television viewer is concerned, RuPaul, a wealthy gay man in drag, might as well be the transgender community’s spokesperson. “I support Chaz Bono’s decision to be on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” friends reassure me, when this was apparently considered inappropriate by some. To be honest, though Chaz and I are both transgender men, I could care less where he dances.
But sadly, B-list transgender celebrities only further society’s misconception in their scuffle to prolong their 15 minutes of fame. Their constant airtime reveals that only certain individuals in the trans community get a voice. According to a survey by the U.K.’s Trans Media Watch, 78 percent of their 256 transgender respondents felt that the transgender media portrayals were either “inaccurate or highly inaccurate.” Even worse, 95 percent felt that the media doesn’t care what transgender people think.
Samael Bowen, a transgender man living in Syracuse, also resents the depictions he sees on television. “All they care about is showing something that is going to bring in ratings,” he says. “They take the most extreme and outrageous people… the trans people who get on to mainstream television have been rude, inconsiderate, and in my opinion, quite ignorant.”
Of course, there are more transgender representations than the handful of spotlight hoggers. Sarah Kench, a transgender student at Syracuse University, says she often sees cruel jokes and comments about transgender people, specifically transwomen, in television shows and movies. “They mostly show transwomen as pathetic,” she says. “As a deceiver, prostitute, or slut.” She feels many important issues are never brought up in the media, like how parents abandon their transgender children. Many are left homeless. And in their desperation, some turn to unsafe street procedures to feminize their bodies sometimes with fatal results. This includes seeking cheap, unprofessional surgery, black market hormone medication, and extremely dangerous silicone injections to their hips or buttocks.
Education and justice, on the other hand, are not on the agenda during transgender media coverage. The experience is characterized as a rare, entirely personal struggle. But society’s role in our oppression and pain is ignored. Instead, we hear about individuals discovering a “problem”— the gender they appear to be on the outside is not how they feel inside. We see the transgender person as an isolated phenomenon—a glitch in the natural, happily gendered world. This “flaw” is fixed by their transition, and a decent amount of viewers are left generally comfortable with the knowledge of their existence.
“I tend to feel like trans is the new circus freak show,” Bowen says. “[People] aren’t actually learning anything…at least nothing of relevance. And the things that people take away from the media is almost always negative.” The non-trans media cannot portray us more accurately—at least not alone. Only transgender people can ever truly understand their own experiences. What we really need is sincere collaboration. People must be willing to listen to what we say, even when it feels intimidating or foreign, and assist us in achieving equality.
Incidents of transphobia need to be treated with the same seriousness as racist or homophobic remarks. Most importantly, the media needs to prioritize accuracy while transgender people continue forging venues to speak for ourselves. The media needs to be a pulpit from which our voice is heard, not a circus tent within which we’re mocked. The ringmaster can go home now.