This week, Katie Couric interviewed model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), two of the most visible transgender women in pop culture. Interviewing Carrera first, Couric discussed her pre-transition identity and asked invasive questions about gender reassignment surgery, prompting Carrera to cut her off and tell her that it was none of her business. Cox then defended Carrera, pointing out that a preoccupation with transgender people’s genitalia distracts from understanding the real discrimination that they experience.
Though social conservatives have mocked the two women for having to endure the questions, the interview has prompted a larger discussion about how opponents of transgender equality define transgender people entirely by their bodies. To get into this topic a bit deeper, I invited my colleague, Sarah McBride, to share some of her own thoughts. After serving as the student government president at American University, she came out as trans quite publicly. Since then, she has been an outspoken advocate for trans equality, and as a result has endured the same kind of questioning from reporters. Here was our discussion:
Zack Ford: Both Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera had very strong reactions when Katie Couric asked them about the physical nature of their transitions. As someone who also had a very public coming out process, did you find yourself similarly cringing when you watched the interviews?
Sarah McBride: I was incredibly excited when I heard that two “possibility models” for so many transgender people, Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, were going to be appearing on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show. I was considerably less excited when I saw the questions they were asked. As a trans person, I was not entirely surprised, though. A number of transgender people I know refer to the question Katie asked simply as “the question,” both as a nod to the predictability that our surgery status will be asked about and as a play on “the surgery,” as people call it, that the question is asking about. As a transgender person, I understand that many people are striving to understand and oftentimes don’t know what questions, if any, to ask. I also understand that people are curious.
But being asked about something so personal and private is neither appropriate nor relevant, regardless of the curiosity or intent of the person asking. Imagine being Carmen Carrera getting asked that question on television. If it felt to her what it feels like to me when I’m asked, it would have felt like standing on that stage naked before the studio and television audience. Transgender people are so much more than our surgery status and the pre-occupation with it oftentimes leads it to become the qualifying factor in what makes you a “real woman” or a “real man,” whatever that means. It reduces our value and ignores our experiences because, as Laverne Cox so eloquently said in her response, “by focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of oppression and discrimination.” I think both Carmen and Laverne handled the questions perfectly.
ZF: It seems like there’s almost an instinct that many people have to ask “the question.” Even if it’s asked with the openness of wanting to better understand you and appreciate your experience, they seem to assume that being transgender is defined by the process of transitioning. Of course, then it becomes your job to educate them with an answer that fits into that box. What would you say have been some of the significant experiences that you’ve had as a trans woman that “the question” doesn’t allow you to talk about?
SM:That’s a great question. I think that the instinct to ask “the question” you mentioned comes from curiosity and part of what is frustrating is that, for some people, their curiosity trumps treating us with respect. Oftentimes it is unintentional, but the exercise of that privilege is demeaning nonetheless. Typically, if I’m asked the question I will respond more broadly and just say, “There is not one way to transition; every transgender person’s journey is different, some either can’t or do not feel the need to have surgeries, while others do have surgeries.”
But your question goes to the heart of the matter, which is that there is so much more to us than one body part. Transgender people have lives before, during, and after transitioning, as Carmen notes in the interview with Katie. I’d rather talk about my journey to self-acceptance or the challenges that transgender people —particularly trans women of color — face on a daily basis. Those are far more relevant to understanding trans identities than anyone’s specific medical history.
Just as important is to recognize the self-evident truth that transgender people are people. We have complex identities, interests, and experiences that go beyond our gender, just like everyone else. This past spring my family and I worked with Equality Delaware to help pass nondiscrimination protections for transgender Delawareans and with each meeting, we tried to stress that in addition to being transgender, I’m also a daughter, sister, girlfriend, movie buff, history nerd, and a regular student getting ready to graduate. Most got it, but unfortunately for some, “the question” became infused, and even central, to the public policy debate.
ZF: It’s kind of a tricky thing: We know that transgender people face extremely high rates of discrimination in employment, housing, and everyday services, and the general assumption is that more education, awareness, and visibility will help reverse that. So often, though, it feels like promoting that understanding requires rehashing a basic definition of “transgender,” which tends to focus mostly on the physical transition. From your own experience and work in trans activism, what are some of the defining aspects of reality that are unique to being trans but have nothing to with surgery or genitals?
SM: I think the important part in defining what it means to be transgender is to focus on the identity part, not the physical transition. We need to challenge and move past the physical descriptors as there so many different ways of transitioning. Indeed, focusing on the physical transition reinforces some societal prejudices, i.e., that body, not mind, define gender, that have led to the marginalization of large parts of the transgender community.
In the end, a transgender person’s surgical history should have nothing to do with another person’s empathy. Transgender people shouldn’t have to “bare all” to achieve equality. That is an oppressive and humiliating expectation. And it has nothing to do with understanding that it is wrong that roughly one quarter of transgender people are fired from their job simply because they are transgender, or that nearly 1 in 5 are denied housing because of their gender identity, or the 53 percent who are harassed or discriminated against in a place of public accommodation like a restaurant, hotel, or store. And on the reserve side, Katie had two incredibly accomplished and intelligent women on her show who defied the odds and are doing incredible things while raising awareness of trans identities. If I had them on my couch, I could think of a million other things to ask them.
ZF: I think there’s something really significant you said there — that when you’re asked “the question,” you’re sort of being forced to make a deal. To earn empathy, you have to describe the current status of your body — “bare all,” as you said — with the underlying possibility that if you don’t give the “right” answer, you might not get the respect anyway. It’s like they’re putting you in a position where your integrity is defined entirely by your private parts, which they’ll probably never have reason to see anyway. Personally, I’ve found the stories trans people have to tell about being treated differently based on gender (as opposed to sex), particularly the male privilege that a lot of trans women effectively lose, to be much more fascinating.
I think it’s safe to say that Katie meant well in lifting up the stories of these two fabulous women, but failed in the execution because of the trap of “the question.” If there were a do-over, what would you have liked her to ask them?
SM: Agreed. There is so much. Katie could have delved more into the experience of being transgender in the modeling world with Carmen. She could have asked about the topic you brought up, namely the loss of male privilege and the shock to your system when you are suddenly being exposed to the pervasive sexism of our society, particularly within the modeling and entertainment industries. She could have asked more about Laverne Cox’s role in Orange Is The New Black and her new documentary on the tragic experience of CeCe McDonald, which will explore the real-world experiences of a trans woman of color who was imprisoned. And that doesn’t include any of the questions she could have asked that aren’t entirely about being transgender. After all, part of lifting up transgender role models like Laverne and Carmen includes demonstrating the full range of their humanity.
I don’t want to demonize Katie, because I do believe her intentions were good. But I do hope she, and others, have learned from this experience. After all, when you are done talking with Laverne Cox, how can you not come away at least a little more educated and enlightened?
ZF: Well, I haven’t met her in person (yet), but I expect that what you say is true. Thanks for the discussion and for sharing your own story!
SM: Thank you!
Watch Cox’s portion of the interview:
Sarah McBride is a Special Assistant for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.