On Tuesday night, CNN ran an interview between Piers Morgan, a 48-year-old cisgender white man who hosts a nightly prime-time cable show, and Janet Mock, a 29-year-old transgender woman of color who just published her first book. In that interview, Morgan repeatedly referred to her as having once been a boy and asked her questions about disclosing her identity to her boyfriend. After it aired, Mock objected to the framing of the interview, and transgender activists on Twitter turned against Morgan. On Wednesday night, she returned to address the situation in a second conversation. Following that interview, Morgan spoke with a panel of commentators — none of whom were transgender — during which CNN contributor Ben Ferguson invalidated Mock’s identity and accused her of engineering a PR stunt for her book. Here’s how the evening progressed.
Morgan began the interview with Mock from a very defensive perspective, claiming that he’d been “abused” by the trans community and demanding an explanation as to why the criticism seemed to come out of the blue. She admitted that during her first interview with him, she was “scared” to confront him and that she was trying to be a “cordial guest,” but Morgan seemed confused as to what she had to be scared of. Throughout the interview, he continued to interrupt her and insist that he had a clear understanding of her story, often ignoring her as she corrected him. Here is how Mock explained the evolution of her gender identity:
MOCK: Before commercial break, we had a lovely conversation, and then all of a sudden you said, “…who was formerly a man.” I was a baby. I was assigned male gender because of the appearance of my genitals. As I grew up, I discovered my girlhood, I discovered my womanhood, and I proclaimed and defined myself for myself.
That explanation didn’t stick. Morgan insisted on asking why it is offensive to say that she “grew up as a boy” and that she “had surgery to become a woman, to become a real woman.” Mock explained that there is a difference between sex and gender:
MOCK: I think that we need to have a discussion about what gender is and gender expectations in our culture. I think that we are born and we are assigned a sex at birth — that is a matter none of us have control over. But we do have control over our destinies and our identities, and we should be respected. It’s not about the past. It’s not about what surgeries I may or may not have had. It’s not about how I disclose my gender to people.
It’s about who I am right now. I’m Janet Mock, I’m author of Redefining Realness, and I’m a fierce trans advocate. And I will continue to be exactly that. That’s what I was on this show to do. If I spoke out every single time that someone called me out of my name or labeled me as something that I’m not, I would not have time to advocate for the fierce and urgent issues in my community — issues of poverty and joblessness, of a lack of healthcare, of violence — verbal and physical violence — against trans women.
That explanation still didn’t stick. Morgan continued to take a defensive stance about his understanding of her identity. Again, he insisted, “Do you dispute you were born a boy?” Mock tried one more time to explain her identity:
MOCK: Do I dispute that I was born a boy? I was born a baby who was assigned “male” at birth. I did not identify or live my life as a boy. As soon as I had enough agency in my life to grow up, I became who I am. And this did not start at 18 when I went to Thailand to have “surgery.” It started when I was six years old and my parents saw me for who I was and allowed me to live my life.
Mock pointed out that though Morgan may have felt vilified and misunderstood since Tuesday night’s interview, that’s how transgender people feel every single day. Still, he insisted that she was to blame for not bringing these concerns up during the original interview — neglecting to apologize for how he consistently misrepresented her story and identity.
Watch the full interview:
That conversation alone, while seemingly unproductive for Morgan’s sake, could have been an educational television moment that stood by itself. Unfortunately, Morgan then invited a panel to discuss the interview — none of whom were trans — and two members of that panel disregarded everything that Mock had just explained about how to validate transgender identities.
First up was Amy Holmes, an anchor at TheBlaze.com, Glenn Beck’s media network. She seemed to think that the only aspect of Mock’s life that defines her experience as a transgender woman of color is the fact that she once had surgery on her genitals:
HOLMES: It seemed like it was really more of a semantic issue here, because the one and only reason why she’s on this show, has written a book, is getting national attention, was because she was born with male genitalia, went through surgery, and is now female, and that’s frankly a pretty sensational thing to go through in life.
Marc Lamont Hill came to Mock’s defense, affirming that she had reason to feel intimidated in her interview and critiquing Morgan for focusing so much on her transition. Morgan argued that he never mentioned her genitalia, but Hill pointed out that everything else nonetheless alluded to it. Besides, he argued, “trans identity does not hinge upon surgery. You can have a penis and still be a woman, a trans woman.”
Then, conservative commentator Ben Ferguson asserted that he knows more about Mock’s story and gender identity than even she does. He went on to claim that her concerns about the interview were fabricated all for the sake of a publicity stunt to sell her book:
FERGUSON: Let’s deal with the facts here. She was a boy and she was a man when she was born. Now she can be in the head and say she refuses to accept that, but based on medicine and based on doctors, you come out and you’re a man or you’re a woman. If you want to change that, that’s your decision… Doctors and science agree with me. [...]
This boils down to a simple issue. This is fake outrage by a woman who needs to sell books who didn’t have the guts to say anything to Piers because there was not a bad interview. You were incredibly gracious, Piers, and I don’t give you a lot of credit. On this one, I’ll gave you full credit. She decided, I’m sure with her PR team that’s watching right now — and welcome to this world of selling books — “We aren’t selling enough We need a fake controversy. Let’s attack Piers Morgan. Drop a fake f-word in there, even though we had no problem with it five days ago, to sell more book.”
Still, it was Hill’s arguments on Mock’s behalf that seemed to stick with Morgan. Concluding the panel, he seemed to acknowledge that he was beginning to better understand her concerns:
MORGAN: I think that the point Marc is making, which is the point that Janet made, I think is this — is that there is a difference between sex and gender, that gender identity is incredibly important to people who go through the transgender process. I have learned more about that in the last 24 hours, and I think it’s important to know about that, because it matters to the people that go through that.
Watch the panel discussion:
Ferguson is now facing his own onslaught of Twitter outrage from transgender people and their allies. Still, by the end, the lesson seems to have sunk in a bit for Morgan.
At one point, Mock pointed out that “gay rights are not transgender rights,” and indeed, trans people have a very different experience and trajectory with their identities than those who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. In many ways, people with a same-sex orientation expand the visibility of their identities over the course of their lives: committing to a same-sex partner, moving into a community, and starting a family. Trans people have a very different coming out process, and may consider their journey to be over once they have completed their transition and integrated their gender identity into their lives in a way that works best for them. Telling trans stories cannot follow the same model of telling gay coming out stories, because they’re simply not comparable.
Television hosts like Katie Couric and Piers Morgan, who clearly mean to do right by the trans community, are learning this lesson in a very difficult public fashion, which means the process is messy and causes some collateral damage for the trans community. As Mock explained in the interview, “We need to give trans people space to tell their own stories, and we should follow the lead of people who are out there and being visible, and actually advocating for these rights.”