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An Imperfect Spokesperson: The Transgender Backlash Against Zoey Tur

Zoey Tur may have undergone one of the most public gender transitions in U.S. media. The news reporter, famed for her 1990s chopper coverage chasing O.J. Simpson’s Bronco and documenting the Los Angeles race riots from above, shared every step of her journey over the past two years with Los Angeles Magazine‘s Ed Leibowitz, whose long profile of her transition was published in December. She has since begun to enter the media space again, and was recently hired as a correspondent for the syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition.

Tur’s surge of visibility coincides with a political moment when social conservatives are engaged in a backlash against transgender people. A number of blatantly anti-transgender bills are advancing in state legislatures, including legislation in Kentucky, Florida, Texas that would impose criminal penalties if transgender people use facilities of the gender other than what they were assigned at birth. Meghan Stabler, a veteran transgender activist with connections to various LGBT organizations, told ThinkProgress that it’s a crucial time for transgender people to dispel myths about their identities, especially the unfounded fears that it’s a threat to the safety of women and children if they use the restroom. “The only way we can win is to get trans people to show what it would look like in their restrooms,” she explained, as some activists are now doing.

Stabler worries, however, that Tur is having the opposite effect — and she’s not alone. Transgender leaders from across the movement have begun criticizing Tur for speaking out of place on behalf of the transgender community at large, sharing information about trans identities that Stabler says is simply “factually incorrect.” For example, in a February interview with TMZ, she cited a preliminary study suggesting that hormone therapy changes a person’s sexual orientation, which TMZ presented as conclusive fact despite the unique and inconclusive results of the singular study. “Hormones do not make you gay or straight,” Stabler corrected.

In another recent interview with World of Wonder, Tur implied that some trans men are not actually trans because they just have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormone imbalance found in some females. “With hormone replacement therapy,” she proclaimed, “it can be treated and it can adjust people back to where they would be.” Interviewer James St. James confirmed, “So you’re saying that they might think that they’re transgender when actually it’s just a medical situation?” “Correct,” Tur responded. Diego Sanchez, Director of Policy for PFLAG National and a transgender man himself, told ThinkProgress that Tur’s assertion is “false.” He should know; his own endocrinologist, Dr. Vin Tangpricha, has conducted much of the available research on the topic. “If I were a young transman disclosing to my parents that I am trans,” Sanchez hypothesized, “I would not want them to feel informed by learning false medically misinterpreted and misstated info from a trans person that I’m a girl, and I just need more estrogen.”

One interview in particular has spurred transgender activists to speak out publicly. Last week, Tur joined Dr. Drew Pinsky on HLNTV to comment on the recent story of a Michigan Planet Fitness that revoked the membership of a customer who repeatedly approached other customers to object that a transgender woman was allowed to use the women’s locker room. Though the transgender individual in the story, Carlotta Sklodowska, only used the locker room to store her coat and purse, Tur seemed to side with the woman who complained. “People have a right to be concerned and I believe there should be private areas,” she explained. She proceeded to claim that Sklodowska is “a transvestite, a cross-dresser, a male that has a sexual fetish dressing as a female… it’s not a transsexual; it’s a male that gets off in women’s clothing.” Pinsky offered instead that she might be someone who is just beginning to transition, but Tur shot that possibility down: “No, that’s not the case. This person is a cross-dresser that gets a sexual high from dressing as a female.” During a follow-up after-show interview, she doubled down, confirming her belief that this was a “guy” who was trying to “perv out on women.”

Tur’s claims were based on posts excavated without context from Sklodowska’s personal Facebook page — and trumpeted mostly by opponents of transgender equality seeking to paint her as a threatening person. But Sklodowska publicly — and voluntarily — identified herself as a transgender woman who uses female pronouns. Char Davenport, a college professor and fellow transgender person who knows Sklodowska, told ThinkProgress that she’s concerned by the way Sklodowska’s identity has been publicly scrutinized. “We need to let them speak for themselves,” she said. “Nobody gets to decide someone else’s identity.” Yvette Cormier, the woman whose membership was revoked, has announced intentions to sue Planet Fitness, which seems likely to invite further public scrutiny of Sklodowska’s identity. As recently as this weekend, Tur was still insisting on Facebook that she was a “man,” referring to her with male pronouns and comparing her to drag queens like RuPaul.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Tur defended the claims she made about Sklodowska’s identity, saying, “I don’t believe there was anything inaccurate in what I discussed. I used the best info available at the time, Carlotta’s own words,” referring to the private Facebook posts, not her public interview. Tur also indicated that the segment producers wanted to display the private posts she had found — which she described as “revolting and even vile” — but, she claimed, she prevented them from doing so. This was all for a story that, as National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling explained, was about “a senior citizen who hung up her coat in the locker room, not any of the other things commentators have talked about.”

In addition to misrepresenting Sklodownska’s gender identity, Tur also claimed during the Dr. Drew On Call segment that because of Title II of the Civil Rights Act, “Planet Fitness had no choice but to have that policy” providing transgender-inclusive access. It’s true that transgender people are increasingly finding legal protection under the “sex” employment nondiscrimination protections in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but Title II, which addresses protections in public accommodations like hotels and restaurants, does not actually include protections based on sex. Moreover, Title II also includes an exemption for private clubs; given the membership structure of gyms like Planet Fitness, it’s possible that they would be exempt even if sex protections were present. Tur acknowledged this particular error a few days later after being corrected by other transgender activists on her Facebook page.

One of the first people to publicly criticize Tur’s remarks was transgender activist Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland. Writing at the Huffington Post, Beyer identified the inaccuracies in Tur’s interview and called out her lack of expertise: “Tur is not a movement leader. She has never advocated for any legislation or demonstrated against any reactionary social or political behavior. She knows nothing of sexual biology or medicine. She’s not aware of how our civil rights laws are written, and most remarkably she shows no practical sense about how these laws could possibly be enforced.” The fact that Tur underwent her own transition, Beyer wrote, does not make her “expert on all things trans.”

Another trans activist, radio host and journalist Rebecco Juro, also reached out to Tur, but privately. Tur had just been on her radio show a few weeks earlier, and everybody seemed to get along just fine. Juro wrote to Tur to warn her that her comments might lead the transgender movement to disavow her as an able representative of their issues, offering the comparison of Susan Stanton. Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida who was fired in 2007 after disclosing that she was transgender. Though the transgender community rallied to her defense to decry the discrimination — a violation of the city’s own laws — they later, as Juro explained, rejected the way Stanton discussed other transgender people and humored arguments against nondiscrimination protections that include “gender identity.” Rather than take it as the cautionary tale Juro intended, Tur felt personally threatened by Juro, a sentiment she expressed on Facebook with excerpts from their private conversation.

Tur’s negative reactions to the criticism escalated from there. In another Facebook post, she accused Juro and Beyer of “journalistic fraud,” threatening that they had opened themselves and the Huffington Post to “civil litigation and damages.” She asserted that they must have worked together, but Juro told ThinkProgress that there was no merit to that claim. Tur went on to accuse them of attempting to “destroy” her and claimed that there is a “dictatorship” regarding how transgender people must think about issues. The following day, in a post that has since been edited, Tur described Beyer as “retarded” before proceeding to justify some of the medical claims she had made in a prior interview.

Beyer and Juro were not alone in their objections. LGBT media watchdog GLAAD confirmed to ThinkProgress that it had reached out to CNN and HLNTV to express “serious concern” over Tur’s comments. A Change.org petition has also been started calling on Pinsky to drop Tur as a consultant on transgender issues.

This week, Houston-based transgender blogger and activist Monica Roberts also joined the chorus critiquing Tur. “You have a right to your own opinions and political beliefs Ms. Tur,” she wrote. “Where I and other people draw the line is when you have a media platform to express those beliefs, they are loud and wrong, you refuse to listen to people who have far more experience navigating Trans Life than you, and your comments can be used by our opponents to undermine what little progress we have made trans human rights wise in this country.”

Tur is not without her supporters in the transgender community, but those who support her do so without addressing the content of her remarks. For example, Mark Angelo Cummings, host of Transition Radio, posted a comment on Facebook in solidarity with Tur — in part because he’d previously been criticized by Roberts as well. He chastised the transgender community for its in-fighting, describing it as “arrogant and demanding,” and arguing that “we tear each other down every chance we get.”

Corina Robbins, a transgender activist who is working to establish a foundation to support the medical needs of financially disadvantaged trans people, told ThinkProgress that she is similarly concerned about transgender in-fighting. “It is my opinion and observation that the community has a habit of ripping into one another,” she shared. “This needs to stop now.” She seemed to suggest that there was a concern about free speech regarding how Tur had been scrutinized, explaining that “ideas should be challenged, people should not be attacked.” Robbins did acknowledge, however, that trans people should try not to speak on behalf of anybody’s experience but their own. “Far too many times this community is too quick to attack and destroy rather than take the time to question and understand.”

Tur said as much to ThinkProgress herself. She described how one of the interesting observations from her transition was the loss of male privilege, which she feels is at play when others — be it individual activists or groups like GLAAD — tell her to “shut up and be silent” or communicate to her, “You better say what we tell you to or we’re going to come after you.” She described her detractors as “condemning any diversity of thought” and characterized their criticism as a “form of violence toward women.”

Stabler acknowledged that “it’s hard not to feel picked on when you’re called out or told you need media training.” But that doesn’t change the fact, she argued, that Tur is “inconsistent and plain wrong.” Sharing Juro’s same concern, Stabler warned that Tur “is going to be recognized as the 2015 Susan Stanton,” reinforcing what social conservatives fear instead of who trans people actually are. Tellingly, just this week, the American Family Association launched a Planet Fitness boycott, warning that women and children were at risk by conflating the non-incident in Michigan with other stories of sexual assault that had nothing to do with transgender people.

Tur insisted to ThinkProgress that she doesn’t think of herself as a spokesperson of the trans community, adding that she was “fully thinking of the [good of the] community” when she made her comments. But Sanchez warns that despite her intent, the way she speaks about transgender issues — and the way the media allows her to speak about transgender issues — could still be problematic. “It is crucial for the health and well-being of all people who are trans that one person does not declare themselves or be declared a spokesperson for an entire community,” he told ThinkProgress. “It is also crucial that the media not approach anyone in that way. One person’s experience is exactly that: one person’s experience.”

Juro, like Stabler and Sanchez, worries that the political stakes for transgender equality are too high to allow for such problematic messaging and representation. Her advice to Tur is simple: “Please stop saying stupid shit on television.”

UPDATE

The Advocate confirmed over the weekend that Inside Edition had ended its relationship with Tur, though that decision was not the result of the backlash against her comments on transgender issues. “It was just a part-time assignment, for February sweeps,” co-executive producer Esther Pressin told the LGBT magazine. “She did three stories for us, and we’re done.”

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