With the recent premieres of I Am Cait and I Am Jazz, transgender visibility is surging ahead in the media. That doesn’t mean, however, that the media has agreed on how to respectfully talk about transgender people, especially when restrooms come up.
This week, The Daily Show and The O’Reilly Factor demonstrated just how wide the gulf is between those who respect and support transgender people and those who mock and fear transgender people — when the media discusses trans issues at all.
On Tuesday night, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and his guests mocked transgender people and steps being taken to respect their identities. Responding to the suggestion from NBC contributor Danielle Moodie-Mills that commentators in the media should be held accountable for misgendering people, O’Reilly scoffed that he doesn’t know what that even means.
Guest Bernard McGuirk, executive producer of Imus In The Morning, tried to address O’Reilly’s confusion by explaining that people are offended “if you call Caitlyn Jenner ‘he.'” O’Reilly, claiming he was trying to be “accurate here on the Factor,” offered, “But from the waist down, he is a ‘he,’ according to she, according to him.” McGuirk agreed with that description, adding, “I cringe at the idea” of Caitlyn Jenner having gender-affirmation surgery.
McGuirk then bemoaned that “their goal is to have gender-neutral locker rooms, gender-neutral bathrooms” and that “they want to get rid of urinals.” O’Reilly then suggested that “Satan might be behind” the inclusive categories the University of California system is now offering for students’ gender identities.
The night after Fox aired its urinal concerns, The Daily Show included a segment in which correspondent Jordan Klepper traveled to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one of the only cities in the state to pass and maintain nondiscrimination protections for its LGBT citizens. Klepper interviewed those protections’ top opponent, a local pastor by the name of Randall Christy, who insisted that he has serious concerns about transgender people using the restroom:
CHRISTY: These laws that protect gender expression allow biological males to go wherever they want, biological females to go wherever they want, depending on how they’re expressing their gender that day. It is happening, you know.
KLEPPER: What’s happening?
CHRISTY: There are people that walk into restrooms and someone of the opposite sex is in that restroom.
KLEPPER: Doing what?
CHRISTY: Uh… evidently, using the restroom.
KLEPPER: And then what?
CHRISTY: I don’t know, but that’s a problem for some people.
Klepper was unfazed, and invited City Council member Joyce Zeller to respond. She countered, “I’m not quite sure what bathrooms have to do with this, but for some reason, conservative religious people are terribly hung up on bathrooms.”
The juxtaposition of these two clips is apt. Both Klepper and O’Reilly claim ignorance (feigned or not) about transgender people, but proceed to have opposite reactions. Klepper responds without concern (“and then what?”) while O’Reilly responds with fear (“Satan might be behind this”). (O’Reilly has previously said that transgender protections in schools are “truly madness.”) McGuirk’s odd worries about how bathrooms might change suggests that the “bathroom” scare tactics have been so overused that some conservatives are forgetting how the myth is even supposed to help their case against trans protections.
This inclination toward the disregard of transgender people is prevalent throughout other coverage of trans issues. For example, Media Matters tracked the way local news networks have covered Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance that now faces a referendum at the ballot. Opponents of HERO repeatedly claimed that the transgender protections would somehow invite sexual predators into restrooms, and local media has frequently broadcast those claims without any context about their accuracy.
Organizations like GLAAD have been working with media professionals to correct these myths and educate reporters about how to accurately and respectfully discuss transgender people. Media Matters’s tracking of national coverage of transgender issues suggests that simply getting news outlets to discuss them at all is a hurdle, let alone discuss them in an adequate fashion. As Houston’s coverage and the gulf between The Daily Show and The O’Reilly Factor all demonstrate, there is a long way to go.