Why Transgender Awareness Week Matters

by Leanna Keyes, ’14

In the parody video “Sh*t Sorority Girls Say,” one (drag-costumed) man bubbily suggests, “Let’s raise awareness!” as if such a goal is silly or ineffective. And yet, in the face of the catastrophically cissexist* interview Barbara Walters conducted for trans* Miss Universe contestant Jenna Talackova, I’m reminded of just how far we’ve come and how very very far we still have to go.

Riese of Autostraddle already did a great breakdown of many of the reasons this interview was a disaster, so I won’t repeat her words–go read them if you have the time, they’re worth it. The gist is that Walters asked Talackova a string of questions that were extremely invasive without even realizing that she was being wildly inappropriate. It was the standard slew of clueless-interviewer questions asked to trans* people: “Which bathroom did you use?” “Have you had the surgery?” “Did your boyfriend know?” and the like, all framed such that Talackova’s gender is based purely on her surgical status and ability to be read the way Walters likes–i.e., read as cis, female, conventionally attractive–rather than being something that Talackova herself is allowed to determine. My absolute favorite quote from this interview:

“So if I saw you undressed you would look like a woman to me, totally? Yes?” – Barbara Walters

This is why we need Transgender Awareness Week. Because even a woman whose entire job is doing her research and asking informed questions that are going to broaden people’s understanding–one who is reportedly paid over ten million dollars a year–thinks that these are the appropriate questions to ask a trans* person. To her credit, Talackova handles herself with grace, but can you imagine a world where she would be able to respond, “Well, Barbara, tell me about your genitals, then we can talk about my genitals” and not be thrown out of the interview, let alone if she talked about the importance of self-identification or started in on cissupremacism? Can you imagine an audience that would watch this interview and make angry phone calls to ABC, complaining about Walters’ rude and cissexist behavior, rather than an audience that made angry phone calls about exposing America’s youth to “perversion” or “homosexuals?”

Awareness and advocacy are crucial to reaching the kind of world where transgender identities (and transgender people) are given the same respect by cis people that cis people give to one another. To be sure, it’s a HUGE sign of progress that Talackova (who is not only trans*, but from an indigenous Canadian community, not that Walters was interested in that) was invited to a mainstream American news program and had her gender identity (nominally) respected. But that was not the kind of interview that means we’ve “won.” It means we’ve made progress–trans* voices are beginning to be heard, but we’re still being fed a script by well-meaning cissupremacists.

Events like Transgender Awareness Week are the first steps towards being able to write our own scripts–as more and more trans* narratives are heard, we begin to understand the truly humbling range of experiences, without being confined only to the traditional, cissexist ways of being trans* in this cis world. All of our stories are worth being told, and TAW is just one of the many outlets for our community. So stop by, come to an event or two, and let’s find a way to make sure that everyone can manifest their identity with integrity–and without being asked about their junk.

Leanna Keyes, a sophomore majoring in Drama, studies portrayals and performances of oppression, equality, triumph, and healing. She can be contacted at lkeyes@stanford.edu

*Cissexist is a term addressing the hierarchy of indentities in which cisgender identities are automatically assumed to be superior to and more valid than transgender identities.

This week is Beyond the Binaries of Gender and Sexuality: Transgender Awareness Week 2012 at Stanford. All events are open to the public! 
Check it out: 



MONDAY 4.9 // 12 PM // LGBT•CRC

Lunch discussion with DOSSIE EASTON, author of The Ethical Slut [lunch included]
Panel of disability and queer justice activists: MIA MINGUSWILLY WILKINSONDANIELLE CASTRO, + IAN O’BRIEN
TUESDAY 4.10 // 6 PM // LGBT•CRC
Screening of XXY, a film about intersex identity [dinner included]
Discussion and screening of trans*/genderqueer pornography with JIZ LEE + BILLY CASTRO (18+ ONLY!)
THURSDAY 4.12 // 7 PM // LAW SCHOOL 190
“Toward a Critical Transgender Movement,” a presentation and discussion by DEAN SPADE + ERIC STANLEY
Discussion of asexuality politics with DAVID JAY + KARLI CERANKOWSKI

All events are accessible. All spaces are fragrance freePlease email Holly Fetter (hfetter@stanford.eduto request disability accommodations.

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9 thoughts on “Why Transgender Awareness Week Matters

  1. […] Why Transgender Awareness Week Matters by Leanna Keyes, ‘14 […]

  2. […] different posts about Transgender Awareness Week, by Leanna and Alok respectively: Why transgender awareness week matters and Why should I care about trans* awareness week. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the […]

  3. Anonymous says:

    This article is related to why Trans* Awareness Week matters, right? However, to my knowledge Beyond the Binaries is not really addressing “Trans 101” type of questions, which would help prevent interviews with invasive questions. We need to educate people about trans* issues, but I don’t really believe that this year’s TAW is doing that.

    • esqg says:

      Or we could make them realize that trans issues matter, and go and read “trans 101” things themselves. This is really easy to do; and I’m sure “trans 101” things get covered when they are needed. But having gone to Monday’s panel, it was really awesome to have a constructive beyond-101-level talk. Those are hard to come by.

  4. Joyful and Cheery says:

    I really think that this is one of the best things that could have happened at this point, considering the stigmas around transgender persons. The interview was intrusive in many ways that in my view were quite necessary for helping to dispel some of these stigmas. It really shocked some people when they found out that Jenna was born with male genitalia, especially people who held onto the many negative stigmas. The interview helped to clarify the issue for many older individuals (40+ year olds tend to get their information from television and not the internet or progressive social gatherings). I assume that if these questions weren’t so relevant to Barbara Walter’s primary audience (probably an older audience) that she would have picked some less intrusive questions. It’s unfortunate that Jenna had to go through that, I really do feel for her. But as she said in her interview, if her doing this can help others then she is proud to do it. We should all be proud of her for running the gauntlet, undoubtedly her selflessness has changed the minds of many individuals who might never have considered a change to their opinions.

    • Leanna Keyes says:

      I’m definitely proud of her for “running the gauntlet,” as you put it. And for better or for worse, I do agree that (to varying degrees) any positive portrayal of a trans* person on television is awesome.

      That said, the questions that Barbara Walters’ primary audience might want her to ask aren’t always going to be questions that she should ask. As a journalist, I personally hold her to a higher standard. The average audience member might think it was appropriate to ask Talackova about her junk and base their understanding of her gender on her surgical status. However, Walters (in my view) has a responsibility to lead by example and ask questions that are appropriate, not wildly invasive. The only thing that determines Talackova’s gender is Talackova herself–not her documentation, surgical status, hormonal status, sexuality, history, bathroom, etc. If Walters had proceeded with that understanding, she could have shown that to the audience, rather than reinforcing and perpetuating outdated ideas of what it means to “look like a woman,” and (essentially) validating Talackova’s gender because she conforms to Walters’ idea of what women are supposed to look like. Am I making sense?

  5. Ryan says:

    As a cisgender male, there’s a couple things I don’t understand about this article. Many people, including myself when I was younger and didn’t know about transgender people, incorrectly associate gender, sex, genitalia, chromosomes (XX, XY), etc as all one and the same, with a strict binary of male and female. Thus, when I and presumably others first learn about or meet transgender people, this incorrect understanding fall aparts. And, for us, basic questions about genitalia, bathroom use, legal gender, etc arise. While I understand why it would be inappropriate to ask a stranger on the street, Jenna is in the midst of controversy due to her transgender status and willingly decided to be interviewed by Barbara Walters to talk about her transgender status specifically. So although genitalia and gender aren’t strictly tied together, many people believe that there is a strict tie, and there certainly is some correlation. Furthermore, many cisgender people such as myself wonder about how transgender people “tackle” cisnormative institutions, like binary-gender bathrooms. So, since the interview is about her transgender status, I’m a little confused as to why those questions (about genitalia, the bathroom) are inappropriate? I understand that they may be uncomfortable or difficult, but not why it’s inappropriate or cissexist. If you want to raise awareness, wouldn’t you rather have the transgender community answer these questions rather than have people like me speculate and guess?

    Also, since tone can be lost in text, let me clarify that my questions are intended to be inquisitive and curious, not offensive or attacking. If anything I say (now or ever) is offensive, please let me know. 🙂

    • elizabethsqg@gmail.com says:

      If you read the original article, I think you’ll see one part of the problem right away. Barbara Walters *did* ask a couple of important questions, such as bullying in school. But she interrupted Jenna’s answers to those.

      The essential problem of cissexism is this: cis US and Canadian society (among many others) is absolutely *fascinated* with genitalia, surgery, and any aspect of the transition process that they notice: in a way that is creepy, objectifying, and denies trans people’s right to privacy. We all learn about puberty in school, for example, so people don’t often ask cis girls “when did you start having your period? How often do you have it? What happens, what’s it for, how does it work?” That would be a ridiculous invasion of privacy, and coming from cis guys, it would be sexist. But rather than learn about medical processes of transition, people ask trans people if *they* have had SRS (in particular) and how does it work.

      It is true that Jenna Talackova is in a beauty pageant, and that’s all about analyzing people’s bodies in particular, in a way that is already highly problematic. But even if having her explain that she’s had SRS is useful for education of an older audience (I’m not making this point, but maybe it is so), Walters went further, and for example asked her if she’d met her boyfriend “before or after surgery”. WTF??? Surely with a minimum of thought one can figure out the cissexist implications of *that* gem. Hint: it’s about a prevailing obsession with standardizing bodies and sexuality.

  6. elizabethsqg@gmail.com says:

    Nice post, and I love the graphic.

    Related to the “cissexist interview” problem, cis people very selectively paying attention to trans people: Underwhelming response to trans rights bill, overwhelming response to trans beauty queen.

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