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 email@example.com.
*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:
BEYOND THE BINARIES OF GENDER AND SEXUALITY
TRANSGENDER AWARENESS WEEK 2012
MONDAY 4.9 // 12 PM // LGBT•CRC