Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It’s not about “special treatment,” it’s about respect

Nice article by the Steven Petrow, past president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association about pregnant trans man Thomas Beatie and the "skeptic quotes" and intentionally wrong pronouns that often accompanied coverage of him. Petrow, who gets it, and makes this point:

As for news coverage, Ina explained to me that most media outlets at that time still had no consistency in how they applied pronouns to transgender people, often identifying individuals by their gender of birth—not gender appearance or expression. Now, most newspapers have adopted a policy to use a transgender person's chosen name and pronoun. For instance, the San Jose Mercury News, after repeatedly failing in how it identified transgender individuals in the much-publicized murder of Gwen Araujo, adopted this much more fair and accurate policy:
We encourage you to ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. If it is not possible to ask the person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person's appearance and gender expression. Also, please do not put quotation marks around gender pronouns, suggesting that the pronoun does not reflect the person's true sex.
If you think this is a case of "special" treatment, think again. We in the media often use the chosen names of celebrities as both a measure of respect and clarity rather than insisting on using their birth name. (For instance, Muhammad Ali is no longer referred to by his birth name, Cassius Clay; similarly, we all know the former Cherilyn Sarkisian as the one-syllable diva: Cher.)
Petrow also offers a nice bit of context:
Many in the LGBT community have wondered whether the transgender community will see "some backlash" from the Beatie story and whether it will hinder the movement toward greater social acceptance of transgender individuals. When you have Letterman saying someone is a "freak show," you've got a bit of a problem. This reminds me, though, of another so-called problem. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as gays and lesbians sought greater visibility and acceptance, more conservative members of our "community" (which I put in quotation marks here because there was a decided lack of community in their views) argued vociferously that leather men, drag queens, porn stars and transvestites should go to the back of the lavender bus because they were not good PR vehicles for the gay rights movement. In short, we were urged to put our "best" faces forward: The Brooks Brother Homosexual.

Hunter Madsen (along with the late Marshall Kirk, both tidy young men, then) wrote the seminal treatise on this: After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the '90s. They argued against shock tactics—like PDAs in the street—and in favor of a Madison Avenue-like public relations campaign that aimed to make gays more mediagenic (think Will & Grace). Looking back over the nearly two decades since their book was published, we can easily see that acceptance of gays and lesbians has been helped by our mainstream brothers and sisters: Ellen DeGeneres (TV superstar), Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) and Greg Louganis (Olympian) as examples. Yet, don't mistake the power of our more outré companions in shaping the culture, in pushing the culture: the "divine" filmmaker John Waters; NPR's most famous "lisper," David Sedaris; and the androgynous chanteuse k.d. lang. Madsen and Kirk would likely have chosen to obfuscate this latter trio of LGBT heroes in their PR campaign for gay acceptance—and what a sadder, more narrow world that would have been for everyone. Similarly, Beatie might not be the poster child for transgender acceptance that some would like. Too bad, I say. He's one among many, and if we know anything from recent history, it's the importance of each of us standing up to be visible, recognized and accepted for who we are.

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