Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Transphobia In Mainstream Media: Are The Right-Wingers The Real Problem?

It seems like all too often when you tune your radio or television to mainstream news and talk shows these days, there's good reason to be at minimum pretty annoyed, and sometimes even genuinely pissed off and angry if you're a transgender person or ally. Despite decades of progress made in the area of LGBT acceptance and representation in mainstream media, the problem of transphobia in mainstream media remains pervasive and seemingly virtually unchecked in some quarters, even in media specifically directed toward politically progressive and left-leaning audiences.

While there are probably few on either the left or the right who'd find it unusual for pundits and their guests on Fox News or similar media to enthusiastically bash transgender and gender-variant people, it amazes me how this kind of thing is all but completely ignored by just about everyone when it happens on a show popularly considered to be liberal and/or left-wing.

Let's take "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" as an example. On a broadcast last year that took place shortly after the incident, Keith's guest, author and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, was humorously bashing Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean for her negative response to pageant judge Perez Hilton when asked if she supported same-sex marriage. Toward the end of the segment, Musto jokingly offered that in addition to her breast enhancements, the Miss USA pageant officials also paid for Prejean to "cut off her penis, sand her Adam's apple, and get a head-to-toe waxing.", along with other transphobic insults which followed. Olbermann's reaction, as far as I could tell, was to simply chuckle right along along with Musto's transphobic jokes.

No one I'm aware of in our community media or our advocacy organizations, mainstream or otherwise, took any notice of Musto's transphobic spewings on "Countdown" that night. As a loyal "Countdown" viewer myself, I suspect that many did what I did when I saw the original broadcast live, which was to think to myself "Michael Musto is sooo last century. Why can't Olbermann have someone good on, at least someone who doesn't look and sound like he just time-warped in from 1985?". Unfortunately, that's all I did. I didn't write about it, I didn't call it out, I didn't use my platform at the Bilerico Project to make people aware of it. I just acknowledged my disapproval of Musto's blatant transphobia internally and moved on. I was wrong. I should have done more.

Then there was the hate crimes bill, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. When Rachel Maddow reported on its passage on her show, she mentioned that the bill covered gender identity, but she never mentioned that this meant that transgender and gender-variant citizens were protected as well. In fact, a viewer who was hearing about these issues for the first time on that show would have learned that this new law would cover gays and lesbians in the event of a hate crime, but nothing about anyone one else. In fact, the only thing in the entire segment to even allude to the inclusion of transgender and gender-variant Americans in the protections of this new law was a quote from Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese who used the word "inclusive" to describe it.

This, of course, is a very different issue than the one with "Countdown". On that show, Musto's transphobia was blatant, intentional, and not only unchecked but even validated and encouraged by Olbermann's laughing along. In the case of "The Rachel Maddow Show", however, we're really talking about a sin of omission. Still bad, and still worthy of challenge, but also unquestionably not as transphobic or as potentially damaging to the public image of transgender and gender-variant people as Musto's bigoted and unchallenged diatribe on "Countdown". What we saw on "Countdown" was transphobia, pure and simple, as well as open disregard and disdain for transgender and gender-variant people and the way we live our lives, presented to "Countdown"'s audience as acceptable humor by Michael Musto and promoted and validated as such by Keith Olbermann. It's frankly amazing to me that a man who delivered one of the best commentaries I've ever heard in favor of same-sex marriage could be so utterly insensitive when it comes to topics and issues affecting transgender and gender-variant people.

What happened months later, in the aftermath of these incidents, is instructive as well.

When Olbermann hosted Michael Musto on "Countdown" again, he brandished a hotel-style desk bell and warned Musto he'd ring it if he went over the line. While this may or may not have been inspired by Musto's transphobic jokes during his previous appearance, Olbermann's turning the situation into an on-air joke for his viewers certainly sent a pretty clear message about what he thinks of the problems some of us have with Musto and his on-air behavior. Interestingly, the bell remained silent as Musto joked this time that one of Carrie Prejean's goals was to "prevent Chastity Bono from transitioning".

"The Rachel Maddow Show" was a different story entirely. Rachel covered President Obama's appointment of transwoman Amanda Simpson to a position at the Department of Commerce recently, and it was everything we could have hoped for. Rachel's commentary was brilliant, striking right to the heart of the issue and skewering those who actually deserve it, those on the right who are up in arms over Ms. Simpson's appointment because she's a transwoman, despite the fact that she's supremely qualified for the position she was appointed to.

To me this dichotomy is nothing short of stunning. I'm a loyal viewer of both shows, but how they've dealt with trans-relevant topics and issues on their shows are so diametrically opposed to each other that if someone wrote a book on the topic they could define those differences as "The Right Way" and "The Wrong Way".

Does it matter that Rachel Maddow is a gender-variant lesbian in her thirties and Keith Olbermann is a middle-aged straight guy? My bet is that it does, at least a little.

When Rachel's show essentially erased transgender people from a segment about the hate crimes law, I (and I'd bet many others) wrote to her and let her know that we weren't happy. We sent her stories to cover (I personally sent her the piece about Amanda Simpson from ABC's website that she used in the segment, as I'm sure many did), and we told her why it mattered to us. When the opportunity presented itself, Rachel rose to the occasion and gave us a terrific segment, not only on Amanda Simpson but also on the new anti-discrimination regulations protecting gender identity and expression in federal employment recently put into place by the Obama Administration.

My guess is that many like myself were moved to write to Rachel, far more than probably wrote to Keith Olbermann about Musto, in the expectation that she'd understand because she's family. I believe it very likely that many LGBT viewers who enjoy "The Rachel Maddow Show" on its own merits also feel a connection to Rachel and want to cheer her on and support her because she's one of us. I know that for me at least, Rachel being who she is certainly made it seem worth the effort to write her in the hopes of better transgender coverage. Olbermann on the other hand, didn't inspire me with the same kind of confidence, not because he's straight or traditionally-gendered but because of his laughing along with Musto. In short, while what I know about Rachel Maddow inspired me to contact her and express my views, what I saw from Olbermann during the Musto segment said to me that it wasn't worth the bother. I probably should have written him anyway, but it was just hard to see a point to it. I strongly suspect I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

As far as I can detect from simply watching "Countdown", Olbermann still doesn't seem to realize that there's a real problem here. Musto's appearances on "Countdown" have the feel of two middle-aged white guys wisecracking and denigrating whatever doesn't fit into their own limited worldviews. I find this especially striking and hard to accept because as regular viewers know, Keith Olbermann is a true progressive liberal, the kind of person who puts both his money and his media influence where his mouth is to help accomplish good works such as the health care fairs funded by donations from "Countdown" viewers and promoted on his show. He presents compelling progressively and liberally-oriented commentaries on a variety of important issues, including our own.

Yet, it seems that for Keith Olbermann while gays and lesbians such as Michael Musto and Rachel Maddow can and should be protected from discrimination and are a cause worthy of speaking out on behalf of, transgender and gender-variant people are still appropriate objects of humor and derision on his show, and it's also still acceptable to publicly denigrate an object of liberal and progressive distaste and disgust such as Carrie Prejean by defining her as a transsexual. .

To my way of thinking, this is where the real problem lies. Everyone expects the right-wingers to bash progressive and liberal causes. No one's shocked when Matt Labash calls Rachel Maddow a man on Tucker Carlson's new website, but when Michael Musto bashes transgender people on "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann snickering along it's a very different story. Those paying attention to Carlson, Beck, Limbaugh, and other right-wing pundits probably aren't going to be in our corner politically anyway, but when someone like Keith Olbermann presents and validates transphobia on his show it can have a much greater and far more damaging impact because it's the people watching his show who are the ones we're going to have to depend on to support us and our equal rights politically when the time comes.

Personally, I believe we have the right to expect, and in fact to demand, that those who define themselves as liberal and progressive pundits in mainstream media actually practice what they preach, at least during the time they're actually on the air. If it's wrong and, as Olbermann put it in his Special Comment on the topic, "horrible" to pass a law taking away the right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry in California, it's just as wrong and just as horrible to present disgusting, offensive jokes about transpeople by defining an anti-gay beauty queen detested and vilified by those on the left as a transsexual. It reeks of a sad time in our nation's history when when political figures and others of note were often defamed by their opposition in the media of the time by accusing them of having Negro ancestry. Such attacks not only define the target as unworthy of equal rights and fair treatment, but also reinforce the idea that the minority group the target is accused of belonging to isn't worthy of such considerations either.

Understand that I'm not saying that I believe that Keith Olbermann is transphobic or personally responsible for Michael Musto's transphobic outburst on his show. As an online pundit and Internet radio host myself, I know there have been many times when a guest has said something on one of my shows that's just made me cringe. The difference here is that not only did Olbermann let Musto continue spewing his transphobia unchallenged, but he also chuckled right along as he did so. As liberals, as progressives, as those on the loyal left who make up a significant part of his audience, I think we have the right to expect better than this, both from a pundit with the progressive and liberal credibility of someone like Keith Olbermann, and from a cable network with the liberal constituency MSNBC boasts.

Also, I want to make it clear that this isn't about bashing Keith Olbermann, "Countdown", or MSNBC. Just as in the case of Greg Grunberg, I believe that Olbermann simply didn't realize that Musto's comments would be seen as truly offensive by some of his viewers until after the fact, and honestly, there's still no real evidence that might lead us to conclude that he understands this even now. My issue with Keith Olbermann centers mainly around the fact that someone as demonstrably tuned in, knowledgeable, and staunchly liberal and progressive as he is would not only laugh along with Musto's comments in first place, but then would later mock the concerns of those of his viewers who have been offended by Musto by turning them into minor comedy skit on his show, complete with prop and sound effect.

What this is about is asking the kind of questions that need to be asked every time we see something like this in the mainstream media, and particularly when it concerns pundits speaking to the political left: Why doesn't Keith Olbermann know better? Why doesn't he see the positive, progressive, and inclusive political values he represents on his show as applying to transgender people as well? Most importantly, why should we, as loyal "Countdown" viewers and part of the show's audience, be willing to silently accept it when it happens just because Olbermann speaks to the political left instead of the right?

The answer, of course, is that we shouldn't stand for it. It's time we started calling out stuff like this publicly, every time we see it, on the blogs, on Twitter, all over online media, no matter what network it happens on or who the host happens to be. It's time we put the mainstream networks on notice that when they allow unchallenged bigotry like this on their shows, we're going to make sure politically-conscious LGBT's and our allies know about it just as quickly as when a politician says something stupid in front of a video camera and it ends up on one of their shows.

The truth is I don't like having to write this. I'm a fan, a loyal "Countdown" viewer, and I watch the show just about every weeknight. Yet, at the same time, I also have to ask if we can't even get shows on the political left in mainstream media like "Countdown" and hosts as left-wing as Olbermann to treat us and our issues decently, how is it reasonable for us to expect Congress to do it?

We can no longer sit and wait quietly, hoping this will finally be the year that the networks figure this stuff out on their own. With Twitter, the blogs, and so many other ways to communicate and interact with each other online, and with the participation and promotion of GLAAD and other like-minded organizations and activists involved in these efforts, we'll finally have what we need to make our voices heard at a level of reach and impact that's never been possible before now.

It's time to start leveraging the power of our community and what we can accomplish when we join together to make it happen. It's time to stop simply asking for positive change in our mainstream media and start demanding it. It's time to use the tools at our disposal to force the issue and make it one the networks can no longer avoid or ignore. We need to start calling out those on the left when they fail us just as eagerly and as enthusiastically as we do those on the right. Nobody on the right or the left is going to care much if Glen Beck is popularly seen as transphobic, nor probably even Michael Musto, but I doubt the same can be said for Keith Olbermann.

Nobody (I know of) really wants to attack media pundits who they enjoy watching or listening to and agree with the vast majority of the time, but just as we can't hesitate to call out Democrats who fail their constituencies, the same must be equally true here. Just as we may speak out about problems we have on some issues with politicians who nonetheless still get our votes at election time, so must we also be willing to call out our favorite shows and pundits when they fail to measure up. We may not like having to do it, but it's only by calling these things out publicly and doing it consistently, regardless of the source, that we can be even reasonably assured that any success we may have in the short-term will have a chance of evolving into a long-term policy of respect for and fair representation of transgender and gender-variant people in mainstream media.

While we've obviously gotten through loud and clear to some, others have not yet demonstrated that they too understand that you can't really call yourself liberal or progressive when you're facilitating and promoting what essentially amounts to transphobic hatespeech on your show, even if you personally find it funny. There's a lot more work to do here, and it's up to us to do it.

Turn on the TV and fire up the Twitter. Our basic civil rights are on the table this year, and it's time to get serious about this.


helen_boyd said...

i noticed Musto's comments that night, but i've always written him off as a sexist asshole anyway. he also makes me laugh (obviously not while he's being a sexist asshole). it never surprises me to when a sexist asshole is transphobic, too.

Gina said...

I've written to the Villiage Voice a number of times about Musto's transphobia. He's been a anti-trans bigot for years masked with his "woo-woo, I'm so gay and craazy" shtick. Basically, because he's uncomfortable with transness, thinks all transwomen are really drag queens and therefore, big jokes. It's aggressiveness and dismissiveness wrapped in "humor." He's actually kind of a lightweight version of Jim Fouratt (who is a big Musto bud from the 80's and the club scene). He was out-of-it and transphobic in 1985 and now he's even more pathetic. Kind of sad that's the only person Olbermann's staff thinks they could find to talk about those issues.

Unknown said...

I've never been a big fan either, but my bet is that Musto, a pseudo-celeb, probably travels in the same NYC media elite circles as KO. KO probably has him on show because they're buds off-air and as long as he keeps him laughing KO isn't seriously concerned with what Musto's actually saying unless he gets called on it by his bosses at NBC.

Jennie Kermode said...

In the UK, we're working to combat this kind of thing through Trans Media Watch - We'd love to keep in touch with other activists working on similar issues.

Jennie Kermode said...

In the UK, we're working to combat this kind of thing through Trans Media Watch - We'd love to keep in touch with other activists working on similar issues.