Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why HRC, GLAAD and TLC’s advocacy hurts the transgender community

Today I got an email from the Human Rights Campaign saying, "Tell ABC: Your new comedy is no laughing matter." It's about this new television show called "Work It." HRC says,

As part of their winter line-up, ABC is releasing a new comedy called "Work It," featuring two men who dress as women in order to get jobs. The problem is that the premise reinforces false, hurtful stereotypes about transgender people. This kind of programming only mocks those who don't adhere to society's gender norms. Tell ABC's president to can "Work It" now.

The link in HRC's email goes to a petition asking ABC "not to air a show that reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes about transgender people." On their website, HRC says that their president Joe Solomonese "contacted ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee today to request a meeting to discuss the very real challenges transgender Americans face in the work place – with the goal of ensuring “Work It” can be a light-hearted comedy that doesn’t belittle or mock these obstacles; or reinforce negative and potentially damaging stereotypes."

With a little googling, I found a trailer for the new series, and articles at The Wrap and the Hollywood Reporter. These both said that not only HRC, but the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination were up in arms about the new show.

On GLAAD's website, I found a blog post attempting to explain "Why ABC's New Sitcom Work It Hurts the Transgender Community." That blog post linked to a Huffington Post article by Mark Daniel Snyder of the Transgender Law Center saying, "We owe it to our constituents to speak out anywhere we see an injustice, no matter how big or how small."

I don't particularly feel that this show is harmful to transgender people. I'll explain my reaction in more detail later, but for now I want to focus on the advocacy messages.

Note that in the HRC website and email, and the statements in the media, we do not hear from a single trans person. HRC president Joe Solomonese is not transgender, and I'm pretty sure that neither is GLAAD Acting President Mike Thompson or Matt Kane, their Associate Director of Entertainment Media. The transgender Huffington Post bloggers who've discussed this issue, Emerson Whitney and Mark Daniel Snyder, are both female-to-male, as is Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis, quoted in the Advocate.

It took a lot of digging to find any public statements by male-to-female transgender people, and there was a negative one by Kelli Busey and one withholding judgment by Jillian Page. The only expert on transgender workplace diversity I know of, Jillian Weiss, has produced a single tweet, "@kellibusey I like your guest post on care2."

What I find a lot more disturbing than yet another crappy sitcom is reading pronouncements by a bunch of gay men and FTMs about what MTF transgender people feel and think and want, at best referencing yet another problematic convenience-sample survey, without a single MTF voice to be heard. Do Joe Solomonese and Matt Kane and Mark Daniel Snyder know any MTFs? Emerson Whitney at least quoted Kelli Busey; why couldn't Mike Thompson or Mason Davis?

I'll tell you what hurts the transgender community. It's the pretense that we are united by anything other than the hatred we get from outside. It's the idea that we all care about the same things, feel the same way, react the same way. It's the constant stream of shoddy convenience-sample survey reports that allow some gay guy who read The Celluloid Closet or some FTM who read Marjorie Garber to set themselves up as authorities about What Hurts the Community. It's the idea that this is a problem ABC can solve by meeting with Joe Solomonese instead of, say, an actual transgender person, maybe even an actor or producer.

I'm thinking of starting a petition.