The Academic Behind the Media’s ‘Transgender Tipping Point’

by Nicole Pasulka

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While Bruce Jenner often looked like the pushover of the Kardashian clan, in reality, he told Diane Sawyer last month, “I had the story.” Over four hundred and twenty-five episodes of reality TV, “the one thing that could really make a difference in people’s lives was right here, in my soul,” Jenner said. “And I could not tell that story.” Until he did. In a moment that Time magazine has dubbed the “transgender tipping point,” the Jenner interview is only the most recent and high-profile example of the media’s growing fascination with the stories of transgender people.

Behind the scenes for the Jenner interview, the show Transparent, and the Time magazine article is Susan Stryker, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona, and the author of several books on transgender history, who has been giving interviews about trans issues for twenty years. These days, she asks journalists why they’re approaching trans stories “as some weird thing you’ve never heard of,” when according to one survey, nearly ninety-one percent of people in the United States are familiar with the term “transgender” and three-quarters of them can define it correctly.

The other day, I talked with Stryker about consulting on the Jenner interview, how media attention to trans stories has changed in recent years, and what all this visibility means for the future of trans rights.

There has been a remarkable surge in media interest when it comes to trans people and their stories. Why do you think this is happening?

First, there has been a persistent drumbeat of activism on this topic since the early nineteen nineties, like a trickle of water running across a plain that eventually carves a canyon. Second, the landscape really changed in the United States after the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbian military service and the Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality. Transgender issues were suddenly positioned as the “next big thing” in a civil rights progress narrative.

Third, thanks to our contemporary biomedical and communications environments, it’s simply not as difficult for most people to accept that our bodies and selves are radically transformable over time. Fourth, higher rates of migration, as well as higher levels of global media exposure, have made it easier for more people to see how sex, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and identity vary from place to place. Finally, kids today, ya know? Many of the so-called millennial and post-millennial generations accept that transgender phenomena are simply present in their world. No big.

It’s my understanding that you’re being asked by a lot of media organizations and journalists to talk about trans stories. Who’s calling and what do they want to know?

Last summer, I spent hours with Katy Steinmetz talking with her for what became the Time magazine cover story on the “transgender tipping point.” I’ve been in communication with the producers of the forthcoming Eddie Redmayne film, The Danish Girl, about the nineteen thirties transsexual Lili Elbe, to consult on questions of transgender representation and to strategize with them about how to head off sensationalistic media coverage in advance of the release. I’ve done two different “Room for Debate” opinion pieces for the New York Times on transgender-related topics, been in conversation with their editorial staff about the current series of editorials they are running on transgender issues, and worked closely with the producers of “Retro Reports” on a story about transgender history. I talked with Cosmopolitan magazine about how transgender issues might be pitched to their readership, perhaps focusing on relationships in which a partner transitions, and with The Advocate about the complexities of race, class, and transgender identity. As that tsunami of attention to trans issues was cresting, I spoke with NPR and the News Hour with Jim Lehrer here in the United States, and with the CBC in Canada. After the Bruce Jenner story broke, I talked with the Hollywood Reporter about whether the forthcoming reality show would be exploitative.

I’ve been asked to offer remedial level “Trans 101” information (“What’s the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?”), help editors think about story lines, provide professional expertise on transgender history and politics, and give insider advice on how to finesse delicate questions of language, reception, and messaging.

When did you first start talking with media?

I first started talking to local LGBT media in San Francisco in the early nineties, and to national mainstream media by 1995, when the transgender movement rapidly expanded along with rise of the Internet and became more visible. My steady trickle of media engagement took an uptick around 2005, with the release of my historical documentary film Screaming Queens, about trans women banding together to resist police harassment at the Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in 1966. My filmmaking partner Victor Silverman and I spent a year on the festival circuit, had a national PBS broadcast in 2006 and did a lot of media to publicize the story, but had trouble breaking into the mainstream — transgender stories were still being treated as something that would appeal mostly to a small niche market.

I had other media exposure over the last few years related to my current work in higher education, especially about the transgender studies initiative I’ve been spearheading at the University of Arizona. But all of this pales in comparison to the recent onslaught of attention to transgender issues.

Could you talk about working with ABC News on the Bruce Jenner interview?

It was non-stop for a few weeks. All I knew at first was that Diane Sawyer was planning on doing a “big story” on transgender issues. After being sworn to secrecy, I learned that it was going to focus on Jenner. I worked closely with one of the associate producers on everything from what to read to prep Sawyer for the interview, sources for archival media, how questions should be framed, who to call on for talking-head commentary, and who might make good test-audience members. Of course, in the end they made their own decisions, regardless of what I suggested.

What did you think of the interview?

I thought the interview itself was OK. Jenner had the grace and wisdom to not act like her/his experience of being trans was definitive of other people’s experience. S/he was “relatable,” as they say, which is important in our media-saturated society. More significant for me than anything Jenner actually said was the opportunity the interview provided for reframing how trans issues should be approached in mass media.

How is the coverage of trans issues and stories changing?

What has seemed significantly different to me about the recent wave of attention is that the media professionals involved have the perception that this is a delicate topic with a potential for backlash, and that what sets us apart from other people needs to be handled with respect. They are very eager to “do the right thing,” even if they don’t know exactly what that is. And rather than asking non-transgender psychiatrists and surgeons and police officers or members of the clergy or representatives of some radical feminist fringe faction to please tell the world, “What do transgender people want?” they have turned to trans people themselves. We are increasingly seen as the go-to authority on our own lives.

So, if trans stories have been told for decades, Jenner’s story isn’t exactly new?

Taking the long historical view, both sports and the military — signifiers of a robust masculinity — have long been points of fascination and contrast in mass media stories about trans women. The “macho man becomes sex kitten” idea is irresistible catnip to media consumers. Back in the fifties, Christine Jorgensen, who was the first transsexual to receive huge mass media attention (bigger than Jenner today), was consistently framed as the “ex-GI who became a blonde beauty!” even though her military service consisted of being drafted after the end of combat in WWII, and serving ten months processing paperwork at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Twenty years later, transsexual tennis pro Renée Richards got similar treatment. Jenner is now being framed the same way: How could an Olympic athlete, this paragon of masculinity, consider himself to be a woman?

What impact do you think Bruce Jenner coming out will have?

It’s hard to say. It’s easy for me to be cynical given my historical knowledge stretching back more than a century, personal awareness of trans issues since my childhood in the sixties, and direct activist involvement since the nineties, I can feel that I’ve seen this all before and that media visibility alone is pretty inconsequential. All I can say is that I sense a difference in how journalists and mainstream media-makers feel they must represent the issues if they are to be accountable to the zeitgeist.

It’s my sense that many assume this coverage will lead to greater acceptance and rights. What is the relationship between visibility and policy changes or gains in legal rights?

Well, just ask yourself: even though major civil rights legislation​ addressing injustices experienced by racial minorities was passed more than fifty years ago, even though every schoolchild in the United States has likely heard the phrase “I have a dream” and has an image of King standing in front of the multitudes at the Lincoln Memorial, have we ended racism in this country? No. Media coverage at best amplifies the message that social change agents push for. It doesn’t make change in itself. As such, media visibility is only ever a part of a struggle, a means to the ends of struggles, and not the goal itself.

Most of the time I feel like it’s great that these stories are getting out there and people are more open and aware, but I wonder if there are some reasons to be wary of all this interest. Are you? Is there something we’re missing here?

We can’t be complacent and pretend that freedom has been won for entire categories of people just because there’s more positive mass media representation. While it’s great that some trans people can have job security, get passports, access health care, and not get hassled by the cops for walking down the streets, others can’t. Trans communities — never monolithic or homogeneous to begin with — are increasingly bifurcated into those kinds of trans people deemed worthy of respectability, acceptance, or tolerance, and those deemed unacceptable: people who don’t pass as non-transgender, poor people, people of color, people who do things that have been criminalized in order to have food to eat and a place to sleep. If only some trans people benefit more from “progress” on these issues, then that isn’t really progress at all.

There seems to be an assumption that after recent gains in gay marriage, trans issues are a natural next focus and all this coverage is somehow part of an evolution in awareness or acceptance. Do you think this accurate, or is something else going on?

I think there is a relationship between the success of the marriage equality campaign and the recent upsurge in attention to transgender issues. Much of this annoys me — as if, now that we’ve taken care of a more important issue, we can move on to less significant matters. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of progress narratives. And I’m very suspicious of how transgender being the “next big thing” can serve interests other than those of transgender people.

How so?

Over the last decade or so, gay and lesbian human rights issues have been used to legitimate US foreign policy agendas — no foreign aid for some African country unless they stop criminalizing homosexuality, for example. As transgender becomes the “cutting edge” of human rights discourse, it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios that might have sounded improbable a few years ago. Like, should the EU ban immigration of Middle-Eastern and north Africa Muslims to Europe if their cultures can be labeled transphobic in contrast to the neoliberal western democracies?

What stories still aren’t being told?

I think the media is still largely focused on transition stories, the way there used to be a predominant focus on coming-out stories for coverage of lesbian and gay people. Even a show like Transparent, which has a fair amount of nuance, revolves around how the adult children of a trans person deal with the slow rollout of their parent’s new gender expression. But it’s not like the only thing transgender people do is change sex. We have whole lives. We face challenges related to being transgender that are not related to transitioning, and we do things with our lives that have nothing to do with being transgender. Where are those stories?

What about stories of older trans people who have lived many decades after transition? How can we understand trans people other than through the framework of medicalization? We don’t diagnose people as having homosexuality anymore, for example — why can’t we just say that some people have a need to express their genders differently than most other people do, and leave it at that? Why does that have to be socially sanctioned or recognized by calling it a disease or a syndrome or a psychological condition? I could go on and on, but maybe it’s best to let journalists and their audiences discover for themselves in the years ahead the seemingly infinite variety of stories that can have a “transgender angle.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.