How A Newspaper Got My Life As A Trans Woman Dangerously Wrong
By Jessica Fisher
This summer, as I was sitting out on my father’s porch in the middle of the night, I came across an article that I had been interviewed for, which had been posted that day. The interview process had made me question if I would be quoted — and I was, briefly.
The article headline read: “PULLED FROM THE SHADOWS.” And the 158 words that were chosen to represent my entire lived experience were as follows:
“Jessica Fisher knows there are people who never will accept her.
‘It’s one thing to be different in the way I listen to heavy metal music, and it’s another thing to be different in a way that offends politics, religion, and a person’s sense of science,’ she said.
Fisher, 24 and born male, is a senior at Kennesaw State University. Growing up in Bartow County, she knew she was different as early as third grade, but didn’t have the words to explain it. She settled on gay — the only gender identity term she knew at the time — and told her mother in fourth grade.
In middle school, Fisher said she was bullied and intimidated. She remembers almost daily harassment by a neighbor who would follow her off the school bus telling her to ‘drop the queer.’
Toward the end of high school, Fisher, like many transgender students, kept her head down and just tried to assimilate.”
This depiction, which may not seem so egregious on its face, was flawed in ways that are indicative of how media outlets frequently fail to fairly depict the trans experience.
The media can, and should, do better.
When I sat down for my interview with one of the article’s writers, I made a conscious decision to be as diplomatic as possible. It’s not every day that a journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asks a transgender person for their opinion, or to speak about their experiences. Plus, I had a certain amount of respect for the way the interview opportunity had come to me. And so, I wanted to not only provide my opinion, but to do so in a way that would help advance the public’s understanding of the trans community.
There were signs from the start that things might not go as smoothly as I had hoped. Though I was under the impression that I was going to be talking about the Obama administration’s guidelines on transgender use of bathrooms, and my home state of Georgia’s response, I was instead asked about my personal life. Specifically, I was prodded to provide details that felt sensitive and like nobody’s business — things like my given name, my transition plans, and how my parents feel about my being transgender.
Even as I kept trying to steer the conversation back to the issue at hand, the reporter continued to inquire about these details. I obliged, under the auspices of believing the personal is political, but not without discomfort. At no point was there an attempt to see what I actually thought about the legislation; my opinion, it seems, wasn’t important — only a crude reductionism of my identity.
The experience brought to mind Piers Morgan’s infamous interview with Janet Mock, during which — throughout the segment — the bottom third of the screen included phrases such as “Path to Womanhood” and “Was a boy until age 18.” The process of the interview prompted a tweet from Janet Mock that featured a picture of her and Laverne Cox posing together and expressing concern about the way Mock was treated during the interview. (This prompted a second, equally aggravating interview.)
Ultimately, my own two interviews — which, if memory serves, lasted about 30 minutes a piece — resulted in a very condensed version of everything I’d said. Of course, I never expected to be the focus of the full story, but what was selected seemed like blatant misrepresentation rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding about the trans experience.
The story told about me was stunted, short, and poorly framed. It ended when I was in high school, when I was a different person, and made no mention of who I was after that, or who I am today. Moreover, it focused on ideas of “assimilation” and “keeping my head down” that diminished and skewed my actual, lived experience.
Throughout my life, I have been called a wide range of things that were meant as slurs: commie pinko bedwetting faggot, queer, and crazy, just to name a few. I have endured not being invited to slumber parties — because, you know, boys with penises can’t go to slumber parties with girls with vaginas. I’ve been told by a teacher not to wear ribbons in my hair, because only girls should get to do this. I’ve scratched off finger nail polish with hot water and bleach at the behest of my father. (I can still remember his words: “No son of mine is going to have purple nails. Purple and nail polish are for girls.”) I’ve had boys think I was gay, certain that as a symptom of this sexuality, I would anally rape them. I’ve been too poor to pay to transition.
“Assimilation” is defined as, “The process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group.” At no point during any of this did I acquire, adjust to, or accept the oppression I experienced.
In fact, in many ways, I’ve fought. I graduated high school some five years ago. Since then, I have marched in the streets of Atlanta, both in pre-ordained pride marches and in protests. I have been deadnamed and fought harder than anyone should ever have to fight just to be called my name. I have engaged in college activism — including in communities I was part of while living in queer housing at Kennesaw State University, a subject I thought would come up as part of the interview.
The article also reduced my experiences by paraphrasing what my middle school bully said. It wasn’t “drop the queer,” but “drop that queer shit” — a more accurate representation of the aggressions I faced regularly. And there was more not included in the article: “If you stop acting like such a little queer, we won’t have a problem.”
Perhaps most troublingly, the piece states that I was “born male.” I wasn’t. I was coercively assigned male at birth. Doctors looked at sonograms and determined that they were sure they saw a penis, and told my parents as much. Then, when I was born and the penis was in fact present, I was stuck with the gender of “boy” for a long time, an identity forced on me by my family, friends, and teachers. Never mind that I once was encouraged to get tested for Klinefelter’s, the genetic “disorder” that involves the presence of an extra X chromosome. My dad didn’t want me to get tested for this because it complicates his understanding of gender and he didn’t want his kid to be seen as a freak. And so, I was told I was male.
But I was never male.
I’ve been asked to have some respect for the writers, and their intentions — but I struggle to see how I can. This piece took a month to piece together, and a cursory web search would have helped the writers better cover transgender folks. The piece was written very much for the cisgender gaze with little respect or understanding for the broad complexity of a transgender student’s experience in school. (There were two writers for this article, plus who knows how many copy-editors and other editors.)
The incident, ultimately, sheds light on the media’s enduring struggle to fairly depict the trans experience. In part, this stems from systemic issues. The journalism industry’s bible, the Associated Press Stylebook, for instance, has not done enough to enshrine thoughtful coverage of the trans community.
The AP guide suggests, rightly, that journalists no longer use the offensive “transsexual,” and instead use “transgender.” But its entry for “transgender” notes that journalists should, if a pronoun preference is not expressed, “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” This idea flies in the face of a tenant that transgender activists and community members have been advocating for and living by for some time now, which is that if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, you should ask, never assume.
The AP entry also states, “Use transgender to describe individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” This subjective language suggests that one can only be trans if they look a certain way. If the transgender person being interviewed does not present themselves in a way that, in the eyes of the journalist, conveys their true gender identity, does that mean they are consenting to journalistic misgendering?
The Associated Press has made progress. But it is not preaching loudly enough or often enough about how to not only write about transgender individuals, but how to talk to them in an interview setting. This lack of strong leadership became particularly evident when, in reporting on Vanity Fair’s Caitlyn Jenner cover story, the AP violated its own guidelines by misgendering and objectifying Caitlyn.
The problem with having an influential stylebook like the AP’s is that it often means journalists won’t seek out any additional text. If they did, they would find another invaluable resource at their disposal — The GLAAD Media Guide. This guide offers some guidance in its own entry on the word transgender:
“(adj.) An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms — including transgender. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the descriptive term preferred by the individual. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.”
The GLAAD guide also emphasizes a point that proved to be critical in my own experience: one is not “Born (a) male” or “Born (a) female,” but instead is “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth.” Some activists would go one step further and say that one is either “coercively assigned male at birth” or “coercively assigned female at birth.”
The reason that all of this is important to me is not just because I’m transgender, and not just because I’m a journalist (with an Associate’s in Communication and, soon, a Bachelor’s in Communication), but because I’ve now experienced being poorly represented in the media.
I’ve seen 24 years of life and transness condensed into 158 words that fit neatly into an assimilationist narrative that would generate clicks and comments and shares without affecting real change. I feel duped, I feel betrayed, I feel stupid. I feel as if I have an obligation to my community and to myself and to 13-year-old me. I feel as if I have failed. And somehow I feel all of this even though I did nothing wrong.
In the end, though, I’m left with conviction. They won’t quote the parts of our stories that challenge their narrative — but that doesn’t mean we should stop telling them.
Lead image: Pixabay