Last week, Curbed.com featured a story on Jeff Lewis, the openly gay host of Bravo's "Flipping Out" TV series, entitled "Jeff Lewis on Cannibals, Cremation, and Transgender Crack Addicts", an interview written by Raina Cox, an interior designer and author of the blog "If the Lamp Shade Fits," for which the tagline is "Life is too short to live ugly."
To the contrary, this is very ugly.
Curbed.com describes itself as a website with a "fascination with real estate porn in all its many glories."
Mr. Lewis had this to say:
"What's your least favorite of all the houses you've flipped?
The worst one--there was a house I bought on King's Road in Sunset Strip and it was in really bad shape. The older woman who owned it had rented it out to four different people who lived there. She was renting out rooms, basically, and to very undesirable people. Normally when you buy a house, the house is delivered vacant. I thought it was delivered vacant, but when I started the demo I realized there was this basement that I didn't see during the inspection, and there was a transgender crack addict. A lot of times when you buy a house you inherit a feral cat or a raccoon or something, but in this particular case I inherited a crack addict--no joke! It took me a couple of weeks to get rid of he/she. But I didn't even know he/she was living there. It was pretty crazy--I didn't know until demo day!"
The bold emphasis in the quote appears in the original on curbed.com.
I contacted GLAAD and reported this defamatory piece, and posted a comment on the site, as follows:
"Your comment about the poor woman living in a basement, and your reference to her as 'a transgender crack addict,' along with its use in the title to titillate, is shameful. Transgender people are human beings, and not to be used as the butt of your jokes, regardless of their poverty or sobriety issues. You should immediately change the title of this piece and erase that prejudiced remark."
The editor, Sarah Firshein, replied to me with this bland non-reassurance:
"@Jillian Weiss: When interviewed, Mr. Lewis was describing the individual he found living in his basement, who happened to be transgender and who happened to be a crack addict. There's no further subtext than that. That said, thank you for presenting your point of view. We are all in agreement here that transgender folks are indeed 'human beings.'"
Are we? Are we in agreement? I think not. I think your view of the humanity of trans people is a mass of privileged rhetoric about "humanity", which you can discard at will for the putrid reality underneath, to use as linkbait and laugh about at happy hour, while you watch the ad revenue flowing in. For shame.
I spoke to Ms. Firshein today about the story on the telephone. I introduced myself as an editor at Bilerico.com, and asked if she had any comments on the story, and if she would be willing to remove it and issue an apology. Her answer was a curt "uh, no," and to tell me to email her if I had any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's surprising that Ms. Firshein, a proud graduate of Wesleyan University (it's next to her name on everything on the web), which has a fine Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, would think that there's no subtext here. Is this what you learned at Wesleyan, Ms. Firshein? As a member of the academic community, I think I will have to check with your professors on that, and see what they're teaching over there.
I don't know if it was writer Raina Cox or editor Sarah Firshein who came up with the title of the piece, but whoever it was, both bear responsibility.
Regarding the interview, while it is true that Mr. Lewis was describing someone, my concern isn't that there was a transgender crack addict in the basement. My concern was that stringing together "Cannibals, Cremation and Transgender Crack Addicts" is a blatant attempt to titillate the audience by suggesting a "Silence of the Lambs"-type comparison between trans people and the gruesome practice of cannibalism and the macabre subject of cremation.
The derogatory reference to this poor person as a "he/she", and the bold-type emphasis placed on the sentence, further cement the inference that, contrary to the words of editor Sarah Firshein, there is indeed a "further subtext." One would have to be blind -- or prejudiced -- not to see that.
Had there been a story about "Cannibalism, Cremation and Black Crack Addicts," bolded and calling the person a derogatory name, would any sane person doubt that there was a racist subtext, whether "intended" or not? There are, of course, trans cracks addicts, just as there are black crack addicts and many other types of people affected by sobriety issues. This is completely beside the point.
I received a call from GLAAD, which contacted Mr. Lewis's publicist. The publicist said that Mr. Lewis "he is going to pass on giving a quote," which means, in PR-speak, that he stands by the story.
Meanwhile, some stellar comments showed up on the site. I flagged one two days ago, but Ms. Firshein did nothing. Here they are, in all their glory:
bigappledining: Get over yourselves people. Jeff didn't say anything that wasn't likely truthful. You don't know if he knew for a fact that the person in question wasn't a crack addict. For all you know, that person offered him a hit, or they found crack in the room. You don't know.
patty cake: what was he supposed to say? A nice young transgender with a drug habit was squatting in my house? You people are nuts.. transgender crack addict is what it was.. and its a deviant period!
guest: How about "crazy fuckin' tranny/drag-queen crack-addict?" Holy shit, get over yourselves, bitches.
travis: are there any other kind ?????
guest: Newsflash -- this website can run whatever headline it wants. It's a business and unless you own it, YOU (like the crack addict who squatted in Jeff Lewis' basement) are out of luck. But take heart; perhaps you can right this wrong by inviting a crack addict to live in YOUR basement. Good luck with that.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis is basking in his glory as a successful gay TV star and real estate mogul, on the backs of trans people, for whom discrimination and unemployment are a daily reality in startlingly high numbers.
Good luck, Mr. Lewis, curbed.com, writer Raina Cox and editor Sarah Firshein. Shame on you. Thank you for contributing to the national atmosphere of homophobia and transphobia that have sent anti-LGBT violence, and particularly violence against trans people, into the stratosphere.
I think this post should be taken down, and an apology issued. You can reach Sarah Firshein at email@example.com, or call Curbed.com here. Curbed.com's facebook page is here. It's a shame you have to "Like" the page before you can comment, but I think it's well worth it. Jeff Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach writer Raina Cox at email@example.com. Tell them to take down this defamatory post.
UPDATE: Look at this: the Wall Street Journal published the Curbed.com article on its website: http://onespot.wsj.com/realestate/2011/07/06/3d7be/curbed-interviews-jeff-lewis-on-cannibal
GLAAD has crossposted this article with a note: "Please note that GLAAD shares Dr. Weiss' opinions that Jeff Lewis' comments and the framing of the Curbed.com article in question are unacceptable."