Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Don Lemon Foiled Again by the Transgender Thing

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | August 25, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Don Lemon, Janet Mock, Joy Behar

don_lemon_trans_interview.jpgThe Joy Behar show recently had CNN's Don Lemon host a panel with four trans people working in the TV and film industry: Chaz Bono of the Emmy-nominated documentary Becoming Chaz, Laverne Cox, reality television producer and actress, Harmony Santana, star of the film Gun Hill Road, and America's Next Top Model Isis King. This was a groundbreaking opportunity to talk about transgender and transsexual people in the entertainment industry, following up on interest in the topic from the New York Times and other media outlets. Instead, there were a series of flubs going from bad to worse.

This is not good for Lemon's credibility in the trans community, especially coming on the heels of his difficulties at the NAACP LGBT Town Hall, where he said that talking about the "gay" community is sufficient to include transgender people without ever mentioning them, that, in any event, transgender issues ought to be discussed in a separate forum, and that we're just hung up on letters.

Janet Mock, a journalist and one of the most intelligent voices speaking on trans issues in the media today, reviewed the interview in her personal blog, Fish Food, and detailed the problems, in her post "Trans In The Media: A Call to Elevate the Conversation." She notes that she was dumbfounded by the interview, shocked at the inane and insensitive questioning.

The Joy Behar Show posted highlights of the show online. Here is a clip of his interview of Chaz Bono, whose recent book and documentary would provide much fodder for thoughtful questioning. As suggested by Mock, "Lemon could've asked, How does it feel, after years of searching and struggling, to finally be who you are fully? And how does it feel to have three Emmy nominations? How are you using your celebrity to continue this conversation?"

Instead, we get this struggling, sensationalist line of questioning:

I won't detail here all of the excellent points made by Janet Mock, and you should read her blog post for a discussion of why the questions were problematic, and what types of questions might have been useful to the audience and the nation. It's a beautiful explication of the problems with media treatment of transgender subjects and with gay community ignorance of transgender lives.

Janet Mock wasn't the only one concerned about the way the interview was handled, and she talks about the twitter explosion during and after the interview, including from Chaz himself. A review of comments on the interview at the Joy Behar Show site reveals similar sentiments on the part of some viewers. Some were more blunt than Mock about the interview's problems:

"Commenting on the entire show, Mr. Lemon acted like every other idiot out there who is completely ignorant of trans issues. The fact that he tried to use his status as being gay to connect with his trans interviewees makes it even worse-it mirrors the blatant ignorance of the LGB community towards trans issues. Just because you're gay, doesn't mean you know a single thing about trans people or our unique struggles.

What a waste of such a powerful panel. CNN should beg the interviewees back, replace Mr. Lemon with someone who knows what an interviewer should know (how to fact check; how to ask important and interesting questions; how not to insult your guests with objectifying stupidity), and have the panel discuss their experiences.

CNN should be as ashamed of putting this clown in the driver's seat just as much as he should be ashamed of his complete ignorance."

As Mock noted, "There is a sensitivity chip that's missing." She also pointed up that Lemon could have done some preparation: "[W]hen you don't do your homework, you end up with a lackluster story, and that was what Monday night's segment on being "Transgender in America" (that was The Joy Behar Show's producers tagline) was in my opinion."

He also didn't seem to want to address trans lives, beyond "what does your famous mother think about you?" Mock pointed up his reluctance: "When it seemed the door in the conversation had opened to shed light on trans people's struggles, Lemon would say, 'We're going to have an in-depth conversation...' about this or that and segue to another topic."

I agree with Janet Mock when she says that media must move beyond questions about surgery and facial hair, and ask how are trans people really doing now that they are in the bodies of their destinies. How are we navigating in the world?

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This is as much a fail with Joy Behar who, as I've written about in my blog, is very uncomfortable with trans people and has made some grossly ignorant statements about our community on The View. She (or her producers) thought having a (recently out) gay man as host for the gay panel was "right." Lemon was probably eager to show the world "hey, I know about the transgenders." I agree with Janet, it was a huge waste of having that grouping. The only adjustment I wish they'd made was to have had trans men of color as guest instead of Chaz, which meant they could have had a panel about the unique challenges trans people of color go through.

More importantly, trans people need to stop allowing themselves to be fodder for dumbed-down "Trans 101" at the expense of deeper questions our community needs to bring up. It's hard, because it's one of the reasons they love new transitioners to interview so they can, in perpetuity, talk about our bodies and genitals.

bigolpoofter | August 25, 2011 10:40 AM

....squeezing cisgender self into full-body flame-retardant gear.... The problem here is a lot bigger than Don Lemmon's lack of ability to demonstrate knowledge and sensitivity on trans issues: it's about the foolish assumption that the latest media darling out of the closet is somehow equipped to address the panoply of queer subject matter with eloquence and finesse. We see it time and again when Person X self-identifies as 'Y' among L-G-B-T, then wounds ego and inflames community on offering erroneous info or ignorant commentary on one of the other three segments of the Rainbow Tribe. May I suggest a new chapter for the Celebrity Coming Out Guide titled "You Don't Know Jack... or Jill," to explain the dignity in not playing Queer of the Moment, a lofty position from which one is easily toppled by demonstrating cluelessness on Queer identities that unlike one's own?!

How many more years of "Trans 101" do we have to provide before we can get down to actual conversations? No wonder people don't get us; even when invited to speak we don't get to tell our stories.

Jaime Dunaway Jaime Dunaway | August 25, 2011 11:06 AM

This is why I don't bother to watch any show or documentary on trans people any more. Just different players, but same old "oddity" angle. I wish guests on those shows would put more effort into steering it to something more substantial.

Oh my, A very inane line of questioning! Such a waste!

Well, we just need the interview to be conducted by someone who has been out for a long time, and is experienced with interviews, perhaps someone like Rachel Maddow! Oh, wait...

What's the old adage? If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself? Jillian, I think 'WE' need to step up and do a show about ourselves using 'OUR' talent across the board. Otherwise we'll just keep seeing the exact same crap that adds up to half a liquor truck in the Transgender Documentry Drinking Game.

It is the same old... gay men have set themselves up as the voices of trans women, so we shouldn't be surprised when they get called by the media to use their voices to cover trans issues. I bet Mr Lemon has no clue how bad this went over... or maybe He's on twitter calling every trans person "unstable"... again...

Britney Austin | August 25, 2011 9:51 PM

There's an agenda going on.

The burden is on Chaz or any other guest to steer the interview, including show prep and when accepting the invitation to appear.

Let's be honest Chaz Bono may have a spotlight for trans life, but he is not a good spokesperson.

By the way I think the public has tuned out to transition stories. In this economy people can relate to unemployment, forget the SRS and tough adolescence stories.

Seriously? Should they have also picked out Don Lemon's clothes for the show and made sure he had a well-balanced breakfast?

Agreed. It's the host's job to conduct the interview, ask the right questions, and be prepared. The truth is that guests always have their own agenda, and it's the host's responsibility to see that the interview stays on-topic and relevant, not the guest's.

I agree that Chaz didn't come across very well during the panel, giving simple one or two sentence answers that offered little or no real information. Lemon should have been much more aggressive on follow-up, pushing for answers by rephrasing questions and getting more specific, but the reality was that his original questions were so poor that even the best interviewer couldn't have done much to save that interview on follow-up.

I suspect that Chaz was a bit annoyed that Lemon was clearly unprepared to interview him properly, and with good reason, so his answers may have been a non-confrontational way of expressing his displeasure.

Personally, I'd have liked to see Chaz go the other route and proactively inject the information Lemon wasn't asking for and answer the questions viewers had which Lemon clearly didn't do enough prep to even know to ask. In my opinion, Chaz was far too polite to Lemon and should have been far more direct and aggressive in getting his own message out there.

As the one commentor states; one of us should have directed the panel. I've got an idea...Dr. Weiss, you are astute and an excellent commentator, spokesperson for our Community. They should redo the Joy Behar Show and I nominate you as the moderator. Not a recently "Out" Gay man who thinks he knows us so much he can drop the "T" and call us all Gay.

>Seriously? Should they have also picked out Don Lemon's clothes for
>the show and made sure he had a well-balanced breakfast?

Why assume any host or show will be competent and stay on a topic of your choosing?

Before you accept any media appearance, you should inquire as to the topics that will be discussed, what you will and will not discuss, who else will be appearing, how long you will have to respond and much more.
If you don't .... you'll only have yourself to blame when it looks bad.