The 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?