I wasn't able to watch Janet Mock being interviewed by Piers Morgan live, but before the show had even been posted online, I'd heard that Janet wasn't happy with the interview and had made that known on Twitter. Of course, I watched the videos right after they were posted, and I immediately felt the need to weigh in.
Why me? I'm qualified in a way the vast majority cannot possibly be: I'm a trans woman who has interviewed Janet Mock on my Internet radio show. As a host, I know how great an interview she can be, and as a trans woman myself I can see things from her perspective with a level of empathy and understanding that only a fellow trans woman can have.
As every host and interviewer of even moderate skill knows well, in order to get the best for your audience from your guests you need to ask the right questions. Piers Morgan didn't do that, and it cost him what could have been -- and frankly should have been -- a much better interview.
Piers Morgan's audience is likely interested in at least some details of a trans person's transition, and no doubt Morgan asked his questions with that in mind. There's nothing wrong with asking a trans person or any guest for an on-air mini-bio, especially when it's someone appearing on a show for the first time.
Where Morgan went wrong was not in asking, but in dwelling on Janet's transition story and in the show's on-screen descriptions of Janet as a former boy and man. Neither Piers Morgan nor anyone on his staff apparently even stopped to consider whether publicly defining any woman that way on their show without her consent was appropriate or respectful.
After a few establishing bio questions and perhaps a couple more on relevant issues, Piers Morgan should have turned to the reason why Janet was on his show in the first place, to promote her new book "Redefining Realness". Instead, he continued to focus not on who Janet is as a person and her work, but almost exclusively on what she is: a trans woman.
While I understand and share the offense Janet took over Morgan's "boy" and "man" references, these in particular are reflective of a problem mainstream news media has always had in terms of covering trans people and issues properly. Simply put, most of them just don't get it.
Most of the people creating mainstream news media both in front of and behind the mics and cameras have had little experience with trans guests and even the most seemingly well-informed and progressive hosts like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes have trouble getting it right. Janet Mock is certainly right to call out Piers Morgan for not knowing better, but at the same time I also believe that there has to be an more of an effort made to explain why it's wrong in the first place.
It's we, trans women especially, who must step up and draw the connections we want others to make, to explain that calling or referring to a trans woman as a "man" or a "boy" is at least as rude and hurtful as it would be if the same were done to someone who was born biologically female, often even more so when that person is known to be trans. This isn't something the average straight guy gets, so if we want the Piers Morgans of the world to know better, we're going to have to teach them.
This kind of education is already going on, but it's slow because it's the kind of education that usually happens after, rather than before, someone's been publicly insulted or offended, such as during Laverne Cox's and Carmen Carrera's recent interviews with Katie Couric.
We're finally reaching the point where the average American media consumer is coming to understand and appreciate that it's not polite or respectful to ask a lady -- any lady -- about the state of her genitalia on television (or anywhere, really), even if it's known that she didn't begin life as a female.
Katie Couric stepped in it but good, but the attention that show and the controversy surrounding it generated around the issue of respectful treatment in the media of trans women in particular was invaluable. There's now at least one easy-to-point-to precedent, a well-marked bright line between what's considered polite and engaging conversation and what's considered rude and invasive when asking a trans woman about herself and her transition.
In other cases, the boundaries aren't as clearly marked as we'd like just yet. Should Piers Morgan have known better? Maybe. It's hard to say because we don't know the level of Morgan's experience and knowledge of trans people, or that of his staff. Yet, at the same time, if we apply common sense as well as common courtesy to the equation, the key questions are obvious:
- What woman, regardless of her lived history, wants to be seen or referred to as a man?
- What woman wouldn't be insulted and offended if it happened to her, especially on national television?
- What made Piers Morgan and his staff believe that Janet Mock's status as an out trans woman would make those kinds of references acceptable in her case?
It may not feel like it at the moment, but this, boys, girls, and everyone else, is what progress in the evolving acceptance of trans people in mainstream media looks like today. It's messy, it's noisy, and it sometimes requires bloodying a nose or two, but it's progress nonetheless. Incidents like this live forever on the Internet and they will not be forgotten, not by our own community and not by those who see it all play out on television and online.
In Janet Mock's return appearance to Piers Morgan's show yesterday evening, it seemed clear that Morgan still really just doesn't understand that even though declaring on-screen that Janet was formerly a man and lived as a boy until she was 18 may seem to be technically accurate, it's rude and disrespectful to point it out. Morgan compounded that disrespect in a panel discussion afterward that featured a clearly stacked deck of panelists. It included extreme right-wing commentators Amy Holmes and Ben Ferguson, with only HuffPostLive host Mark Lamont Hill to speak in favor of Janet's and the trans community's position.
Personally, as an amateur host who looks up to those who have made successful careers in this industry in much the same way as a minor league baseball player looks up to the stars of the major leagues, I'd have hoped that Piers Morgan wouldn't have been quite so arrogant or quite so petty. Everyone, including Morgan, knows exactly what you're going to get when you invite guests like Amy Holmes and Ben Ferguson to take on any progressive issue, so I have to conclude that Morgan did it intentionally and with malice aforethought. That panel discussion was clearly payback, a way of Morgan using his show to attack Janet and the trans community for daring to confront him while keeping his own hands ostensibly clean.
Every trans woman who went after Morgan on Twitter after Janet's first appearance no doubt felt the same offense. No woman appreciates being called a man, and trans women? Well now, that kind of thing tends to really piss us off.
Like most harshly-oppressed minority groups, trans women tend to rally around each other when we see one of our own being mistreated, and while Piers Morgan may not perceive it as a big deal, being called a man or a boy, especially by a man, does qualify as disrespect, mistreatment and emotional battery to a trans woman.
What Piers Morgan and others like him in mainstream media need to learn is that simply saying you "support" trans people and trans rights is valueless unless you incorporate those values into your show when you have trans people on as guests and when you discuss us on your shows. To demonstrate support, you must also demonstrate respect, and one of the easiest and surest ways to do that is to refrain from referring to a trans woman as a man, former or otherwise, for any reason, ever.
Whether Morgan or anyone else believes it's accurate or not is irrelevant. What matters is that trans women perceive being described as former men as disrespectful, demeaning, and rude. In the end, if Piers Morgan is truly the trans supporter he says he is, then what he thinks really shouldn't matter. Simply the fact that Janet and other trans women were offended should be enough for Piers Morgan to apologize, learn from his mistake, and promise not to repeat it.
Lucky for us Janet Mock is as strong and courageous as they come, not to mention brilliant. When she steps in front of a microphone, I never worry that she'll say the wrong thing. None of that matters though, while the interviewers are still asking the wrong questions.
We're being given a golden opportunity for education here -- to start an ongoing discussion about the equality and respect trans women deserve both from mainstream media and from modern society. I hope we're ready to take advantage of it.