Guest Blogger

Three fundamental problems with Oprah

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 22, 2007 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Oprah, oprah winfrey, television, trans, transgender youth, TransYouth Family Advocates

[EDITOR'S NOTE:] The following guest post comes to us from Kim Pearson. Kim is a founding board member and the current Executive Director of TransYouth Family Advocates. She is also the proud parent of a teenaged transgender affirmed son. Together they live and do advocacy work for gender variant children and youth in Arizona.

head shot kp.jpgAnyone who knows me is aware that I am a huge fan of Oprah. I constantly express my desire to have families that are involved with TransYouth Family Advocates featured on her show or in O Magazine. I have always been confident that she would tell our stories with respect and would be attentive to providing positive portrayals of gender variant and transgender children and youth. I also hoped it would be an amazing opportunity to share the ground breaking work we are doing at TransYouth Family Advocates on behalf of these children and families. You can imagine how disappointed I was to find myself telling her producers this week that I would not be willing to go on the show and that I was not willing to recommend that other TYFA families participate either.

In my conversations with them I expressed concern over how the show was being framed, how the families would be portrayed and if the safety of the children participating was being adequately considered. After these conversations I was not confident that the producers were looking at the bigger picture of these kids and their families lives.

On there was an appeal to families asking them to appear on this show. I find three fundamental problems with their call for participation. The rest of this post addresses those problems.

  1. They asked parents:

    Does your child have a gender identity disorder?

    If this is how they are going to frame and reference the kids they are off to a bad start. Contrary to popular opinion, gender variant youth and adults are not confused or struggling with their identities. GID is a controversial DSM-IV diagnosis given to transgender and other gender variant people. It is controversial because it labels people (in this case, children) as 'disordered' and therefore is offensive to most if not all gender variant people. This diagnosis has been the basis for intense psychotherapy, behavior modification and even institutionalization of gender variant children. It is far more respectful and accurate for the press and media to refer to gender variant, gender atypical or transgender youth than "children with a gender identity disorder." Reference GLAAD's website for a media guide of appropriate terminology.

  2. They asked parents:

    Do you consider yourself or your child transgendered or a transsexual?

    Is the program focusing on adults or children? TransYouth Family Advocates always has concerns when the two topics are intermingled without consideration of the vast differences in the issues that face children and youth to those that face adults. I question if, in a one hour show, the journey of the adults or the children either one would be adequately explained.

    They also use the term "transgendered." Again, I draw upon our friends at GLAAD to address the problem with this language.

    PROBLEMATIC: "transgendered"
    PREFERRED: "transgender"
    The word transgender never needs the extraneous "ed" at the end of the word. In fact, such a construction is grammatically incorrect. Only verbs can be transformed into participles by adding "-ed" to the end of the word, and transgender is an adjective, not a verb.

    Now if it seems like I am splitting hairs regarding terminology, I will point out that these small things simply illustrate that the media typically does not do their homework on this subject adequately to offer positive and complete coverage.

  3. They asked parents:

    Have you told your loved ones about your sexuality?

    Why would they use the word 'sexuality' at all? Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression are distinct realities and are not directly related. Gender variant individuals may have the same spectrum of sexual identities and attractions that non-gender variant people possess. In any case it would not be appropriate to discuss the 'sexuality' of a seven year old.

This is the second major media inquiry we have had lately and it appears that in the coming year the public will see a lot of discussion around transgender and gender variant children. It remains to be seen whether this exposure will be beneficial or harmful. I hope the children and the families who have chosen to participate do not pay too high a personal price for their willingness to educate the public about their children and themselves.

I want to take this opportunity to announce that TYFA is in development of a guide for families of gender variant children and youth called "Media - Your Child Comes First." This will be a guide to navigating media interactions for parents of gender variant and transgender youth.

I am convinced that TYFA, our allies and all GLBT organizations need to rally behind these children and families to ensure that their privacy and safety concerns are respected by the media. In this, as in other issues, we believe that taking a stand for LGBT children and youth serves the entire LGBT community.

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I must admit that as a transsexual woman who is a talk show host myself I read your post with a mixture of understanding and disappointment.

First, let me say that I understand and respect your concerns about Oprah in particular. About five years ago, Marti Abernathey and I interviewed Dana Rivers, a Sacramento, California high school teacher who successfully transitioned on the job. During that interview, Ms. Rivers talked about her own appearance on "Oprah!". She told us she was upset with Oprah during the interview because she insisted on using her male name during the interview, to the point where Ms. Rivers threatened to end the interview if it continued. Ms. Rivers said that Oprah seemed indifferent to her feelings on the matter but agreed to respect her wishes. She didn't seem to consider it an entirely positive experience. That said, I've seen later shows Oprah has done on transgender topics and issues and I've been impressed.

I suspect the real issue you're dealing with here isn't wrapped up in the desire to exploit trans children for ratings as much as it is in the ignorance of the producers, and likely of Oprah herself. Shows like hers tend to avoid the real nuts and bolts issues relevant to transgender lives and instead like to focus on the sensational and that which can be condensed into an easy-to-understand soundbite.

Kim, if you are uncomfortable with the way Oprah or any other show wants to present your child to the rest of the world, I'd suggest to you that you have every right to make your agreement for you and your child to appear on the show contingent upon certain demands being met which you feel are necessary to protect or properly present your child in accordance with your wishes.

Of course, in doing so you may find many such shows will refuse to honor your demands and will attempt to pressure you into doing it their way. Please remember that there is no shame in saying "No" if you're not comfortable with what they want to do, and there is similarly no shame in agreeing to appear on a different show which will respect your wishes instead.

Another thing I'd suggest is that if you're not happy with the way mainstream media wants to present your story in general, but you do want it told in the media, come to us, the LGBT community media, and let us help you do it right.

Unlike Oprah and most other mainstream talk show hosts, community mediamakers have been there ourselves, we understand the issues involved at a level the mainstream shows can't hope to match, and we are members of this community ourselves, highly motivated to not only present these kinds of stories in a way that is both positive and informative, but also in a way that's comfortable and supportive of both you and your child.

A big part of it is involved with money. While shows like Oprah's are on the air to generate the maximum ratings and, therefore, the maximum amount of ad sponsorship dollars, LGBT community media, and transgender community media especially, aren't usually burdened with such concerns. Our community shows are all non-commercial or on satellite radio, which isn't beholden to the whims of advertisers in the same way the major networks are. I and I know many of my fellow community media hosts are far more focused on doing the best, rather than the most lucrative, community talk shows we can, and it does make a difference, a big one.

Kim, I hope you and anyone else at TYFA will get in touch with me, Ethan St Pierre, Marti, or any other community mediamaker you're comfortable telling your story to and having it presented that way first. That way, should Oprah or another mainstream show come calling at a later date, you'll already have a working model to offer their producers of the way you want your story presented on the air.

As I commend you for your smart informed advocacy on behalf of your child, I also encourage you to resist tarring all of the media with the same brush or of assigning motivations out-of-hand. Many of these shows make most of their mistakes out of ignorance, not malice, and the real proof of their intentions will be their willingness to be educated and to present your story in accordance with what you believe is in the best interest in your child, even if it might not be what they believe is in the best interests of the show.

Those who create these talk shows, both in front and behind the microphones and cameras are people too. Not all of them are going to get it, and in fact, it's often because they don't get it that they want to have you and your child on their show in the first place. I encourage you to use the opportunity to do some education before the cameras roll, as well as after. Not only might you find yourself with exactly what you're looking for, but you'll very likely make it a little easier for the next family of a transgender child who appears on one of these shows.

Thanks for listening. :)


Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. There are many items in your response that I would like to address.

"I suspect the real issue you're dealing with here isn't wrapped up in the desire to exploit trans children for ratings as much as it is in the ignorance of the producers, and likely of Oprah herself."

This is absolutely true however they did not seem to be willing to be educated. They felt that they had done shows before and that they had done them well. They basically told me they were the Oprah show and they knew what they were doing. They compared the show they were doing to the 20/20 special that was done. That is like comparing apples and oranges. The 20/20 preparation went on for over 6 months. The Oprah show prep was more like 6 days. That is barely enough time for a family to give serious consideration to their participation and the implications of that kind of exposure.

We have experienced plenty of wonderful media coverage. In fact, I am doing an interview for a GLBT publication in Phoenix AZ later today. Please check out our website at for details on some of our media coverage. The CNN producers listened to our concerns and did great shows. We have been featured in several print articles and radio spots as well and all have been very positive. I'm not saying that the Oprah show did not have the potential to do a good job. The concern is that they didn't seem willing to listen.

It is my opinion that the spot light is on these kids and their families right now and this provides us with the opportunity to raise the bar. We don't have to play by the old rules and accept whatever morsel comes our way in order to have an opportunity to provide education and advocacy for our children. We deserve respect and needn't settle for anything less...ever.

Kim Pearson
Executive Director
TransYouth Family Advocates

No parent wants to do something they don't think is in their child's best interests. Good for you for standing up for your son!

I watched Oprah today for the first time in over five years. I was very disappointed in how the subject matter was so dumbed down. it was though Oprah was talking to a group of sixth graders, not adults. The Media has the need to dumb down everything. This is actually the least of the issues i have with the Oprah show although after the TG show next Friday it may be another five years before i give in and watch anything that is advertised to to deal with a serious subject.

I have a much bigger problem with Alice Dreger and her willingness to take the choice out of the hands of the child. I take a long term view of intersexism and feel it is part of our genetic diversity. intersexism could even be the beginning of an evolutionary change in humankind that could be key to our survival in a future hostile environment. Just wait if they have Dreger as their Expert There will be a lot of unhappy TG/TS folk.

Yes i know it's not popular to think more then two days into the future Please pardon the sarcasm.

This does get under my skin on a very basic level, the love of my life is intersex When she was six someone butchered her up and made her into a boy.

Take care