Bil Browning

The Politics of Being Transgender: GRITtv panel

Filed By Bil Browning | January 12, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Amanda Simpson, David Letterman, GRITtv, Jules Rosskam, Julia Serano, Laura Flanders, Naomi Clark, transgender

Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Naomi Clark of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and blogger at Feministe, and filmmaker Jules Rosskam of Against a Trans Narrative, were on Laura Flanders' GRITtv yesterday. The panel discussed Barack Obama's recent appointment of Amanda Simpson as senior technical adviser in the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Commerce Department.

I love it how they focus in automatically on the David Letterman transphobic jokes about Simpson's appointment and go in to real depth on quite a few other trans issues. It's well worth the watching time.

Video after the jump.

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Very cool, great find Bil! Interestingly, I met Jules Rosskam several years ago when he was in the early stages of his transition (I remember him telling me at he time that he'd just gotten his name change done). I was a viewer of the cable show Dyke TV and at one point I wrote them to complain that they only seemed interested in presenting the FTM side of the trans story. I got a personal response from Jules who was working with them at the time.

We traded email for a while and then we met at a Pride event in Philadelphia (I think it was '03 or '04). Jules and his crew shot a lot of footage and did a lot of interviews that day, but I have no idea whatever became of it. I ended up changing cable companies soon afterward so I couldn't watch Dyke TV anymore and I never saw any of it on their site.

His movie sounds interesting. I'm going to check it out.

A good program with 3 always interesting guests. I was, however, kind of disappointed in Laura Flanders actually repeating the tired old saw, "if we didn't have a rigid gender binary would people still have to transition?" Julia Serrano had a "do I have to explain this aggaain?" kind of look on her face. I really wish programs like this could get past remedial trans for dummies and get into speaking about some real issues... guess that's asking for too much.

You have to meet the audience tho, Gina. Laura's audience isn't LGBT people - it's hardcore politicos who usually don't know anything about LGBT struggles (not just T, but the whole gamut).

I think Laura does a good job of laying out some of the quick basics and then getting more in depth with some of the panelists. Without the basics tho, some of the audience would tune out automatically with a "What? I don't understand! Wah!" mentality.

If 80% of any interview with a transperson is always going to be about "the basics" then that goes nowhere and basically, it means we can't speak for ourselves. What happens is trans people are just delivering a pre-scripted message about what it's like to be "transgender" to Oprah, Tyra or, in this case, Laura. Laura had some very interesting guests for this segment and could have gotten into some much deeper exchange about issues of gender, feminism, media and social justice. They never really went into the media coverage of Simpson's appointment, why this appointment is happening now (in regards to ENDA passing) and why some trans people in government like Orr and Sanchez made barely a ripple, while Ms. Simpson is getting roasted over the coals. These are all important subjects which could have been covered in detail.

There are ways to talk about issues surrounding Amanda Simpson or social justice for trans people without asking about "well, if we didn't have gender roles would people have to transition?" A show like Laura's isn't supposed to bow down to the lowest common denominator. One of the reasons society's understanding of trans issues remains at such a rudimentary level is because everyone is always being talked down to about it.

>There are ways to talk about issues surrounding
>Amanda Simpson …without asking “if we didn't
>have gender roles would people have to
>society's understanding of trans issues remains >at such a rudimentary level

I completely agree with this line of thinking. There was very little in this discussion that broadens an respect for the abilities, contributions, and concerns of trans people. Gay men and lesbians are well beyond sitting down for discussion on what, why? So should we.

This was a surprisingly nuanced conversation for a (relatively) mainstream media piece. I thought it was impressive that Flanders and her guests actually meant to address what Jules Rosskam, if memory serves me right, described as the elephant in the room: The fact that as many people identify with and want gender fluidity as want to hold on to gender binaries even as they transition.

If we were to go by what is apparent on Bilerico comment threads, we'd have to believe that only the second group of people exist but the truth is a lot more complicated. I think the program did a good job in at least indicating that gender is complicated and that people have complicated and sometimes vexing relationships to gender identity. That's not a "basic" issue - that's a critical issue that's being teased out in a myriad ways in the real world.

I must respectfully disagree with the idea that we trans people are beyond basic 101 discussions about our existence by the larger society. My experience is that most people are very, very confused about transsexual and transgender identity, even highly educated widely-read people. We don't move beyond that by saying that we "should" be beyond it. Of course I agree with you in that I wish we were beyond it.

Jillian, I don't think it has to be one without the other. Complex media-portrayal issues/civil rights issues can be discussed along with trying to clarify some of the "Trans 101" which confuses people. The reality is, many of the definitions we're trying to communicate to the larger population are evolving (or at least changing) and are highly contentious within our own community. Does that mean we have to wait until we have some kind of vague consensus so we can spend another 20+ years communicating that to the mainstream public?

Trans 101 was happening in the late 70s and early 80s on many episodes of Phil Donahue (for younger readers, that's the national show which preceded Oprah and she pretty much ripped it off) so we're still trying to do that 30 years later? Something isn't working. For me a show like Transgeneration does 101 way, way better than talking heads.

And what happens when trans 101 imparts wrong information... I recall Candice Cayne appearing on The View (a VERY important bit of media exposure) and when asked about transsexual vs. transgender said, "they're exactly the same"????!!!

Personally, I felt these three highly-knowledgeable guests were kind of wasted with the surface level of discussion they had.

That segment needed either twice as much time, or fewer guests. All three were wonderful, but since she had to keep switching between three of them, giving them only a brief time to answer, it seemed less like a discussion panel and more like a rushed interview. The guests never had an opportunity to talk with each other or expand on each other's points, which would have made it much more engaging.

I agree with Jillian, it would be great if we could get past the 101 stuff, but we're just not there yet and I don't think it's going to happen for a while.

Great video. Love Laura Flanders.

I must agree with Dr. Weiss. In fact as a MTF post op two spirits, genderqueer Transsexual who started out as one thing and ended up...well without it, I have scoured the pages of my Bilerico in hopes of finding the words that will confer identity upon my ragged, confused BSTc impaired psyche and have come to the conclusion that the language that I would use to explain myself to the general public does not exist.

But I have, in my search for a verbal description of myself, come to one conclusion best described by the following quotes.

The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion.
Thomas B. Macaulay


Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

battybattybats battybattybats | January 13, 2010 11:21 AM

Perhaps what is needed to really reach a proper level of education is either a series of specials each building further upon the one before on some reasonably high-rating news/current affairs program, or finding some way of getting gradually building education into some form of mass-market mass appeal fictional program.

Some way to get first the basics and then the layered complexity out there to as many people as possible and leaving a lasting impression.

For myself, I found this interview quite disappointing.

There seemed what I can only conclude was a quite conscious confusion of sex and gender, as if they are one and the same thing. There was no mention, as far as I could tell, of the word transsexual. I quite enjoyed Jules Rosskam's declaration that he was not a man; I think I was confused by the beard.

The greatest disappointment of the interview was the muzzling of Julia Serano.

I read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity as, among other things, a call to arms for transsexual and cissexual women--this was given no voice in the entire interview.

Serano's book was also where I discovered Jay Prosser and his book, Second Skins: the body narratives of transsexuality. Not only is Prosser's book interesting in its challenging Judith Butler head on--a very masculine approach--but laying down the argument for the embodied lives of transsexual people and the rereading of all the authors who've been used to insubstantiate and erase the body knowledge of transsexual people--and make them something other.

Prosser's book is also quite interesting its exploration of the embodied lives of transsexual men in a manner often lacking in this area of scholarship--Prosser is himself a transsexual man; this is, in modified form, his PhD thesis.

It seemed a general discussion of what, it wasn't entirely clear, despite the rather--and surprisingly--penetrating questions from Laura Flanders. Everyone ducked! What might have been an interesting, and possibly in a weird way, transgressive--of common and long unquestioned assumptions of transgressive communities--discussion, was avoided in order to maintain a unified front for something. A discussion of the norms of transgressive communities, something explored at length in Serano's book, might have left Flanders other than a bit bemused at the deflection of her questions.

Serano, on Skype video, seemed distinctly uncomfortable throughout--not surprisingly if she felt, for whatever reason, unable to explore the many challenging themes of her book in order to maintain the united front.

Having met her in Ottawa a few years ago, and spoken to her for a few minutes, I can only wonder where the woman I briefly got to know was.

Speaking of the David Letterman joke, no one seems to have noticed Michael Mustos' joke about Carie Prejean on Countdown with Keith Olberman:

I happen to know she was a homophobic man named Harry who got his penis cut off and his Adam's Apple shaved.

Not everyone missed Musto's transphobic spewings. I'll have a relevant piece posted sometime later today. Do be sure to give it a read. ;)