Why Transgender Identity Matters

Those who saw Ed Shultz's segment and took it as accurate and representative of the reality of transgender lives would likely be led to believe that all transgender people are gay, that being transgender is just another form of homosexuality.
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A few weeks ago, MSNBC host Ed Schultz did a segment on his show about Chaz Bono appearing on Dancing with the Stars. His guest to discuss the topic was Raw Story blogger and Managing Editor Mike Rogers, a gay man. During the interview, Schultz asked Rogers if the kind of negativity directed toward Bono by Dr. Keith Ablow and others on the political right leads to hate speech and gay bashing. A viewer relatively unfamiliar with transgender people and the issues that impact our lives probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss in this interview, but for transgender people and those who know and understand us, the problems were all too clear and familiar.

The first concern is also the most obvious. Given that Chaz Bono is a female-to-male transsexual man, one has to wonder why Ed Schultz invited a gay man and not an actual transgender person to appear on his show to speak on the topic. It's kind of like hosting a discussion on issues faced by African Americans with a white person presented as an expert, and makes just about as much sense.

The second problem is more difficult to recognize unless the viewer is already familiar with Chaz Bono himself. Bono is a man who is in a serious romantic relationship with a woman. He is therefore heterosexual, not gay. By asking Mike Rogers if the media attacks on Bono lead to gay bashing, Ed Schultz revealed his clear lack of understanding of what a transgender person is, as well as his ignorance of the difference between sexual orientation, the gender of the person one is sexually and romantically attracted to, and gender identity, whether an individual personally sees themselves as male, female, or something else entirely, a gender identity that doesn't fit neatly into either of those socially constructed boxes.

Those who saw the segment and took it as accurate and representative of the reality of transgender lives would likely be led to believe that all transgender people are gay, that being transgender is just another form of homosexuality. The problem is that they would also be completely wrong.

Regardless of whether a person is a famous author and celebrity or just an average working class Joe or Jane, coming out and publicly identifying as a transgender person is no easy task. Even in the best of circumstances and in the most progressive of political climates, transgender identities are usually hard-won, generally involving reams of paperwork and documentation, court appearances, and psychological evaluations, not to mention completely reorganizing one's personal and professional life to accommodate their new gender presentation. Depending on the laws of the jurisdiction a transgender person lives in, works in, and was born in, transitioning from one gender to another is often a tedious, expensive, and time-consuming process, sometimes even actually impossible to accomplish entirely. While a gay or lesbian person can come out of the closet by simply declaring their identity to others, transgender people must fight for our identities, sometimes for years, before we will be legally and socially recognized in many quarters as the people we know ourselves to be.

Many people look to the mainstream news media for a better understanding of topics and issues with which they are unfamiliar. When the journalists and pundits creating that media fail to educate themselves on the topics and issues they report on and then directly or indirectly misinform their audiences as a result, that's a problem. For a minority group as socially and politically persecuted as transgender people, when this kind of misinformation appears in mainstream media, it can be nothing short of disaster.

It's important to recognize that when we're talking about transgender Americans, we're talking about a group of American citizens who in 35 states can still be legally fired, denied employment entirely, or refused housing and access to public accommodations for no other reason than because we are transgender.

A recent study conducted by the National Center For Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that transgender Americans suffer an unemployment rate of 13 percent, double that of the national average at the time the survey was conducted, with 97 percent of respondents experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job. Other findings include 47 percent experiencing an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not being hired, or being denied a promotion, and 15 percent of respondents living on incomes of $10,000 or less, again double the national average. For transgender people who are also members of racial and ethnic minorities, and especially for African Americans, the numbers are even worse.

In the political arena, some areas of the country have been moving quickly to protect their transgender citizens from discrimination, with Nevada, Connecticut, and Hawaii successfully enacting transgender-protective laws just this year. Other states, however, such as New York, Delaware, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, have passed laws protecting their gay and lesbian citizens from discrimination, with some even legalizing their right to marry, but continue to deny those basic civil rights to transgender people. Still others, such as Tennessee, have actually passed laws repealing already-enacted local anti-discrimination protections, and even specifically forbidding transgender citizens born in those states the right to change their birth certificates to reflect their lived genders.

Despite all these obstacles and roadblocks to living our lives and pursuing our own versions of the American Dream, transgender Americans persevere. We keep fighting tooth and nail, day by day, moment by moment, just to be who we are and to be recognized by the rest of the world as the people we know ourselves to be. Large portions of our lives are spent striving to break free of the stereotypes and inaccurate labels others constantly seek to saddle us with, some because they bear genuine animosity toward us and the way we live our lives, and others, like Ed Schultz, because they simply don't get it.

Transgender people need to be able to rely on those in mainstream media who choose to cover us to do so properly. We need mainstream journalists and pundits to take the time to do their homework and educate themselves well enough on transgender people and transgender-relevant topics and issues to be able to avoid misinforming their audiences about us, be it through getting the facts wrong or by casting us in an inaccurate light by substituting their own perceptions of whom and what we are for the truth.

In the end, it comes down to this: quality news media deals in facts and dispels inaccurate perceptions; it doesn't validate and facilitate them. When the coverage concerns transgender people and the issues that impact our lives, mainstream news media audiences, and especially transgender people who are directly impacted by that coverage, should be able to expect nothing less.

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