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Exposing hidden agenders: Transgenderism and the media

Exposing hidden agenders: Transgenderism and the media

by Anne Russell
March 22, 2012

In 2012 thus far, transgender issues have been highlighted several times in New Zealand media. In January, a Libra tampon advertisement was banned owing to public outcry at its transphobic nature. In February, a protest was organised against Rosemary McLeod’s transphobic column, which opined that transgender people should not have children. Then on March 14th, Wellington-based LGBT rights group the Queer Avengers hit international news for glitter-bombing feminist Germaine Greer, who has been criticised for her transphobic views.

There has been a curious silence in worldwide media on a particularly high-profile transgender person. This is Bradley Manning, a former US army officer currently on trial for leaking military documents to Wikileaks. Last year Wired published chat logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo (an ex-hacker who reported Manning to the authorities), which indicated that Manning identifies as a woman. She has not transitioned yet, but stated her preference for the name Breanna. Manning’s transgender identity is currently being used as a legal defence in her trial, referred to as ‘gender identity disorder’. Commentators have objected to this, as it casts transgender identity as an illness.

It is dismaying that identifying outside a gender binary can still be used as an insanity plea. Although awareness is growing, transgenderism is still seen by many as no more than an aberration from a norm, or as a pathology. This lack of public understanding is, in part, due to transgenderism’s position as a bona fide minority issue. Approximately one in a hundred New Zealanders is born with an intersex condition. Media coverage is infrequent, and consequently often betrays ignorance on appearance. In response to this recent unprecedented level of media attention, the Queer Avengers called a press conference to discuss transphobia and the media. Brooklynne Kennedy and Ashley Stewart, who identify as women, shared the panel with Shelley Howard, who doesn’t ascribe to any particular gender. While she uses the female pronoun, during the conference she referred to herself as ‘span-gender’.

Click here to watch 3 News’ coverage of the press conference.

Transphobic media figures often assume the right to tell transgender people who they are—or, usually, who they are not. But why would a person falsely claim to be transgender? Although societal acceptance of the LGBT community is increasing, growing up transgender in our society remains a hard road. Many transgender people remain closeted not out of self-denial but from fear of extreme societal repercussions. For instance, Stewart lost her job a month after coming out. For many, remaining closeted is not just a personal choice but an economic issue.

It would be one thing if LGBT-phobia was merely offensive, but it also has the power to take people’s lives. “Whether it’s through actual murder or through suicide, people are murdered by [transphobia]. Any time a trans person or a queer person takes their own life, that is murder. Society killed them long before they did,” Kennedy says.

While it is simplistic to blame any one cause for an individual’s suicide, the disproportionately high suicide rate among the trans community makes it clear that extensive dialogue between transgender and non-transgender (known as cisgender) people is needed. Transphobic attitudes also need understanding if they are to be overcome, but deserve much less sympathy or tolerance. The problem with transphobia partly lies in its insistence that others follow its lead in discrimination. Transgender people, however, do not generally pressure others to identify as trans, but merely ask for acceptance of who they are.

Fortunately, New Zealand is regarded by many, including American-born Kennedy, as something of a queer haven. Although the country is not without problems for transgender people, much of the population is ignorant of transgender issues, which is easier to combat than bigotry. Admitting the current state of widespread ignorance, mainstream media would do well to take a cautious approach when reporting transgender issues. Unfortunately, much of the media goes in the opposite direction, speaking dismissively of transgender issues with no first-hand experience and little research. Many cisgender commentators such as Rosemary McLeod abandon critical analysis of the topic because it’s still seen as outrageous and weird, and therefore not worthy of investigative reporting.

Kennedy wants the media to analyse its own transphobic bias. “Ask yourself: why are you afraid? Where’s that fear coming from?” she said. Stewart, who has lived in many New Zealand towns, believes it is rooted in the idea that gender differences are related to issues of sexual intercourse. “[There’s] an idea that we are all sex offenders or all prostitutes, that we are a blight on their society.”

Media reports often turn salacious when the subject turns to anything related to genitalia. But Kennedy pointed out that having sex reassignment surgery is little different from other major surgery. Many transgender people simply want to move on with their lives after their operation. “For a lot of us it’s part of our medical history, and other people don’t go around talking about their medical history, so why should we have to?” she asked.

Indeed, transgender differences are at least partly rooted in brain physiology. In 2010, examination of male and female brains uncovered significant differences in four regions of white matter. Using the same scientific techniques in 2011, brain scans of transgender people caught differences in the brain’s white matter that clashed with a person’s genetic sex. Some hope that further research can help identify transgender people before puberty, facilitating their transition.

Unfortunately, the media often fail to pick up on such scientific breakthroughs, partly because they don’t fit the sensational norm of much mainstream transgender coverage. “They’re more interested in hearing what these chicks with dicks, these she-males, these trannies are doing; what horrible things they’ve done or what outrageous things they’ve done,” said Kennedy caustically. “A trans person has a baby; why is that news? He wasn’t the first; he won’t be the last,” she said, referring to the anonymous man referenced in McLeod’s article.

Rather than discussing transgenderism as a strange and provocative anomaly, the media could analyse it within the framework of a general discussion on what gender means in our society. It is important to differentiate gender and sex. The latter refers to biological birth sex—male, female or intersex. Gender, on the other hand, refers to how this biological sex determines certain societal roles—man, woman, transgender, genderqueer, spangender; the list is extensive and widely varied. Undoubtedly more and more terms will spring up over time, as understandings of gender identity become increasingly flexible.

Biological sex may play a part in shaping gender identity, but societal influence is incredibly pervasive. Nature and nurture are not two points of a dichotomy, but represent part of a spectrum, and influence each other. The brain, responsible for many parts of gender identity, is not a static, unchanging organ. Exercising certain areas of the brain will grow and develop it. It is reasonable to suppose that if a young girl is constantly told that women aren’t good at mathematics or science, she will be discouraged from pursuing such paths of thought. Researchers may examine her as an adult, see that she has not developed the analytical habits required to excel at such subjects, and conclude that her behaviour is genetically determined.

Such pseudoscientific claims around gender are abundant; many believe that women are genetically predisposed to prefer working with people over working with things. However, these studies are inherently problematic because they lack a control group. Every adult is touched by long-standing cultural gender norms, and thus all results from scientific gender studies will have skewed data sets.

Kennedy is a fashion designer and not a scientist, but spoke of what gender means to her from personal experience. “I have a birth sex. Gender was thrust on me whether it was correct or not,” she said. “I know that from birth I have always been ‘a crybaby’, ‘a sissy’, very emotional and very connected to love; all those things that we have built into what women and female are. Even before I understood gender, I always used to say ‘I’m going to grow up to be a mommy’. Even when I thought I was going to marry a woman, I thought: ‘I’m going to be the mommy and she’ll have to be the daddy.’ Mothers are nurturing and caring, and that was the role that I always fit.”

Definitions of gender have varied greatly over time. During certain historical periods, women have been perceived as irrational and hypersensitive; at others they have been characterised as well-rounded, stable and caring. Simplistic, deterministic definitions of gender can hurt anyone, cis- or transgender. Brooklynne Kennedy herself once said at an LGBT rally that “like all little girls, I dreamed of getting married”, a stereotype that is foreign to the reality of many women. However, transgender people usually receive the worst results of gender simplicity; the female/male dichotomy is coded into our very language of he or she pronouns. Many transgender people use one pronoun or another, but there is little linguistic space for people like Shelley Howard, someone who is in the middle of the spectrum.

The erosion of the gender binary is a slow, ongoing process. I look forward to a time when there is none, and people are defined based on their actions and beliefs rather than their gender identity. Biological sex differences will of course remain, but norms around what they represent in society will hopefully change. A greater understanding of transgender issues is an essential component of this process. It is necessary for the media to engage in meaningful dialogue with the trans community to make sure they receive informed and respectful media exposure.

Resources for transgender issues

• Trans Media Watch –
• The New Zealand Human Rights Commission –
• New Zealand Community Law Centre –
• Gay Line Wellington –
• Australia’s Gender Centre -
• The Queer Avengers -


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