This Morning I saw a USA Today article titled “Transgender Troops Serve In Silence.” I excitedly rushed to read the story, eager to see an affirmative portrayal of transgender service men and women. While our treatment by media has experienced an upward projection, I was still nervous as I opened the USA Today link. As the media has started to treat us more like human beings, we’ve seen fewer misrepresentations of trans people. But at the same time, great room for improvement still exists.
The comment sections on USAToday.com are unfortunately still deeply Steeped in trans-hate. Now we shouldn’t feed the trolls, but I always check comment sections on these types of articles out of habit. Subsequently, I will address them in a later post. What I want to address today is the light praise I have for this article, and more importantly, areas where I think we can improve the discussion of transgender Americans in the Media.
This article seems like the tail-end of a two month flurry of Trans-related news stories. One of which told the story of a Colorado 6 year-old who recently won the right to use the girl’s bathroom at School. But what has turned the most heads in mainstream media is Kristin Beck’s book “Warrior Princess.” Her story has lead to live television interviews with big names like Anderson Cooper and is a large focus of this USA Today Piece. Her story is a perfect piece for the media as it provides a consistent trans-narrative, and I believe it likely served as the impetus for this USA Today article.
Let’s delve into the article itself. To those who don’t know, being transgender will immediately disqualify you from service. This USA Today article intended to bring attention to the issue that service members must maintain silence about their transgender status; There are clear parallels to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but with the possibility of greater psychological harm. Tom Vanden Brook, the USA Today reporter who wrote the piece, started his article by identifying that there are an estimated 700,000 Americans who Identify as Transgender (Vanden Brook uses the term Transsexual; The National Center For Transgender Equality list of terminology can be found here). I do like that he brings this up, because it helps reveal that we aren’t as small a minority as people expect. He also brings up the fact that other militaries around the world allow Transgender individuals to serve. He provides plenty of evidence to assert that we should be allowed to serve in some capacity. Unfortunately, what promoted me to write this post is second sentence in the article – below:
These men and women weren’t even a blip on the nation’s radar until former Navy SEAL Team 6 member Chris Beck revealed in a memoir released last month that he had become Kristin Beck, a woman.
Firstly, he takes a jab at our low profile and forced closeting for the sake of a clever radar metaphor – this an be overlooked. What got me was that “Chris Beck… he Had Become Kristen Beck, a woman.” The paramount rule to addressing trans-folks in the media, or in any other medium whether it be in-person,over text, or any correspondence, is to use correct pronouns. If she is a woman who has been living as a man, then she has always been her. Also, I would argue that she didn’t become Kristin. She was always Kristin living as Chris. Names are just what we call ourselves; It isn’t who we are. In a similar way, we don’t say someone who comes out as gay ‘became gay’ when they came out. I do feel bad complaining about an article written in our support, but as we get more press coverage we must insist on things like pronouns. The article lists two examples of transgender servicemen and woman, a MTF (or trans woman) and a FTM (or trans man). The interview with the trans man is handled better, but the issues remain.
The sergeant joined the Army Reserves as a lesbian. As a Southerner, a black woman and a member of the Baptist church, the sergeant kept her sexuality secret and her sense that she was a man buried even deeper.
The second interview, which is about a trans woman Lieutenant-Colonel, triggered some uneasy feelings. Below is the interview in its entirety, I don’t want any of it taken out of context – I will emphasis the parts I fond most troubling
The second soldier, a lieutenant colonel, is a combat veteran, 45, with a background in special operations. The soldier reports for duty by day in a man’s uniform.
At night and on weekends: skirt, heels, makeup.
“I might be a 45-year-old guy mentally, if I choose to think like that,” the lieutenant colonel says. “But as a girl I’m like 16. Things I never learned as a little girl growing up that Mamma would have taught me in terms of all the feminine virtues.”
The choice is shattering the lieutenant colonel’s life. There’s a divorce and living apart the soldier’s children. Retirement from the Army looms in a few months. Job performance has suffered. Troops in transition might need to leave or take a break from service, the lieutenant colonel says. Once they’ve fully transitioned, they should be able to do the job.
“Three monstrous stresses: No. 1, transitioning from male to female,” the lieutenant colonel says. “No. 2, transitioning out of the military and wondering what I want to be when I grow up. I just never realized that that was housewife. The third, the divorce.”
How does the lieutenant colonel cope?
“I drink a lot.”
For years, the lieutenant colonel has repressed femininity.
“I always felt uncomfortable in my body and I didn’t know why,” the lieutenant colonel says. “I was deathly afraid of being gay. That was the biggest sin you could have in my family. One thing that my dad hated more than anything. I was never allowed to have a G.I. Joe because my dad wouldn’t allow dolls in the house. I had no sisters. It was an all-male, all-the-time environment.”
Throughout the soldier’s career, the lieutenant colonel chose the most physically demanding jobs and succeeded at them. The soldier got married, had kids, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lieutenant colonel considers himself a conservative and “constitutionalist” who viewed “don’t ask, don’t tell” as illegal and was pleased it was repealed.
Since February, the lieutenant colonel has been leaving a one-bedroom apartment dressed as a woman and has started to use a woman’s name.
The lieutenant colonel would like to lose his baritone, but surgery to lose his penis requires more thought.
There is some solace in the new life.
“I was always afraid that I was gay,” the lieutenant colonel says. “Now I know that I’m not. I’m a straight woman. That’s actually nice for me to feel. Not that there should be any stigma attached to any other set of gender identities or sexual preference. But I feel very comfortable that I’m a straight woman. Sits very well.”
So again, there are clear issues with pronouns in this interview. He writes that the Colonel has started using “a woman’s name;” This is borderline for me, but it seems to imply that she is something other than a woman. What bothered me the most, besides that the interview was cut together oddly (the interview doesn’t read well, this leads me to believe things were taken out and that the reporter forced the narrative), is the line “The lieutenant colonel would like to lose his baritone, but surgery to lose his penis requires more thought.” I just found this last line dehumanizing. “to Lose his penis requires more thought.” There is no reason for this line. It’s unacceptable. The author has already demonstrated his penchant for making jokes at trans peoples’ expense, but this cute parallelism about loss is to far. If you cover a pre-transition woman’s decisions about surgery, just say that she is unsure if she is going to undergo Sexual Reassignment Surgery in the future. That’s all it takes, a little humanity, and that’s what the Lieutenant-Colonel deserves it.
Overall, the article portrays people who are transgender in a positive light, but like most pieces there is a clear fixation with medical transition. The media is always overly interested in the ‘juicy’ details of how exactly one goes “for man to woman” and vice-versa. Sometimes the importance placed on these details causes the media to crudely address them. Hence the poor handling of SRS in this USA Today piece. The physical transition is an important part of transitioning. But it is only one part. The inner transition and acceptance we must all go through is surly worth the same coverage. I implore the media to consider this when formulating stories on individual transitions.
Thank you Tom Vanden Brooks for fighting on behalf of transgender service members. But remember, Living as a Transgender American is far from easy. Our perils are not over once transition is complete. We still face discrimination and ridicule at levels no longer tolerated by any other minority. Try to always remember that we are people and that we deserve dignity. We are not asking for pity, just fair representation. Together, as Journalists and trans people, we can help defeat an environment of discrimination.
The USA Today Piece can be found at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/07/23/transsexuals-military-struggle-acceptance/2513153/