An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey22 July, 2014
Dear Ms. Winfrey,
I am a teacher, a writer, and a trans woman. I saw your update on Christine and Jacki for “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” and want to address misconceptions concerning and problematic attitudes about the transgender and transsexual population this segment has lent credence to. My purpose is not to tear down the intended good of the segment, but to make clear the damage the segment does to trans people and the public perception of them; also, to ask for your help in rectifying the errors. Specifically, the myths that being trans is a choice, that trans people transition for social gain, and that being trans is easy. Each of these misperceptions of trans people make it harder for them to function in a society that retains heavy bias against them, and each has been bolstered by the segment featuring Christine and Jacki.
One of the most visible aspects of the trans narrative pertains to the lack of choice transgender and transsexual individuals have regarding their identity. For them, it is a struggle to balance who they truly are with who society (medical, governmental, and familial) has decided they are. These conflicting identities create intense levels of stress and anxiety in the trans person and contribute to the painful gender dysphoria prevalent in trans related cases. As a trans woman and participant in multiple support networks for transgender and transsexual individuals, I can assure you the narrative where the trans person struggles to live as someone they are not for the sake of family and friends is extremely common. Trans people often say they transitioned when they succumbed or surrendered to being trans, as opposed to choosing to be trans. When Jacki states she “began looking into transgender” she is reinforcing the societal idea that being transgender or transsexual is a choice of “lifestyle,” a notion the trans community has been actively fighting for decades.
The idea of “trans as choice” leads into the second myth the Christine and Jacki segment strengthened: that transgender and transsexual people transition for social gain. The segment, and Christine’s explanations on the Huffington Post discussion board reporting the segment, refer to Jacki by female pronouns despite her male gender marker. The story, as reported by Christine, Jacki, your program, and the Huffington Post, make it clear the transition was not about Jacki personally identifying as a man, but about obtaining legal benefits recognition as a man and a state-recognized marriage would provide. Trans people transitioning to gain privilege or status is one of the most malignant myths about being trans; so pernicious that it has become a recognized trope in our cultural narrative. Trans men are routinely accused of transitioning in order to “gain male privilege” and trans women are accused of transitioning in order to “invade women’s spaces” and to “fool men” into sexual activity (the “trans for x,” “trans rapist,” and “trans trap” tropes). In actuality, trans men and women lose privilege by transitioning. Here is a breakdown of the stats regarding the loss of societal privilege: For adults 19% were refused medical care; 20% refused a home, 11% evicted; 53% verbally harassed in a public place; 57% rejected by their families; 90% harassed or mistreated at work, 47% fired or denied a promotion. In elementary school, 78% have been harassed, 35% physically assaulted, 12% are victim of sexual violence. To encourage the idea that being transgender or transsexual creates social gain is an affront to the lived experience of trans girls, boys, women, and men who, rather than being lauded for their selfless act of love, are labeled traitors to their family, the gay and lesbian community, and to “nature.”
These facts dovetail with the final myth the Christine and Jacki segment lent inappropriate support to: being transgender or transsexual is easy. From the statistics above it is clear that individuals who socially transition have additional struggles that cisgender (non-transgender) individuals do not face. Additionally, those who seek medical transition and governmental recognition of their transition are faced with overwhelming obstacles and often fail to receive full recognition of their gender. When, on your program, Jacki snaps her fingers and says “just like that,” it creates an implication that it is easy to change one’s medically and governmentally assigned gender. It is not. In the majority of U.S. states a transgender or transsexual person must undergo an expensive surgery in order to change their gender marker (such as Jacki’s double mastectomy), but because of their status as trans individuals medical insurance will not cover this surgery–despite covering the same procedure for a cisgender person. Having to cover the cost of these surgeries without help from insurance and while facing high rates of unemployment, homelessness, and denial of necessary health care places surgery forever out of reach. It is estimated that 90% of trans people will not receive surgery due to monetary and personal reasons. For Jacki to create the impression that this process is easily attained shames trans people who have been denied the resources to achieve the same goal and discourages society from supporting trans people attempting to change the system.
The damage the Christine and Jacki segment has caused the movement of trans rights and equity is made exponentially worse by the legitimacy an internationally recognized and respected show like The Oprah Winfrey Show adds. The damage, however, is not irreparable; it is possible to use the media sway of your show to build clarity and visibility for the trans rights movement. By providing accurate and positive portrayals of trans women and men on your program and through the words of recognized trans guests, The Oprah Winfrey Show could become a major promoter of equality for both trans and cisgender people. I would encourage you to invite guests such as Janet Mock, Dean Spade, Laverne Cox, Leslie Feinberg, and Marci Bowers, MD. I urge you to consider the damaging messages sent out by the segment and the positive messages that could grow out of this learning experience.