Media Portraits: Delegitimation of the Transgendered

Jerry Springer’s notoriety hit a new low February 20, 2007 when he featured “Sandra” the legless “transsexual

I admit starting off by referencing what has to be the worst episode ever aired on the Jerry Springer show (and that’s saying a lot) is probably too easy a ploy, but I couldn’t help myself. People that identify as transgendered have a long road to travel because we stand apart from the larger societies in which we live. Media from various countries add to our sense of marginalization because they have overwhelmingly portrayed us as deviant at best, and more often than not as a bunch of psychotics.

The transvestite killer in Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” comes to mind as does Buffalo Bill, the transgendered psychopath featured in Silence of the Lambs. Check out Gary Gaymon’s top 15 list at: for a detailed discussion of the “transgendered as killer” motif in film.

Springer’s show is simply a modern day incarnation of the classic “Freak Show”. The “bearded lady” cliche’ exists because it sensationalized the incongruity of a male secondary sex characteristic on a female. I’m sure if bearded ladies could generate ratings we’d see them on his show too. Sadly, Springer is not alone or even the exception when it comes to sensationalizing the transgendered. Maury Povich has aired a number of shows where audience members are asked to guess the birth sex of various contestants. Many feature enticing tag lines such as “Sexy Hot Ladies Or Are They…” and “Glamour Girls Or Sexy Studs?”

Transgendered individuals face challenges from within and without. If you are male to female (MtF) you may feel compromised by the expression of drag queens. Flamboyant in the extreme, many of them physically attractive and gifted in female mimicry they are predominantly homosexual yet happy to remain men physically, and to think of themselves as male. I remember chatting with a male friend who confessed a lot of apprehension in seeing me post-surgery as he pictured us chatting at a restaurant and me appearing more or less as the individual featured below:

All fine and good for an evening out on the town but rather less suited for a casual get together over coffee at your local Starbucks.

Many, if not most, transsexuals simply wish to blend in with other men or women of our identified gender. From a personal perspective, I have no greater desire than to fit in with with every other woman my age indistinguishable from a physical, psychological, and sociological perspective. I suspect most Females to Males (FtM) involuntarily cringe when they read of individuals like Thomas Beatie gushing over the joys of pregnancy. Beatie’s embracing of exclusive female sexual function confuses a public already reeling from a barrage of  misinformation regarding the transgendered.

Females to males generally have an easier go of it from a social perspective. The hormone therapy resulting in frequent hair loss, deepening of voices and overall masculinization allows them to blend in with other males more effectively. MtF’s face greater obstacles unless they transition earlier in life thereby avoiding advanced masculine development.

All this results in a dichotomy within the transgendered community of those that “pass” and those that by default become part of a visible minority. I fall into the latter half and as such have had to accept certain limitations and to impose upon my psyche a more realistic appraisal of my social presentation.  I have blogged about this in detail on another site:

Collectively, media outlets of all stripes have tended to delegitimize transgendered individuals effectively reducing us to something less than we are and further marginalizing us in the process.  I highly recommend Sass Ragando Sasot’s brilliantly scripted article:

Reclaiming the Humanity of Filipino Transgender People.

It’s an exceptionally insightful piece of analysis and provided the impetus for my own entry here.

The most effective strategy for improving public perceptions of the transgendered is to generate improved media images. Essentially, we need to borrow a page from our Gay and Lesbian friends and represent in mainstream media. Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and others did so in music. Currently, Life of Agony’s Keith “Mina” Caputo and Against Me!’s Tom “Laura” Gabel have come out as transgendered. The spotlight is on them and so far the press has been fairly even handed in its treatment of the two musicians.

However, we have a long way to go. Obviously, we need to see sympathetic transgendered characters represented on the big and little screens. TransAmerica was excellent despite the fact that a non-transsexual played the lead role. However, it succeeded in creating a sympathetic and fundamentally identifiable character in the person of “Bree”. I admit I was hoping Felicity Huffman would win the coveted best actress award over Reese Witherspoon, whom by her own admission intimated that being a Tennessee girl portraying a Tennessee girl was not much of an acting stretch for her; but it wasn’t to be.

Young women such as the lovely and gifted writer, Janet Mock offer us a chance to see transsexuals in a positive light. She’s an inspiration and whether she welcomes it or not is a role model for young people who identify as transgender. I encourage everyone to visit her website at:

The stunningly beautiful Jenna Talackova who broke the transgender barrier by successfully competing in the Miss Universe Canada pageant is another bright light. Yet, even Jenna, who so successfully mirrors society’s definition of an attractive desirable female has been denigrated in the press. Note the sensationalized (not to mention, inaccurate) heading featured in the magazine below (Jenna at top right) :

Must have been a special transgender issue… look at the various headlines featured **rollseyes**

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Jamie Clayton, an up and coming model/actress who while acknowledging her transgendered history has made a sincere effort to be judged on her acting credentials alone. She is to be commended as is Chaz Bono the famous son of entertainers, Sonny and Cher, whose female-to-male transition garnered world-wide attention.

The task before us is two-fold: countermand and defeat negative caricatures and stereo-types that have been allowed to propagate, and secondly, to promote positive images that can help us find a place in the wider social context. Notable in this regard is a desire to see a transgendered person functioning as a mainstream news anchor delivering “hard” news. However, since cisgendered females have themselves only recently achieved that goal we may have to wait a bit.

Finally, many of us in the “do-not-pass” camp may have to settle with sympathetic portrayals of transgender akin to Lauren Potter’s Down Syndrome afflicted character in GLEE. Nothing, that dear lady can do will avoid the stigma of “other”; neither can those of us who do not pass ever hope to be defined as the equivalent of  a cisgendered female by virtue of our masculinized past. That’s a hard reality to accept but it does not negate any hope of being treated sympathetically or otherwise avoid being demeaned and dehumanized.

I love this image that came across many of our Facebook screens. I saved a copy of it and made it my personal mantra. I’ll leave you for now with its very positive message:

Words to Live By

In the Breaking News department:

Transgendered celebrity, Carmen Carrera suffered humiliation while filming a segment for TLC’s “The Cake Boss” last night. It’s an apt illustration of the media’s representation and general perception of transgendered people—even those as obviously attractive and desirable as Carmen.

You can read about the story here:



Filed under Transgender

2 responses to “Media Portraits: Delegitimation of the Transgendered

  1. Great post Rachey! I tend to agree that ftm people have a bit of an easier time passing than many mtf. As a lover of ALL types of humans I find those shows and headlines disgusting. I recall Tyra had a similar episode. I found it distasteful and hurtful coming from someone who has such connection to the community, shame on Tyra.

    We’ll get there as a society someday. I have to have hope. I think its important for us cis identifying people to continue to normalize transgendered folks. For example if I were talking about you I’d say “My friend Rachel”, not “My trans friend Rachel”. Anyways I am getting a bit tangential now. I just had to post a wee comment because I’ve started reading your wonderful blog. Your brain in awesome!

  2. Thank you so much. I am humbled and grateful for your kind words, Dana. ❤

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