A decade or so ago, I was sitting across from a local newspaper reporter as she interviewed me about my work on the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It was a pleasant discussion, going over the usual slew of questions: Why did I create this project? How has it grown? And so on. Then the interview took a turn. The reporter suddenly decided she wanted to see photos of me from before my transition, wanted to know my birth name and, yes, wanted to know my surgical status. She was a bit put-off when I explained that these were things I simply do not offer up in interviews. I don’t think these questions are relevant to the work I’ve done.
A week later, I opened the newspaper and read the article. More than half of it was not about my work, but about me. It talked about a photo of me pre-transitioned spied in my bedroom and referred to that as “the old Gwen.” It painted a tale of me as having dirty-blond hair and “chipped pink polish on her nails” and talked about my love of “lots of dark eyeliner.”
For the record, I don’t tend to wear polish and wasn’t that day. I wear a modest amount of eyeliner. Oh, and my hair is probably best described as a medium-brown, albeit somewhat graying. It was at that moment, as I read this article about me, that I knew exactly why I did not answer questions about my past name or, for that matter, the configuration of my nether regions: If I had, these would be peppered within that article, presented as the “true” me, while the point of the article — my work on anti-transgender violence and murders — would be swept even further to the margins.
It’s a given: As transgender people, we often face discrimination. We face it any time someone determines that we don’t live up to whatever expectations another has on our gender. We might get catcalls and sneers. We might get poor service. We could lose a job. In the worst cases, we could be beaten, raped or killed. Is it any wonder that many of us choose to not disclose our transgender status to the world at large? Yet in a world where Facebook mines us for advertisers and the NSA scoops up all our communications, privacy is an increasingly rare commodity.
On a recent episode of Katie Couric’s eponymous talk show, an interview with transgender celebrities Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox went south very quickly. “Your private parts are different now, aren’t they?” asks Couric of Carrera. Carrera shut that down quickly, but Couric pressed along similar lines later in the piece with Cox. While both handled these intrusive questions with poise and grace under pressure, the whole piece felt more like a train wreck than the “teachable moment” Couric claimed after the fact.
I feel it’s also important to note that Couric had couched the interview — before Carrera and Cox were onscreen — with lurid warning of a “shocking transformation,” teasing up that her guests were “born a man” with as much taste as Maury Povitch or Jerry Springer.
Meanwhile, author Caleb Hannan, in a piece written for ESPN-produced sports website Grantland, tells the story of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka “Dr. V.” The piece speaks of the golf putter she developed, but quickly veers away from this, focusing on who the “mysterious” Dr. V is. This after Vanderbilt herself made it clear that any article she would be involved in would “focus on the science and not the scientist.” Hannan was unsatisfied with this and pressed on, digging deep into Dr. V’s background — and eventually discovered that she, too, was transgender.
His narrative changes here.
Vanderbilt, the “mad scientist” behind a piece of golfing equipment, becomes a “troubled man.” Hannan outs Vanderbilt to her business associate and sets the stage for Vanderbilt’s final letter to Hannan — and Vanderbilt’s suicide.
Hannan claims to be “writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised [him],” yet his article is little more than a hit piece that outs a transwoman and leads directly to her death.
There is this attitude that transgender people need to provide our histories — and our genital status — to anyone on demand. It’s at the heart of everything from schoolyard taunts to any challenge of our identities. It is as if people expect they have the right to know our history and the appearance of the most intimate parts of our bodies.
I would never go up to any other woman and start a conversation about when they became a woman and how their genitals behave differently now than when they were children. That would be the height of impropriety, let alone be more than a little creepy.
Yet this is exactly what it is like to ask a transgender person about their bodies, with an added dash of threat — as if you added, “If your answer does not satisfy my curiosity, I will treat you very badly” to the end of your request.
For the sake of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s memory, this needs to stop. Transgender people have a right to privacy, just as any other person. Our histories are ours and ours alone to choose to share. They may no longer be demanded of us. You have no right, nor need, to know.
Gwen Smith keeps her lips zipped. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com.