What Every Transgender Should Know About Media Representation

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A lot of reporters are looking for transgender stories, but do not always have the skills or background to approach vulnerable topics. The worst predicament is to walk out of an interview and begin feeling shame over having been exploited by someone wanting a story without real concern about your life experience.

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Like other transgender people, I’ve been grateful to see the positive media representation over the past few weeks since Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner. The very next morning, the Chicago Tribune featured a front-page article by Angie Leventis Lourgos that told the happy story of a well-loved and -supported 16 year-old transgender boy named Adam Beaty. Lourgos’s article went on to share information about Chicago Public Schools’ adoption of policies and practices surrounding transgender students’ needs. I enjoyed the article, commend Lourdos for writing it, and most especially, applaud super-cool Adam for sharing his story.

I hope that all of the transgender storytelling that’s happening is going so well. A lot of reporters are looking for transgender stories, but do not always have the skills or background to approach vulnerable topics. The worst predicament is to walk out of an interview and begin feeling shame over having been exploited by someone wanting a story without real concern about your life experience. To that end, I offer the following tips to transgender women and men who are approached to share their stories in the wake of the Bruce Jenner interview (in fact, these are good considerations for anyone who’s asked to interview on a vulnerable topic):

Before even agreeing to an interview, be clear on what of your own life is okay to share and what’s not. This will help you determine whether you really even want to do an interview about your experience.

Only agree to interview for publications you trust. If you don’t know the publication, learn about it ahead of time to be sure it’s the right place for your story to be told.

Be clear on what the interviewer is wanting to know. There’s nothing worse than expecting to present parts of yourself, only to be asked about others that are particularly sensitive or vulnerable.

Be clear on the body of the interviewer’s work. Is this someone who clearly has the expertise and sensitivity to appropriate tell your story?

Don’t answer questions that seem too personal. If you aren’t comfortable, pay attention to that. If you feel pressured or uncomfortable, end the interview.

Ask to read the article before it’s published. This will help ensure that your voice is represented accurately. If any part feels gross or too personal to be shared, explain this to the writer and ask it to be edited.

If you do experience discomfort after an interview and walk away feeling exploited, embarrassed, or other discomfort, talk about your concerns with someone you trust. If you experience major disruptions to your sleep or other habits, seek a qualified mental health professional who can support you in self-advocating with the writer and the publication.

The media is really a powerful way to get stories told. Voices that haven’t been heard and new ways of presenting people’s journeys can be brought to the forefront. People encounter an article and realize that it’s like their own story, perhaps learning from or being empowered by the voice that’s being shared. Still others who have never thought about the issue being presented learn from it, often unexpectedly because it catches their eye while they’re scrolling or flipping through pages of a publication.

Let media serve that function. Participate in interviews that champion your story and that of people who are walking a similar path. Use your example to educate people who have hurt you or someone you care about. Share ideas of how to tackle a life challenge with which you’ve dealt.

Do it, though, in a manner that is safe for you and respectful of your boundaries.

Michelle Obama’s Story as “Other” in Tuskegee Commencement Speech

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When people differ from the dominant group, our difference becomes the focus. We are placed under a magnifying glass. People are curious, fascinated, at the exotic person who is in this new situation. Even as we work to demonstrate our competence and all of the ways in which we share similarities with the rest of the group, we are still Other.

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In her commencement address at Tuskegee University, Michelle Obama spoke of being held to a different standard during the time that President Obama was running for office in 2008. My regular readers will recognize this as a story of being cast in the role of Other. The full video can be viewed at CNN. In summary, the First Lady stated:

As potentially the first African-American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations….sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I ‘too loud’ or ‘too angry’…or ‘too emasculating?’ Or, was I ‘too soft?’, ‘too much of a Mom,’ not enough of a career woman?

Indeed, we remember the great controversy over the fist bump with then-Senator Obama.

CNN’s already referring to these “bold statements” made during the address. No doubt, they are only bold in that people who don’t like Michelle Obama will deride her statements; those who like her will praise them. I happen to like her; but I see nothing bold in what to me is fairly obvious. She was the first, and therefore, her role as Other was cast for her. Irrespective of who she was going in, the expectations were set.

It seems that whenever there is a first, people have unrealistic expectations of the person that are based in prejudice and stereotypes.

John K. Kennedy.

Harvey Milk.

Sandra Day O’Connor.

Those are the folks we know about (or if you didn’t know, they were, respectively, the first Catholic President of the United States, the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco, and the first female Supreme Court Justice). There are so many more, going into offices, climbing into buses, wheeling themselves into classrooms every day, and facing expectations that are based not on who they are and what they can do; but on the most basic visible features that people see. And this was the heart of the First Lady’s Tuskegee commencement address.

When people differ from the dominant group, our difference becomes the focus. We are placed under a magnifying glass. People are curious, fascinated, at the exotic person who is in this new situation. Even as we work to demonstrate our competence and all of the ways in which we share similarities with the rest of the group, we are still Other. When we demonstrate our individual goals or speak of cultural affiliation that differs from the dominant way of thinking or doing things, it is labelled and we are classified, dismissed with “I told you so.” Such is the case for Michelle Obama, whose speech at the BET “Black Girls Rock” Awards was labelled by her detractors as “racist.”

As each of us climbs our own ladder toward whatever our light is, this is the challenge to us. How do we retain our identity that is true to us without caving to people who are holding us to a different set of standards? How do we prove their stereotypes wrong?

We don’t.

We move with what feels most real and right to us. Existing as a shell of ourselves in order to show a dominant group that we’re just like them or to minimize their discomfort does nothing but harm us and our integrity. It is we who suffer when we choose to live without authenticity. If we have to divest ourselves of our identities in order to be accepted or appreciated, the favors we are attempting to curry are probably not worth it. It takes a courageous person to speak truths that are uncomfortable. 

Ariana Miyamoto: Japan’s Biracial Beauty Queen’s Story as “Other”

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 Ariana Miyamoto will be representing Japan in the Miss Universe pageant. Tall and strikingly beautiful in that way that women who win national beauty pageant tend to be, Ariana nonetheless has a story of Otherness. The child of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Ariana was bullied by other children in Nagasaki where she grew up. They even threw garbage at her. And her story is like that of biracial children all over the world.

Children of mixed descent have historically struggled to find acceptance in the racially-divided worlds in which most grow up. Some physically resemble one racial group more than the other, while others are visibly of mixed descent. Finding a racial and cultural place to call “home” presents as a real challenge for many.

Ariana grew up in Japan, a nation in which 98.5% of the population are Japanese, with small pockets of people from other Asian countries and an additional .06% specifically identified as “other” by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Standing head and shoulders above the rest and with the darker skin of her father’s heritage, Ariana was visibly different from the people around her. This was the basis of their mistreatment of her. She knew all along that she was Other.

Importantly, she didn’t let that stop her. She’s still not stopping, even as people criticize the notion of a woman who is not fully Japanese representing the nation in the Miss Universe pageant. She’s said that this inspires her to push even harder. My favorite part is that she is using her Otherness as its own source of inspiration. She has a gift in that she is different, and she’s giving herself permission to use that gift.

Her story is a poignant one because it’s tells a of journey of the kid who felt the pain that so many biracial children and adults can claim for their own. More broadly, hers is the story of all of us. She was the kid who was different. She was Other, and she still is. No doubt on those days when someone called her a name and threw garbage at her, she cried, asked  herself “Why?”, and struggled to hold her head up the next day. Today though, she’s not letting her Otherness hold her back. She’s carrying herself forward. She’s never stopped.

I hope she does extremely well in Miss Universe and beyond, in whatever she wishes to pursue in her life. Go, Ariana!

Radical Respect in Response to the Garland Shooting

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Somehow, secular Western culture has deceived itself into believing that actively taunting a group is the ultimate expression of free speech. Rather than providing a mechanism in which I as a transgender woman and my neighbors who are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, etc., have exactly the same opportunity for voice, “free speech” these days is most often used to punish those who differ from us.

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In Garland, Texas on Sunday evening, two gunmen were killed in a shooting, following their attack on a cartoon event that centered around depictions of the prophet Mohammad. The American Defense Freedom Initiative hosted the event as part of its mission to stop the advance of what they believe is the U.S. government’s capitulation to radical Islam. It is easy to see how events unfolded as they did.

I do not condone violence. In fact, I am a pacifist, borne of my own faith in humanity’s collectivist nature and true desire for love and connection. It is from here that I offer a concept for dealing with differences: radical respect.

As a therapist, I learned about radical respect through my training in relational-cultural theory (RCT), which posits that growth-fostering relationships are the foundation for our mental health and wellness. Translated in layperson terms, RCT teaches that each of us has to give and receive love just as we are. When we learn to participate in relationships as genuine, vulnerable human beings who are invested in nurturing each other’s potential, our own growth process is exponential. It’s here that radical respect comes in.

My friends at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, where RCT is taught to therapists, prove this handy working definition:

Radical Respect

A deep appreciation based on empathy for the other person’s current functioning and for the context within which her or his suffering arose; an equally deep appreciation for her or his coping methods, survival strategies, and the inner wisdom that sought to keep her or him alive.

Far from being an abstract and inconceivable method for dealing with others, this strategy follows the teachings of humanity’s spiritual leaders across time. It gives us a practicable concept that therapists use every day in supporting clients and patients to become better partners, parents, friends…and wherever else in our lives we need to grow our compassion and understanding.

Why I offer this here is because I see a fundamental disconnect in how we treat each other. Somehow, secular Western culture has deceived itself into believing that actively taunting a group is the ultimate expression of free speech. Rather than providing a mechanism in which I as a transgender woman and my neighbors who are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, gay, straight, bisexual, black, white, etc., have exactly the same opportunity for voice, “free speech” these days is most often used to punish those who differ from us.

This is particularly challenging in the conversation of Radical Islam. As the cartoon event sought to demonstrate, freedom of speech is used as the guiding principle for depicting images of the prophet Mohammad (forbidden in Muslim aniconism). People become radical in Islam for the same reason people have always become radical. They feel oppressed and attacked.

Throughout history, this has always been the reason people radicalized…whether radical feminists, civil rights activists, authors, poets, or American colonials, people become radical when they feel there is no other way. One people’s terrorists are another’s freedom fighters.

It is here that we reach the conundrum and must ask ourselves, “What do we wish to see happen next?” As I might ask my feuding couple, “What and who do you want to be in your relationship tomorrow?” Who do we want to be?