Transverse: Lana Wachowski and the Importance of Pronouns

Wachowskis.jpg
Lana and Andy Wachowski

Can we get some GLAAD sensitivity training up in here? As a trans man who works in media, I'm a little heartsick over some reporters' boneheaded relationship to pronouns and names of trans folks. I get the point about clarity -- my job as an editor involves ensuring it daily -- but that's why we get paid the big bucks: to make words work for us.

Take this week's controversy over the New Yorker's (super) long profile of the Wachowski siblings. See, that wasn't so hard. Lana Wachowski is a trans woman, a narrative conundrum that seems to overwhelm reporter Aleksandar Hemon. Presumably in lazy service of making things super easy for people who aren't trans, he chooses to refer to Lana pre-transition by her male name and pronouns, and refer to her and Andy as "brothers" during that back story. While this may have been, on the outside, factually true, it's disruptive at best and disrespectful at worst. In his attempts to hand hold you, the gentle reader, through Wachowski's "gender situation," he portrays a life cut in two: Larry and Lana, unlike you, are boundaried by some mythical moment where the "facts" changed. It's all very confusing.

As Rich Juzwiak at Gawker (!) pointed out: WTF? "You can feel the letters being typed at arm's length as you read," he writes. "A 'situation' requires a clean-up in aisle five, not a completely different way a person presents herself to the world." Exactly. Journalists choose what story to tell -- it's even what we call a pitch. So there's no denying that the narrative of us-and-them is located exactly in these moments, where a likely sympathetic reporter let his prejudices get the better of him, and called them "facts."

A similar moment happened in Boston, when the Boston Globe, which regularly does beautiful human interest pieces about trans people's lives, reported on a federal judge's ruling to fund surgery for trans woman and convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek. The Globe is the trans communities' most erratic ally, as demonstrated by the flurry of trans issues coverage this week alone. Case in point: this piece on Camp Aranu'tiq, where Bella English deftly negotiates pronouns and names without compromising clarity or respect for the kids involved; side-by-side with this one, where the News Desk reported, "Michelle Kosilek was born male but has received hormone treatments and now lives as a woman in an all-male prison. Robert Kosilek was convicted of murder in the killing of his wife in 1990."

Since Michelle and Robert are the same person, the insistence on distinguishing her "before" and "after" names seems counter-intuitive, and darkly hints at some of the worst prejudices about trans folks: that we're deceptive, hiding behind our double identities. Michelle was convicted of killing her wife, because she's Michelle now. In no other situation can I imagine a previous name being used exclusively when discussing the past, except for a transgender one.

And the issue is about more than semantics. It's about perpetuating myths that hurt everyone, trans or not: that gender is a binary and not a continuum, that who you say you are means less than what other people decide by looking at you. As a trans man, I know I can't revise my history, and I'm not sure I'd choose to be born a man. But when my mom asked me how I felt about her displaying old pictures of me, I hesitated. I've untagged myself from old photo albums on Facebook. What, beyond an anxiety about my difference, would motivate you to consistently refer to memories of our shared past by switching to "she"? Why privilege your comfort over my own?

My mom doesn't.

Trans people and journalists share a deep reliance on words. It's our job as media to use our position as the disseminators of information to cater not to the most ignorant among us, but to the heart of the stories we're telling.

And it's our job as readers to expand our understanding beyond our most immediate experiences. It's our job as humans too.

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fuentes.gabrielle
fuentes.gabrielle

I'm very happy you wrote this piece.  I recently emailed NPR about a problematic article where they disrespected people's self-identification, and in general used problematic language and didn't acknowledge that Western conceptions of what being transgender are not identical to hijra in Pakistan.  Maybe you could tell them.  They wouldn't listen to me, but would probably listen to a reporter.  http://www.npr.org/2012/09/03/160496712/pakistans-transgenders-in-a-category-of-their-own

gwenners
gwenners

@ExhibitionistSF As I write for @eBARnews, I hope we somehow aren't using the same column title in competing papers. :-)

gwenners
gwenners

@ExhibitionistSF Hi there. FYI. "Transmissions" is the name of my 12 years running syndicated trans issues column. Nice to meet you.

ExhibitionistSF
ExhibitionistSF

@gwenners Didn't realize the name overlap! Will talk with @ThomasPageMcBee about a new one.

gwenners
gwenners

@ExhibitionistSF @ThomasPageMcBee Much appreciated. FWIW, I started to use that column name in @eBARnews on November 2nd, 2000.

ThomasPageMcBee
ThomasPageMcBee

@silverspeakers @deniselavoie_ap Thanks, hope this adds some clarity for people who don't fully grasp why pronouns matter.

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