The Limits of Trans Visibility

What the Star Tribune’s coverage  of CeCe McDonald Reveals about alleged LGBT Progress Narratives

Upon opening my emails this morning, I was surprised to read Jon Tevlin’s column “Transgender life is a long haul for Minneapolis woman ”about CeCe McDonald in the Star Tribune, acknowledging the trans rights activist’s persistent struggles to secure her livelihood and the ongoing harassment, discrimination, and violence many marginalized trans people, especially those of color, continue to endure – and all that despite the recent media spectacle around former Olympian and Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ favorite Reality TV dad, Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn.

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Tevlin rightfully recognizes Jenner’s trans visibility as one that is inherently privileged, wealthy, able-bodied and white: Jenner has unrestricted access to health care, housing, employment, and a secured income – resources that are unattainable for many trans people like McDonald: “There’s no comparison between Caitlyn and me except that we’re trans. She has a bodyguard. She doesn’t have to worry if her medicine will get cut off or if she’ll lose her food stamps. I don’t think she would have had any effect on my prosecution at all” (quoted in Tevlin’s column).

And the sad truth is that McDonald is right.

Now, the column’s “benign tone” itself admittedly surprised me because during its reporting on McDonald’s trial in 2011 and 2012, the Star Tribune’s coverage was outrageously insulting and demeaning, refusing to acknowledge McDonald’s transgender subjectivity.

In one of my dissertation chapters, I illustrate in more depth how the Star Tribune and other local media outlets actively corroborated with violent state institutions in prosecuting McDonald. Local news organizations’ framing of McDonald’s racialized gender-nonconformity as violent and threatening colluded with the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense. In this mutual process, the media as an ideological state apparatus to use Althusser’s terminology worked hand-in-hand with repressive state institutions to reinforce discourses of the justice system’s alleged color and gender blindness, which strategically masked the state’s ongoing investment in and protection of whiteness under the guise of multiculturalism and enabled the multidimensional violence enacted against McDonald. Below are a few brief examples from the Tribune’s sensationalistic and derogatory coverage of McDonald’s case.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is the largest newspaper covering the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, continued to misgender McDonald well after her self-identification as a trans woman was known and consistently framed her as a murderer. Articles frequently referred to McDonald by her birth name and described her as “Chrishaun Reed ‘CeCe’ McDonald, 23, who is a person in transition from a man to a woman” or as “McDonald, who is transgender and lives as a woman.” By consistently mis-gendering her, the Tribune belittled McDonald’s gender identity, denied her transgender subjectivity, and her right to self-determination. These news reports violently upheld discourses of a fixed, normative gender binary. While headline after headline repeatedly fetishized McDonald’s trans identity, it refused to discuss how her trans identity in relation to her identity as a poor woman of color affected the circumstances of the case. The local media failed to recognize McDonald as an intersectional subject and concurrently obstructed the materiality and structural inequality that she was facing by reasserting cis-gender identity and the gender binary as the norm.

While the Star Tribune reported that “McDonald and a witness said Schmitz incited a melee after midnight when he made racist and gay-bashing remarks toward McDonald, who is black,” the paper’s succeeding articles were quick to label and criminalize McDonald as “a transgender murder suspect” whose alleged “pent-up fury exploded” from the “pressures of being transgendered.” The Tribune’s fetishizing of McDonald’s gender-nonconformity not only sought to render her deviant, but like other local news outlets, the newspaper deliberately reinforced a representation of McDonald as threatening and violent precisely because she was transgender. Invoking deep-rooted tropes of black rage and criminality, the local media coverage of McDonald’s case repeatedly suggested that the “pressures” of being transgender inevitably result in violence. These portrayals of McDonald as dangerous and violent, therefore, invalidated her claims to self-defense.

Because the Star Tribune received severe criticism from local community organizers for its derogatory coverage of McDonald, I directed several inquires to the staff reporter, Paul Walsh, who initially covered her case about whether he would be willing to share his experiences. However, I only received a one-line email wherein Walsh indicated, “Sorry, I won’t be able to help you.” Similarly, Abby Simons, another staff writer, tried to deflect any responsibility for the paper’s derisive coverage arguing – inaccurately – that the “the heat the Star Tribune took” for reporting on McDonald with male pronouns occurred before she started covering the case. Simons’ statement, however, is inconsistent: despite interviewing local activists and organizers supporting McDonald, Star Tribune articles still used the wrong pronouns and omitted important context about the daily street violence and harassment a trans woman of color typically faces. Lex Horan, a member of CeCe Support Committee recalled:

“At the time what they told us is that Star Tribune policy was that they couldn’t use female pronouns … for CeCe. I think clearly         what was happening was, Abby [Simons] was as sympathetic as a reporter we could have gotten, but the editorial board was shutting her down.”

How could the media have spoken differently about McDonald’s gender-nonconformity? Would it have made a difference if the Star Tribune and other outlets would have not constantly reminded readers through fetishizing and insulting phrases about McDonald’s anatomy, for example, by simply stating that she was “identifying as a woman”? Undoubtedly, local media reporters could have consulted with LGBT organizations, for example, GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide on transgender issues, or made an effort to follow the advice from local community organizers in how to properly refer to McDonald.

After contacting the Star Tribune’s senior editor about whether the newspaper adhered to any style guidelines in its reporting on CeCe McDonald, I received a note from the Managing Editor for Operations, Duchesne Drew, who informed me that the Tribune did not have an official style guide during the time of McDonald’s pre-trial hearings but had adopted an official transgender style guideline as of June, 2014. Drew further confirmed that the style guide was developed directly in response to the paper’s initial treatment of McDonald: “The McDonald case led to discussions here and those discussions led us to come up with a style guide entry.”

Although it may appear admirable that the Star Tribune recognized the flaws and demeaning language it used in covering CeCe McDonald three years ago, it is important to consider the actual effects on improving the media representation of trans people through the institution of an official transgender style guide. I do not want to dismiss the importance of minimizing the media sensationalism around trans people and raising awareness about using an individual’s preferred pronouns and/or gender-neutral language; however, to simply be content with the media using the right pronouns to address someone appropriately makes it all too easy to overlook how the media continue to reinforce state institutions’ Othering of trans people, particularly trans women of color, by actively participating in dehumanizing and violating them and by sanctioning the state’s violence enacted against them. The use of style guidelines does not solve the fact that visibility for trans people still carries mostly negative implications and that despite a proper acknowledgement of a trans person’s gender identity this visibility does not lead to justice.

In November 2014, the Star Tribune published full-page ads on the back of its sports section by the Minnesota Child Protection League, a conservative anti-LGBT organization, employing fear tactics that cast trans students as preying on their peers:

“The end of girls’ sports? Her dreams of a scholarship shattered, your 14-year-old daughter just lost her position on an all-girl team to a male … and now she may have to shower with him. Are you willing to let that happen?”

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The ad incited an outcry among local LGBT groups and advocates. Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune’s vice president of marketing and public relations, however, asserted, “The ad in question met all the requirements of our ad policy” (See Joe Strupp, “Misleading Anti-Transgender Newspaper Ads Spark Outrage in Minnesota,” Media Matters).

The Star Tribune’s treatment of trans people exemplifies that the promise of visibility as a crucial element in alleged progress narratives about securing citizenship rights for LGBT individuals may not necessarily lead to “the promised land” and outweigh its perils.

 

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A Note on Positionality, Allyship, and Accountability

As my dissertation has been my steady companion for the past two years, I have certainly learned a lot about the toil of writing and the ability to endure in one’s biggest moments of academic defeat. I freely admit that the writing process itself has been a struggle. None of it was easy or particularly enjoyable. It actually made me question more than ever whether I still believe that academia is the right place for me. Yet I am proud of how the project developed and I sincerely hope that it contributes to a better understanding of trans experiences and why trans people are so vulnerable in encounters with state agencies. Sitting down to write the project’s conclusion – and grasping after that long sought thin silver lining at the end of “dissertation writing hell” – forced me in particular to reflect on my own (research) positionality, the politics of allyship, and being accountable to the communities I engage with.

The nightmares caused at times by the lack of confidence in my own project mostly stemmed from an astute awareness of my own positionality as a privileged, white, cis-gendered, queer scholar researching and talking about disenfranchised trans-communities (of color), which I am clearly not a part of. While I was always cognizant of that fact and while immersing myself in feminist and critical sexuality studies has significantly altered the way I approach research and writing, questions of positionality and the insecurities related to them are the ones that have haunted me throughout and I continue to grapple with them. After all, I knew that “sourcing” my interviewees for knowledge and writing about these communities would help me to present my work at conferences, publish journal articles, and ultimately receive my PhD. Should “I” really be writing this project? What really “qualifies” me to do so?

Despite good intentions and the ability to be self-reflective of our own research practices, sometimes we do not always do justice to the communities we study and/or are in allyship with, whether intentional or not. I recall a particular call-out – or maybe phrased more kindly call-in – moment via social media in which I had shared one of Janet Mock’s recent blog entries, titled “A Note on Visibility in the Wake of 6 Trans Women’s Murders in 2015.” In her blog post, Mock powerfully addresses the epidemic of violence against trans women and juxtaposes it with the meteoric rise of transgender celebrity and visibility.

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I had prefaced my post with, “Maybe Janet Mock should just finish writing my dissertation” to allude to the incredible poignancy of her words. One of my grad student peers, himself trans, commented how wrong my comment appeared and how alienated it made him feel because it seemed like I was just using Mock’s prose to serve “my end goal of finishing my dissertation.” My initial reaction to this public call-out on Facebook was one of defense and anger. Another cis-gendered feminist colleague of mine was quick to come to my help and assured me that she did not interpret the post in the same way. I spent the rest of that evening frustrated on my couch pondering over how to craft an apologetic reply, feeling personally attacked and the sincerity of my allyship questioned. When I look at the thread of replies that followed now, I kind of have to laugh because it’s pretty bad – me still clearly on defensive, trying to uphold my allyship as unsullied.

In hindsight, this encounter turned into a very “teachable moment” for me in completing this project. I realized how off-putting and selfish my post could appear to trans folks living and breathing these experiences everyday. No one is prone from avoiding mistakes like these. However, it is also not the job of those directly affected by marginalization, injustice, and state violence to educate and “enlighten” those protected by white, cisgender privilege. If one really cares about allyship and has a sincere investment in it, especially as a white ally in relation to marginalized queer communities of color, a key realization is to accept and acknowledge that allyship has its limits – it’s easily adulterated. Particularly, when allyship simply gets abused as another means to selfishly claim credit: the reminder of speaking with and not for or at the communities we are claiming to be in allyship with should be ever present. Sometimes it is better (and necessary) to shut-up and listen. As hard and as uncomfortable these conversations are – I’m ultimately glad that someone did call-in with me. To be continued.

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Teaching Media: Fostering Students’ Civic Engagement via Video Production

COMM 3201 “Introduction to Electronic Media Production” is an introductory course at the University of Minnesota that enhances students’ media literacy by combining theoretical knowledge of aesthetic composition principles in television and film with applied media production skills in a multi-camera studio. In the Fall of 2014, students in my COMM 3201 section were asked to do something a little different: for their final project students had to write and produce their own public service announcement engaging a social justice issue.

Class discussions about racialized media representations and the nationwide #BlackLivesMatter protests spurred an interest in Samantha Cabrera, a graduating senior majoring in Communication Studies, to craft a script titled “I see Colored People.” Drawing on her own experiences as an immigrant student of color at the University of Minnesota, the PSA reveals the functions of “white privilege” and asks viewers to be conscious of race in U.S. society.

Samantha: “People tend not to see color to comfortably avoid the obvious differences in everyday life and media. When I came to the U, I noticed how my experience was that much harder than it was for other students.” Using many of the skills and techniques learned over the course of the semester, Samantha and her group successfully produced a high-quality PSA in the Rarig Center: “I am proud of our PSA. It’s all about the exposure to new ideas and points of view and hopefully this is what this PSA did for the rest of the class too.”

Check out the PSA “I see Colored People” here:

http://mediamill.cla.umn.edu/mediamill/display/999236611

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Answering a much dreaded question: what’s your dissertation about?

I realize that it has been quite awhile since I’ve been posting about some of my own research and an update is long overdue. Hence, I decided that it might be a good point to talk a little bit about my dissertation project and what I’ve been working on over the past year [warning: it is a rather academic read].

In my dissertation titled “Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State,” I explore how  the media representation of transgender bodies is connected to the surveillance practices enacted against trans communities at the hands of the state, e.g. through disproportionate rates of criminalization and incarceration etc. I’ve become particularly interested in exploring how mediated visibilities of marginalized communities, particularly those perceived as gender-non-conforming, impact the material realities of those communities, principally in terms of their access to national belonging and U.S. citizenship.

In recent years, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) movement has gained unprecedented legal victories – with marriage equality, the passing of federal hate crime legislation, and the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – granting recognition and rights to certain gay and lesbian citizens. The increased media representation of LGBT people – 2013 saw a record number of queer characters on broadcast networks – further suggests the successful inclusion of gays and lesbians into society. Indeed, gays may be “The New Normal,” as the title of a popular NBC sitcom proclaims. In sharp contrast, the disparaging media coverage of whistle blower and Wikileaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, which focused on her gender identity as a motivation for her leaking classified documents largely to the omission of her own account that she did so out of a “love for my country and a sense of duty to others,” paralleled the state’s own conceptualization of Manning as a traitor. Similarly, the local story of CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 41 months in prison for killing her attacker with a pair of fabric scissors during a violent assault motivated by racism and transphobia in 2011, has turned a national spotlight on the discrimination, bigotry, and violence transgender people frequently face. These two stories, then, point to the ways in which, despite being nominally included in the LGBT moniker, transgender individuals were (and still are) not assimilated into the nation state, but are rather excluded from it.

                       

The contrast between gay and lesbian inclusion and transgender exclusion by both the state and mass media has caused some scholars in queer studies (e.g., Spade, 2011) to ask whether transgender bodies, communities, and issues are the excluded “step child” of LGB(T) politics. Using Manning and McDonald’s stories, as both illustrative and representative of everyday transgender experiences, my research takes up this contrast as a problem intensified by the practices of and connections between corporate media and the U.S. security state (an amalgam of governmental, corporate, and civil entities invested in fostering national security and citizen safety at the expense of civil liberties). I examine the media and the state’s differential treatment of transgender individuals as an entry point through which to analyze gender and sexual visibility within the contemporary United States because it affords the ability to interrogate the state’s increasingly prevalent surveillance practices since September 11, 2001.

Using Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald as case studies, my project examines how transgender lives are represented by the media and surveilled by the U.S. security state, specifically how media coverage of these individuals is connected to state surveillance practices post-9/11. My dissertation moves beyond studies of representation typical in media studies to build interdisciplinary bridges between critical media studies, queer studies, and surveillance studies. My dissertation asks how and why certain transgender people come under scrutiny by the surveillance practices of the security state as it analyzes the power relations intrinsic to those practices. I argue that the mainstream news media’s portrayal of Manning as “emotionally fractured,” plagued by “disciplining problems” and “delusions of grandeur” provides a rationale for the state surveillance of transgender bodies by tying their gender-non-conformity to mental instabilities that threaten state interests. Relatedly, the media’s framing of McDonald and her gender-non-conforming body as deceptive, as well as the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense, and the denial of her transgender subjectivity by the prison system (through placement in a male correctional facility and the denial of hormone therapy) further illustrates how both the media and the state deem transgender bodies deviant and therefore threatening. I suggest that in this mutually reinforcing process intersecting logics of gender, class, and race inform state surveillance practices that disproportionally subject transgender communities (particularly those of color) to frequent policing, discrimination, and incarceration.

Hopefully, this conveys a good glimpse of my larger project and over the next few weeks I plan on sharing some specifics and examples from the chapters that I have already completed and/or are appearing in publications. So stay tuned for more!

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Return from a Blogging Hiatus

It is the Fall of 2014 and I have realized that my blog has basically received zero attention over the past two years. While unforgivable, I guess it somewhat speaks to the busy mind and life of the academic. Nonetheless, as I am entering my *hopefully* final year of graduate school, I figured it would only be appropriate to at least attempt to revive the blogland. Hence, to be part of the Zeitgeist again you can expect to hear more from me about research and community news as well as exciting things that are going on in the class room over the next few months. Of course, your input, comments, and feedback are always welcome!

 

 

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Europa

As promised here are some impressions from my German and Greek travels over the past few weeks. It’s been a very enjoyable stay in the homeland with some much needed R&R time to refuel the batteries … our week on Samos in Greece was wonderful. Lots of ancient sites to visit, beautiful bays and beaches, as well as delicious food and wine! And some of you will be delighted to hear that I finally managed to read the Hunger Games ;)

Otherwise, I’m itching a bit to get back to work though (much to Stefan’s dismay). June will be a super busy month with revisions on a book review and article due, plus most excitingly but also time-consuming: I’ll be teaching a eight week Media Literacy summer class – yay.

So please send lots of productive energy my way! More “academic” material should be coming towards the end of this month.

 

Αντιο und auf Wiedersehen!

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Spring 2012 – It’s a (double) Wrap

Whoop the semester has officially come to an end!

At this point I want to congratulate my COMM 1101 Public Speaking section for successfully “mastering” their rhetorical assignments this semester – yay! You all clearly deserve your summer break and I hope you have fantastic three months off!

As for this blog, which was started as part of my grad seminar COMM 8210 “The Role of the Critic” – it’s been a pleasure circulating some more or less half-baked ideas throughout the past 4 months, and I promise I’ll try my best to keep some “good stuff” coming – probably with a little less frequency though. Btw: Zeitgeist has at this point had over 1200 views – another yay!

And dang: I also survived my first year as a PhD student up here, and yeah while the U of M ain’t like my old Alma Mater, it’s been a really good ride thus far (plus, I’m not nearly as exhausted as I was after completing my first year of grad. school back in 2009, no sleeping in the library), so I’m not toiled to death yet lol.

I’ll be spending much of May and early June in Europe, so keep an eye out for reports from the homeland.

Until then take care,  kill those final exams, good luck with prelims or defending your dissertations everyone!

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