As the title suggests, everything on this blog concerns violence against trans women.
The Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project is a trans feminist project addressing issues of systematic, institutional and interpersonal violence and oppression experienced by trans women (those who were coercively assigned male at birth and identify or are identified as women/female) across multiple identities (e.g., race, class, dis/ability, citizen-status, nationality, sexuality, age, HIV status, and form, status, or age of transition, etc.)
Ida Hammer is a writer and social justice communicator. She organizes the Trans Women's Anti-Violence Project. She presents workshops and trainings on cis privilege and being a trans ally. She's also involved in organizing against sexualized violence. She's a proud dyke-identified trans woman and an organizer of the New York City Dyke March.
Onions Tend to Stink
The Onion posted a short article today, titled “Nation Did Not See Mark Wahlberg’s Sex Change Coming”. Inspired by this slice of totally-original-not-at-all-cliche-or-damaging humor, I whipped up a funny infographic for them, free of charge.
[Image is of a Venn Diagram titled, “What lazy-ass jokes are we making today?” 12% is “chick probably has a dick”, 41% is “dude looks like a lady”, 13% is “trannies are ugly amirite?”, and 34% is “trans women (especially trans women of color) are at a much higher risk of being murdered than the general population”. In the background there are drawings of somebody holding a knife, and a gun.]
It took Dateline NBC’s Hoda Kotb approximately 13 minutes into her segment - on medical treatments for trans kids - to ask 11-year-old trans girl Josie Romero of Tucson, Arizona: “Do you feel trapped in the wrong body?”
Whenever this question is posed, I find it to be more of a leading statement rather than a true inquiry or invitation for a trans subject to speak about their life experience or outlook on their relationship with their bodies.
Whenever it’s posed it never sits well with me. And here’s why:
Supporters of a proposed ordinance to extend anti-discrimination legal protections to gay and transgender people in Anchorage are asking an opposition group to pull a campaign ad that says day care centers would be forced to hire transvestites or face jail time. They say the ad is offensive and misleading.
The One Anchorage Campaign, which supports Proposition 5, held a press conference Tuesday to ask the Protect Your Rights — Vote No On Prop. 5 campaign to remove the ad titled “Daycare” from TV and radio, where it has been airing this week.
In the ad, a cartoon “transvestite” who wants to work at a day care is drawn as a man with a jutting jaw and body hair, wearing a short pink dress, red high heels and lipstick.
If Prop. 5 passes, the narrator of the ad says, “it will be illegal for Carol to refuse a job to a transvestite who wants to work with toddlers.”
That imagery is an “offensive, stigmatizing and distorted” representation of a transgender person, said Trevor Storrs, a spokesman for the One Anchorage campaign.
Transgender people are twice as likely as the general population to be assaulted, Storrs said, and the imagery in the ad “is definitely fanning the flames of fear that can lead to hate and violence.”
There is no reason to assume that a man who wears feminine clothing is any less qualified to take care of children than any other man. But the ad is not really about a man in a dress working at a daycare center. The ad campaign is about fanning the flames of existing stereotypes and prejudices against trans people by insinuating that they are somehow a threat to children and cis women (like the fictional daycare employer featured in the ad). This is the same strategy used in the “bathroom bill” attack ads being run in other states and municipalities considering protections for trans people. In both cases, while the ads are aimed at limiting the full and equitable participation of trans people in society, the primary target is always trans women.
It’s sad that most people still don’t understand the difference between a cross-dressing man and a trans woman, this is no thanks to misleading propaganda like the “daycare” and “bathroom bill” attack ads. Most people also don’t seem to realize that a cis man (whether he cross-dresses or not) already benefits from existing laws protecting him against gender discrimination for wanting to work in a pink collar field and not adhering to traditional stereotypes of masculinity. Yet trans women are not protected on the basis of their trans status.
A trans woman wearing a dress is simply a woman in a dress, not a “transvestite.” A trans woman working in daycare is just another woman working in a field traditionally associated with women. If she is discriminated against in the denial of employment at a daycare, it’s a cissexist misrepresentation to say this is because she is gender nonconforming man for wearing dresses and seeking pink collar employment. The discrimination comes down to her being trans and not being recognized as a woman. Existing laws against gender discrimination and sex stereotyping do not provide protections and legal recourse for those who are discriminated against because they are trans, as opposed to being gender nonconforming as it is defined by cissexist standards.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia, as well as 143 cities and counties, already have anti-discrimination laws protecting trans people. Those cities simply did not experience the negative things that opponents of this ordinance claim would happen.
Powerful documentary - Transgender women speak out about their experience with the Prison Industrial Complex.
Ask many transgender advocates and allies and they’ll tell you that ABC’s new sitcom Work It just doesn’t work. Next month, ABC plans to premiere the show, which features two men who dress as women in order to gain employment. And while the characters in the show are not presented as transgender but rather as “unrepentant guy’s guys” in dresses who very much identify as men, audiences will nevertheless connect them with transgender women.
The so-called “comedy” of Work It is based on the premise that people who were born male but encounter challenges in presenting themselves as women is inherently funny. The problem is that some transgender women may find themselves in this situation, at least temporarily, during the early stages of their transition, due to the prohibitively high costs of transition-related medical care and widespread insurance inequities. Transgender Americans — who can be legally fired in 34 states today just for being who they are — face an inordinate amount of workplace discrimination that images like those on Work It perpetuate.
The premise of this show is repulsive, and ABC — a network that routinely scores highly in GLAAD’s annual TV reports and whose parent company, Disney, receives a perfect 100-percent score from HRC’s Corporate Equality Index — should know better than to air it. ABC is a network that has brought us groundbreaking shows featuring LGBT personalities, like Modern Family and Brothers & Sisters, and it is the network that most recently featured Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars. LGBT community members and youth have often looked to ABC’s programming for positive images that build acceptance, not images that make jokes of our lives and the challenges that many in the community face. ABC’s own “Stand Together” project, featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, aims to put an end to bullying nationwide. But all the goodwill in the world doesn’t justify putting images like Work It in the living rooms of millions.
By encouraging the audience to laugh at the characters’ attempts at womanhood, the show condones similar treatment of transgender women. Unfortunately, such behavior needs no encouragement: 97 percent of self-identified transgender people reported being mistreated at work, and 26 percent — that’s one in four — reported losing their jobs because they are transgender.
Though characters who challenge traditional gender norms have the potential to expand how an audience thinks about itself, the clumsy, offensive portrayals and marketing of this series are clearly not accomplishing this. By trying to create humorous scenes of these characters putting on makeup and feminine clothing, for example, Work It makes similar implications about transgender women’s identities and their ways of expressing them, while also reinforcing the erroneous notion that transgender women are not “real” women.
It’s not just the LGBT community that will be insulted by the show, either. Besides spreading the dangerous misconception that it’s easier for a woman to get a job, the show resorts to some of the most outdated and sexist stereotypes about women you’re likely to find on television. Work It isn’t above racism, either, as demonstrated when the main character’s best friend Angel remarks, “I’m Puerto Rican. I would be great at selling drugs!”
ABC should not air this show — plain and simple. At the very least, Work It is offensive and insulting. At worst, the show is downright dangerous and sends a message that transgender people are to be laughed at, or are somehow less-than. This show would be a setback for transgender Americans, and for everyone who believes that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
So when I saw the first preview for Work It a few months ago, my knee-jerk reaction didn’t have anything to do with my radical socialist lesbian feminist rage, but that still-unidentified piece of me that just doesn’t get the joke. [I’ve also read pieces of the scripts for the first four episodes, with similar results.] It’s not out of political correctness — although I tame myself for Autostraddle, my sense of humor in real life is WAY not-PC — so I know that has nothing to do with my confusion.
Why is this funny?
To answer that question, let’s first start out with a briefing on the worldwide webrage regarding Work It, which is set to premiere on January 3rd. From the HRC:
According to ABC, the show centers on two unemployed men who have “learned the hard way that the current recession is more of a ‘man-cession’ and their skills aren’t in high demand.” One finds out that a pharmaceuticals company is hiring sales reps, but only female sales reps. He goes to the interview dressed in heels, a skirt, and make-up and gets hired as a woman.
GLAAD has seen the pilot and while the show’s pilot does not explicitly address transgender people, many home viewers unfamiliar with the realities of being transgender will still make the connection. Work It invites the audience to laugh at images of men trying to adopt a feminine appearance, thereby also making it easier to mock people whose gender identity and expression are different than the one they were assigned at birth. Said GLAAD’s Acting President Mike Thompson, “Transphobia is still all too prevalent in our society and this show will only contribute to it. It will reinforce the mistaken belief that transgender women are simply ‘men pretending to be women,’ and that their efforts to live their lives authentically as women are a form of lying or deception.”
I’d go one step further however — I don’t think this show is simply transphobic, I think it’s trans misogynist and generally all-around sexist and misogynist. Is the show mocking “people” whose gender identity and expression are different than the one they were assigned, or is it mocking “people” whose gender identity and expression are feminine?
Because by the way, the cisgender straight female characters of this program are idiots who spend 95% of their screentime talking about men and fighting over men. And every.single.joke inWork It relies on the idea that a men “dressing like women” is inherently hilarious. Although masculine women deal with a whole other set of oppressive discrimination (and I’m not comparing the two, this is not Oppression Olympics I’m just saying they’re different), a straight cisgender woman wearing a suit isn’t inherently funny. It’s trendy, even.
So why is a man in woman’s clothing a joke?
It must be a joke because women are a joke!
“Today, while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still fair game,” Julia Serano writes in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Serano suggests this discrimination also affects how we see “effeminate” gay men, how lesbians sometimes ostracize lesbian femmes, and why the media is so attached to the portrayal of femininity as “artificial, contrived and frivolous; a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men.” In line with this, popular narratives about trans women obsessively focus on the “costume” of femininity, such as makeup and shoes, when in reality a lot of women — both trans and cis — don’t even wear makeup or own a dress. Similarly, masculine women are perceived as pariahs for refusing to fit into the patriarchal ideal of women as artificial, contrived and frivolous.
So maybe part of why I don’t find this joke funny is that I don’t find women inherently silly and also, the situation of feeling uncomfortable about having to fit into a specific box and appear like a certain “type” of woman is hardly an experience exclusive to cisgender males made to don mini-skirts in a sitcom.
Anyhow, that’s not the only sexist strand running through this field of fail! The idea that women have an easier time getting jobs than men or that women actually have surpassed men in workplace inequality is grossly misleading to begin with. It’s evidence of the EVIL BACKLASH Susan Faludi discusses in her book, Backlash: “The backlash is at once sophisticated and banal, deceptively ‘progressive’ and proudly backward.” As we discussed earlier this week, the gender wage gap remains but there are plenty of people dedicated to making us think otherwise (though rarely consciously), including, apparently, the creators of this show.
However, let’s suspend our disbelief, beliefs, and everything else we know to be true in this world, and go with it. Basically, two men are told they’re not welcome in a space because it’s a women’s space, and rather than respect that, they find a way around it! Surely these women are delusional! How silly of us, to think there’s anything men can’t do, and how nice of them to take it upon themselves to circumvent our sexist system and bless us with their abilities. A touching narrative reminiscent of Soul Man, the 1986 film about a white guy who dons blackface in order to obtain a full scholarship to Harvard! (It’s also worth mentioning that the “men finding a way into a women’s space” scenario is particularly insulting/problematic/loaded because historically, trans women have often felt or been excluded from women’s spaces where they unquestionably ought to be included.)
ABC has a truly fantastic record of LGBT representation, which makes this show especially disappointing. The head of ABC has apparently defended the show by saying, “I’m a Brit, it is in my contract that I have to do one cross-dressing show a year; I was brought up on Monty Python. What can I do?” GLAAD points out that “there has been forty years of progressive social change since Monty Python’s television heyday.” I’d add that Monty Python was also smart and funny. Work It! is not. It’s stupid! All the jokes are stupid and boring and lazy.
After watching the pilot of ABC’s soon-to-air sitcom Work It, I think the first thing they should do is re-title this piece of crap. A better title, with all due deference to another very gay-friendly ABC franchise, may be Desperate Network.
The fact that the production companies behind this show, Bonanza Productions and Summer School Productions, are best known for The Vampire Diaries and science fiction shows, respectively, makes it clear they are not the best fit for this show. These folks should stick with vampires and aliens, which are more believable than any of the idiotic stereotypes and tired, sexist, racist, and transphobic caricatures in this program.
So what the hell was ABC thinking? After seeing the show for myself, the petitions by GLAAD, HRC, and others to get this program pulled make a lot of sense to me. What rubs salt in the wound is that this is ABC, which airs Modern Family and Desperate Housewives and recently included Chaz Bono on the wildly popular Dancing with the Stars, thus boosting the visibility of real transgender people more than we have ever seen on primetime television.
But here’s the issue: as usual, LGBT people (and yes, this show should offend the entire acronym) are only part of a long list of potentially allied minority groups that should be offended by this show. In fact, I would say that we have to get in line to be offended. Women, single parents, people out of work in this time of economic crisis, people of color, and more should all be cringing right now. As my dad used to say, these folks aren’t prejudiced; they make fun of everyone.
Here are some of my thoughts and some food for thought. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when HRC and GLAAD — and hopefully others — meet with ABC, partly because I would love to hear their defense of this, and also because you just know some of the folks involved in this, from creators to actors, are members of the populations who are rightly up in arms.
When you get right down to it, this is really about sexism, which, as I am fond of saying, merely provides the roots from which the flower of homophobia blooms. From that comes the following questions, and my answers. I’d love to hear more from you about your thoughts regarding these questions, which I asked myself as I watched.
Is this a transgender issue?
Yes. Sadly, we have very far to go to educate the public on trans issues. Far too many people still see transgender women as simply “men in dresses,” particularly those who transition later in life and do not “pass.” For them this show is downright dangerous. The recent promo ad depicting the two main characters hiking up their skirts while at urinals plays on the most base fear of the “bathroom issue” that we face constantly in the media, in court, and at the ballot box. ABC is better than this kind of inflammatory and degrading representation of a part of our community that is the target of so much discrimination and violence. Never mind the near-complete lack of protections for trans people in the workplace, a point that we as a community need to focus a lot more energy on, both nationally and locally.
Is this something gay people should care about?
The main character’s wife chastises her husband for comparing a prostate exam to the pinball machine scene in The Accused, in which a woman is gang-raped. All you gay men who think this is funny or that it isn’t something we should care about, take note: we are still all one big “gay” to a lot of people; this is not about “those transgender people,” nor is it “not a gay issue” just because these are straight men in dresses.
A few other choice lines in the pilot:
One character opines about “women taking over the workplace” and eventually reducing men to “sex slaves” forced to “kiss, cuddle, and talk.” Right. All I could think was, “Hey, 1970 called, and they want their sitcom back.”
Even the female characters get into the game. While interviewing dressed as a woman, the main character’s potential boss, a woman, is so impressed with his knowledge of drug trials for one of their products that she quips, “Usually our girls think a clinical trial is something Lindsay Lohan goes through.” Laughing yet?
Want another lovely line? Here’s the female drug rep explaining why their company is only hiring women: “We find the doctors prefer to ‘nail’ the drug reps more when they are girls.” Someone might want to look at the percentages of female and gay, for starters.
And let’s not forget people of color, another easy mark. When Angel, the best friend of our main character, says he wants in on the charade, he says, “I’m Puerto Rican. I would be great at seeing drugs.”
And let’s not start counting the jokes involving tits, tucking, ace bandages falling out of skirts at the “worst possible moment” on the dance floor, and other “shooting fish in a barrel” jokes that make for easy punching-bag moments. People are getting paid to write these jokes, folks, when they should be the ones looking for work. That is the travesty here.
So when our organizations get that meeting, I hope they go armed for bear and with some transgender people to tell their stories about their live, which are no laughing matter. Taking along some allies, particularly women’s organizations, would be a smart move, as well.
And I hope we go to the folks who advertise on ABC and let them know what they’ll be supporting. In my experience all the attention, education, and activism in the world doesn’t get a network exec’s attention as much as a phone call from a major advertiser asking what the hell is going on and threatening to pull their support.
One final question: is it just me or does it annoy you that RuPaul’s song “Supermodel” is used in the promos, and the Black Eyed Peas, progressive supporters of LGBT equality, are singing about “lovely lady lumps” during the tedious and trite scene where the boys are trying their best to wear women’s clothes? If they have not given permission, they should be making a fuss, and if they did, they should pull out now. How dare they take one of the LGBT community’s favorite phrases of encouragement and use it for this show? We need to “work it” ourselves here and make our voices heard. Kudos to GLAAD, HRC, and others for making their concerns known.
My predictions is that this show may well never air, but let’s take it as an opportunity to form some coalitions and do some education. Let’s “work it” ourselves, for everyone who should be offended by this throwback of a show that is truly cringeworthy.
Quick: Name the most LGBT-friendly TV network.
ABC, right? Easy question, easy answer. ABC has given us loving lesbian and gay families in Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy and Cam and Mitchell on Modern Family. It has given us hilarious, well-rounded gay men on Happy Endings and Desperate Housewives. It has given us complicated recurring lesbian characters on Private Practice. And it has been at the forefront of transgender inclusivity with Ugly Betty and Dancing With the Stars. In fact, 50 percent of ABC’s original programming includes positive representations of LGBT characters. Then why, oh why, are they planning to give a home to the wildly offensive sitcom Work It this January?
Unfamiliar with Work It? Lucky you! But allow me to enlighten you: When two straight male characters are fired from their jobs as car salesman, they decide to pose as women to land careers in the pharmaceutical industry. Is macho posturing going to drive the plot? Yep. Is misogynistic boy banter going to fill each episode? Uh huh. But the real problem with Work It — as evidenced by ABC’s first ad — is that it is going to make a giant joke out of stereotypes that continue to damage the transgender community.
One of the most harmful, degrading stereotypes transgender women face is the notion that they’re not “real” women. And you can bet that will be Work It’s entire repertoire of gags: “Look at that culturally defined male wearing traditionally feminine clothing! LOL! Lady fail!”
For transgender women, female presentation is not a joke. Unlike cisgender women, most of whom never have to think about things like mythical cultural cues, transgender women have to learn to speak with female speech patterns while maintaining female pitch, to move effortlessly in traditionally feminine clothing while observing culturally mandated behavioral cues, to display a cisgender body type, and so much more. And they must learn to do it in a society that is ready to mock even the slightest indication that their presentation isn’t “authentic.” It’s not just a matter of celebrating repressed femininity; it’s a matter of constantly combating discrimination.
So it’s no surprise that GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign were quick to condemn Work It when ABC released the first ad for the sitcom. In addition to meetings with high level execs at ABC, they are also asking LGBT people and allies to join a letter writing campaign urging ABC not to air the show. Our friend Lesley Goldberg has the full story over at The Hollywood Reporter. She even spoke to GLAAD senior director of programs and communications Herndon Graddick, who told her:
We believe that the show will harm transgender Americans and because of that, GLAAD and the HRC are asking ABC not to air it … It detracts from the real challenge transgender people face.
I read a lot of online commentary about Work It over the weekend, and nearly all of it was disheartening. There was a lot of this: “As a gay man, I’d just like to say that the gay community is being too sensitive!” Or: “I’m a lesbian and I think GLAAD needs to lighten up!”
To which I say: I’m a lesbian. I know what it’s like to feel a sense of cultural otherness. I know what it’s like to be discriminated against. But I do not know what it to grow up with a body that isn’t congruent with my gender; or to daily face the stereotype that I am just a man dressing up as a woman, and isn’t that just the funniest thing?
ABC should pull Work It from it’s roster immediately. It’s going to tank anyway, and cancelling it before it airs is a perfect way to save face in several ways. Of course, the best way to save face would have been never to have greenlit this dreck in the first place.