Recently in transgender politics, two notable things have happened – and they both have an Australian flavour. First, model Andreja Pejic re-confirmed her status as a trans woman, to worldwide media hype. Pejic, who has been working as an international model, is ethereally beautiful, with a sassy, mischievous streak reminiscent of that other iconic Australian trans beauty, Carlotta. After years modeling and pushing gender boundaries, Pejic made public her decision to feminise her name, after completing gender reassignment surgery earlier this year.
None of this is particularly surprising: Pejic had publicly identified herself as transgender in La Monda in October 2013, stating her preference for female pronouns. Fortunately, much of the coverage on her transition announcement has shied away from focusing on her surgery – unlike the original article reporting on it, and some other pieces. This is a refreshing change to the usual presentation of trans people in the media.
Perhaps the media has finally begun to understand the importance of reporting trans lives with more nuance and compassion. Two very public incidents changed the landscape: the highly publicised backlash against Piers Morgan over his treatment of trans author and advocate Janet Mock on his late night talk show, and the polite but steadfast ‘no’ received by journalist Katie Couric from actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera, when she persisted in trying to discuss their gender reassignment surgery. Both incidents are seminal moments in the representation of trans people in the media over the last twelve months. Things are improving.
But the increased attention that high profile trans people generate also creates opportunities for less savory views on gender transition to find a platform.
Last Thursday Michelle Goldberg published an article in the New Yorker entitled ‘What is a Woman?’ Unfortunately, her piece gives oxygen to the small number of radical feminists who challenge the validity of transgender people. Chief among these anti-transgender activists is Melbourne academic Shelia Jefferies. Surprisingly, Jefferies’ anti-trans argument hinges on a discredited theory of sexual dysfunction called autogynephalia. Essentially, autogynephalia is a mental health condition where men seek hormone treatment and surgery to fulfill a sexual fantasy of having a female body.
The theory is debunked by Dr Charles Moser, by Dr Talia Mae Bettcher and by trans activist and academic Julia Serano. Autogynephalia is junk psychology. It’s a throwback to a time in science when moral codes were the basis of scientific theorizing, and is as about as credible as nineteenth century theories of nymphomania, hysteria and social Darwinism.
It’s as dangerous as them, too. A diagnosis of hysteria was routinely used into the twentieth century to institutionalise women who didn’t conform to societies expectations of female behaviour. Social Darwinism was used to enforce the worst excesses of racism, and to justify euthanasia across the globe. Jefferies seem to be advocating the same kind of institutionalised repression once visited on women and people of colour when she calls for the criminalisation of transpeople.
What is so extraordinary about Jefferies’ justification of autogynephalia, is that she herself is a scathing critic of psychology and psychiatry, arguing that their misuse is a pervasive form of mysognistic and institionalised control harmful to women.
Andreja Pejic’s transition seems to have been a relatively benign process, at least in the way that it is offered to us in the media. Most transitions are not. Trans people deserve to be able to transition with, at the very least , dignity – and possibly even with a sense of celebration. If sections of the media have dropped their obsession with the mechanics of trans women’s gender reassignment surgery, that is a step in the right direction. But there’s another equally important step to be taken: stop giving coverage, and therefore credence, to bizarre and repellent theories.
A few weeks ago the BBC changed its policy on reporting climate change. Since the beginning of July journalists have no longer been giving equal airtime to climate change deniers. It’s time for the media to do the same thing with its coverage of trans people and transition. No more denial of trans people! All trans lives are worth honouring, all gender transitions are an achievement and should be cause for celebration.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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