The Fact And Fiction Of Being Transgender

Courant has an analysis on the increasing media coverage of Transgender issues. A tad optimistic, yet does interesting survey on the shifting attitudes.

A disgruntled playboy becomes a female fashion magazine editor. A rock star born biologically male finds her true self. A boy is scripted freely adding a pair of girl’s shoes to accessorize his outfit.

Transgender people have become the new go-to characters on television on such ABC shows as “Ugly Betty ” and “All My Children” and the FX show “The Riches.” They also have become the topic of more news reports in recent months.

A Florida city manager is fired seemingly for disclosing he will have a sex-change operation. A sports reporter in Los Angeles decides it’s time everyone learns who she really is.

A sibling in the famous acting Arquette family has brought the struggles that a transgender person faces to the big screen in the documentary “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother,” which made its debut this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary follows other indie favorites, such as “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Transamerica,” to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender stories to the forefront.

Fiction and reality have mixed to bring an increasing presence in the media of transgender people in the past six months. This is all positive for transgender individuals and society, say those who are active in the transgender community.

Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality, partially credits the Internet and medical advancements with allowing people to express themselves physically. That outlet, she says, has created a domino effect.

“There’s so many trans people out that more and more people do have trans people in their lives, and that’s going to cause more trans people in the media,” she says . “… When the entertainment media stories happen, they really have a dramatic impact. When they’re done sympathetically, they make people feel safe and more willing to come out.

“When they’re done maliciously, that has a chilling effect, makes people feel less willing. It’s really that simple.”

The country saw both sides in recent months when, in February and March, the Largo, Fla., city commission voted to fire Steve Stanton as the city manager after 14 years on the job. Commissioners have said it was Stanton’s judgment and not his decision to have a sex change operation to become Susan Ashley Stanton that cost him his job.

When Los Angeles Times sports writer Mike Penner wrote a first-person story in April, formally coming out to readers and co-workers about what his life had been like and what it would turn into by becoming Christine Daniels, the reaction was mostly favorable, says Daniels. Since coming out in the article headlined “Old Mike, New Christine,” Daniels has been inundated with supportive emails and phone calls, received a promotion and keeps a blog on the Times website,

“For some reason there’s an acceptance or openness right now that wasn’t there a year ago,” Daniels says.

“One person who’s known for doing an amazing job gets fired and another gets embraced,” Keisling says. “Both of those stories really strike home because we now all know transgender people.”

(Sarasota, Fla., city officials had named Stanton as one of six finalists for the Sarasota city manager position, but she didn’t get the job.)

During the years that Daniels, 49, waited to come out, the Jerry Springer phenomenon, as she refers to it, where transgender people are portrayed as freak shows, caused her to grind her teeth in frustration. Daniels says so many people are closeted because of years of that kind of media portrayal.

But high-profile outings and more positively portrayed characters on television are all beginning to push the stigma aside, she says.

“It’s just created a lot of discussion. There’s a curiosity right now; it’s opened the door for people. Between the e-mails I’m getting and the interview requests I’m getting, people want to know about this. I think that’s what people can take away from 2007,” Daniels says.

Damon Romine, the entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, agrees that increased visibility creates an increased acceptance of “a community which has been misunderstood and misrepresented for far too long.”

Romine lists the real-life stories presented on news programs and documentaries, including “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story” as avenues that make transgender stories real for everyone.

“This is breakthrough storytelling and really seems to just be the beginning,” Romaine says.

Ryan Murphy, the creator of FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” is developing a new series for that cable network that will follow a male sportscaster and father’s transition into a woman. The story is unrelated to Daniels’ story. Fox and ABC also are developing shows that feature transgender characters, Romine says.

“There will never be acceptance of an issue without visibility, and it’s these kinds of representations of the transgender community that will ultimately make the unfamiliar familiar,” he says.

Jerimarie Liesegang, director of the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition, a transgender civil rights group, says the results of the media’s progress in Connecticut are “to be seen.” As director of the coalition, she conducts training sessions and works a lot with state legislators.

“We hear more and more people coming up to us [saying], `We saw the “20/20″ piece’ or `Read the Newsweek article.’ It influences them. They become more understanding,” Liesegang says.

One powerful result of media attention would have been the passage of a Senate bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. The state legislature did not pass the bill, but other states have passed similar laws.

Keisling says there shouldn’t be a backlash to the momentum transgender people have in the media right now.

“Americans have had to relearn this human-rights thing and this diversity and acceptance thing over and over as a society,” she says. “People start understanding not only are they here to stay, but they’re us. We’re all in this together.”