Piers Morgan asked Janet Mock back onto his show to explain why she and the transgender community have been so incensed by the packaging of his interview with the trans activist and author. Unfortunately, rather than listen to Mock, Morgan continued to assert that he should be free from criticism because he has "always supported the transgender community." Instead of sitting down and listening to Mock, he kept interrupting her and insisting that the terminology he used in identifying her as an individual born and raised "a boy," was not offensive.
Refusing to allow her to just speak her own story, he asked her:
My question is simply this: do you dispute that you were born a boy?
What Morgan doesn't seem to understand is that this question, the one he asks to have explained, is the wrong question. And yet, even with two minutes in the interview to go, he is still insisting that he has done nothing wrong:
I don't see it as being wrong that you were born a boy and felt you were a woman…and I don't think that the terminology is offensive. I think my complaint about what you did with those tweets…I feel you just threw me to the wolves.
Well, it is offensive terminology, Piers, and this isn't about your feelings. After not one but two interviews with a trans woman, how do you not understand this? You are not being supportive of our community when you refuse to acknowledge what trans women tell you about your phrasing. We get to decide what is invalidating, because it is our lived experiences you have asked your guest to share with your viewers. You get to listen and acknowledge.
There are few things more subtly invalidating to a binary trans person than being identified as the opposite gender prior to some arbitrary event. It happens to many trans women and trans men every single day. It can come from family or friends, it can come from those who claim to be allies or working in support of, or in solidarity with, the trans community. People we love and trust. People who we hope never hurt us. And yet these people periodically invalidate us, and it hurts. A lot.
Morgan seems to want to know how to refer to trans men and women when we talk about our narratives without actually listening to trans people. He and other journalists repeatedly get the narrative wrong, and when confronted, they feel "vilified." It's a very common narrative, and Morgan isn't alone. It's easy to find many examples of this language in other publications such as Glamour and HuffPo UK, just to name two. Why do journalists make this mistake?
Good question, and it comes down to soundbites. They want to know about how to describe the "before." They want a way to break up our lives into easily digestible chunks of "before, during, after." They don't want to deal with the difficulty in understanding how the personal and physical aspects of our identity all meld together over time. They don't really want to understand—it's too hard to consider the implications of the fact children construct their gender identity between the ages of three and six.
Such a construction is part of the way that children learn how to categorise. They categorise objects by color or shape or some other trait. As a toddler, I used to identify my house as "yellow" as if it was the house's name. "Hello, Yellow!" I'd say as I came back from pre-school. "Bye, bye, yellow!" I'd say as we left for the corner store. Not "yellow house," but just "yellow" because as a yellow house, I knew it to be a yellow thing, and I thought that I could call everything which was yellow, "Yellow."
One of the ways children identify others and themselves is by recognising gender markers and identifying gender roles. Most children will identity themselves with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth. It's very common. However, there have always been children who, for whatever the reason (and there are many theories), categorise themselves as opposing that designation—even when they are corrected by authority figures or other children (who, themselves, are trying to categorise others by gender). This is much less common. This doesn't mean that we can think of cisgender identities as "normal." It's much less offensive to think of them as "common" and transgender identities as "uncommon," yet both as equally "normal." There are further genderqueer identities which may represent other constructions (or a lack of identification completely), but in regards to Mock's narrative (and my own), that is for a later discussion. Here, we are concerned with the experiences of binary transgender children.
Mock spoke about her own experiences as a six year old and how her parents recognised how much pain she was in from an early age. Her pain came from being shoved into an identity which was not hers. She spoke about how her actions at 18 years old were simply an expression of adult agency which she could not previously express due to the restrictions we place on children. However, her gender identity did not suddenly come into existence when her sex reassignment surgery happened. It was already there. It always had been. Gesturing strongly to indicate tone, Mock explained:
This did not happen when I went to Thailand to have "surgery." It started when I was six years old and my parents saw me for who I was and allowed me to live my life. That's a lot of nuance and it's hard to communicate that in 30 seconds or even in a 140 character tweet.
This topic is deeply personal to me because it is a source of invalidation I live with every day. And Mock's story, her narrative... It is my own narrative. I came to an understanding of my own categorisation, a conscious awareness of my gender construction, at around six years old. My mother says she became aware of my gender variance even earlier—at three years old, I was already clearly identifying myself with groups of little girls or adult women. My best friend was a little girl from the apartment building next door named Stacey. It was fairly evident that I saw little difference between my friend and myself. We were the same.
I remember distinctly how upset I became at gender-segregated activities in kindergarten and elementary school. I was always put in the wrong group. I went to a Catholic elementary school for most of my formative years and I also briefly went to a Catholic junior high school. I did not even experience the freedom of nongendered clothing consistently until high school. During my school years, I never expressed that I was a girl, but nor did I express that I was a boy. The former was too dangerous, and the latter was a lie. However, like Mock, my personal choices broadcasted my gender identity clearly, and I paid a price for it in near constant teasing and violence. My best friend was a girl named Roseanne. A short haired tomboyish girl by nature, she was everything I wanted to be: she participated in sports, she'd roughhouse with the boys, but she would also be perfectly at home in her first communion dress or playing schoolyard games usually associated with the girls. She could do it all... And have her gender, girl, recognised for what it was.
I used to cry myself to sleep at night, wishing I was female assigned at birth, not because I saw that as the proof that I would be a girl, but because I was completely confused as to why a fact so obvious to me seemed completely lost on the rest of the world. Maybe if I matched the physical "requirements," I would finally be believed. I tried my best to assert my identity, a mix of traits like my friend Roseanne, but I could not mix and match without punishment by peers and authority figures.
Despite my mother's attempts to talk me out of it, I wore pink shoes to school. I paid a price in violence. I joined ballet, the only male child to do so. I paid a price in violence. I loved My Little Pony and GI JOE (I used to have the latter ride the former into mock battles), because I did not see a problem with being a girl who loved both. I paid a price in violence. Despite my ballet group being all female (except for me), when I asked to audition for the role of Belle in our performance of Beauty and the Beast, I was told I could not—because I was a "boy." Nevermind that as the only male assigned child in the group, all of the male parts (except mine, Cogsworth) were being played by other girls—but they were, of course, female assigned at birth and recognised as girls. I was not. Any time I tried to assert any aspect associated with femininity, I paid a price in violence.
Playgrounds and hallways were dangerous from the age of six up to the time I graduated from high school. My gender variant behavior was well known, because like Mock, it just never occurred to me to be anyone but myself. The violence I faced left permanent, physical scars. In the seventh grade I was once picked up and dropped on my chin on a tiled hallway. I still carry the scar from that incident. It's small but recognisable if pointed out to others. Other scars exist elsewhere. Many scars are not physical at all, but exist solely on my psyche. Mental scars I still struggle with today.
The violence dropped off during my three years of public high school, but the psychological aspect of harassment increased, becoming more sophisticated as my peers and I moved into young adulthood. I knew I couldn't be open about my gender identity, but I had to express it somehow. I had a tendency to look at creative writing, theatre, and speech classes as a way to write about myself as "Kat." However, this brought me into direct conflict with authority figures who viewed me as mentally unstable and a threat. I was faced with authority figures who believed false allegations about me from other students. My high school principal, who has never apologised, despite seeing me a few times over the years, once informed my step-father that I was a "Columbine waiting to happen," based solely on the violence and harassment I received for daring to express who I was in creative writing exercises. I shouldn't have to remind anyone that a trans girl has never carried out a mass shooting. I did not hate others—I fought consistently with hating myself.
Nor did it end when I finished high school. We won't even go into my experiences in the Navy as a midshipman or the sexual assault I suffered at the hands of my shipmates due directly to homophobic reactions to my femininity out of uniform and off-duty. This is still too painful for me to discuss in detail.
When someone says that I "was a boy" or "used to be a man" or says this about any other binary trans women with similar narratives, they invalidate everything about my lived experiences. How are my lived experiences those of a boy? They are not. Boys do not cry themselves to sleep wishing they were female assigned at birth. Boys do not internalise messages about and directed at girls and women as part of female socialisation. Boys do not have parents who recognise their gender as "girl" at a young age. My experiences are the experiences of a trans girl. A girl who constructed her identity early in life. A girl who wanted to be able to pick and choose how she would express her interests and her gender safely. A girl who lived her childhood and adolescence unbelieved, harassed, physically assaulted, and as a young woman was sexually assaulted by young men she should have been able to trust above all others: her brothers in arms.
Reducing the lives of trans women to the "before, during, after" chunks flatly denies the broad journeys we have. When Piers Morgan described Janet Mock as a boy before the age of 18, he denied her journey—the subject of her book. When he asked twitter what his followers would do if they learned a significant other "was formerly a man," he denied her lived experiences.
This is unacceptable from anyone. It is deplorable from a so-called "ally."