Have you seen the recent Nightline program featuring (Extra)Ordinary Family: Inside the Transgender World?
Months ago Nightline reached out to me and asked for a copy of my book, Be Who You Are. Based on our conversation I felt pretty positive about their interest in educating the public about transgender children without sensationalizing our kids, but I felt the same way about Oprah when I talked to her producers the first 5 times and look how poorly that turned out! It starts out sounding like we can make real progress and then the other proverbial shoe drops.
Let me begin by saying this Nightline episode was clearly not geared toward education or awareness. One could only assume after watching it that Nightline execs got it in their mind that they would do a show on a controversial and somewhat mysterious “hot” topic with the goal of confirming society’s fears and prejudices about said mystery so they didn’t ruffle any feathers, get any hate mail and their advertisers wouldn’t complain. A fluff piece of sorts.
The first thing I noticed was that Cynthia McFadden, the host, seemed disingenuous at best. Her facial expressions and body language screamed uncomfortable and judgmental to me. I didn’t feel any of the heart that Lisa Ling brought to her Our America piece. This had the warmth and sincerity of a forced apology. Absent.
Starting the show with The Princess Boy segment veered away from the topic at hand. The Nightline episode promoted a show about the transgender world, not about gender expressions different from our society’s norms. Big difference. A princess boy identifies as a boy who likes “girl things” i.e. things categorized as “girl” in our culture: dresses, the color pink, princesses, butterflies apparently and so on. Dyson, the princess boy as featured, doesn’t have issues with his body the way he was born. He doesn’t cringe when he is forced to use the bathroom assigned to his birth gender. He isn’t sick inside when people use the pronoun “he”. He doesn’t wake up from nightmares screaming that he thought he woke up with a beard, “looking like Dad”. The truth is that Dyson doesn’t face the serious issues surrounding transgender or gender diverse issues. The reality is that he faces his own issues having what some people refer to as gender variant or gender non-conforming behavior. Give him his own show then. He has a loving family who supports him – fabulous! Any way you look at it his story today is not a transgender story. Period.
When the show finally got back on topic and introduced Jackie, a 10-year-old girl born into a boy’s body, Ms. McFadden stressed that Jackie “wants to become a girl.” Huge red flag. Let’s be honest, if you’ve every spent any time with or really listened to a transgender (or gender diverse, as I like to say because who are we to label a child with an adult term) kid you know right off the bat that the issue isn’t “wanting to become” that hurts the child, the issue is that the child IS (a boy or girl) and is having problems with living in the body (with the accompanying set of rules and limitations) they were given. They don’t usually tell their parents that they WANT TO BE the opposite gender. In my experience they usually say they ARE the opposite gender and they need to live the way they feel. Nightline severely blurred this distinction making it sound like the child has a choice here. Our kids don’t have a choice.
Okay, hate me for saying this, but what is Jackie doing wearing more makeup than I do? I thought they said she was 10 years old and she’s wearing more makeup than her older sister and her mom combined. I can only think that Nightline did this on purpose. Why? Because the show focused so strongly on Jackie putting on lip gloss and wearing padded bras. (Did you catch at the family reunion some footage show Jackie wearing just a normal shirt and some footage show her wearing a different shirt with a padded bra very clearly showing through?)
Nightline stretched their necks to sensationalize the way that Jackie looked. It’s my experience from attending various national conferences and meeting hundreds of kids and families in this community that our kids look like everyone’s kids. They don’t wear makeup until it’s age appropriate. They don’t focus on wearing padded bras until it’s age appropriate. They don’t walk around looking like drag queens (which is what many people tell me they expect when they hear transgender child). It’s my experience that you never know who the trans kids (who have transitioned) are in a crowd. Our transgender/ gender diverse kids are just NORMAL kids.
My only praise goes to Jackie’s family who are genuinely loving and supportive. I thought both parents, and specifically the father (because fathers are often silent in these types of situations) had meaningful messages of hope and love and courage. I applaud them for their honesty and transparency.
After Jackie’s story, Nightline went to hell in a hand basket when they had the audacity to feature a trans identified teen named Vanessa who is a sex worker to get cash for breast implants and facial reconstruction. Hmmm… is that really an (extra)ordinary transgender story? I don’t mean to diminish the impact of trans youth driven to sex work for survival purposes or trans people who struggle trying to find a career during or after transition, but that’s not Vanessa’s story and most importantly Nightline did not show any other trans teen experience so that people realize this is NOT indicative of a typical transgender teen’s experience. Remember the name of the show “(Extra)Ordinary Family: Inside the Transgender World”? What image and association does a teen prostitute conjure for American people?
There are so many positive stories about trans teens throughout the United States, successful trans teens who write books and courageously speak out publicly about their experiences to help others. Forget the story about all the well-adjusted, healthy, fully functioning teens Nightline, focus on something so sensational that people will gasp in disbelief and admit to their friends and family, “I knew it was all about sex for THOSE people!” Confirm the deep-rooted suspicions and fears people have all across the country that prevents any sort of progress and compassion toward trans people in general. This segment alone confirms that Nightline wasn’t trying to educate at all with this show, they were trying to throw a Springer-esque piece together to show they “tackled the subject”, but accomplished the difficult task of increasing ignorance. Plain and simple.
Oh wait, did I think Vanessa, the trans teen prostitute was the low point? I didn’t mention Charles Kane, the man who said out loud during the show that he had sex reassignment surgery as an “impulsive decision” and often dabbled in “curious experimentation”. They focused on his story of unstable exploration so he could caution trans kids and teens. Really? And then Cynthia McFadden chortled, “You were a good-looking female,” while she ogled a picture of Charles in a tiny bathing suit. In the background he uttered, “crazy decisions!” Really? Really is that what you have as someone providing advice Nightline?
The freak show didn’t stop there. McFadden actually asks about Charles Kane’s reconstructed penis, because that’s really what this whole show led up to – the genitals. When he explains that his penis was reconstructed for him, McFadden spewed, “Not as good as the original!” her eyes squinting before she pounces like a hungry cat asking how he gets an erection. (Definitely cutting edge journalism folks!) A pump located in the testicles? “That’s handy!” McFadden chuckles like the mean third grade girl who kicks a ball directly into a first grader’s nose and smiles as they bleed.
I foamed at the mouth by this point. No amount of chanting or deep breathing could release me from my outrage. Of his time before sex reassignment surgery (from male to female) Charles said he had friends who were transgender and he wanted to “be one of them.” This is not a person who spent years agonizing over gender identity. He is NOT a spokesperson, nor is he an expert. He admitted that he just had surgery on a whim. He said so himself! So who is he to share a cautionary tale with the rest of us or our children? And who at Nightline thought his participation was a good idea? Charles Kane must not have any idea about the kind of pain and torment our kids go through on a daily basis. He hasn’t a clue as to the anguish my child feels when her mind suddenly imagines what the future would look like if hormone blockers didn’t work or were not an option. My child would surely harm herself. Her gender identity is not a passing fancy and her persistent need to transition was not a whim. She suffered for years for it.
My child’s gender identity isn’t about feeling like part of a group or appearing a certain way for others and it isn’t about painting nails, wearing lip gloss or dresses, playing with Barbies and having long hair (she and my son did that for years before she transitioned, and continue today). My daughter’s only care is that she is able to express who she is and be recognized as the person she knows herself to be. The only thing she wants to do is to move through this world genuinely, honestly.
Luckily Kim Petras managed to diffuse the host with grace and boundaries. Despite McFadden’s disparaging questions about Kim’s personal parts and love life, Ms. Petras appeared calm and collected. I admired Kim’s demeanor and her fortitude.
Dozens of emails flew my way after Nightline aired asking me what I thought of the show and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t watch it right away. I had to kiss the little ones good night, take a serious, lengthy deep breath and then watch alone. Despite my disappointment I hold out the hope that trans stories of all kinds will permeate our popular culture through television, books and movies so millions of Americans can move beyond their prejudices and preconceived notions of what transgender means, looks like and how it affects our kids.
Everything happens for a reason. True, Nightline missed an opportunity. They failed to mention all the good things happening in the “Transgender World”, the very title of their show. Trans individuals like Amanda Simpson have made enormous strides lately. Have we forgotten all about that? There ARE stories to admire and celebrate. Those need to be told, too. Nightline even failed on the most basic level, talking with experts like TYFA who help kids and families every day.
Clearly they had their own agenda, but maybe this opens a door for someone else to have the guts to do what Nightline didn’t. Perhaps this episode will encourage someone else out there to spread the truth and reach people who need the message the most. We can only hope.
Click here to tell Nightline how you feel about their portrayal of transgender individuals and their families.