Laverne Cox’s front cover of TIME magazine as a trans woman of colour will surely go down in history as one of the most ground breaking and revolutionary media events of the past decade. Whilst the ‘equal’ marriage legislation recently enacted purposefully rejected provisions for trans people and Stonewall continue to ignore and ridicule their existence, maybe it is possible that at least the media might have left behind some of its institutionalised transphobia?
Or not. This week the Chicago Sun Times published a headline which said “Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” It became once again clear that for every step forward taken by one publication, a different one takes two steps back. Laverne Cox hit public attention for her portrayal of Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black, a trans woman who is sent to prison for credit card fraud. Although it might seem surprising to any reasonable person, having a trans woman play a trans woman is an incredibly rare event. For some context of this rarity, it was only last Friday that it was announced that Bethany Black (a trans woman and comedian) would be playing a trans woman in Russell T Davies’ new television series. She will be the first British woman to do so.
TIME did not initially seem so keen about acknowledging Cox’s admirable impact on television. The magazine invited a public vote on who they should include on their list of the top 100 most influential people in the world. 92% of voters acknowledged that Cox should be on the list, pushing her above Justin Bieber, as social media worked it’s magic and even TIME noted her impressive rise in the table. Yet when the list was released she was nowhere to be seen.
The cover of the magazine may make up for this somewhat, but elsewhere other trans people have continued to be bullied by journalists working for some of the most popular publications across the world. When Conchita Wurst won Eurovision, many applauded Europe’s apparent rejection of gender norms. But some, such as Brendan O’Neil writing for the Daily Telegraph, questioned why we had to accept ‘this rather strange demand’ of Wurst asking to be referred to with female pronouns when she is in drag. When Chelsea Manning came out as trans, she continued to be called ‘Bradley’ by much of mainstream media. And even more shockingly, a writer for ESPN recently drove someone to suicide when they investigated a new golf club which had been invented. The story morphed from a harmless study of an impressive achievement to a witch hunt about the identity of the woman behind it. Sadly, this is all just the tip of the iceberg.
So what can the media do to change? The answer is simple: listen. When the media gives trans people a platform to tell their stories and does not judge them, just listens, then it can have the kind of revolutionary impact we have already seen. Because when Cece Mcdonald was sentenced to 41 months in prison for stabbing to death a man who had threatened her, who had shouted racist and transphobic slurs at her in the street with no provocation; when she was placed in a male prison for this, it was the media that allowed Laverne Cox to bring the case to public attention. And it was the subsequent campaign that ultimately managed to guarantee Mcdonald’s release 19 months into her sentence. It was the media that consequently gave Mcdonald’s voice a platform on MSNBC to share her experiences. When the media listens, trans people can highlight the systematic violence and discrimination that they face every day. Trans people can speak for themselves.