by Seher Ali, Calliope Wong, and Ty Slobe
This week, writer and transgender activist Janet Mock was invited to be on Piers Morgan Live, ostensibly to be interviewed about her recent book and her work as an advocate for the transgender community. By Piers’s accounts, the show went swimmingly. Janet smiled at his comparison of her to Beyonce, stating that she “live[s] for Beyonce”. Well put, Janet—so do many of us. As they spoke, however, Piers continually misgendered Janet: the subtitle across the screen read “Janet Mock was a boy until age 18.” Later in the interview, Piers used the name assigned to her at birth, and went on to ask her if she’s ever considered “going back.” During the broadcast, the official Piers Morgan Show twitter asked: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man? @JanetMock shares her experience now. #RedefiningRealness”
When the interview aired, Janet responded to the misgendering and the packaging of the story on Twitter, tweeting ““Was a boy until 18.” @PiersMorganLive get it the f*k together” and “@PiersMorganLive I was not “formerly a man.” Pls stop sensationalizing my life and misgendering trans women. #redefiningrealness”. Piers’s nonsensical, aggressive response, was painful to watch. He accused her of creating a “fake furor” in order to “sell books,” insisting that he showed her “full respect” while simultaneously calling trans people who responded to him “STUPID” and “dimwits” (yeah, with stupid in all-caps) and reducing their valid frustration to mindless “anger.” In response to one of Janet’s supporters on Twitter, Piers writes, “You my friend@tonidorsay are part of the problem. Now settle down, and quit the ludicrous hysterical rhetoric. I’m on your side.” In no way is he on “[our]” side. If Piers were really an ally to transgender people, he would have listened to them and respected that their feelings were a result of their lived experience of which he has no understanding. Telling transgender people to shut up and sit down on the subject of their own lives is obnoxious, absurd, and dangerous.
When talking about people’s gender identities, it’s incredibly disrespectful to ask about things that they “used to” be or do. Asking questions like “you were born a boy, weren’t you? Biologically speaking,” as Piers asked Janet, equates “boy” with “penis,” which is transphobia 101. Janet never identified as a boy. Many transgender people feel similarly–that they have always been the gender they have “come out” as, but weren’t able to express it. Janet explains: “I was born a baby who was assigned male at birth. I did not identify or live my life as a boy. As soon as I had enough agency in my life to grow up, I became who I am.” When Piers says that Janet “was a boy until 18,” he is connecting her gender with her body and reinforcing the deeply flawed assumption that transgender people must undergo surgery to “truly” be who they are. This is completely unacceptable. Whether or not it is intentional, misgendering has the effect of invalidating trans people’s identities and complex histories. For Piers to simplify and reduce a vastly nuanced discussion about identity and gender to a question that only valued assumptions of what her body looked like or had is bad reporting, being a bad ally, and also just extremely rude.
People like Piers have dominated the news since news reporting came into existence; people like Janet have been continually marginalized structurally and live under constant threat of physical and psychological violence. This is a moment in television where the historically powerless are now taking power back and seizing control of their own narrative in order to benefit the audience (and specifically, as Janet puts it, to help girls like her growing up). However, Piers frames the interview not as a privilege on his behalf, but as a “gift” he has presented to Janet–as though by granting someone 20 minutes of airtime, he is the sole owner of their story. Janet Mock chose to be interviewed by Piers Morgan because she wanted to share her story and her book with the world—a story she does not owe to anyone, let alone Piers Morgan. It was her first national show, and one she wanted to go positively. Black women are tone-policed and have their emotions hyperanalyzed in the public eye all the time. In fact, Janet explained in the follow-up interview with Piers that she didn’t push back initially because she was “scared” and that she wanted to be “grateful.” Piers blurts out, “why?!” (We don’t know, Piers, maybe because she knew that you’d react the way you did? And she was right, because even in the second interview you were constantly interrupting, speaking over, and raising your voice toward her!) He acts like he’s trying to create spaces for marginalized people to speak out, but in reality, he’s limiting their ability to control their own narratives. What a hostile, exhausting environment for any transgender person who has dealt with other people’s assumptions about their identities their entire lives.
Both on Twitter and on air, Piers framed Janet’s story in a way that denied her agency and constructed her identity around how other people understand and react to her. By relentlessly focusing on Janet’s current and former partners’ reactions to her transition, Piers reinforces that what matters most about marginalized people is how other people feel about them. By asking a series of invasive and irrelevant questions, framed in such a way as to create superficial and misplaced interest among viewers, Piers and his show distorted Janet Mock’s story–then played at victim-blaming when audience members picked up on his ignorance and sought redress.
We are long-time supporters and fans of Janet Mock, but we also know that what she experienced–from the intial interview to Piers’s aggression on Twitter–goes beyond her, beyond Piers, and beyond this incident. Recently, actor and activist Laverne Cox rebuffed Katie Couric for asking about her genitalia. SPARK activist and sister Calliope dealt with ridiculous questions like “so, what was it like peeing in a women’s washroom for the first time?” when she was campaigning for Smith College to admit trans women. These invasive questions, often framed as “human interest,” detract from the truly human and the truly interesting work that Calliope, Laverne, Janet, and other activists undertake. By hyper-focusing on bodies and other people’s reactions to those bodies, we are taking focus away from the issues truly at hand: in Calliope’s case, access to higher education; in other cases, the violence, poverty, abuse that many marginalized people face daily.
But of course, addressing the issues that marginalized people face is a threat to the power structures from which Piers and his ilk directly benefit. Piers’s reactions on Twitter illustrate the depth of entitlement that he, and others like him, feel over the stories of those who have been marginalized. When trans women expressed their valid disappointment and discomfort, Piers reacted in a way that clearly sent the message “shut up, stay in your place, and be grateful for the opportunity I provided you.” Piers downplayed his transphobia and obsession with this severely flawed and dangerous genitals-liars-boyturnedgirls narrative of who trans women are, and redirected his discomfort by placing blame on the so-called “attacks” as “cisphobic”–as though the meaningful response to his mis-gendering and adamant refusal to admit his mistake is anything compared to the very real, dangerous, violent consequences that trans people, especially trans women, face when they are mis-gendered, misrepresented, and shamed into silence. No one has hacked up Piers’ identity on national television and edited it to fit a pre-existing, revolting narrative based around invasive and inappropriate questions about his body. No one, Janet least of all, has invalidated Piers Morgan’s identity or history in public and national media–except, perhaps, Piers himself, who has exposed himself to be a terrible journalist who really ought not to be one. If he is trying to satirize the fact that he thinks his own transphobia is so imaginary and non-existent by using the term ‘cisphobia’, which is also non-existent, then he has really and truly deluded himself and shut his eyes and ears to the words of transgender people.
Media pundits like Piers Morgan need to understand that interviewing someone is a privilege, not a right. When trans people choose to go public with their life stories, it doesn’t mean that their bodies, lives, and stories are open to be controlled by anybody other than them. And it most certainly does not mean that they should stay silent out of gratitude and appreciativeness to their interviewers. What is this media environment, rife with unequal power dynamics, intimidation, and sensationalization, telling young transgender girls? Telling anyone who does not hold the power of being a white cis man with a huge television audience?
We are lucky that Janet Mock has spent so much time and effort sharing her own story with the world. We are lucky because she does not owe us anything. We are lucky that she cares so much about making the world safer for people who are regularly denied agency by people like Piers Morgan, because she did not have to come back for a second interview, and because she certainly does not owe any of us these personal details. In a tweet, Janet wrote, “Nuance in media is nearly impossible but I do hope we continue to write the records of our own lives & relay that nuance#redefiningrealness.” She referenced Audre Lorde, tweeting “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” The way our media works, marginalized people need to navigate potentially dangerous spaces where their words will be packaged into a headline by someone else, often someone with much more privilege and power. How do we equip ourselves to deal with these spaces? Janet fiercely constructs her own.
As a group of young women and activists with varying racial, sexual, and gender identities, we stand alongside Janet Mock and every trans person who speaks out when they are told not to. We are demanding a world that does not strip us of the right to define ourselves. We are demanding media that do not crunch transgender people into pre-conceived, ill-fitting fantasies. We are demanding that this culture of violence and oppression against transgender people is put to an end, that they are no longer eaten alive. And we thank Janet Mock for her honesty and for her consistent, vocal demanding of these rights. As she wrote: “You can try to do what you want and try to editorialize our lives and reduce it, but we know what our lives are. And we still stake claim to our own identities and our lives.”