The Trouble with “Used to Be a Man”: On the Media’s Trans Vocabulary

martine rothblatt cover new york magazine used to be a man

When New York Magazine revealed its cover this week, bearing the headline, “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used to Be a Man,” the public reaction was somewhat mixed. Many congratulated the magazine on a cover story about a successful, high-power trans person. With the cultural climate being it is, even at the far left reaches of the political spectrum, such a cover story has the look of a Step in the Right Direction. But the last five words of that heading—the cheap, New York Post-y “Used to Be a Man”—undermine the real story of the cover, and the person on it, Martine Rothblatt.

The article itself, written by Lisa Miller, is excellent, and not at all objectifying; the somewhat crass title is likely an editorial add-on that Miller may have had nothing to do with. Her piece does not fixate on Rothblatt’s physical transition, and what’s more, she rejects the male-female gender binary in several ways throughout the article, so even “female CEO” seems to challenge her conception of herself. On the site, the article’s title is “The Trans-Everything CEO,” which gives far greater insight into who Rothblatt is.

Beyond any quantification of her gender, Rothblatt is an incredible individual. She is a lawyer, a founder of Sirius satellite radio, and a dogged and groundbreaking pharmaceutical executive. She and her wife, Bina, have built an artificially intelligent robot bust called Bina48, aimed at replicating Bina herself so that she might live forever. They have founded a religion. By far the least interesting things about Martine Rothblatt are her body, her gender, and the pronouns she uses. Yet trans people are routinely discussed in terms of their bodies, to the fascination of a mainstream cisgender public, turning public appearances by trans people into a Ripley’s Believe It or Not underpants quiz.

In February of this year, trans woman and activist Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight, where she was introduced as having been “born a boy.” Morgan began the interview by saying, to her, “This is the amazing thing about you: Had I not known anything about your story, I would have had absolutely not a clue that you had ever been a boy, a male. Which makes me absolutely believe you should always have been a woman. And that must have been what you felt, when you were young.” Before even making it minute 2, he raises the question of “the operation.” The segment was poorly received, not least by Mock herself. She returned to the show the following night to set Morgan straight, as much as she could, in response to his description of her as “formerly a man,” and a chyron that read “Was a boy until age 18.” She said plainly, “I was a baby. I was assigned male gender because of the appearance of my genitals.”

The Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox, another prominent trans woman of color, had a similarly teachable moment with Katie Couric in January, alongside self-described “transbeauty model” Carmen Carrera, who demurred in response to a question from Couric about her transition. (Couric was also later criticized for her use of “transgender” as a noun.) Cox explained:

The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

Martine Rothblatt’s cover story was not titled “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America is Trans,” or “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America is a Trans Woman,” or even “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Earns Half What the Highest-Paid Male CEO in America Does.” The article itself deals relatively little with Rothblatt’s transition, and rightly so. There are myriad other things to be written about Martine Rothblatt, all of them more important than her gender reassignment.

Janet Mock, in her second Piers Morgan Live appearance, discusses a Marie Claire piece under her name, titled without her approval: “I Was Born a Boy.” Certainly her visibility as a trans woman of color in a national magazine is important, but as she told Piers Morgan, who protested he had only ever tried to help her cause, “Being offensive and being kind are not mutually exclusive things. I think we can have good intentions and be great people, but also have a lack of understanding about these issues.” This is not to villify right intention, but to point out ignorant expression.

All headlines are clickbait now, even in print, and “Used to Be a Man” is as clickbaity as any media gets. The public interest in trans people, the click-driven thinking goes, is not in their stories or their voices, but in their bodies, and how they wear them. The are praised, as Janet Mock was by Piers Morgan, for being convincing, or questioned, as Carmen Carrera was, about when and how they transitioned. They are defined most loudly not by what they have accomplished, but by what they “used to be.” The vocabulary around trans people needs to be sensitized, particularly in media, not simply out of respect for trans people, but so that we may hear their stories and their truths above the shouting of the newsies hawking papers.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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