Dear Ms. Solomon:

I am writing to express my disappointment with Monday's Christine Jorgensen story on All Things Considered, for which you interviewed me on November 22, 2002 at the CUNY Graduate Center. To say the least, I was very offended by your use of our interview, and your comments about me. As you recall, I participated in that conference as an attorney working for legal and social equality for transgender people. My remarks at the conference provided an analysis of how the medical model of transsexuality, and its reliance on a strict vision of binary gender, impact legal and political struggles for transgender equality. When you asked to interview me, I understood that you were hoping to offer your listeners a taste of what had occurred at the conference that day, and that you would approach me professionally and respectfully. I did not anticipate that I would be featured as a "confusing" specimen, with my pronouns misused, and my appearance analyzed evaluated for masculine and feminine traits. Certainly, I now feel quite naïve that I relied on the reputation of NPR as a progressive organization, and your own seeming interest in the issue of transgender equality, to believe that fair and accurate reporting of the conference would result.

First and foremost, it is inexcusable for any journalist to use pronouns for a transgender person other than those the transgender person uses to identify him/herself. The AP Stylebook, as well as the guidelines put out by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association both recommend that transgender people be identified only by the pronouns of our choice. I was introduced by the moderator of my panel using male pronouns, and my fellow panelists used male pronouns to refer to me. If you were confused about what pronouns I prefer, in the interest of accurate reporting you should have asked me what I preferred to be called rather than referring to me with female pronouns at one point in your story, and then purposefully stumbling over my pronouns later to make some kind of point about how odd and “confusing” I am.

Secondly, by choosing to ignore the content of my words and work, and focusing your attention instead on my appearance and whether you find that I look sufficiently masculine or feminine, you became part of a long history of journalism which treats transgender people as freakish objects of fascination. Your attention to the tightness of my sweater and your perception that my short haircut is "feminine" (to which I must ask: is it only ‘feminine’ because you expect trans men to be more masculine than non-trans men?) send a clear message to your listeners that it is acceptable to approach trans people with the objectifying fascination "is it a boy or a girl?" It also reinforces the idea that transpeople’s self-identification is not worthy of respect. Taking my appearance apart trait by trait was distasteful, unprofessional, and disrespectful. The entire point of my work (which you did not feel merited reporting when the important question of my haircut loomed large) is that people's life expectations and choices should not be determined by their willingness to adhere to the narrow expectations assigned to the gender category they are assigned to at birth. The way a person wears their hair, who they love, whether they reproduce, or what career they pursue should not be determined by their birth-gender identification. In essence, it is the classic feminist position that biology should not be destiny. I believe that the way you chose to frame our interaction is entirely opposed to these basic principles of equality.

Your treatment of my appearance is especially ironic because of your seeming critique of the transphobic scrutiny applied to Christine Jorgenson by the media of her day. A few minutes earlier, in the same interview, you remarked on the way that the media eagerly looked for flaws in Ms. Jorgenson’s femininity (such as tottering on her high heels), in order to conclude that she was indeed not a real woman. Your declaration that I am "confusing" because I fail to fully conform to your understanding of masculinity or femininity, underscores exactly what trans activists from before Christine Jorgensen's time through today have been fighting against. Your approach to my gender identity was not a respectful affirmation of the struggle of transgender people who live outside cultural norms of gender, but instead a continuation of the sensationalist, body-focused, dehumanizing approach to transgender lives that dominates in mainstream media and culture.

Finally, I would request that you consider how you would have treated our interview if I had been a non-trans attorney who works for transgender equality. Would you have included more of my words about my work, and less of your opinions about my appearance? I approached you as a professional journalist, with the expectation that you would approach me as a professional as well. Instead, you produced a segment that humiliates me, identifies me by an incorrect pronoun, identifies my appearance with gendered words that I do not understand myself through, and disregards the important work I am doing.

I hope that you will give my comments some thought, and consider how you can interrogate your own perceptions of gender before you decide to do further reporting on transgender people. I think that a proper response would be to do a new transgender story which fairly reports on the struggles transgender people are currently facing and the work we are doing to combat discrimination in housing, education, employment, benefits, medical care and all other realms. You should consider me a resource for such work. While I am very upset about Monday's story, I also recognize that we are all steeped in misunderstanding about gender throughout our lives, and we are all victims of a rigidly binary sexist gender system. I am interested in working with people to overcome the ways in which this causes us to harm and disrespect each other, and moving toward deeper understanding and better relationships. To that end, as a part of the legal resource center I founded, I do trainings about transgender awareness for social activists and public interest lawyers. I also recently spoke at the conference of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association, offering ideas to journalists there about how to avoid common mistakes in reporting of transgender stories. I would be more than happy to talk to you about arranging such a training for the people in your office, to increase understanding of transgender lives and experience and promote fair and accurate reporting of transgender news.

If you are truly interested in promoting transgender equality through your work, I am interested in being your ally in that work. However, it is my hope that you will first recognize the disservice you have done to both of us, and to transgender people generally, by reporting our interview in dehumanizing, objectifying terms. I think that it is reasonable that as a beginning to remedying the damage that your approach to our interview did, you offer to apologize on the air for your words and for your failure to follow well-established guidelines for handling transgender new stories. Additionally, I would ask that NPR make a public commitment to following the NLGJA and AP guidelines regarding respecting the self-identification of transgender subjects of NPR stories. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on my comments.


Dean Spade