On Wednesday night, ABC's Primetime Nightline aired My (Extra)Ordinary Family: Transgender, an hour-long special featuring the stories of three transgender youth, one gender non-conforming child, and one adult man who regrets his past decision to have gender reassignment surgery and live as a female.
GLAAD applauds ABC for showcasing four young people who were brave enough to share their stories on national television, and their families, who have embraced and supported these youth. Just a few days ago, transgender advocate Ja’briel Walthour wrote about the need for people to hear and see the stories of trans people and to demonstrate love and support for them, so the airing of this program is timely.
It was moving to watch Cheryl Kilodavis, the mother of five-year-old Dyson, a boy who enjoys wearing dresses and identifying as a princess, describe her journey from resistant parent to committed advocate for her child. It was similarly moving to hear the mother of Vanessa, a 19-year-old Latina trans woman in New York City, admit that she has struggled with her child’s identity, but in the end state, “No matter what, I love her because that’s what she needs right now - love,” and then watch her embrace Vanessa as her daughter at a family dinner.
It was inspiring to see Jackie, a ten-year-old transgender girl in Ohio, be unconditionally supported by her parents, John and Jennifer. They note that at 18-months old, Jackie preferred wearing ballerina outfits and playing with Barbie dolls, and that they believe their daughter was “born that way.” It was also wonderful to hear that Jackie’s fourth-grade teacher taught her class about tolerance and invited Jackie’s older sister to speak to the class about Jackie’s transition in preparation for Jackie’s return to school as a girl.
And it was important that ABC included Dr. Johanna Olson, who works at the Transgender Youth Clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, as an expert voice. Dr. Olson indicated that children of any age can know that they are transgender, because “you don’t make a decision about your gender identity. It’s not something you decide.” She also urged parents to support their children unconditionally.
Such positive depictions of transgender youth and increased information about the disproportionate rates of harassment and discrimination that transgender youth face are exactly what we need to see more of in the media.
First, the inclusion of Charles Kane, who transitioned from male to female and back to male. He impulsively transitioned after a divorce as a 37-year-old adult, and now blames the female hormones he was given as having “pushed” him towards surgery. His experience in no way mirrors the experiences of the youth in the program who asserted their transgender identities at as early as 18 months old. This segment was unbalanced because viewers may walk away thinking Kane's experience is typical - though it is not. He said, "I don't think there's anybody really born transsexual," which invalidates the lives of most transgender youth and adults who go on to lead much happier, healthier lives after they transition. The program would have been more balanced had ABC offered the perspective of an adult whose experience reflects that of a healthy and stable transgender person.
Also, host Cynthia McFadden asked all of the transgender people she interviewed about their genitalia. McFadden focused on the fact that 10-year-old Jackie wants breasts when she grows up, and asked Kim Petras, a 19-year-old transgender woman who is an aspiring pop star in Europe, invasive questions about her body. McFadden’s emphasis on sex reassignment surgery as a marker of trans identity erases the existence of transgender people who have not had (and in some cases, do not want) hormones or surgery, yet still assert transgender identity. It may lead audiences to assume that being transgender is about what your body looks like, when in fact, it is about how one feels about one’s gender identity.
Additionally, ABC’s coverage of Vanessa’s story could have included context for the particular challenges that trans people face with employment discrimination. Vanessa speaks openly about her decision to engage in sex work to pay for the expensive surgeries she desires. McFadden chastises her for this, suggesting she get a job at McDonald’s instead. The program does not reveal that Vanessa has tried to find different jobs, but had difficulty doing so, as she explains in her interview. Her experience reflects the findings of a recent study by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality that transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed, and 90% of transgender people have experienced harassment or mistreatment at work.
Furthermore, for many transgender women of color, ‘passing’ as a non-transgender woman is essential to their safety. Hate crimes against LGBT people are on the rise, and of all LGBT murder victims, 70% are people of color and 44% are transgender women.
Many transgender people also face significant barriers to health care, including a lack of health insurance (especially for those who are unemployed or underemployed), or insurance providers that do not cover hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery. If the audience was given a chance to understand the conditions that many transgender young women of color like Vanessa face, they might better understand why she would make the difficult choice of engaging in sex work.
Finally, at no point did the program highlight the existence of organizations working to support transgender youth and their families and to advance transgender equality. This was a missed opportunity to point audience members to useful and important resources.
Those who missed Wednesday's show can watch it on Hulu.com.