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7 Lessons in How (And How Not) to Interview Trans People

7 Lessons in How (And How Not) to Interview Trans People


We don't know what Diane Sawyer will discuss with Bruce Jenner, but if it's about Jenner's gender identity, she has lots of examples to follow -- and avoid.

No one can be sure what gold medal-winning former Olympian and current reality television celebrity Bruce Jenner will discuss with Diane Sawyer during their much-anticipated, two-hour interview (tonight at 9 p.m./8 Central on ABC). Promos hint it will involve Jenner's gender identity, and that's certainly what the gossip sites have been gearing up for.

The media has a troubling history in covering anyone gender-nonconforming or transgender. Recent history lends several teachable moments, while others were just embarrassing, usually for the interviewer. Here are seven Q&As we hope Sawyer watched before her sit-down.

Lesson 1: Don't Reduce Your Interview Subject to Their Genitalia
Thirty-five-year, award-winning news veteran Katie Couric shocked viewers when she "took on" the subject of transgender-specific sociopolitical issues in January 2014. But instead of taking the opportunity to interview actress Laverne Cox and model-performer Carmen Carrera about important transgender topics on her talk show, Katie, Couric's interview went inappropriately south. She repeatedly asked about genitalia, and the details of what gender-confirming surgeries the women may have undergone. Cox is interviewed so often she's even devised ways to fend off that invasive line of questioning with a smile (take Wendy Williams, for example). Likewise, Cox and Carrerra kept their poise throughout, then Couric followed up days later, saying she hoped others learned from her mistake. "When I asked [Carrera] about any anatomical changes that had taken place during her transition, she balked, and so did some of you," said Couric in the follow-up segment. "Now, even if some thought my question was off base, I wanted to make sure my question -- and Carmen's answer --stayed in the show as a teachable moment for me, as well as our viewers."

Lesson 2: People Are Born as Babies, Not Men or Women
The Human Rights Campaign's Jeff Krehely said Piers Morgan's first interview of journalist and trans advocate Janet Mock was exactly "What Not to Do, When Calling Yourself a Transgender Ally." The interview was so terrible that comedian Stephen Colbert had to show Morgan how it's done properly.

There was something extra icky about Morgan's interviews of former editor, author, and current Marie Claire contributing editor Janet Mock. On CNN's now-defunct celebrity interview show, Piers Morgan Tonight, he had Mock on to talk about her book, Redefining Realness, and her work advocating for transgender rights and awareness. But CNN's on-screen description of Mock read "was a boy until age 18" intermittently throughout the broadcast. All the while, the show's official Twitter account posed questions such as, "How would you feel if you found out the woman you were dating was formerly a man?"

"Nuance in media is nearly impossible," lamented Mock after the interview when she saw how it had been promoted. Transgender people are not born as men or women. We are all born as babies. And we are assigned a gender at birth that sometimes doesn't fit. Coming out as transgender is a realization of your gender, not a switch.

Lesson 3: Are You Listening?
Oprah Winfrey's 2011 interview of Chaz Bono is a case study in the guiding principle to getting it right. Winfrey's superpower has always been her ability to listen, hear, and invite her guests to delve inwardly so that she and her viewers can learn more about the human experience. Hey, it's OK if you don't already know the answers to the questions you're asking. This is journalism, folks -- not a court of law! As Winfrey has proven again and again, people are interested in revealing themselves if you're interested in learning about them.

Lesson 4: Celebrate Your Transgender Interviewee's Humanity
Oprah gets it right again with Thomas Beatie, known as the "world's first pregnant man." Even though OWN's recent Where Are They Now? interview of Beatie clearly asks about surgery -- perhaps even specifically about whether Beatie has had lower-body gender-affirming procedures -- the show's producers and editors are savvy and sensitive enough to overshadow that more base portion of the segment following up on Oprah Winfrey's 2008 interview of "the world's first pregnant man" with warm images and sound bites focusing on Beatie's role as a father and the heart-melting relationship he has with his small children. Winfrey's original interview with Beatie and his now-estranged wife back in 2008 was a landmark segment that got high ratings, both in terms of audience share and in terms of kudos from LGBT people, including many transgender advocates.

Lesson 5: Trans People Aren't "Enigmas" or "Something to Be Studied"
If you want to see what it looks like when a transgender person's humanity is ignored instead of celebrated, ancient interviews of Christine Jorgensen are perfect blueprints for what not to ask. However well-meaning Hour Magazine host Gary Collins may have been inviting Jorgensen to appear on his early-1980s daytime talk show, his goodwill was completely negated by several heartless questions. In the interview, viewable on YouTube, Collins asks the world's first publicly acknowledged recipient of gender-affirming surgery if college students see her as an "enigma," or an "oddity," or "something to be studied." The callousness of the question even appears to catch the ever-poised Jorgensen off-guard for a fraction of a second. But the author and lecturer graciously replies, "No, no. They're fascinated because we've come into an era where identification, human identification -- not only just sexual identity -- but 'who am I' [is a common question]. I think the world is far more complex now than when I was young." An even earlier interview of Jorgensen, who transitioned in 1952 in Copenhagen, shows TV and radio talker Joe Pyne subjecting his guest to an even clunkier, more callous interview (circa 1967) than the Collins interview of 1981. Pyne actually asks Jorgensen how "transvestites" can be called normal.

Lesson 6: The Golden Rule
Would you really think it OK if you were asked the same questions? Journalists often justify their prurient interests as them just channeling the greater interests of their viewing audience. Along the way, they stop treating the person their interviewing at least as well as they'd like to be treated in the same situation. Perhaps no one has exhibited that point better than Janet Mock when creatively turning the table on Fuzion host Alicia Menendez -- who was a willing participant in this experiment and said she'd never as clearly considered how questions seemed when on the receiving end.

Lesson 7: If At First You Don't Succeed, Try Again
Perhaps worse than making a mistake is refusing to acknowledge it. Just ask Piers Morgan who turned a do-over interview into an even bigger disaster than the first one. Couric made up for her mistakes by educating herself before her next trans interview. Although the days when failing big as a journalist interviewing a transgender person are hopefully coming to an end, as Katie Couric learned you still might get a second chance.

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Thom Senzee