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USC Keynote Address
Interviewing Isis King
What stood out most to me is this: It took Hoda Kotb approximately 13 minutes into her segment to ask 11-year-old Josie Romero of Tucson, Arizona: “Do you feel trapped in the wrong body?”
Whenever this question is posed, I find it to be more of a leading statement rather than a true inquiry or invitation for a trans subject to speak about their life experience or outlook on their relationship with their bodies. Frankly whenever it’s posed it never sits well with me, and I shared my frustration on Twitter, saying: “‘Trapped in the wrong body’ is a convenient, lazy explanation but it fails to describe #trans people & our bodies every time.”
To me, “trapped in the wrong body” is a blanket statement that makes trans* people’s varying journeys and narratives palatable to the masses. It’s helped cis masses understand our plight – to a certain extent. It’s basically a soundbite of struggle, “I was a girl (boy) trapped in a boy’s (girl’s) body,” which aims to humanize trans* folks, who are often seen as alien, as freaks, as less-than-human and other.
Jazz’s most prized possessions lay in a plastic bin in her bedroom. They’re not expensive or sentimental or even something one-of-a-kind, like the shimmering mermaid tails she’s sewn together as the perfect bikini bottoms.
They’re hand-me-downs, actually, from her big sister Ari, 15. Old bras 11-year-old Jazz, like most girls her age, is hoping to fill out soon rather than later.
“I titled that drawer, ‘Something for the future’,” Jazz tells me over the phone of her box of bras, “and then I put an arrow and wrote, ‘Or now’, because I’m desperate to wear it right now.”
Jazz says she wears the second-hand underwear “all the time,” trying them on in the privacy of her bedroom “continuously.” Recently, she was daring enough to leave the house in one of them, getting to her fifth-grade class unnoticed by her parents.
“But some of the girls noticed it,” her mother Jeanette chimed in.
“No,” Jazz quickly interjects. “One girl noticed it, and she wouldn’t have questioned me if she didn’t know I was transgender.”
At 11, girls begin breaking out of the prepubescent pack. They grow taller, they grow hairier, they grow curvier. These early bloomers pose a threat to their peers, like Jazz, who are lagging behind in the puberty pool, as they breast stroke towards the blossoming buds of early adulthood.
“She was like, ‘Why are you wearing a bra? You’re not supposed to have that,’” Jazz says of the girl who policed her bra-wearing that day. “But she really really wants boobs also, and the next day I stopped wearing the bra cause my mom made me stop but then she was wearing a bra.”
“You inspired her,” her mom Jeanette said, laughing.
“Yeah, she thought since I could do it she could too,” Jazz giggled.
And because Jazz is doing it — wearing bras, lip gloss, her hair long, girls garments to school — many kids know they can do it as well. This has been the overarching theme of Jazz’s young life. Her gender-defiant story began as a toddler when she would dance around in her sister’s plastic dress-up shoes. She soon expressed her love of mermaids and all things pink around her family, who learned to embrace her femininity.
When I told my transition story in Marie Claire, I led with my adolescent journey of having genital reassignment surgery, a quest that took me from my hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii, across the Pacific Ocean to Bangkok, Thailand, at 18 years old.
Going public with my story, I was acutely aware that I unconsciously gave people permission to ask about what lied or did not lie in between my legs. I gave the world an opportunity to ask after the most personal things in my life. I think this is what any person revealing themselves publicly as trans inherently does whether they like it or not: they sacrifice their anonymity and privacy to hopefully increase visibility and awareness.
Recently, I read a Tweet from Laverne Cox, reality television producer and actress, that she’d be on The Joy Behar Show with Chaz Bono of the Emmy-nominated documentary Becoming Chaz, Harmony Santana, star of Gun Hill Road, and America’s Next Top Model Isis King. I was elated, as this appeared to be a groundbreaking panel not only with Trans folks, but moderated by CNN host Don Lemon, a newly out gay man of color.
On Monday night, I set my DVR, told my boyfriend Aaron to keep quiet, and stayed up past my bedtime to only be dumbfounded by the interview, where Lemon asked Bono some pretty inane questions. The CNN achor, who was leading the conversation in Behar’s absence, seemed to have unknowingy communicated his own insensitivity to trans folks’ struggle when he asked Bono the most insensitive of his slew of questions:
I have to ask you this: I look at you, I see you on television, you’re a dude now, you have facial hair and everything to go along with it. I mean do you like that? Is it cool?
Asking Bono, who has bravely transitioned under the media’s glare, therefore helping bring the trans conversation to the masses, about his facial hair (a prideful marker of his masculinity and manhood), is as offensive as a reporter being astonished by Lemon’s own masculinity as a newly out gay man. Or even as offensive as a non-Black reporter being astonished by Lemon’s articulateness during an interview.
“Is that something that you have to get used to though?” Lemon pressed. “Do you have to get used to shaving cause you didn’t have to shave before – and all of a sudden you’re a grown man and you have to shave?”
Then it just got worse…