Vanity Fair has taken quite a shine to transgender people lately, and it feels a little…icky.
Even as the magazine releases a special edition called “Trans America” this week, it’s hard to take the magazine seriously as an outlet genuinely interested in telling the story of what it is like to be trans in America.
Perhaps it’s the timing. After all, it was only a month ago that brand-new trans icon Caitlyn Jenner’s Annie Leibowitz-shot cover story made international headlines. It’s difficult to imagine that this new issue is more than a crass attempt to capitalize on the collective and renewed interest in trans lives.
What’s sad is that Vanity Fair‘s decision to feature an elegant Jenner on its cover was indeed historic. What’s followed? Not so much.
An announcement on Vanity Fair‘s site promises ”groundbreaking stories” on “trans communities’ pioneers” including Jenner, among a few other celebrity and (to their credit) lesser-known transgender public figures. Then the tone turns more somber: “Sadly, in the weeks since the edition was sent to print, at least six transgender women of color were lost to senseless violence. The publications involved in creating this special edition share in the grief surrounding these tragedies. It is the hope that this issue, on newsstands this week, will help educate people and underscore the efforts of those who have helped promote wider understanding of transgender people.”
The suggestion that this glossy magazine is somehow helping change the way trans people are represented really rankled me, so I picked up a copy to look into the writers who wrote such ”groundbreaking” profiles—and found among them not a single trans voice that I could verify.
Though the editors of Vanity Fair say they wanted to highlight the work of people fighting for trans equality, they seem to overlook the reality that the media is implicated in the violence trans people face every time we are refused the right to tell our own stories.
Many writers have peddled narratives about trans people being “born in the wrong body.” That, and the lurid fixation of the media on medical procedures, has left a lot of readers who don’t know a trans person (only about 1 in 10 Americans say they are close to someone in the trans community) with the distinct impression that trans people are living remarkably alien lives.
Even the Jenner profile, written by the usually spectacular Buzz Bissinger of Friday Night Lights fame, fails to offer a clear window into the lives of trans Americans. Jenner’s wealth, status, and visibility are extremely rare in this marginalized community. And Bissinger’s frequent misgendering of Jenner (both by his own admission in the Vanity Fair article and spontaneously in a subsequent interview on the radio program Fresh Air last month) is hard to overlook. (Bissinger also wrote the introduction to this month’s special issue, which lays out a simplistic version of transgender history that clearly assumes readers have very little knowledge of the subject.)
Admittedly, I have skin in the game. I’m a trans man who has spent my career working with mainstream media outlets. A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only trans writer who’d ever written or edited for the publication I was working with. My operating thesis as a writer was that this obsession with making trans bodies “legible” was wrongheaded—it is not the responsibility of transgender people to make our lives fit into a culturally-translateable box. But if the first step was teaching a reader how to connect with his or her own empathy, I’d rather I have that job than someone who hadn’t lived my life.
When I reached out to confirm the lack of trans writers and editors involved in the edition, Joe Libonati, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Condé Nast, said that the company doesn’t ask writers or editors to “specify gender identification,” and referred me to Vincent Paolo Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who Libonati said Condé Nast worked with to “ensure that our editorial content was mindful, sensitive and accurate.” Villano couldn’t confirm if any trans writers or editors worked on the project either, though he noted that he felt it was “not the right question to ask.”
“The larger question,” Villano told me, is ‘What is wrong with journalism as an industry?’ when it comes to the lack of trans voices in the editorial process.
I agree on the larger question, but disagree with Villano on the importance of the “smaller” one. As a member of the media, I understand that who assigns, writes, and edits a story has tremendous power in defining its contents. Whether trans people are involved in the actual writing of stories about us matters quite a lot.
Imagine a special edition of a national magazine celebrating women’s history with an all-male editorial staff (even with the advice of the National Organization for Women): it simply wouldn’t happen.
Of course there is an argument to be made that people who aren’t members of a community can and should bring their perspectives, and that a synergy can come out of difference portrayed with sensitivity. But when a mainstream outlet chooses to focus on a marginalized group using only the lens of the ”other,” it is highly likely that the coverage will be problematic at best, and damaging at worst.
If anyone can translate our humanity for the 90% of Americans who don’t know a trans person, it’s someone like me. Because I do it every time I leave my house. And because the more people like me who write ourselves into existence, the less translation and legibility we need in the first place.
The trouble with translation is that it only works if you’re tough. I hold my readers to a high standard because I believe in them, in you. I know that you’re smart enough to, as Fitzgerald put it, “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I know that you can keep track of a person’s pronouns and find yourself in a story that’s not your own. For the 90% of Americans who don’t know a trans person, meeting one—in real life or in the pages of a magazine—can go some way to undoing the damage of narratives that stereotype us.
Because the truth is, I trust you to know that my body doesn’t just sell magazines. My life is hard-won. Maybe yours is, too. I know that you can move beyond a dumb curiosity about my medical history and see that my future is staked on policies voted on and industries regulated and populated by people just like you.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t pick up a copy of Vanity Fair‘s special edition. But if you do so, read it for what it is, and what it most definitely isn’t. Reading can be a quiet revolution. Find the stories that matter out there. Lives depend on it.