With the rising fame of Orange Is The New Black‘s star, Laverne Cox, there has been a much needed uptick in conversations around transgender issues. However, the issues that need and deserve more of our attention, such as the increased threat of violence and the abysmally high rate of unemployment faced by transgender people, are often overlooked due to a dehumanizing fascination with their genitalia. Janet Mock debunks this fascination, weaving in insight from Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, in her article for Elle Magazine, entitled “I’m A Trans Woman, But Please Stop Asking Me About My Genitalia.”
I don’t talk about my kitty cat with my friends. It never seems to come up when we’re gabbing about The Real Housewives or gagging over Beyonce’s “Partition” music video. But I—an unapologetic trans woman and writer—have been asked about my vagina (by people I do not know, mind you) more times than I can even recall.
Outrageously, trans people’s bodies have been open for public dissection since 1952 when Christine Jorgensen became the media’s first sex change darling, and in the 60 years since Jorgensen’s headline-making path to womanhood, journalists from Barbara Walters to Katie Couric are still asking the same tired questions about our bodies.
It’s stunning that legendary women have found themselves asking other women about their genitalia—in public. As I write in my upcoming memoir, Redefining Realness: “Undergoing hormone therapy and genital reconstruction surgery are the titillating details that cisgender people love to hear.” (For the uninitiated, cisgender is nomenclature for those who are not trans, and therefore less likely to experience the misalignment of their gender identity and assigned sex at birth.) But these are “deeply personal steps I took to become closer to me, and I choose to share them.”
It’s about choice. We, as women, have the choice to invite people into our lives, into our struggles, and into our bodies. Consent is key here, and on Monday, model Carmen Carrera and Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox wielded their agency during a joint appearance on Katie, the ABC daytime TV talk show hosted by Katie Couric, who posed the genitalia question–twice.
When Carrera was asked, “Your private parts are different now, aren’t they?” her response was simple: she shushed Couric on her own show. Like a bawse.
“I don’t want to talk about it; it’s really personal,” Carrera said, visibly and rightly uncomfortable by Couric’s gaze. “I’d rather talk about my modeling…There’s more to trans people than just [genitalia].”
What was interesting to me in this moment was that Carrera laid claim to her body. She’s danced in pasties in clubs across the country, on our TV screens in RuPaul’s Drag Race, and in two W magazine shoots with photographer Steven Meisel—but don’t get it twisted: Her body is not ours to dissect.
Couric backpedaled, stating that her question was not in vain, that it was more than just “peering interest,” yet she posed the same question to Cox when she took her seat beside Carrera in a glowing BCBG Max Azria sheath. Couric told Cox that Carrera “recoiled a little bit” at the “genitalia question” and that she wondered if she had “the same feeling about that as Carmen does.”
“I do,” Cox said, backing Carrera up. “I was so proud of Carmen for saying that…the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with the lived experiences, the reality of trans people’s lives.”
Cox then broke it down for the journalist, serving Couric facts for days: Trans people face discrimination everywhere, from employment to the streets, where trans women, specifically those of color, disproportionately face brutal violence (Cox mentions the murder of Islan Nettles in New York City, giving the tragedy its highest media profile to date). The actress concludes by saying that our culture’s focus on bodies doesn’t allow us to zero in on trans people’s “lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.”
And that was the moment in which, Couric, a TV veteran, had to bow down to the magnificence of Cox, leaving her with this throwaway statement: “You’re so well spoken about it.”
Let’s be clear though: This story is larger than Couric; it’s about our culture and its dehumanization of trans people’s bodies and identities. Because trans people are marked as artificial, unnatural, and illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection. Plainly, cisgender folks often take it as their duty to investigate our lives to see if we’re real.
Curiosity is vital to the growth of our society. It allows us to stretch our minds and learn more, which I truly believe was Couric’s intention: to educate her viewers. But curiosity and mere mystery objectifies and others those that are being gazed upon, pushing our most marginalized peers to defend their right to exist without the pervasive violation of the dehumanizing gaze of curiosity.
The real takeaway from this Katie appearance is the transformative power of solidarity and sisterhood, as exhibited by two successful women—two trans women, two women of color—at the top of their games. As Cornel West, someone Cox often quotes, said, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and these two women loved one another in public.
Carrera and Cox applauded one another, gushing about how proud they are of the others’ success and how their various achievements help elevate the public’s perception of what’s possible for trans women. And it was this public showing of solidarity that actually flipped the media’s tired genitalia script when it comes to women and girls like us.
When Couric re-posed the question to Cox, even after being shut down by Carrera, it seemed like the TV host was trying to pit the women against one another; instead, Cox said, she was “proud” of Carrera for not answering the question. It was like glorious choreography—again, I’m referencing Beyonce’s “Partition,” in which two women dance in unison against the ropes, moving together as a leopard-print spotlight silhouettes their bodies. Carrera and Cox are equals, partners, a team, and they produced something revolutionary: a new possibility for trans women.
And it’s a possibility model for us all.
Janet Mock is a writer and advocate, whose book Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More will be released February 4 by Atria Books. For more info visit JanetMock.com.
Read more: Janet Mock ‘Redefining Realness’ – Empowerment for Transgender Women – ELLE
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