Janet Mock flips the script and interrogates a cis journalist on her womanhood

As you know, trans women have been enjoying some pretty exciting mainstream media attention lately. The flipside of this attention is that they’re often forced to educate not only a public that’s still catching up but also the journalists that are giving them a platform. Just recently, we’ve seen Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera school Katie Couric on how the preoccupation with transition objectifies trans people. And we’ve seen Janet Mock call out Piers Morgan for sensationalizing her story and mis-gendering her on his show.

Now Mock continues her heroic work on this front with this instructive segment with Fusion’s Alicia Menendez. In order to show just how dehumanizing many of the questions journalists regularly ask trans women really are, she flips the script and interrogates Menendez on what it’s like to be a cis woman.

“Interrogate” is really the right word. As Mock points out after the exchange, what’s really behind all these questions — “Do you have a vagina? When was the moment when you felt your breasts budding? When you were going through puberty, did you feel trapped by the changes your body is going through?” — is an attempt to get trans women to prove their womanhood in a way that would just never happen for cis women. Menendez admits that they’d written similar questions and didn’t realize how invasive they would feel. And, of course, the reality is that being interrogated about your cis gender identity for a few minutes in a culture that otherwise accepts it — and privileges it — as the default cannot truly compare to trans people’s experience living in that culture day in and day out.

And the exchange also reveals just how much that default setting is assumed — so much so that Menendez cannot really even conceive of her own cis gender identity. While trans people are expected to be able explain, over and over again, how they knew they were trans, Menendez admits she has “never been asked, or felt the need to tell anyone, I was cis.” When asked if she felt like a girl, she says, “I don’t even know what that would feel like. Because I was told that I was.” Jos has argued before that cis people should be asked, “How do you know you’re not trans?” because “everyone should get the chance to figure out their own gender identity on their own terms.” (The Questioning Masculinity Tumblr pulls a similar trick by “asking cisgender men the questions usually posed to trans* people.”)

I’m pretty sure the world would be a way better place — for everyone — if cis people spent less time and energy interrogating trans people’s gender identity and a little more interrogating their own.

Transcript below with many thanks to commenter CQ Green.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/choirqueer/ CQ Green

    Here is a transcript.

    JM: So I’m here with Alicia Menendez. First off, you’re beautiful…
    AM: Thank you.
    JM: …and what’s so amazing about you is that if I were to look at you, I would’ve never’ve not known that you weren’t trans. So who was the first person you told you’re cis to?
    AM: I have never been asked, or felt the need to tell anyone that I was cis.
    JM: Do you have a vagina? When was the moment that you felt your breasts budding? Did you use tampons? Can you feel your…
    AM: [interrupting] I thought we were going to talk about my show.
    JM: Well, I think we need to get through this…these are just the preliminary questions.
    AM: [talking over JM] Okay.
    JM: When you were going through puberty, did you feel trapped by the changes your body was going through? Did you feel like a girl?
    AM: I don’t even know what that would feel like…because I was told that I was.
    JM: Do you feel that your…your idea of self, your cis-ness holds you back in any way? Just the one thing, what do they need to know about cis people? I think you’re incredibly brave to be a cisgendered woman in this world. Thank you so much for, uh, joining me.
    AM: [almost whispering] Thank you.
    [interview ends]
    AM: Ugh! That was so…wait, that was awful. [both are laughing] Like, I actually…we wrote a lot of these questions, and I didn’t realize how awful…like, even when we were role-playing them without you, I didn’t realize how awful and invasive some of them would feel. And how, how, um…I feel now like a token.
    JM: [laughs] Well, right! It’s…it’s, I think that that’s kind of the experience I go through every single time I’m in an interview, and even the good ones, you know, I still feel as if I’m carrying the burden of people, that they’re expecting me to communicate all of these things, but then also to give off all this private information about my body and my journey and my life. And, you know, I am very open in my book, so I understand why I’m in that space, but at the same time I think some of the questions aren’t necessary. Right? Like the questions about your body. Why do we need to know that?
    AM: When I was coming into this, I…I thought we needed to know that as the way of bridging an understanding gap. But when you have the questions turned on you, I understand how much more intimate those questions feel, and how they get away from the identity piece of this, which for me has a lot to do with my body but doesn’t necessarily for everyone have to do with the physicality of their sex or their gender.
    JM: Yeah, well, what I found so interesting was how uncomfortable I felt asking. But also, I came… when I was asking you the questions, I came from a space of entitlement, saying “You need to prove to me that your identity and your body is real, and I’m gonna ask you these questions because I need to investigate and really make sure that your identity and your body is real and authentic”. Right? That’s where I was coming from, so I found myself taking on that, that role, and I kept on going to the default, ‘cause I’ve heard that so many times…. “Well, our…our viewers really wanna know, you know? This is something people wanna know.”
    AM: Yup.
    JM: And it’s like, “No, you want to know.”
    AM: Yup.
    JM: You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s not really like your viewers want to know, but it’s the easy space to kind of go to.
    AM: Yeah. Wow. Okay. Thank you for that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sammylif/ Sammy

    I know I’m a little late, but here’s a transcript:

    • Janet Mock: I’m here with Alicia Menendez, first off, you’re beautiful,
    • Alicia Menendez: Thank you.
    • JM: And what’t so amazing about you that if I were to look at you I would’ve never known that you weren’t trans. So who was the first person you told you were cis to?
    • AM: I have never been ask or felt the need to tell anyone that I was cis.
    • JM: Do you have a vagina? — When was the moment you felt your breasts budding? — Did you use tampons? —
    • AM: I thought we were gonna talk about my show.
    • JM: Well, I think we need to get through this, these are just the preliminary questions. When you were going through puberty, did you feel trapped by the changes your body was going through? Did you feel like a girl?
    • AM: I don’t even know what that would feel like, because I was told that I was.
    • JM: Do you feel like your idea of yourself, your cisness, holds you back in any way. — What’s the one thing that they need to know about cis people? — I think you’re incredibly brave to be a cisgender woman in this world. Thank you so much for joining me.
    • AM: Thank you…..Ahhh That was awful! Like, we actually wrote a lot of these questions and I didn’t even realize how awful – even when we were roleplaying them without you, I didn’t realize how awful and invasive some of them would feel. And how I feel now, like a token.
    • JM: Well right! (laughing) I think that’s kind of the experience I go through every single time I’m in an interview. And even the good ones, I still feel like I’m carrying the burden of people, like they’re expecting me to communicate all these things, but then also to give up all of this private information about my body and my journey, and my life, and I’m very open in my book so I understand why I’m in that space, but at the same time, I think some of the questions aren’t necessary. Right? LIke the questions about your body, why do we need to know that.
    • AM: When I was coming into this, I thought we needed to know that as a way of bridging an understanding gap, but when you have the questions turned on you, I understand how much more intimate those questions feel, and how they get away from the identity piece of this, which, for me, has a lot to do with my body but doesn’t necessarily for everyone have to do with the physicality of their gender.
    • JM: What I found so interesting is how uncomfortable I felt asking, but also, when I was asking you the questions, I came from a space of entitlement of saying “you need to prove to me that your identity and your body is real, and I’m going to ask you these questions because I need to investigate, and really make sure that your identity and your body is real. And authentic. That’s where I was coming from, so it was, I found myself taking on that role. And I kept on going to the default, because I’ve heard this so many times, “well, out viewers really want to know. this is something people want to know” It’s no, YOU want to know, you know what I mean? It’s not really like your viewers want to know but it’s an easy space to go to.
    • AM: Yeah, wow. Ok. Thank you for that.