John Oliver segment on Transgender Rights

John Oliver gives a great introduction to trans issues lite

Yesterday’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured a segment on trans issues. You can watch the video below, followed by my commentary:

I am in many ways pleasantly surprised by what John Oliver’s show put together. They’ve done a great job both addressing poor media coverage and offering superior framing of a lot of other topics, but I tend to expect trans issues to be an exception. The segment is structured in a way I might have suggested: it starts with media excitement about trans celebrities and the notion that we’re having a trans moment before moving on to real issues. Oliver also quickly dispenses with discussion of language and invasive 101 questions that many folks get stuck on:

Transgender people have a gender identity that differs from the one they were assigned at birth, and that gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Gender identity is who you are, sexual orientation is who you love. Some transgender people do undergo hormone therapy or sexual reassignment surgery as part of their transition; some do not. And interestingly, their decision on this matter is, medically speaking, none of your fucking business. If you’re still wondering, ‘What do I call a transgender person, it’s so confusing,’ actually it’s pretty simple: call them whatever they want to be called.

Which is really all that needs to be said on that subject.

John Oliver then moves on to discussing real issues of discrimination, even citing the national trans discrimination survey Injustice At Every Turn. I could do with less focus on military inclusion, as my politics certainly don’t involve supporting government violence (I could also do without naturalizing militarized violence in Afghanistan - this piece by Mahroh does a great job critiquing that sort of argument). But many of the trans folks who do get access to a platform or who can influence policy priorities are understandably the sorts of folks who focus on conservative issues like this. So it makes sense given the current focus on military inclusion that Oliver would spend so much time on the subject.

There is a larger problem I have with the specific issues Oliver spends time on, though, and I can’t just blame that on what topics trans folks have brought up in media and politics. When discussing discrimination as outlined in the national trans survey, Oliver focuses on being misgendered at the DMV, not on pervasive issues like discrimination in employment and housing that so negatively impact so many. Oliver does a great job skewering the bathroom panic arguments that are making the rounds yet again, humanizing the issue by focusing on trans kids, though he doesn’t make the link to access to public accommodations more broadly. And he fails to humanize those who have been murdered in the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, because he fails to mention this most urgent of issues at all.

As trans issues gain increased attention and scrutiny, we should applaud media that is actually informative in useful ways. In many ways, this Last Week Tonight segment is just that. But something actually being pretty good instead of terrible is way too low a bar for declaring victory. We have to continue pushing for a lens on trans issues that prioritizes liberation for the most marginalized trans folks. Laverne Cox – who was arguably the most high profile trans woman at the time until Caitlyn Jenner came out – is constantly bringing attention to topics like homelessness, violence, and prisons, and has uplifted the struggles of women like CeCe McDonald and Monica Jones. These women’s stories could be used to humanize issues like incarceration and sex worker’s rights, but these aren’t the sorts of issues Oliver focuses on.

The lack of mention of the epidemic of violence is particularly hard to accept. At the end of May London Chanel was murdered in Philadelphia. This month, while many were celebrating Pride, Mercedes Williamson’s body was found in Alabama (four trans women of color were murdered during Pride month last year). London was 21; Mercedes was 17. They join 11 other people that we know of who have lost their lives to transmisogynistic violence in just the US this year.

It is important to remember, as we wrap up the Pride month that saw same-sex marriage become legal across the US, that the move to a gay agenda that prioritized marriage over issues like universal healthcare access and police violence was not an accident. If this is, as Oliver suggests, a moment for trans rights, we can’t settle for prioritizing issues in a way that leaves the most vulnerable behind. I would start a segment on trans rights like Last Week Tonight did, but I wouldn’t end it there; there are vital, pressing issues we have to focus on. The oppression we face is systemic and requires more than small fixes like not hiring bigots at the DMV or schools; the picture we paint has to reveal this systemic injustice and advocate for large-scale, systemic change. We have to talk about issues like lack of healthcare access, employment discrimination, and homelessness. We have to link these to underground economies like sex work being the only option for trans women, and highlight the dangers of criminalizing sex workers. We have to talk about the violence faced by trans folks in prison. John Oliver is certainly ideally positioned to talk about how the media contributes to the dehumanization of trans women. We absolutely must talk about how all this discrimination, marginalization, and bigotry feeds the epidemic of violence against trans women of color and creates a culture that doesn’t seem invested in doing anything about this tragedy. And we have to prioritize and push these vital issues in such a way that someone like John Oliver will discuss all of this when he talks about trans rights.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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