Despite recent strides made to promote tolerance and awareness, confusion about transgender Americans is still real in the media — even within Oprah's closest circle of friends.
Case in point, during an interview on August 5 on CBS This Morning, lead anchor Gayle King interviewed Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox about both her historic TIME Magazine cover and recent Emmy Award nomination, the first for a transgender television actress.
"Let's let people know about you, Laverne, because you were born a boy ..." King posited to Cox, who quickly but politely objected. Concentrating on the host's apparent misunderstanding about how sex and gender operate, Cox didn't hold back in challenging King's ignorance on the subject:
"I was assigned male at birth, is the way I like to put it, because we're born who we are. The gender thing is something someone imposes on you, and so I was assigned male at birth but always felt like I was a girl."
Image Credit: CBS This Morning
Refreshingly, King didn't press the issue on whether or not Cox is a woman, as some other journalists unfortunately have done. Instead, King pivoted to ask about Cox's gender journey on the whole.
"When did you realize that your gender didn't fit your identity? Was it one moment or was it an evolution?" King asked, allowing Cox to take the lead on the conversation and discuss how her gender journey indeed began in her childhood.
"Until third grade, I thought I was a girl ... My teacher Ms. Ridgeway called my mother and said 'Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress unless we get him into therapy right away,'" Cox shared. "So everyone knew before I knew and there were all these steps to correct me, to make me more masculine throuhgout my childhood. So I ended up having a lot of shame about who I was, authentically."
The accoladed actress added that she's still reeling from the intense bullying she endured through her teenage years, when kids hurled slurs and even threatened physical violence because of how Cox expressed her gender identity.
Many of those past troubles behind her, Cox is now an inspiration to many due to her eloquence and openess. But the invasive questioning about what's between a trans person's legs, let alone questions about the validity of their gender identity, is still all too common for public figures like Laverne Cox. Right now, it's indeed the norm.
Just after Cox's historic cover on TIME Magazine, the National Review and the Chicago Sun-Times published a virulently transphobic op-ed by Kevin D. Williamson, which attempted to claim that Cox was not a woman by citing junk science and gender and biological essentialism — the idea that a person's genitals determine their gender identity, rather than a variety of other factors.
Earlier this year, both Katie Couric and Piers Morgan — whose shows have since been canceled — displayed similar moments of willful or benign ignorance about trans people. Professional model and RuPaul's Drag Race alum Carmen Carerra, joined by Cox, shushed Katie Couric when she began asking about the process of a surgery and what's "down there" during a segment that should've otherwise been about the work Carerra does to break boundaries for trans women entering the modeling industry.
Image Credit: YouTube
And in a February interview about her now-New York Times best-selling book Redefining Realness, journalist and Marie Claire contributing editor Janet Mock endured a barrage of questions from Morgan about similar subjects, diverting away from an otherwise powerful coming-of-age story about Mock's journey toward success and understanding of her womanhood. The backlash against Morgan was swift and blunt, sending a strong message to many industry-watchers about how not to interview transgender people.
As the saying goes, sex is what's between your legs, gender is what's between your ears. Here's hoping Gayle King has learned her lesson and, in the process, will help America follow the lead of Cox and other prominent figures in discussing trans and gender variant people with the respect, dignity and empathy they deserve.