INTERVIEW: The Advocate's Parker Marie Molloy on Grantland, Piers Morgan, and More
Photo courtesy of Parker Molloy.
A effortless, effusive conversationalist, and a tireless, passionate journalist, Chicagoan Parker Marie Molloy's work writing and reporting on transgender issues has appeared in media outlets like The Huffington Post, Salon, Rolling Stone, and Talking Points Memo. In January 2014, she was brought on by The Advocate to cover transgender issues for them as a full-time correspondent. Ahead of her Thought Catalog-published Kindle e-book, My Transgender Coming Out Story, Chicagoist had the privilege of speaking with Molloy in an honest, in-depth conversation about her life as a transgender woman.
This is the second of a two-part interview. The first part, published yesterday, March 1, spoke to Molloy's personal journey. The second, below, speaks to a wide range of topics from Grantland, Piers Morgan, to trans kids.
Chicagoist: Even though the trans movement goes back to Stonewall, 2014 seems to be the year that trans people and issues have come to the forefront of national discourse, for good (Against Me!, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox) and ill (Grantland, Piers Morgan, Katie Couric, Joss Whedon). To what factors do you ascribe this seemingly newfound focus?
Parker Marie Molloy: Trans people have been doing a lot of awesome work for decades, and they've also been torn to shreds a la Piers Morgan, Grantland, Katie Couric, Joss Whedon for decades. The difference, however, is the focus. When Ace Ventura came out in 1994 (and I was 8), you'd be hard pressed to find a review that even mentioned that it might be offensive to trans people (in Roger Ebert's 1-star review, he referred to Jim Carrey as "the all-purpose white guy on ‘In Living Color’).
The point is, there weren't any loud, mainstream voices calling that out, which resulted in this (and similar issues) being accepted as a "joke" that didn't harm anyone. Well, it harmed me. I hid because of these "jokes," and I wasn't able to be myself because of these "jokes." An 8-year-old shouldn't have to fight the media for their own self-esteem.
Now, though, there are people like me, organizations like GLAAD, and vocal groups like the Transgender Law Center, National Center for Transgender Equality, and others, loudly calling out these types of missteps.
We need to help educate the public, and not for the sake of "my feelings;" as is often a reason people give when defending their use of a slur/transphobic joke: "you need thicker skin, I don't have to worry about your feelings"); but rather for the kids who find themselves in the same place I was when I was eight. 41 percent of trans people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives. (I'm among them).
To not consider that the media's decades-long assault on trans identities isn't contributing to that is naive.
The positive events are now being highlighted for the same reasons. I believe social media plays a big role in trans voices becoming heard. Anyone can set up a Twitter account, and anyone can put their story on the internet. I feel as though we're finally getting to a point where trans people are being seen as more than just "heh, heh, dude in a dress," but rather, as actual people. And as we work to improve public perception, that will encourage other trans people to do positive work. I'm sure there are thousands of would-be artists, inventors, authors, musicians, business people, and athletes who haven't pursued their dreams for fear of being forced to endure public scrutiny of their trans status.
Mike Penner (also known as Christine Daniels) came out as a trans woman several years back. Penner wrote for the Los Angeles Times as a sports columnist. Penner came out as transgender, and was then asked to write a piece for the LA Times about this. Coerced into the spotlight, Penner (then known as Daniels) "de-transitioned," and tried to go back to living life as a man. He—I use ‘he’ here simply because he identified as a man at this time—later committed suicide.
Kye Alums is the first openly transgender man to play college basketball. After coming out, he became the subject of unwanted media attention, and later admitted that he had almost committed suicide.
Essay Vanderbilt ("Dr. V") feared she was about to be outed as transgender and committed suicide after Caleb Hannan began reporting on her. Her previous suicide attempt coincided with another time in her life where she feared she was going to be publicly outed.
Those are just a few examples of the emotional toll being openly transgender can take on people. It's no wonder people choose not to seek the spotlight rather than worry about being outed.
One of the best parts of my work as a journalist is being able to highlight the positive things trans people are doing. Teagan Widmer's app Refuge Restrooms, Kortney Ziegler's Tr4ns*hack, Laverne Cox' acting in Orange is the New Black, and other amazing stories of people rising to the top of their fields. For every story that gets out there, every story that tells trans people that they're just as normal as anyone else, that helps mainstream the concept of trans individuals, helping people destroy long-ingrained stereotypes and misconceptions.
If you read something from the Associated Press, you probably think that's pretty straightforward. But if they're screwing up, then most people aren't going to dig into whether their usage was correct. Most people are going to assume that CNN or NPR, however they're doing it is probably right.
C: Because they're the neutral news voices.
PMM: Exactly. But, for example, when Chelsea Manning came out last year, all of those groups screwed it up big time. CNN, to date, has said—and I love when they don't use pronouns—"we won't refer to Pvt. Manning by a name other than their legal name, because that's CNN policy."
C: Piers Morgan's real name is not Piers Morgan.
PMM: Exactly. And that same day I remember them saying that, they had an article on their website about how Lady Gaga and Perez Hilton were having a Twitter fight. That's totally news. (laughs.) Those aren't their real names, but you're cool calling them by their pseudonyms.
C: What’s the app you mentioned earlier? RefugeRestroom?
PMM: One thing that a lot of transgender people struggle with is...well, for me, there was a period in my life where I was started taking hormones, and if you saw me in public, you'd be like, "I have no clue what you're even going for here. Man? Woman? What?" (laughs.)
I kind of hit this weird androgynous phase.
C: You looked like Bowie?
PMM: Yeah, pretty much.
C: That rules, though. Bowie is awesome.
PMM: (Laughs.) It was to the point where, if I walked into the men's room, I'd get a lot of weird looks, and if I went into the women's restroom, I'd get a lot of weird looks. And so, rather than continuing to do that, before one of the weird looks became a scream, or became violent, I just decided to use the bathroom at home. Which is super inconvenient and hard. I would sit there and schedule my errands for making sure I wasn't away from the house for more than a few hours.
And, so, that's what Teagan's app helps with, essentially. You turn on your GPS and it pulls up a list of businesses with single-stall restrooms or gender-neutral restrooms, like Starbucks. Their restrooms tend to be single-stall. It's basically saying, "it's safe to use the restroom here if you're trans."
Which is really sad that that has to be an issue, but it is an issue. That's what people focus on too, oddly enough.
Here's something I did some writing about last year. In Arizona...
C: Oh God.
PMM: (Laughs.) In Arizona, there's this guy who's a member of the legislature called John Kavanagh. He introduced a bill that said you'd have to use the bathroom that corresponds to your birth certificate. Otherwise, it's a misdemeanor punished by six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
C: I bet he's an anti-big government kind of guy, too.
PMM: Oh, totally. Nothing big about basically saying "show me your birth certificate before you use the restroom." (Laughs.) Which would mean you'd have to carry around your birth certificate, which is so weird. Luckily, that got voted down because there was a fair amount of backlash on it. But it would make it embarrassing to have to follow that. People who meet me in everyday life...I'm not going around being like, "hey, I'm trans." I'm just in the store.
If I had to go into the restroom, and then explain to people, "oh, and here's the thing: I'm transgender, and my birth certificate's male, so, sorry." (Laughs.)
That's not only embarrassing, that's...
C: Not feasible.
PMM: Exactly. In Chicago, you're probably safe in most parts of the city. In Arizona? No! In Alabama? No! There are people who kill people because they find out they are trans.
C: Brandon Teena.
PMM: Exactly! That's the same thing. Those were his friends! They found out he was trans, and then they sexually assaulted him and murdered him. It's disgusting. But there are people who do that for really no reason. "Oh, you didn't have the genitals I thought you had. How dare you!" (Laughs.) Unless I'm sleeping with someone, or they're my doctor, they shouldn't spend a second thinking about my genitals.
C: Although, I hear the bikini inspectors have a fabulous union.
PMM: (Laughs.) It's surreal that people think that's a line of discussion. It's kind of what happened when Katie Couric had Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera on. "Yeah, I know you're an actress, and you came on to talk about your projects, but let's talk about your business." Whoa, whoa, where did that go? I can't imagine a month earlier on her show, when (Couric) had Jennifer Lawrence on there, she wasn't like, "so what's the hair situation down there." (Laughs.) Because that would be so weird!
C: The thing with Jennifer Lawrence, though, is she probably would have answered that question.
PMM: Oh, yeah. And that's the thing. If a friend or someone asks me a question that's generally way too personal, I'll usually answer, but then I'll say, "you should never ask a trans person that." That's just because I've made a conscious decision to basically be branded trans for life. I'm someone who, if I decided, "hey, I don't want this attention, I don't want people to know I'm trans," most people wouldn't question whether or not I'm trans. They look at me and see a woman, which is great, because that's what I am. At the same time, it wouldn't pop into their minds unless they had a reason to think so, knowing my background.
C: What was the piece in Rolling Stone?
PMM: The piece in Rolling Stone was about this law in California that passed called the "School Success and Opportunity Act." Essentially, the law says trans kids can play on teams that correspond to their gender identity. Or, if, for whatever reason, schools still have it where "girls take home EC, boys take shop," in those cases, someone who identifies as a girl could take home EC. Basically, it gets rid of the gender-segregated classrooms. It also says teachers can refer to their students by their preferred name, and [trans] students should have the same access that other [cis] students have.
That's what threw conservatives for a loop. Because they were like, "whoa, whoa, whoa, this will result in boys saying they're girls just to use the girls' restroom." It's like, have you met high school kids? Because no boy is gonna say he's a girl just to use a restroom. That's not something that happens, especially when two of the largest school districts in the state have had policies like that in ten years without any sort of incident. Not a single incident.
C: It correlates to their beliefs on voter ID laws.
PMM: Exactly. They say voter ID fraud is widespread, and it's not. It's really, really not. Basically, I was reporting on that, and I spoke to people who were in favor of the law, and I spoke to the assemblymen who drafted the law and put it out there. I interviewed some people from the Transgender Law Center, which is out in California, as well as a trans student who lobbied for the bill at 15. Which is awesome! I wish I was so politically aware at the age.
I also interviewed people who were against this law.
C: What was that like?
PMM: That was really weird, doing interviews with someone who is essentially saying, "I think you're a freak." At the other end of it, I can't jump into an argument with them. I have to let them put their point forward. I did that, I spoke with the Pacific Justice Institute, which, as much as it sounds like it should be a group of superheroes, it's anything but. (laughs.) So I had that piece, and then I did some writing for Huffington Post, Salon, Talking Points Memo.
C: So the Rolling Stone article came out this past fall?
PMM: Yeah, Nov. 1st. The thing is, as much as I wish that was a done issue, there are still people trying to repeal it. I started with The Advocate in 2014.
C: One of the first things you did with The Advocate was interview Caleb Hannan. Can you describe the nature of it?
PMM: Yeah. So Caleb Hannan became what every journalist fears they'll become. It was one of those things where it was like, "hey, if I follow this line of reporting, it will result in a lot of things thrown back in my face." That piece had to deal with Essay Vanderbilt,and he questioned her to the point where she felt like she was going to be outed--which she was, eventually. And she committed suicide. The time before that, when she tried to commit suicide, which Caleb wrote about, he kind of glossed over the fact that that suicide attempt coincided with a time where she felt like she was going to be outed. So clearly this was a stressor that may have contributed to what happened.
After that story came out, I read it, and I thought, "I wanna talk to this guy, because I want to understand what happened." So I asked him if I could interview him for a piece in the Advocate. He said, "sure, call me," and he gave me his cell phone number. I called him, and we started talking. He was answering questions, but, at the same point, he was asking me questions, because, at that point, he couldn't quite grasp what was happening, or what went wrong, or what he did wrong.
C: Oh, interesting.
PMM: He clearly felt bad about the whole thing. He was just like, "I didn't know that this was wrong." He essentially said he never meant to be disrespectful to her. But, at the same time, the specifics of the conversation—after 15, 20 minutes of talking to him, he asked me if I could leave it all off the record. I said, "OK, can I talk about the conversation?" He said sure. I agreed, because I'm not going to be a jerk.
I don't what to repeat what he did. If I talk to someone, and finish an interview, and they call me back ten minutes later and change their mind on that, I'm gonna [honor that.] Especially for someone who wasn't a public figure, like Essay Vanderbuit wasn't a public figure. Caleb Hannan wasn't a public figure. These are people's lives. There's no story that important. But who knows? Maybe that will hold me back in my career as a journalist. But, at the same time, I don't want to be a jerk. I don't want to contribute to someone being harmed in any way, whether it's emotionally or financially.
C: So he was totally shell-shocked then?
PMM: Oh, yeah, yeah. At that point...we did have a couple of more quick discussions, but his editors may have told him to not talk. And he's been silent.
C: He has not Tweeted.
PMM: He has not Tweeted, after tweeting about how good it feels to block people who were mad.
C: The thing with that, to connect the dots between Hannan, and Katie Couric, and Piers Morgan: If you're covering a community, and you're sympathetic to that community, and that community tells you that you did something wrong, then you did something wrong, regardless of whether or not you think you did something wrong.
PMM: Yeah! And people make mistakes. "Oh, you used the wrong pronoun, oh you used a word with a history of oppression behind it." So that sucks, you shouldn't have used it. That happens. I think everyone realize that happens, and people are still pretty upset about these things. But the right thing to do if you're on the receiving end of it [is to apologize.]
But every time something like this happens, it becomes a "teachable moment," you know? Caleb Hannan—"teachable moment. Now we know not to do that." Teachable moment. C'mon! People died.
C: And it's ripping off Obama anyway.
PMM: (Laughs). Well, yeah, totally. Katie Couric asks an inappropriate question--"teachable moment." Stop! At the same time, at least Grantland issued somewhat of an apology. It still didn't quite do the job, to only say sorry twice, and both times it was directed toward Caleb Hannan. How about you apologize to the people you're screwing over?
At least Katie Couric came back a day or two later and said, "hey, it's come to my attention that these were inappropriate questions. I didn't realize it." But she put something out there. And then Piers Morgan...
C: The other thing with her is that she televised her own colonoscopy, so maybe it's not something she considered since she's been so frank with aspects of her personal life.
PMM: Yeah, but at the same time, she decided to show her colonoscopy. I think she'd feel differently about it if people were like, "we're going to show your colonoscopy." Telling her, instead of asking her. I don't know her reasoning behind it, but I don't think she'll make that mistake again. Piers Morgan, on the other hand...
C: (Hearty chuckles.)
PMM: It's like a train wreck. You can't look away. That interview had some points that were really unfortunate. Piers Morgan kept using Janet Mock's birth name. I think he used it six or seven times throughout the interview, which is a lot.
So he used that, and he kept implying that she quote-unquote "became a woman when she had surgery," which is just no. No, no-no-no, no. A lot of people can't afford to have surgery. There are a host of reasons, but that doesn't make them actually men. But he kept to that line of questioning. It was sadly par for the course when it comes to trans interviews.
But then, what he didn't seem to understand when everyone was mad was, "well, why weren't you mad at me at that time?" Janet Mock didn't know that his Twitter account was going to Tweet things like, "if you found out that the person you were dating used to be a man...". She didn't know that was going to be alongside the interview. She didn't know that she was going to be referred to as being "born a boy."
I think it's the combination of all those things that made it what it was. It was like, "ugh, CNN, get it together."
C: Get it the fuck together!
PMM: Exactly! It's weird that Piers Morgan took it as some angry tirade. Which, not really. She tweeted three things, and they were at the show's account. The tweets were showing unhappiness with the show itself, not with him as a human being. It was everything, it was the tweets, it was the interview, it was the graphic. That's more an issue with CNN than with Piers Morgan as an individual.
So, after that, had he A) not said anything or B) "hey, in hindsight, all this created a perfect storm of anti-trans sentiment. Sorry!" But he goes on the offensive and sending out angry tweets the next day, which I was more than happy to keep retweeting. Like, "alright, he said another stupid thing! Here you go, world, have fun!"
C: It's like Stephen Colbert said, "what is he supposed to do, not read tweets about himself twelve hours a day?"
PMM: Yeah! C'mon, dude! You have 3 million Twitter followers. Why are you reading every single at-reply? He has to get a ton of them. It has to be unbelievable.
C: As an outsider, there are so many terms that seem synonymous or interchangeable. Intersex, genderqueer, gender-questioning, gender fluid, pangender. What is the nuance for all those terms, or are they, in fact, synonymous?
PMM: With all those terms--you make a good point, given that Facebook now made it possible to chose from 50 different gender identities, essentially. Some of them are very similar, or pretty much synonymous with one another, like genderqueer or bigender or pangender. Those are close to the same thing. Genderfluid would be close to genderqueer, but, at the same time, there's some slight nuance there, because genderfluid means you can bounce back and for their between the two, while genderqueer is "I'm neither man nor woman. I'm somewhere in between."
Which is really cool, that people are so in tune with themselves. Intersex is actually a medical condition where when you're born you either have a set of both genitals or something in between or your chromosomes might be XXY or or XY or XX. Usually, doctors will say, "we're going to call this a boy, or we're going to call this a girl," and parents then raise the kid that way. Sometimes that ends up being the right one, sometimes it's not.
That speaks to gender being really ingrained. There was a young Intersex kid who was born, and then the parents were like, "we don't know"--or I forgot how it exactly went. The doctor said they'd perform the surgery and that the parents would be able to raise the child as a girl. The parents tried to raise the child as a girl, but it was clearly a boy. Basically, for his whole life, [he said], "I'm a boy, this isn't right." I believe he then took his own life.
It's traumatic, especially when other people don't understand. "Nah, it's a girl" or "nah, it's a boy". Don't worry, you'll get used to things! There are other ones that, if you think about the prefixes that are being thrown around. Pan, a, bi, that gives you an idea. Pangender—"I am all genders. I am male, female, neither, both." Or bigender—"I am both genders, male and female."
C: So if you called someone pangender who identified as genderqueer, would they be offended them, hypothetically?
PMM: Umm...(brief pause.) Maybe. It totally depends on the person. What's great about Facebook's set-up here is that it lets you just say whatever you identify as, which can let other people know what you identify as. For the most part, that may not come up in conversation. It's not like you have to start off every conversation with, "My name is Parker, and I'm a woman." At the same time, it's like, "oh, by the way, I'm bi-gender." It just happens to come up in conversation, but it also doesn't need to be the start of every conversation.
Personally, I'm glad that Facebook did it. It would be cool if Facebook kept expanding it. I've seen other trans people say, "it'd be cool if they let you write in whatever you want." No, it wouldn't be cool, because they haven't thought about people who think trans people are just a joke. And would put, "my gender is mashed potatoes!" Hahahaha. I get it. We're funny because we don't fall into the boxes. So I'm glad they just didn't leave it as a free-for-all. At the same time, more options is better.
C: What should Chicagoans pay attention to with regard to trans issues and the trans community here in the Windy City?
PMM: Luckily, Illinois and Chicago have employment protection for trans people. That's good. Most states, you can be fired just for being trans, just like in some states you can be fired for being gay. In New York, though, it's totally legal to fire someone for being trans, but illegal to fire someone for being gay.
C: On what grounds?
PMM: They were trying to put employment protection in place, and to get it through their legislature. People became kind of a bargaining chip. "We'll take out the trans people, if we have to get employment protection for gay people." I was like, "gee, thanks guys."
C: So why's it OK to fire someone for being trans? On what legal grounds to they have?
PMM: It's just that it's not explicitly illegal. At-will employment states, which Illinois is, though Illinois does have employment protection though, like Wisconsin don't have employment protection. So, let's say I'm working at the store, as a cashier, and I tell my boss I'm transgender, or that I'm beginning hormone replacement therapy. He can go, "I don't want my cashier to be transgender because I feel it would be bad for business." That's happened many times before.
In Chicago, specifically, we're pretty lucky as to how the laws are structured. I think the one issue that we need to stay focused on is the issues surrounding transgender, non-conforming children. Because that's something that the Broadway Youth Center does great work on, as well as for gay and lesbian kids.
A lot of families reject, or turn their own children away, and I think it's important that we have organizations to look out for those kids, to help them find housing and to get back on their feet. That's extremely important. Trans kids will always be where my passion is because I don't want others to deal with the years of uncertainty I did.
C: What do you think of the NIMBY-ism that continues to surround a place like the Center on Halsted?
PMM: It's a shame, really. Everyone wants to live in a perfect, gentrified little section of the city. Finding someone opposed to the missions of organizations like Center on Halsted or the Broadway Youth Center is hard, but these are the same people who feel the need to try to push these organizations away, so as not to mess up their neighborhood.
C: To an outsider, the number of nuances in gender identity make it possible for there to be different factions, which in turn creates conflict, which in turn hinders the progress of trans people as a whole. Do you find this to be the case? If not, under how does the trans community at large unite considering so many different manners of gender expression?
PMM: Sure, sure. I suppose that's true, though the world is filled with nuance. Is that person's hair blonde, or more of a strawberry-blonde? Maybe ash? Light brown, or sandy? These are nuances that we're able to deal with, that exist even if I can't tell the difference between some of those colors. Still, I accept the existence of those colors.
Doctors who treat trans patients have taken approaches that seek to place trans people in these neat little boxes. Harry Benjamin, one of the pioneers in medical treatment of trans individuals, essentially believed that if someone couldn't "pass" for their target gender, they simply shouldn't transition, that they weren't a "true transsexual." (Eww).
He and others would make trans patients jump through hoops designed to other them, to make them quit rather than pursue treatment, such as living a year of "real life experience" without the aid of hormone replacement therapy before providing hormones. This was designed to convince the more masculine trans women and the more feminine trans men to simply opt out (which could very well have meant suicide) of treatment rather than endure a year of public humiliation.
The idea behind being transgender isn't always "I was assigned male at birth, but I'm a woman" or vice versa. "I was assigned male at birth, but I fit somewhere in the middle" is a legitimate identity. "I was assigned female at birth, but I don't identify as either a man or a woman." "I was assigned male at birth, and I feel that my gender shifts back and forth between man, woman, and everything else."
While all of the above are transgender, those last three examples could also be described as genderqueer, agender, and genderfluid. In the end, they're people, and they're just being themselves. Nuance doesn't make the world impossible, and I don't think it actually hinders progress. Nuance speaks to diversity, to individuality.
Much like if I opened up a physics textbook to the last chapter without doing the previous chapters' work, jumping to the differences between genderqueer, agender, bigender, pangender, and genderfluid without first taking the steps to understand the broader concepts and complex identities that go into the broader concept that is "transgender" will leave you confused.
Often times, people dismiss things they simply don't want to learn or understand by claiming things are too complex. I don't expect people to go back and get a degree in gender studies, but I do expect them to respect me and others like me just as they would anyone else.