Katie Couric probably meant well when she invited "Orange is the New Black" actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera on her eponymous talk show to discuss transgender-specific issues.
After all, transgender women — actual trans women, not trans female characters played by cisgender actors — are still largely absent from network television. Trans issues are largely misunderstood, and trans women of color like Carrera and Cox face particular challenges which aren't often voiced on a national stage.
But any positive work Couric did by giving two high-profile trans women a platform was quickly derailed when she focused on inappropriate questions about Carrera's genitals and her transition.
In her interview with Carrera, who is best known for her appearance on "RuPaul's Drag Race," Couric seemed laser-focused on the specifics of Carrera's transition from start to finish. In her introduction, Couric said Carrera "was born a man and that's why she's on our show," practically dehumanizing Carrera and reducing her solely to her transition. Then, moments later, she asked a question so cringe worthy it's hardly believable.
"Your private parts are different now, aren't they?"
To Carrera's credit, she handled the question admirably — mostly by shushing Couric and pointing out trans people are far more than their transition. Cox later came to her defense brilliantly, telling Couric "the preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people" and reframing the discussion around violence against trans women.
It's tempting to demonize Couric, and some have. She's an accomplished journalist who ought to have a better handle on discussing transgender issues, or at least enough knowledge to avoid referring to the time Carrera was "still a man." (That's the moment in the show that most makes me cringe.)
But her question was almost as inevitable as it was invasive. A recent GLAAD study found only 8 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. Visibility is crucial to promoting understanding, and without it, many remain woefully ignorant of transgender issues and the transition process.
As a talk show host, Couric's aim is to serve as her viewers' representative, and she sadly asked the question which she assumed most viewers would want to ask. In doing so, she set up (inadvertently, perhaps) Carrera and Cox to come to her rescue and inform a chunk of ill-informed people that "the question" is offensive. After Carrera's first brush-off, Couric probably should have moved on, and it's utterly regrettable she didn't. Nor did she really apologize.
Maybe a bigger mistake was Couric's failure to capitalize on Cox's explanation of how underrepresented "the real lived experiences" of trans people are. As Cox pointed out, transgender individuals face harassment, violence and discrimination stemming in large part from misunderstanding. "Katie" allowed that point to be the last word. It should have been the first.
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