“Ladies and gentlemen, things and its …” That’s the “joke” meteorologist Marshall McPeek used to welcome members of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists to the convention’s closing reception held recently in Palm Springs. Not everyone in the audience heard it, I’m told by colleagues who were there — the ballroom was loud, with lots of the chatter and clinking glasses typical of professional confabs. But Monica Roberts, editor of TransGriot, a blog focusing on issues pertaining to transgender women of color, did and shouted “Oh no, he did not!”
As McPeek’s off-color quip buzzed around the room, the Post reported, it “caused people to storm out.” Then Mary Emily O’Hara, a reporter at the LGBTQ+ publication “them,” tweeted about it, and all hell broke loose online.
McPeek, who is gay, quickly returned to the stage to apologize and later that evening resigned from the organization.
His response, apparently, was not enough for everyone, especially many in the transgender community like Gillian Cameron, who posted about his original greeting, “[T] hese words are cruel and denote in their speaker a heartfelt contempt, if not outright hatred [for transgender individuals]. There is no deeper insult to any human being then [sic] to deny their humanity.”
In short order, NLGJA apologized to its members, highlighting the importance of language as a proxy for values. “People were understandably hurt and offended by last night’s remarks. As journalists, we understand uniquely that words matter.”
McPeek posted a longer (and, I thought, heartfelt) apology on Facebook two days later, and his employer, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, issued a statement condemning the remarks
Still the problem remains: It is no easy task to recognize — in others and ourselves — the implicit, insidious and often invisible bias against transgender people.
Since then, “L’Affair de Marshall,” as one journalist put it, has become a ferocious conversation among LGBTQ journalists. It mirrors the broader debate about trans acceptance taking place across the nation. According to a 2016 survey commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, 35 percent of likely voters “personally know or work with someone who is transgender,” more than double the percent of those who answered yes in 2014. (It’s often said by advocates that there’s no single greater contributor to acceptance than personally knowing someone who is LGBTQ.)
But the imbroglio also reignited concerns about historic marginalization of trans people within the modern gay rights movement.
“Gay people were like everyone else,” Eric Marcus, the creator and host of the podcast “Making Gay History,” told me, referring to the years before and after the Stonewall riots in 1969. “They had their own prejudices and concerns about the inclusion of people whose outward appearance brought condemnation and how that might affect their fight for equal rights.”
Or look to the history of NLGJA itself. Only after a bitter debate did the group expand its mission to include transgender (and bisexual) journalists in the early aughts, not formally changing its name to include the “T’ until 2013.
Jenny Boylan, a professor at Barnard College and the only transgender contributing writer to the New York Times op-ed page, echoed this thread of history in a tweet: “If ever there was a moment that demonstrated what we’re up against, this is it.” Later, she posted online: “Unless you’re trans, though, maybe it’s hard to understand exactly how deeply wounding being called ‘things and its’ is … It is worth considering that cis gay men and lesbians are sometimes just as clueless as straight people when it comes to understanding trans lives.”
When a cisgender journalist argued that McPeek’s misuse of language was a “teachable moment,” many in the trans community loudly agreed with Jenifer Divine, an author and editor, who wrote: “[T]his is NOT a ‘teachable moment’, this is EXACTLY what we as trans face EVERY single day; we can NEVER let our guard down-when i was assaulted in 2003 and almost killed, the assailant called me a freak, an it, and said i had ‘no right to live in this world.’”
Responses from other cisgender journalists showed a certain lack of empathy with their trans colleagues. Steve Freiss, a lifetime member of the NLGJA, wrote an op-ed in the Bay Area Reporter defending McPeek: “People who make stupid remarks and then ask for mercy are ‘what we’re up against’? … Sure, in a world where nobody ever says anything objectionable there would be no need for contrition or mercy, but isn’t the next best thing when an offender accepts his crow and shows he is really, really sorry?”
Freiss noted that McPeek is a pioneering gay journalist, long affiliated with NLGJA. (As a former president of NLGJA and a lifetime member myself, I know McPeek as a tireless advocate who bravely came out in his 20s — in Ohio, no less — serving as a role model for younger gay professionals.)
Hank Plante, an Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning journalist, commented online that McPeek “made a lame joke … which is what news people do.” Observing that the NLGJA members now include “humorless bloggers who think they’re journalists,” Plante posted, “McPeek forgot his audience has changed. His apology is enough for those of us who know him.” He concluded, “We should lighten up, for heaven’s sake …. There are real enemies out there but Marshall isn’t one of them.”
Dawn Ennis, transgender and a journalist for 34 years, replied to Plante: “You make the presumption that only ‘newsies’ get the joke. Oh, I got it alright …. The joke was at my expense.”
I’ve been there. “What’s the longest bridge in the world?” a top editor, straight and cisgender, “joked” at a Life magazine editorial meeting in the early 1990s. “It’s the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It goes from Africa to Fairyland” (meaning from predominantly black Oakland to the gay City by the Bay). This was at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, when gay men and people of color were dying in droves, and it still enrages me.
With this memory in mind, I wrote to Plante, whom I consider a friend. “It’s really not for people like you and me (white, cis men) to tell others what’s funny, especially when it is they who are the target of the joke. You and I are both old enough to recall when gay men were the subject of mean-spirited jokes and we were often told that we didn’t have a good enough sense of humor.”
We’re all caught in this transformational moment: On the face of it, cisgender people — whether gay or straight — get confused by pronouns and changed names. The new terminology, phrases like “nonbinary” and “gender non-confirming,” can be daunting. We sometimes hurt — deeply hurt — others with our words. But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum — or a convention ballroom. It occurs against the backdrop of history, a history that has ranged from unkind to murderous when it comes to transgender women and men.