If you read my little corner of the interwebs with any regularity, you might be a little shocked to see me linking to a story from Cosmopolitan. Hell, I’m shocked to BE linking a story from Cosmo. But, as this story pretty fresh in the headlines, this is actually the only piece so far that seems to cover all the facts AND isn’t incredibly transphobic. So, +1 in the good column for Cosmo for once. As I read and researched this particular story, I was weary of even writing a commentary. But it’s one of those thing that’s just entirely too visible and has the potential to do a lot of harm to just stick my head in the sand over.
So, I’ll start, as I so often to do, with the background. A few months back, Don Ennis, a producer with ABC News came out proudly and publicly as a trans woman, and announced she would now be living her life as Dawn. My heart went out to her; transitioning later in life, particularly with a very public job, is a very scary thing and she was handling it quite bravely. Overall, the media handled it fairly respectfully, and I was impressed. The story sat on my queue for commentary for a few days, but I couldn’t come up with a ton of meaningful commentary other than “Go Dawn!”, so I put my writing energies into other pieces. Well, today Dawn announced that she was returning to life as Don, and that the entire thing had been a big misdiagnosis and misunderstanding. Dawn explains in an email to colleagues that she had been suffering from a hormonal imbalance for years and that it had been triggered by being given female hormones by her mother so that she could continue a career as a child-actor. She goes on to explain that she recently suffered from a episode of transient global amnesia that took him back to a point where he hadn’t identified as female, and that following her recovery from that episode, she no longer suffered from gender dysphoria.
There are just so many things frustrating and confusing about this situation. The biggest challenge here is that the story was first covered by the New York Post, a source that I out-and-out refuse to link to because I believe it lacks anything even approaching journalistic integrity. As far as I have been able to locate through the magic of my google-fu, the full text of the email isn’t available anywhere, nor has Dawn released any official public statement. I searched high and low for a way to contact her and confirm this story directly (other than tweeting directly at her, which felt accusatory and cruel), and came up empty. So, there’s no way to verify that what the Post is reporting is even factual. Trans people make easy targets for this kind of harassment, so I place it as entirely plausable that this entire situation is a concoction of some kind designed to grab headlines and thoroughly humiliate Ms Ennis. [Note, I’m continuing to use to refer to her as female as I cannot find any secondary verification of this story). I am catagorically NOT accusing anyone of doing this, just posing it as a possibility that cannot be eliminated.
So, since I’m unwilling to take it as fact that there’s truth to the situation, the rest of my commentary here is framed in the hypothetical that the article is true. If this does turn out to be true, there’s a lot that doesn’t add up. I’m not going to tear it all apart, because I feel like there’s enough of that already going on with this story. But, I will say that experience that’s allegedly described in the email regarding “transient global amnesia” doesn’t seem to fit the literature descriptions of this condition. That, combined with some of the other pieces of her statements both when coming out and in this alleged email, point to possibility of someone who wasn’t quite prepared for the stresses and complications that living full-time entail, and retreated back from the progress she had made. She certainly wouldn’t be the first trans person to do so, and I don’t think anyone who’s lived through transition could blame her. Given that her transition and career were in a very public sphere, it may be that she felt a pressure to come up with an explanation for her de-transitioning (the most common term for returning to your birth gender after beginning transition), and thus the TGA story. Another possibility is that she doesn’t fall as firmly on the “woman” side of the spectrum of gender identity as she had initially thought, and that her time living as a woman left her continuing to feel conflicted, her ultimate decision was to return to her male life. Again, that’s a completely legitimate experience. Once more, that kind of sudden change back may feel like it requires a lot of explanation even if you didn’t make national headlines when you came out…I can only begin to imagine the pressure she would have felt to explain herself, no matter what the “real” reason for her de-transition. Other possibilities (including that her story is 100% true) exist. Whatever the reasons and/or causes, this is ultimately her decision, and she shouldn’t HAVE to explain it to anyone (aside from, to a certain extent, her wife and children). Ultimately, transition (and by extension de-transition) are personal, medical decisions and the motivations behind them aren’t anyone’s business but our own. Parker Marie over at Park That Car wrote a wonderful open letter to Dawn (or Don) that touches on some of these issues beautifully.
On a final note, I want to cover why stories like these are so dangerous and why they leave me so concerned and upset. Transgender people have suffered a long, difficult up-hills slog towards the very marginal acceptance we currently have in society. Many people still view our situation with skepticism at best, vitriolic disgust and violent hatred at worst. When a case like this breaks into the headlines, it grabs attention so much more than the many thousands of positive transition stories from blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages around the world. It gives the transphobic activists munition to drum up fear of us, and it endangers baby steps of progress we make each day. Transgender stories are still all too often treated a titillating “weird news” with no respect for the people or communities involved. Transgender topics remain inherently sensational, and negative stories about trans people even more so. Not a single post or article beyond the Cosmo posting and Parker’s Open letter even begin to touch on how this might affect the transgender community as a whole, or takes absolutely any steps to clarify that the experiences of Ms Ennis are an extremely unusual case and should not be extrapolated to other transgender individuals. That kind of failure just spreads more wrong or misguided ideas about the trans community and transition, which must, in turn, be debunked and disproved by our community in our writing and conversations. The media as a whole needs to seriously examine how it treats transgender people and topics, and maybe think about treating like us actual human beings. It’s simply unacceptable that any trans related topic that makes the news continues to be reported as if it were some seedy criminal sex scandal.
Oh, and just for the record, and to ensure that I’m thoroughly communicating where all of this has gone wrong, let’s dispel some of the notions the coverage around this story may have created. The cause of gender dyphoria/gender identity disorder is still largely unknown; we were not all given cross-gender hormones by our parents as children. We’ve also generally pretty much always felt this way; we don’t just randomly wake-up one day with gender dysphoria, nor does it just suddenly vanish one day. Inducing an episode of transient global amnesia will not “cure” gender dysphoria. Finally, transition is a complicated and difficult process and not everyone has the social, economic, or psychological resources to undertake it. Just because someone decides to not continue with transition does not invalidate their gender dysphoria, nor does it invalidate the dysphoria and transition decisions of anyone else.
If it turns out this story is just hokum, then I’m dreadfully sorry to Dawn for dragging her name through something so ugly, and I will replace this story with a lengthy evisceration of the Post as soon as I figure out what happened. If the story is legitimate, then I wish Don the best, and hope that the decisions he has made are the ones that will bring him happiness.