We Were Wrong to Make Fun of Jake Zyrus, and We’re Sorry
Editor's Note: We have taken down the first article Jake Zyrus and The Challenges of Personal Reinvention.
Yesterday we published an article entitled Jake Zyrus and The Challenges of Personal Reinvention, where we made fun of the singer’s unique choice of name. We thought we were being a crass-but-supportive friend in the way we wanted to show our support while poking a little fun at Jake, but we totally drunk-uncled our way through it.
You, our readers, called us out on it, and through our rousing discussions, a bright lightbulb switched on in our dim heads, and we thank you for absolutely schooling us on the finer points of inclusive language.
We learned, first of all, that Shakespeare was wrong about roses and names. We thought that making fun of “Jake Zyrus” would be the same as, say, calling out Ron Artest for his decision to change his name to Metta World Peace and then to The Panda’s Friend.
It’s not the same thing, of course—and in retrospect, that should’ve been pretty damn obvious. When Caitlyn Jenner stepped out into the world via a groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover, the words on that cover proclaimed simply: “I am Caitlyn.” Jake Zyrus’ first tweet as Jake should have been received with the same gravity, but we did not recognize it for what it is: a strong statement about identity.
Most other media outlets pointed out the name change, without unpacking what it meant. We ourselves went by Jake’s old statement about coming out as a “tomboy” and past interviews. But, as Shakira Sison (@shakirasison) pointed out on Twitter: “Maybe you think this is funny but a trans person's act of revealing their correct name is a crucial moment."
Honestly, this did not even occur to us, because we are blockheads and are just not as enlightened as we thought we were. It’s simple as that. While we have always championed equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, politics, race, or creed—not to mention the fact that our own team is remarkably diverse—it turns out that we have a long way to go in learning how to handle LGBTQ issues.
Ultimately, it was a failure in empathy and sensitivity. We regret the article and, knowing that a lot of other people are critical of Jake’s name, urge everyone to be more thoughtful about the issue, and more careful when discussing it. This kind of lapse is easily made, especially when you consider yourself fairly liberal and progressive and accepting. It helps to remember what that really means, once in awhile.
Many of our friends have also shared with us the comprehensive GLAAD Media Reference Guide for Covering The Transgender Community, which aims to teach members of the media how to tell stories about transgender people in a fair, accurate, and inclusive way. Here are a few of the things we’ve picked up from it, that we would all do well to keep in mind:
- Describing the fact that someone is transgender. “‘Transgender’ should always be used as an adjective. For example, ‘Susan is a transgender woman.’ If your audience needs clarification about what that phrase means, you can explain that ‘Susan was designated male at birth, and began her transition 15 years ago.’ Avoid ‘Susan was born a man.’ People are born babies and a doctor decides the sex based on a quick look at the baby's external anatomy. A transgender person's gender is much more complicated than a simple glance at external anatomy can capture. A person's biology does not ‘trump’ their gender identity, and oversimplifications like ‘born a man’ can invalidate the current, authentic gender of the person you're speaking about.”
- Disclosing birth names. “When a transgender person's birth name is used in a story, the implication is almost always that this is the person's ‘real name.’ But in fact, a transgender person's chosen name is their real name, whether or not they are able to obtain a court-ordered name change. Many people use names they have chosen for themselves, and the media does not mention their birth name when writing about them, (e.g., Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg). Transgender people should be accorded the same respect. When writing about a transgender person's chosen name, do not say ‘she wants to be called,’ ‘she calls herself,’ ‘she goes by Susan,’ or other phrases that cast doubt on a transgender person's identity. Do not reveal a transgender person's birth name without explicit permission from them. If the person is not able to answer questions about their birth name, err on the side of caution and do not reveal it.”
- Always use a transgender person's chosen name. “Some transgender people cannot afford a legal name change or are not yet old enough to legally change their name. They should be afforded the same respect for their chosen name as anyone else who uses a name other than their birth name (e.g., celebrities).”
- On the difference between Gender Identity and Gender Expression: “Gender Identity [is] a person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices. Unlike gender expression gender identity is not visible to others” [whereas] “Gender Expression [refers to] external manifestations of gender, expressed through a person's name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Typically, transgender people seek to align their gender expression with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.”
For further reflection, we’ve also been directed to an article on VICE.COM that sheds light on the importance of a transgender person’s name in terms of identity and psychological well-being.
Bottom line: it wasn’t cool to say what we said. What we intended as snark is actually a very harmful affront to the rights of transgender people, and it cannot go hand-in-hand with support of them. We’re committing to a more thorough respect of everyone we talk about, especially those who suffer grave social injustices.