A model pronoun

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday July 13, 2011
Share this Post:
Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

In its June 12 issue, Newsweek magazine ran a profile on Brazilian model Lea T. Good in places and bad in others, the piece tells of Lea's early years growing up with a Brazilian soccer star, Toninho Cerezo, for a father, her early years as a model, and onto her current life as she prepares for male-to-female genital reassignment surgery. It's not that uncommon of a dialogue given the scores of transsexual narratives that have graced the printed page as far back as at least 1931, when Lili Elbe's transition story, Man Into Woman , was published.

Yet like so many others, this one runs into trouble right in the subhead.

The piece, titled "Lea T.'s Runway Revolution," carries a subhead that reads, "Brazil's hottest new model is tall, dark, and glamorous. She's also a he. Meet high fashion's newest gender-bending muse."

Oh, where to begin.

The article tells you that she identifies as a woman, and has â€" and is â€" taking permanent physical steps to put her body in line with her gender identity. This is all one needs to fit the Associated Press Stylebook's "sex change" guidelines, which instructs writers to "use the pronouns preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth."

It further states, "If that preference is not expressed, use the pronouns consistent with the way the individuals live publicly." Someone writing about Lea T. would presumably not need to go so far, given she's made it clear that she's a woman. Yet this was not apparently enough for Mac Margolis, the writer of this article.

"With a practiced pout and a hip-check salute to the camera pit at the end of the runway," Margolis writes, "the 29-year-old model with a dragon tattoo on her pelvis owns the crowd. As the bleachers erupt in wolf whistles, who'd have figured that the hottest new face from Brazil is not a she at all?"

Yet again, she is a she.

Not to bore you with too much more of this one particular article, which attempts to draw parallel's between Lea T.'s success as a model with "heroin chic," blood-spattered Benetton clothing, and Andrej Pejic's distinctly gender transgressive modeling.

Perhaps it is not so much Newsweek that is to blame, but the fashion world in general â€" and people like Thomaz Azulay, who signed Lea to work the runway at Fashion Rio, and is also quoted by Margolis. "Our brand is about democracy," Azulay says. "The beach is for everyone, and Lea is a perfect symbol for that."

Regardless of who has opted to misgender Lea T. â€" even though the rest of the article does refer to her by her preferred pronounces â€" the fact that she has been so labeled remains. No matter how much she has done, how much she has gone through, this weekly newsmagazine has decided to brand her "he" from the first few words.

Now it may sound like I am outraged that Lea T. was treated so, and while I do find it frustrating to read of yet another transgender person being misgendered by the popular press, I find my own cynicism tempering my anger. I've seen this all before.

At the end of 1952, when Christine Jorgensen's genital reassignment led to banner headlines like "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth." Yet 37 years later, when Jorgensen died, one obituary started, "When George Jorgensen decided to change his name â€" and his body â€" the nation wasn't quite ready."

Twenty-two years later, we still seem to see a lack of readiness to accept the proper pronouns for transgender individuals. We see the very same sort of troubles in a Newsweek piece released in 2011 that we see more than a half-century ago.

Indeed, nearly any article you'll find on transgender people, from Chaz Bono down to this week's anti-transgender murder, reads about the same. The pronouns get reversed, at the least when we talk about the subject's pre-transition years. If there is a biography â€" as with Lea T. â€" we get to hear about their disinterest in stereotypically masculine or feminine pursuits. We'll likely get their birth name, and in the worst cases the name they wanted to be known by will be relegated to a quotation mark laden "nickname" â€" or stripped away altogether.

Such is the narrative. To me, when it includes pronouns discarded, and names long since changed, the media is attempting to remind people of what a transgender person "really" is. Perhaps it is a warning to the straight folks â€" or more to the point, the straight men â€" not to be deceived. Or perhaps it is their sly way of informing their readership that they somehow know truths beyond what their interviewee is willing to disclose. Or it is merely sensationalism, a way to push more papers and sell advertising.

Regardless of the reason, it should be clear that this is wrong. Much like the Associated Press' method, pronouns come down to the person who wears them. It would seem foolish if I were to deliberately misgender otherwise non-transgender identified people â€" say, if I called President Barack Obama "she" or Paris Hilton as "he." It should be just as foolish to do the same to Lea T., Bono, or other transgender individuals.

In short, Lea T. is not a she who is also a he. She is, quite simply, a she.

Gwen Smith feels it never hurts to ask. You can find her online at www.gwensmith.com.