Last Friday, the healthcare equality movement for the transgender community earned a major victory after regulators in California and Oregon told several private insurance companies that they must cover the same treatments for transgender people—hormone therapy, breast reduction and cancer screening, for example—that they provide for non-transgender people.
The rulings were important milestones in the effort to ensure transgender individuals receive fair medical treatment. It took only a few days, however, for the transgender community to find its victory cruelly mocked by the website of the cable television monolith Fox News. On Sunday, the site posted an excerpt of an Associated Press story on the health reforms.
Fine so far.
Above the story, however, was a picture of Robin Williams, dressed as the elderly cross-dressing title character of his film Mrs. Doubtfire—cartoonishly clutching his breasts. The message was clear: This victory for transgender healthcare equality was nothing more than gag fodder for Fox readers.
Commenters on the social aggregating site Reddit, which first objected to the story, were outraged.
“I am a straight male, but two of my best friends are Transgender(FTM),” wrote Reddit user Suspicious666, who posted a screenshot of the Fox story in the LGBT section of Reddit. “I have seen the hardships both of them have had to go through just so they could be on the outside what they have known themselves to be on the inside their entire lives.
“This s**t makes me f***ing sick.”
“Beyond being biased, the image is problematic for a number of reasons. Trans people are not wearing a costume. Our lives and struggles are not jokes.”
Reddit user Suzepie compared the photo of Williams to Al Jolson. “He was a mainstream entertainment figure, dressed up in blackface and parodying African-American mannerisms and voice for laughs. Imagine seeing his photo next to an article announcing an important step forward in civil rights. Do you see how offensive that would be? Same thing.”
Journalist Janet Mock, who opened up about her sexual reassignment surgery in 2011 and has become a leading advocate for the trans rights movement, agrees.
“I’m in shock that the editors of Fox chose to use a photo of Robin Williams in drag as the illustration of this matter of life and death for trans people,” she tells TakePart. “Blurring the line between fictional comical entertainment and the real-life struggles of trans people nationally is dehumanizing and belittling.”
Public depictions of transgender people are no laughing matter, at least not to transgender people or anyone who values basic human rights. And not because these people lack any sense of humor. (Photo: Screen Grab FoxNation)
“Beyond being biased, the image is problematic for a number of reasons,” continues Mock. “Trans people are not wearing a costume. Our lives and struggles are not jokes, and using such an image spreads damaging stereotypes that who we are is put on, entertainment and fictional. It’s those same misconceptions and stereotypes that allow trans people to be discriminated against when it comes to access to housing, employment and healthcare.”
Despite dozens of negative comments on Fox’s website over the use of the photo—including several conservative commenters who disagreed with the healthcare ruling, but found the photo disrespectful—as of the writing of this piece, it remained in place.
Fox News representatives could not be reached for comment.
In the end, Reddit user TheTomAtkinson perhaps has the best last word: “[K]eep making it a joke [Fox] and it prevents you from seeing the seriousness of the situation. In a few elections time you will wake up and find that the world has left you behind.”
Was the Fox News coverage innocent comedy or harmful insensitivity? Say your piece in COMMENTS.
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt