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Kate Lynn Blatt, and The Real Life Effects of Transphobia

August 18, 2009

Last week, I wrote about the ways in which intersex and transgender people are continually reduced to their body parts and disrespected by the media. Now, I want to talk about how such coverage can be damaging to the lives of ordinary (read: not celebrities) trans and intersex folks.

Yesterday, The Advocate reported that Kate Lynn Blatt, a woman in Pennsylvania, filed suit against her former employer, Manpower Inc. The reason? In 2007, Manpower demanded that Blatt provide documentation of her sex-reassignment surgery — including a photograph of her genitals — in order to continue being employed.

From Philadelphia Gay News:

Irene Kudziela, branch manager of Manpower’s Pottsville office, allegedly told Blatt that a letter from her surgeon documenting her gender-reassignment surgery — along with a photograph of her genital area — would be necessary before she could return to Sapa.

Blatt, 28, said she found the request “repugnant” and “disgusting,” and declined to comply. She viewed the request as a form of sexual harassment, she added.

“I was shocked and disgusted,” Blatt said. “It felt like I was being reduced to a mere sex object. I was trying to work there in a dignified and private manner, but my dignity and privacy were constantly being violated.”

I can’t help but wonder what conditioned Kudziela to believe that it is ever okay to ask an employee (or a potential employee) for photographic evidence of his or her genitals. Perhaps formal documentation of a legal or medical procedure is warranted in some cases, but asking for a photograph is simply degrading and reductive. Would such a thing ever be asked of a cisgender or gender-conforming individual, even if that person had recently gone through a medical procedure? Doubtful.

There’s a clear connection between the media talks about transgender people (like, as I’ve written about before, the media’s obsession with Chaz Bono’s “sex-change”) and the way trans people are treated in their daily lives. By continually reducing trans people to their body parts, the media makes it acceptable to talk about trans people that way. And it’s not acceptable to talk about anyone that way, trans people included. It is never okay to reduce a woman to her physical appearance, or the size of her breasts, or the length of her skirt. Likewise, it is never okay to ask a trans person to see his or her genitals without his or her explicit consent and permission. There is nothing about Blatt’s job that makes her anatomy relevant to her employment status. But because of our culture, in which trans people are constantly marginalized and harassed because of their bodies, people like Kudziela truly believe it is within their rights to ask trans employees personal, invasive questions that they would never dream of asking cisgender employees. That culture needs to change.

Earlier this month, a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act was introduced into the U.S. Senate. Please, take a few moments to read about the bill and take action. Transgender people need legal protections, especially in the realm of employment. And speak up when you read about the ways in which trans people are reduced to their body parts and degraded by the media. Because legal changes are crucial, but they’re only part of the solution — changing the way society as a whole talks and thinks about issues of gender identity and expression will take much more than that.

Feministe has more.

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