In January, an actress from “Orange Is The New Black” appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show and it made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Laverne Cox, who is transgender, appeared with trans model Carmen Carrera. Throughout the interview, Couric kept asking the two women questions about their transition, specifically their genitalia. Cox politely corrected Couric that focusing only on body parts detracts attention away from the issues that trans folks face, like lack of legal protection and violence. Couric was roundly criticized by LGBTQ advocates afterwards for her failed interview.
Recently, Laverne Cox appeared again on “Katie” and the two women addressed the previous interview.
“I learned that it’s very, very upsetting to the transgender community because they feel people are too often fixated on this and that your anatomy has very little to do with your gender identity,” Couric said.
“That’s great, Katie,” Cox responded. “And I just wanted to say that I so appreciate your willingness to have me back to really go into depth to discuss these issues and your willingness to learn in public. What excited me about coming back was the possibility of modeling how do we have difficult conversations across difference? How do we create safe space for people on both sides to discuss difference? So I commend you for really being teachable.”
How cool is that?! Two grown-ass women had a polite, respectful, adult conversation about Something Bad and the person who did Something Bad actually learned Something Good.
This is my fantasy. This is what I wish I could see happen all over feminist activism: the two sides talk Something Bad through and see where each has come from in life. We forget, I think, that all of us have different life experiences and are exposed to ideas like intersectionality, sex positivity, or gender equality at different times. Other people grow up in more conservative or less educated environments; social justice principles may be in their heart but their language and actions aren’t there yet. It’s normal to be frustrated that other people may not have read the same books or blogs as we have, but it behooves us as activists to use opportunities that present themselves to respectfully educate others. And it behooves us to learn more about where other people come from because it can teach us how to get our messages across.
I am sick of the pile-on culture, where people get called out and mercilessly trashed for Something Bad. I’m not sick of it because I think whatever the Something Bad should be passed by unremarked, but because it fosters antagonism instead of community. Pile-on culture scares others away from wanting to learn more and further engage and that means it scares them away from a place where Something Good can even happen. I was as dismayed as anyone that Katie Couric bungled that first interview with Laverne Cox, but she seems like she has genuinely listened to the criticism and intends to do better in the future.
Of course there will always be people who are just being antagonistic, like CNN host Piers Morgan and National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson, who act in bad faith and purposefully try to stir the pot. I don’t feel too sympathetic when those guys get called out. But there’s no sense trying to educate them, anyway, because their whole gambit is about trying to offend.
I’m not someone who usually thinks celebrities are people who we should emulate in real life. But Laverne Cox is someone who has such grace and poise. Activists and bloggers would do well to emulate her. I plan to.