Cis Gatekeepers Have No Place in Trans Stories

WWE Superstar Gabbi Tuft (Photo credit: Instagram/@gabbituft)

On February 5, former WWE superstar Gabbi Tuft came out publicly as transgender. In a segment on Extra the next day, Tuft sat next to her wife, Priscilla, as Billy Bush spoke with the couple in what Extra senior executive producer Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey (better known as Lisa G.) called “a beautiful, sensitive interview.” For his very first question, Bush asks Tuft, “Priscilla came to you and said, ‘Look, I’m not sexually attracted to women. So this is going to be tough.’ How have you worked that out together?” Tuft tells the host that she and her wife were “not active in that way right now,” but Bush doesn’t drop the intrusive line of questioning.

“I assume you have partners outside of the relationship for those types of things,” Bush responds. This time, it’s Priscilla who shuts him down: “We actually don’t have partners outside of the relationship at all.” This line of questioning is clearly not “sensitive,” but might be considered as such when you compare it with the history of journalists blatantly asking trans women about their genitals: In 2003, Oprah Winfrey asked Jenny Boylan if she has a vagina. In 2011, Winfrey asked model Lea T how she hides her penis when modeling swimwear (Winfrey told Janet Mock in a 2015 interview that Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, changed her perspective on this type of questioning). In 2012, Barbara Walters asked Miss Universe contestant Jenna Talackova about the mechanics of vaginoplasty. In 2014, Katie Couric asked both Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox about their genitals.

But Bush asking Tuft and Priscilla whether they have sex is no less an intrusive line of questioning than Couric asking Cox whether she has a penis. If the intent is to ask how they’re moving forward together as a couple as Tuft continues her transition, there are less offensive ways to ask, something of which any seasoned journalist (or decent person) should be well aware. By focusing on their sex life, Bush reduces Tuft—and her relationship with Priscilla—to her body and her genitals, asking whether that body is satisfying to Priscilla now that it no longer belongs to “a man.” It allows the sex that trans people have to become a mere curiosity, for Tuft to be seen as a less satisfying and fulfilling partner now that she lives openly as a woman.

But when the couple is allowed to frame their evolving relationship on their own terms, a different perspective emerges. “Ultimate love is found not in the ability to hold tight, but rather in the ability to release what we hold so close and allow the other person to freely experience this human experience,” Tuft wrote on Instagram on February 3. In another post on February 14, Tuft wrote, “Even though this Valentine’s Day may look somewhat different than others past, there is no shortness of love in the air.” The Lady and The Dale, HBO’s new documentary series about Liz Carmichael, a trans woman convicted of fraud in the 1970s, illuminates exactly what Tuft’s experience on Extra so clearly demonstrates: When left to cisgender mainstream media, trans women are presented as a spectacle and a curiosity. But when they’re allowed to control their own narrative, the perspective is entirely different.

When Carmichael was outed as trans in 1975, headlines across the board declared she was “really a man.” Media coverage characterized Carmichael’s transness as a sexual perversion, with People magazine claiming she “evidently derived as much pleasure from [her] tightrope walk between sexual identities as from [her] numerous scams to relieve the public of loose cash.” (A clear line can be drawn from the understanding of trans identity as a sexual fetish to the obsession with the genitalia and sex lives of trans women mentioned above.) The media played into dangerous tropes about trans women being deceptive by nature, fraudulent based solely on their identity. However, when the HBO series tells Carmichael’s story—with Zackary Drucker, a trans woman, at the helm as codirector—Carmichael becomes a whole, nuanced person. Flawed, yes, but able to be understood in context. “We all have to create our own universe in the face of a world that otherwise has no place for us, or perhaps, sometimes would prefer that we didn’t exist,” Drucker told Time magazine of the project.

When trans people tell their own stories—instead of having their stories warped by cis gatekeepers and shepherds who decide when and how those stories should be heard—it ultimately reshapes the narrative into something that’s both truer and more accurate.

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Although Tuft may not have that level of control via an HBO program, she’s finding that nuance and power by creating her own universe through her social media feed. Where she previously used her position as a gym owner, professional wrestler, and body builder to inspire her followers to work harder and be stronger, she now hopes to use her platform to inspire people to be their truest selves. Tuft is not someone who shies away from certain transition-related questions that are generally considered inappropriate to ask—yes, including questions about her sex life—because she knows her fans likely don’t have a ton of competency or knowledge regarding trans issues. She’s creating content that caters to her audience as it already exists.

When Tuft decided to talk about her life with Priscilla in an interview with Bush, she had limited control over the situation—and by asking such invasive questions, Bush got the ball rolling, setting a precedent that allowed other outlets to frame Tuft’s coming out around her sexual relationship with Priscilla. Everywhere from the Daily Mail to People framed Tuft’s identity as it relates to her wife’s experience, rather than her own journey and identity. Bush did it, the gates were opened, and Tuft lost control of her own narrative. The Lady and The Dale and Gabbi Tuft’s social media accounts are two incredibly different mediums, but both achieve something similar: allowing trans people to tell trans stories on their own terms and through their own lens. The result is storytelling that doesn’t reduce trans women to their bodies nor center the cis gaze on their experiences. It’s unsurprising that the end result is more innovating and memorable than what could come to the forefront via cis gatekeepers like Bush, because when trans people tell their own stories—instead of having their stories warped by cis gatekeepers and shepherds who decide when and how those stories should be heard—it ultimately reshapes the narrative into something that’s both truer and more accurate.

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Britni de la Cretaz is wearing pink earrings that have the word Queer embedded in them
by Britni de la Cretaz
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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow them on Twitter at @britnidlc.