Is Seventeen teaching transphobia?

LGBT activists are up in arms about the magazine's story, "My boyfriend turned out to be a girl"

By Judy Berman
Published October 28, 2009 11:28PM (UTC)
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What do you think your daughter is learning from Seventeen magazine? Self-esteem? Hopefully. Body hatred? Perhaps. How to buy a flattering winter coat or strike up a conversation with that hottie from homeroom? Most likely. I'll forgive you for not guessing "transphobia." But that may be exactly what teen and tween girls are getting out of a troubling Seventeen article called "My boyfriend turned out to be a girl!"

The piece, posted as a PDF at Pam's House Blend, begins innocently enough. Narrator "Sheri" (who told her story to Senior Editor Jessica Press) recounts the beginnings of her relationship with "Derek," in which a misdirected text message led to marathon phone conversations and, finally, a first date. "He revealed that he wore bandages around his chest because of a basketball injury," writes Press. "When we made out, he never let me see him with his shirt off or touch me 'below the belt.'" Still, Sheri fell in love, and their relationship lasted through Christmas break of Derek's first year of college, when it dissolved over suspicions of infidelity. 


The breakup didn't go so well. When Derek and his new flame came over to Sheri's house to pick up the stuff he'd left there, Sheri "got in his girlfriend's face, threatening to hurt her if she didn't leave the house. That's when Derek threw me on the couch, yelling at me to stop." She broke free, running to a neighbor's and calling the police -- who arrived at the scene and identified "Derek" as "Dana." "My head started spinning," writes Press. "On the one hand, it felt like everything made sense -- the bandages around Derek's body, his excuses for not wanting to get physical. On the other, it felt like my whole first love was a lie." Although he denied, at the time, that he was born female, Derek text messaged Sheri months later to confess and apologize. When she called him, "He said that even though physically he is a girl, he'd felt like a guy his whole life, and he was waiting until he turned 18 and could have surgery to officially become one." Sheri says that she might have stayed with Derek had he told her the truth from the get-go, "But the fact that he lied to me for so long when I'd given him my secrets, and my heart, was unforgivable."

As Autumn Sandeen at Pam's House Blend points out, there are positive points to the story: Press does, for instance, use the pronoun "he" to refer to Derek throughout the body of the piece. But the headline is nothing short of heinous. To say "My boyfriend turned out to be a girl!" is to deny a transman's male identity and imply that to suggest otherwise is to lie. And a blurred-out photo of the couple, captioned with the scrawled words "He was actually a she!," is even more offensive. Sandeen writes:

The point is that the Seventeen editor for this story chose to portray female-to-male trans youth as really girls -- and by extension male-to-female trans youth are really boys. In the way the story was presented, it portrayed all trans people as being deceptive liars -- and "lie" is their word, not mine. Trans people, and many others in and out of LGBT community, know that genitalia and the gender markers on identification documents don't always tell the full gender story of an individual.

She quotes the GLAAD Media Guide's Transgender Glossary, which warns journalists that "Gender identity is an integral part of a person's identity. Please do not characterize transgender people as 'deceptive,' as 'fooling' other people, or as 'pretending' to be, 'posing' or 'masquerading' as a man or a woman. Such descriptions are extremely insulting."


Sandeen is careful to note that she isn't saying Derek was "anything but a jerk" -- and I agree that he should have been honest about his anatomy much earlier in the relationship. (It should go without saying that his behavior in Sheri's house after their breakup was entirely inexcusable.) But a single teenager's poor decisions don't excuse the article's serious lack of empathy for trans youth as a group. Couldn't Seventeen have found a way to make us understand Derek's plight as anything but selfish deception (or included a companion first-person piece from a trans teen's perspective)? For him, coming out to friends and love interests could have meant anything from rejection to violence. As Queerty puts it, the piece sends "the message that FTMs are out there to 'trick' biological women into relationships — without any acknowledgment that, hey, there might be some transgender readers of Seventeen and, hey, they might be having a pretty miserable go of things too." I don't believe that it was the magazine's goal to indoctrinate young readers with anti-trans prejudice, but this is a case where intentions matter less than effects.

Another troubling aspect of Seventeen's article is a sidebar titled "Total betrayal," which collects quotes from three other girls who were "blindsided by a guy." And guess what? Each one is a case of outright (and sometimes skin-crawlingly creepy) lying, from "He's a perv!" to "He's a druggie!" to "He's a dad!" Does the magazine really want to conflate the plight of scared, confused trans teens with the tale of a boyfriend who was secretly trolling for threesomes on Craigslist?

So, how can Seventeen undo the damage it's done and make amends with the rightfully offended LGBT community? Trans activist Ariel Bustamante has started a Facebook campaign that encourages angry readers to "write a letter to the editor (MAIL@SEVENTEEN.COM) expressing your opinion about the article, the implications it has, and ask them to put an apology in one of their next 2 issues." Sandeen agrees, and adds, "I'd go further -- Seventeen owes us a story about trans youth that doesn't sensationalize them as deceivers and liars... [and] about what trans youth go through when they go to schools." Sounds about right to me. 

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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