The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) has a new campaign called the Equal Payback Project, which, under the guise of “crowdfunding the wage gap,” seeks to raise awareness about the very real disparity between how much women get paid compared to men in the U.S. They launched the fundraising effort with a new video starring comedian Sarah Silverman, who is facetiously preparing to undergo a sex change so that she can earn as much as a man does.
The video has gotten rave reviews from mainstream outlets. E! Online praised the ad as “humorous” and “thought provoking.” Us Weekly joked that Silverman found the “perfect solution” for beating the “vagina tax.” Even Time Magazine highlighted the “risqué” ad, describing its plot as Silverman deciding that “it’s easier to just get a penis.”
Transgender people — those who might actually weigh the decision to undergo transition-related surgeries — had a very different reaction to the clip. Many have been criticizing the video on Twitter, and a few shared their thoughts with ThinkProgress about why they feel its shtick trivializes their experiences as transgender people.
Rachel See, a transgender lawyer in Virginia, told ThinkProgress that “being used as the punchline of a fundraising campaign by a group that should be our ally made me sad.” Though the ad suggests Silverman’s salary would go up, See explained that “transgender people routinely face discrimination for transitioning. Many lose their jobs, or find that they have a harder time getting a job.” Indeed, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found that in 2011, transgender people were four times more likely to be living in extreme poverty than the general population and faced double the rate of unemployment. As activist Janet Mock quipped on Twitter Wednesday, tagging the NWLC and Silverman, “Sex reassignment doesn’t help one advance in workplace. Ask one of the most underemployed populations: trans people.”
GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis similarly chided the video Thursday afternoon. Ellis acknowledged that the humor was probably “well intended,” but suggested that it “missed the mark” by not acknowledging that “for transgender people, the workplace is usually a very hostile environment. And that’s not really funny at all.”
It’s nonetheless true that many skeptics of transgender equality accuse transgender individuals of transitioning for selfish reasons. Sarah McBride, Special Assistant for for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress, notes that there are “widespread societal prejudices and misconceptions” that people transition for “some sort of sexual or financial advantage.” But as See points out, many trans people do not even undergo surgery because they cannot afford it. The NTDS found that no more than a quarter of trans people had undergone some form of genital surgery. Though about 43 percent of trans men had had chest surgery and another 50 percent wanted it, only 2 percent had undergone phalloplasty (the construction or reconstruction of a penis), and 72 percent of them didn’t even want it.
Likewise, See points out that the video problematically defines gender by reducing it entirely to a person’s genitals. In response, she posed the question, “Is a transgender person who has not yet had genital surgery any less of a man or a woman? That’s what the NWLC is implying in their ad.”
But that’s not to say that transgender people don’t have something compelling to add to the conversation about the gender wage gap. McBride told ThinkProgress that transitioning was an “eye-opening experience” because she learned not only about prejudice against transgender people, but the effects of sexism as well. “My qualifications and talents did not change when I transitioned, yet in the eyes of many people, they did,” she explained.
Likewise, trans men do acknowledge that they experience male privilege after transitioning. Lou Weaver, a trans advocate and educator in Texas, said that after transitioning, he could ask for more money to do my job. “Before [transitioning],” he recalled, “I did not get paid as much as my male counter parts even though I had as much experience.” But the advantages he has a man only persist so long as he doesn’t reveal that he’s trans. If he outs himself, he’s told that he will “always be female” and that he is “not a ‘real’ man.” When faced with such detractors, Weaver counters, “I do not need a penis to be a man.”
NWLC did not respond directly to a ThinkProgress request for comment, but did post a response to the controversy Thursday afternoon. The statement from NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger notes that “our work includes all women” and highlights some of the financial challenges transgender people experience. As to the content of the ad, however, the statement seems to defend its premise as comically “ludicrous,” arguing, “The Equal Payback Project uses Silverman’s brand of absurd humor to draw attention to this ludicrous situation — it was not our intent to make light of the serious issues transgender people face.”
Greenberger does not explicitly apologize for the ad, but she does include a promise to do better by transgender people: “We will share statistics about job discrimination faced by transgender people as part of the Equal Payback Project. And we commit to using some of the resources raised by this project to bring awareness to the discrimination faced by transgender women and men.”
The Equal Payback Project has raised just over $80,000 as of Thursday afternoon, but nowhere on its page does it currently mention transgender people.