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Activist reflects on Jerry Springer's depiction of transgender people

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Earlier this week, Jerry Springer, the former talk show host and Cincinnati mayor, died at the age of 79. Since the early '90s, "The Jerry Springer "Show" was a hit and well known for its salacious topics - cheating spouses, secret children and arguments that would escalate into fistfights. But one prominent feature of his program was transgender people, and they were often featured as a spectacle and sometimes even faced violence on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I never was even really honest with, you know what I mean?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Because I was born a male.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You was born a what?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Jerry, Jerry, Jerry.

MCCAMMON: To get a better sense of the legacy of "The Springer Show" (ph) and how it dealt with these issues, we've called trans activist and award-winning author Raquel Willis. Welcome.

RAQUEL WILLIS: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: Before we dive into your thoughts on the show, Jerry Springer, of course, was a huge pop culture force, especially back in the '90s. How did you react to the news of his death?

WILLIS: Well, I will say I think there was a tinge of nostalgia that kind of washed over me. Some of my earliest memories are Jerry Springer's show being on in the background of our house. I'm from Augusta, Ga. And so it was a regular staple on our television. And then I think in a deeper way, as someone who is fully realized in my identity as a Black trans woman now, looking back, I also just think about the ways that those portrayals, particularly of trans people and LGBTQ people writ large, but also folks of color, probably seeped a bit into my understanding of the world and how our stories can be sensationalized in a way that may not be the most beneficial.

MCCAMMON: If you don't mind my asking, Raquel, I mean, where were you at that time in your understanding of yourself? And how did it feel to see these kinds of scenes play out on Jerry Springer's show?

WILLIS: Well, Jerry Springer was on for most of my life, of course. And I think as a young queer kid who knew that I was different, knew I had all of these questions around gender, it was a bit frightening to see trans people on television depicted in the ways that they were on "The Jerry Springer Show." I think some of those ideas of deception, of not being worthy of love and desire and dignity and respect really kind of colored the way that I even saw the trans experience. And I'm sure folks who weren't trans also absorbed some of those ideas as well.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. And what did that mean for your life? I mean, did that affect the way that you talked about yourself or presented yourself in some way?

WILLIS: Well, I think that it's one of those situations where if your earliest experiences of seeing people similar to you in the media were them as jokes or as threats, then you wonder, well, what will your family or the people who know you and even also strangers think of you in the world once you share your truth. And I know that that is a common experience among particularly a lot of trans women of color, as our stories were often the ones that were elevated on "The Jerry Springer Show." So it's detrimental. I mean, if you imagine the life of someone who grew up in the '90s - so, for me, in the '90s - and didn't really see visibility for the trans experience in a real, authentic, vulnerable way until I was an adult, there is a lot for me to catch up on on a personal level to understand my inherent value and worth in society.

MCCAMMON: We should note that in interviews, Jerry Springer himself had said that his intention was not to offend people, and he learned over the years that certain words that were used on the program were offensive. You know, even back in 1993, in a closing monologue on his show, Springer seemed to come to the defense of his trans guests, at least to some extent. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW")

JERRY SPRINGER: If our guests today have body parts that don't relate to who they are, why can't they fix that? Maybe the point here is not to judge a person until you've walked a mile in his shoes, even if they are high-heeled.

MCCAMMON: Raquel, I wonder what you make of that clip and just the overall idea that his views on the trans community maybe changed over time?

WILLIS: Yes. I think our society in so many ways has evolved since the '90s, of course. And, you know, I think that there is, unfortunately, this long history of kind of a sensationalized interest in trans people's experiences. However, I do think as a media figure, regardless of the times and what is acceptable - and I say this as someone with a background in journalism and who is a writer - that we have to do our due diligence to make sure that we're moving with as much empathy as possible. And that means actually understanding how the way that we depict people's stories or even elevate people's stories can open them up to harm, especially if they're already marginalized. So I accept the idea that he and many others have evolved in the last decades. But I also think that much of what we understand to be wrong now was already wrong then.

MCCAMMON: That's trans activist Raquel Willis. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIS: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.