Trans-Ambivalence

The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used to Be a Man.”

That’s the arresting headline of New York magazine’s September 8 – 21 cover story on Martine Rothblatt, the founder and chief executive officer of the pharma company United Therapeutics and a co-founder of Sirius Radio. Written by Lisa Miller, the piece inspires pure ambivalence in me. I honestly don’t know what I think about it.

My problems begin with the headline. Is New York suggesting that Rothblatt is paid so much because she used to be a man or am I just being paranoid? Below the headline, in much smaller print, is this provocative statement: “And that’s hardly the most unusual thing about her.*” Is it fair to call transgender people “unusual?” Is that really the best word to use to describe this corporate titan? As I pondered these questions, my eyes spotted the asterisk at the end of the sentence, which led me to a paragraph in truly tiny type in the cover’s lower left-hand corner spelling out what New York means by the even more “unusual” aspects of Martine Rothblatt: “There is, for instance, the futurist religion she’s started. Her conviction that the dead will rise again through artificial intelligence. And the robot she’s already built to look exactly like her wife.”

Media Circus

Okay, folks! Your decidedly unintrepid opinion monger hasn’t even gotten beyond the cover and finds the headline, subhead, and footnote so bizarre that he has no idea even how to begin to form a judgment. And that’s scarcely the end of it. The cover features a full shot of Rothblatt wearing a classic dark blue corporate pinstripe suit and leaning back against the back of a chair with her left leg crooked and her right leg extending to the bottom of the cover and ending in a foot clad in what looks like a man’s black shoe. She’s sitting the way a 19-year-old boy sits –– with his legs wide open so nobody can avoid looking at his cock. And she’s got a smirk on her face. The smirk only invites more confusion. What’s she smirking about? Her vast income? The fact that she and her vast income have made the cover of a popular magazine? That she used to be a he is a screaming-headline-worthy cover story in 2014? That she knows she’s sitting like a 19-year-old boy displaying his package?

And what’s with the stuff in the minuscule type? She founded a new religion? She believes that technology will raise the dead? Her robot looks “exactly” like her wife? Again, is it paranoid of me to question the need for New York to make this transwoman appear far, far, far beyond wacko before anyone even opens the magazine?

Or am I just plain missing the point, namely: this is just a great story?

Is the headline exploitative? Or is it hip, snappy journalism? You tell me. Maybe I should follow the advice provided on the two-page opening spread that launches the story inside the magazine: “Just ask her wife. Then ask the robot version of her wife.” Good God, what if they disagree? Then what?

We turn the page and find on the left a portrait of “Rothblatt with her wife of 33 years, Bina,” and on the right a portrait of the robot. Apart from differing hairstyles and hair color, the robot Bina is a dead ringer for the real one. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the original real Bina. Who knows? At this point, another, more uncharitable question crossed my mind: is this investigative reporting or a freak show? All this, and I still hadn’t read a word of the article.

Let’s skip the sections about how irrelevant Rothblatt thinks genitalia are and her grandchildren and her 83-year-old mother who sometimes calls her “he” and plunge forward into the crackpot raising-the-dead idea. Funny thing: the pot doesn’t seem so cracked when Rothblatt and Miller describe it. At first.

“She believes in a foreseeable future in which the beloved dead will live again as digital beings, reanimated by sophisticated artificial intelligence programs that will be as cheap and accessible to every person as iTunes. ‘I know this sounds messianic or even childlike,’ she wrote to me in one of many emails over the summer. ‘But I believe it is simply practical and technologically inevitable.’” Doesn’t sound so terribly strange, does it? Frankly, what I find most frightening about this passage is the idea that Apple may end up owning most of the world’s souls.

Rothblatt makes more and more sense the further into the article you go. For a little while. There’s the inevitable discussion of her transition from male to female, but Miller tells it with great intelligence and warmth. She interviewed one of Rothblatt’s kids ––Gabriel, who is currently running for Congress in Florida. Gabriel Rothblatt gives a brilliant answer to the question –– if genitalia aren’t defining, as transfolks generally claim, “then why put yourself and the people you love through such a painful process?” (These are Miller’s words, not Gabriel’s.) “‘Sometimes it’s necessary to be a living example,’ Gabriel told me… Then he brings up what he calls the familiar joke about why the libertarian chicken crossed the road. ‘The libertarian chicken dreams of the day when no one asks them why they crossed the road. It’s your body. It’s your choice what you choose to do with it. It’s not even our place or our business to be judging them or asking them why.’”

This makes perfect sense, and I found myself growing more and more comfortable with the article, with Rothblatt, and with her all-encompassing vision of trans-ness.

I started to lose it, however, when Miller writes, “Martine rhapsodizes about the possibility of millions of nano-robots swimming through living human bodies, directed wirelessly, cleaning up impurities and attending to diseases at the cellular level… In [her new book] ‘Virtually Human,’ Martine depicts a world populated by humans and their ‘mindclones,’ sentient digital replicas of individuals’ minds, created by loading AI [artificial intelligence] video interviews, photographs, personality tests, and the entirety of their digital lives –– Facebook posts, tweets, Amazon orders. These mindclones would exist in parallel with their flesh-and-blood originals but act, judge, think, feel, remember, and learn on their own –– and because they are, technically, nonhuman, they need not die.”

Frankly, I find these concepts more than slightly upsetting –– the last thing I want from my Amazon order history is to have it develop literally a life of its own –– but once Miller moved into the territory of Terasem, Martine’s “transreligion,” and Bina48, the robot wife, I had to call it quits. It became just too fuckin’ weird. The only way I could calm myself down was by gently singing the words of two true originals who could never be duplicated: “And you knew who you were then, girls were girls and men were men; mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again…”

Simply Simplifying

Here is a streamlined version of the New York Times’ September 9 obituary of S. Truett Cathy, the founder and owner of the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A. The sentences appear in precisely the order they appeared in the obit; I have merely edited out all the irrelevant words:

“Mr. Cathy, who died on Monday a 93, was by all appearances a humble Christian man from Georgia… As a conservative Christian who ran his business according to his religious principles, he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance… Many admired him for… speaking out against same sex marriage… Mr. Cathy’s beliefs underpinned the activities of the Win-Shape Foundation, a charitable arm of his empire that…. gave millions of dollars toward… efforts to oppose extending marriage rights to couples of the same sex… ‘In every facet of his life, Truett Cathy has exemplified the finest aspects of his Christian faith,’ former President Jimmy Carter said… In the five books he wrote, Mr. Cathy often emphasized the importance of… treating others as you would like to be treated.”

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