The Rule of Mattress-Eaters: Media sensationalism is different for trans people – but it shouldn’t be

Zinnia JonesStefonknee Wolscht, a Canadian trans woman who “takes on the persona of a little girl” as part of “reverting to a childhood she finds comfort in”, has been subject to an extraordinary degree of negative media and public attention for several years. Wolscht, who was told by her wife to stop being trans or leave, lost her job, attempted suicide, and spent months in a homeless shelter, then had her image used by an Alaskan anti-LGBTQ  group as part of their campaign against a nondiscrimination ordinance in the state. She’s had her photo used by anti-abortion activist Jonathon Van Maren in an article about a completely different person accused of sexually abusing several children. She’s been subjected to extensive, invasive personal attacks and stalking on websites like Encyclopedia Dramatica and the anti-trans Kiwi Farms forums, and Redditors seem to find her story important enough to dedicate walls of text to criticizing her existence. Wolscht was previously forced into hiding due to the sheer quantity of messages threatening her with death and mutilation. Recently, anti-trans YouTuber Blaire White, desperate as usual to position herself as the only acceptable trans person on earth, got more than 600,000 views for a video about Wolscht which she describes as: “A 52 year old man leaves his family to become a 6 year old girl. Let’s talk.”

And all I can think is: Must we?

The incoherent personal attacks leveled against Wolscht aren’t worth dignifying with a response, but the choice of the public to highlight her existence for scrutiny certainly deserves one. Adults who roleplay as children are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Neither are individuals who get divorced or are estranged from their families and children. Wolscht is not remarkable for serving as some singular example of these previously unheard-of human behaviors. Instead, she is remarkable for her gender identity, in a way that a cisgender person with a life identical in every other way would not be.

If the details of Wolscht’s life are considered to be of interest to the public, they are of interest in the same way that it is of interest that a person on TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” eats approximately a square foot of mattress foam a day (full disclosure: I’ve previously appeared on TLC to debate Dr. Susan Bradley for an episode of “I Am Jazz” about the evidence on affirming care for trans youth, which I consider a higher pursuit than saying “look at this person eat mattress foam”). They are of interest in the same way that the dramatic life stories of guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Maury” are of interest. Lowbrow media inviting viewers to gawk at people who have been othered as being notably unusual in some way is nothing new.

What’s different is the assumption that Wolscht’s life says anything about trans people generally, in a way that a cisgender mattressvore’s life does not say anything about cis people generally. Wolscht isn’t afforded the privilege of simply being a person who roleplays as a child – she is a trans person who roleplays as a child. Meanwhile, TLC guests who salivate in the presence of a Tempur-Pedic are not seen as a cis person who eats mattress foam. They are just a person who happens to eat mattresses. Wolscht doesn’t get to be unlabeled for her gender identity in that way, because Wolscht is trans.

Perhaps those who consider her to be notable in some way, or reflective upon trans people as a whole, have failed to appreciate just how many trans people exist. Assuming that 0.6% of the population is transgender, 46 million people around the world will be trans, and among them are just about every sort of person you can imagine. The fact that some of these people will recreationally roleplay as children – some of them might even eat mattresses! – has nothing to do with our transness, and everything to do with our humanity.

“A cis person eats mattresses. Let’s talk.” Does something feel off about that? Does the second sentence not quite follow from the first? Apply the rule of cisgender mattress-eaters whenever a trans person is in the headlines and it’s not really clear why. Would a cis person who roleplays as a child be seen as saying something about cis people as a whole? Would someone with a YouTube channel about cis issues see this as relevant content for cis-related discussion? Would this cis person’s image be taken for use in an article about a completely unrelated individual accused of sex crimes against children? Would hundreds of people see fit to debate about that cis person at length across numerous Reddit threads?

Would it really be necessary for anyone to hold an opinion on that specific cis person’s life choices at all?

So why should anyone care this much about what Stefonknee Wolscht does?

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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