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Peoria Defender

The Peoria Journal Star and a Rhetoric of Transphobia  

Updated: Feb 17

In a recent article released on January 24th titled “Here’s the Latest on the Documentary that Brought Will Ferrell to Peoria and Pekin” by Dean Muellerleile, the Peoria Journal Star attempted to report on a recently released documentary titled “Will and Harper” starring prominent comedian Will Ferrell and his best friend Harper Steele. Steele is a decorated comedy writer and a transgender woman who began her transition in 2022. The documentary follows the two friends on a cross-country road trip where they stop and interview regular trans folks about their lives, their transition, and their communities, all while discussing Harper’s own late-in-life transition.  


Ferrell caused a stir when he visited Pekin and Peoria establishments Maquet’s Rail House and The Basket Case last March, and the article wanted to follow-up on the speculations.  


“Transphobia” refers to the fear, hatred, or dislike of transgender people because of their transness; something is “transphobic” when it demonstrates transphobia or disproportionately negatively impacts trans people. The article engages in transphobia in two ways, one by omission and the other through its quoted material.  


Regarding omission, the article seems allergic to referring to Steele as a “transgender woman” or to using the word “she” to refer to her, instead only referring to her by name and as “transgender.”  One can only wonder why the article abstains from referring to Steele as a woman or using the proper corresponding pronoun “she.” Gendered pronouns have become a flashpoint topic amongst those who are afraid of and/or hate trans people - whether conscientiously or not, the article seems to signal to readers that Steele’s being a woman should be erased, undermined, or does not bear mentioning.   


In addition to the strange attempt to obscure Steele’s womanhood, the writer included transphobic language through the included quotes. When discussing speculation from March 2023 about Steele and Ferrell’s presence in town, the only references the writer uses come from a vitriolic facebook comments section, linked in the article. One quoted comment used explicitly transphobic language to refer to Steele, and then went so far as to threaten to vandalize the documentary crew’s vehicle.  


Why would a journalist cover facebook interactions, instead of focusing on any of the more substantive material that has come out about “Will & Harper”? Why does the article include degrading comments from an openly transphobic facebook user, instead of conducting a few minutes of research? The problem is not only the spreading of rhetoric that delegitimizes and marginalizes transgender folks - it’s also shoddy journalism.  


As a nonbinary person, reading content about transgender people written with this framing is frustrating, to say the least. On the one hand, I want to allow for the possibility of ignorance without malice. On the other, I am painfully aware of the extent to which transgender people have become cultural pariahs and can’t help but notice the subtext. And when you are responsible for communicating about a marginalized group in a responsible and just way, as all journalists are, then ignorance is malice. The transphobia in the article is, at best, an abdication of journalistic integrity.  


The Peoria Journal Star must demand more from its writers, and should apologize and edit the article to reflect Steele’s gender. Transgender people, like all people, deserve safety and respect; right now, we live in a country where transgender people are aggressively demonized in the media and in law. It is our media and language that pave the road to legal and physical harm. By publishing this article as written, the Peoria Journal Star participates in a growing culture of transphobic language and anti-trans violence.  


“Will & Harper” received a standing ovation at Sundance Film Festival. It has now been acquired by Netflix. The documentary will, hopefully, represent trans people with the same loving and curious attitude that Ferrell has demonstrated by releasing this film into our current cultural climate, in which the rights of trans people to safety, authenticity, and public life are so violently repressed.  


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and do not necessarily represent the views of Change Peoria or its members. Change Peoria is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, or validity of any statements made by the guest author. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of any products, services, or organizations mentioned by the guest author.





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