Boost Mobile’s Education on Trans Issues

May 31st, 2009

By Monica F. Helms

As an activist for the transgender community, I never know when an opportunity will come up to educate a company or an organization. Sometimes it’s by accident and other times it’s intentional. However way it comes about, myself and others have to take the time to help them understand. To me, the opportunity happened with Boost Mobile, whose parent company is Sprint Nextel, the company I’ve worked for nearly twenty years.

The education of Boost Mobile on trans issues started with this commercial featuring Danica Patrick as their new spokesperson:

As you can see, this commercial just looks plane dumb on the visual level, but it also uses men in women’s clothes in a negative context. Trans people who saw this commercial went ballistic. Even though the commercial does not specifically make fun of trans people, out of the 300 million Americans, many will use this as another excuse to discriminate and hold back equality for Transgender Americans.

Then, thanks to Helen Boyd, I saw this piece that shows the producer and Danica Patrick defending the content of commercial:

If Boost Mobile had not been part of Sprint Nextel, I would have viewed the commercial, posted a comment on Facebook, tell some important LGBT organizations and let them take on this issue. However, I have access inside the company, allowing me to get names and contact information of people responsible for this commercial. After telling my supervisor and my manager about this, I contacted HR about the issue.

I have had to deal with HR for a few issues in the past, including applying for an opening in HR and I have always had a great experience with them. I am up front on who I and that I am one of Sprint’s transsexual employees. I also give them a background on my activities outside of Sprint, to give them an idea that I know what I am speaking of. It sets the tone for the conversation.

This experience proved to be no different. I explained to the woman why myself and the transgender community find the commercial offensive, then I framed it to how it affects me at work. Every time I go onto the company intranet, I see a picture of Danica Patrick, which reminds me of the commercial. I would feel uncomfortable when my co-workers would make snide remarks about the depiction of the pit crew in the commercial, make my work environment a bit more “hostile.”

She listened and totally agreed with me on all of this, even admitting to have seen the commercial and was not happy about it herself. She promised to take this issue up with her manager and see what the next steps can be.

I also had plans for a next step. The next day, my supervisor did some research for me to locate the VP of Marketing for Boost Mobile. When she found him I shot off an inter-company E-mail requesting a few moments of his time about this new commercial. He sent an E-mail back saying that the Advertisement Manager would talk with me. She sent me an E-mail with a time for us to talk.

Before my conversation with the Advertisement Manager took place, I sat and thought of how I would approach this. With something of this magnitude, I realized I needed to look at the big picture as far as the company was concern. They spent a great deal of money on this commercial and to have Danica Patrick as a spokesperson and that nothing short of a major lawsuit would get the commercial pulled. Knowing this going into these conversations, I decided to change my goal; one of educating Sprint and Boost. I later realized that made good sense. However, I know that many in the transgender community would not agree with my strategy, but they don’t have to work for this company and I do.

My conversation with the Advertisement Manager went very well. She explained the intent of the commercial and that the idea that Danica Patrick is competing in a traditionally male sport and doing it very well. Men dominate all aspects of the sport, so having her pit crew being forced into female attire went against all gender stereotypes.

I could easily see the intent of the commercial, but I informed her that many Americans pick up on things like this and read something totally different into them. They use a commercial like this and would say, “You see! If you give rights to transgender people, we’ll see men dressed like this all over the place! Hell, we’ll even see men dressed like this teaching our children!” She understood my viewpoint and that of transgender community.

Later that day, the HR person called me back to give me an update of her progress. She passed this onto several people and they had a discussion with other people in Boost on how to handle this. They suggested that I also speak with the Public Relations Director for Boost Mobile and that she would set it up for me. I told her about my progress as well.  She said I was acting very professional.

Then, on that very same day, the VP of Marketing called me on my way home. He had heard of my conversation with the Advertising Manager and the intervention from HR and wanted to personally reassure me that the intention of the commercial was not to make fun of trans people, but surprisingly understood how it could be seen that way by the transgender community. He then apologized for the fact that some trans people were offended by this.

As of writing this piece, I haven’t had the chance to speak with the Public Relations Director for Boost Mobile, but I have a feeling the conversation will go the same. I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, I can convince Boost Mobile to do something for the transgender community to help smooth out this issue further. That is something for another time. As far as I see it, they owe us one.

13 Responses to “Boost Mobile’s Education on Trans Issues”

  1. Nancy Nangeroni Says:

    I disagree. Danica is arguing for the acceptance of her cross-dressing pit crew. I don’t see the problem. Rather, she’s doing some serious genderf**k on the racing world, breaking into an all-male sport with style. Let’s not position ourselves in opposition to this barrier-smashing woman. She’s not going after us, and I don’t think this has anything to do with us.

    Besides, the more people see men cross-dressed, the less noteworthy it becomes, and the less people will freak out about it. There’s nothing denigrating about the depictions in this ad, though they’re obviously silly.

    I think it’s really important to choose our battles carefully. In this case, I say “lighten up.”

  2. Roni Says:

    what Nancy said…

  3. Monica Helms Says:

    Nancy and Roni,
    You and I differ on this. It wasn’t a “battle.” I choose this educational opportunity because I could and it was made easy for me. And, I am not dissing Danica in any way, nor did I do so with the conversation I had with various people. It was an “educational opportunity.” Are you suggesting I’m suppose to blow off a chance to educate? The commercial opened the door and I walked in. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


  4. Rebecca Juro Says:

    As tempted as I am to agree with Nancy, I can’t. It’s not the silly-looking hairy men in women’s clothes part as much as the “Think that’s wrong?” part. The humor of the commercial is based on the assumption that crossdressing is freakish and wrong.

    That’s the real problem as I see it. Not the joke itself, but it’s underpinnings.

  5. John Doe Says:

    Call me ignorant, but when I saw the commercial I laughed. Not because I have a thing against transgendered people. That was the farthest thing from my mind.

    I laughed because, yes, wearing high heels and skimpy clothing is wrong if you’re on a pit crew. Not so much because you’re a man but because you have to put on and take off tires and fill a gas tank in less than 13 seconds. Maybe if they had more practice they could do it, but something tells me the heels would be a deterrent. And skimpy clothing would be dangerous since you’re working around heavy machinery that gets very hot.

    But perception is greater than reality and I really can’t argue against someone who perceives a slight against a community they feel strongly about.

    I just personally think this is thinking too much about the commercial. But I agree that the poster did a wonderful job using the event as an opportunity to educate. Regardless of what your cause is, educating people is more important than just shouting at them.

  6. Maverick Says:

    “As you can see, this commercial just looks plane dumb on the visual level…”

    Vocabulary failure! Eject! Eject!!!

  7. Tina Says:

    I have no problem with the idea of educating people on sensitivity when using images of gender incongruity in advertising, but I think it is fair to challenge the notion that this ad “uses men in women’s clothes in a negative context”…

    While it may look silly, it wouldn’t be any less silly for an all female pit crew to attempt to do their job while wearing heels and miniskirts.

    The crew never once acts effeminate or in manner that stereotypes or mocks anyone; they are all guy, just wearing incongruous clothing.

    They perform their duties well even with the added hindrance of completely inappropriate attire for the job at hand, and Danica directly challenges the idea that anything in the picture is “wrong”…

    that response could just as easily be based on the crew wearing the “wrong” clothing for the job as it might be based on some bigoted attitude towards any expression of gender variance; that is left totally up to interpretation.

    If anything, the “it’s just teamwork” line affirms what is going on as something positive- people working together as a team towards a common goal regardless of who they are and what they are wearing….

    *that* notion more than anything else is going to be seen by bigots as something negative, and an attempt to indoctrinate the little children by presenting the perverted transgender lifestyle as normal, blah blah blah.

    Sorry but I’m with Nancy on this one, and with all due respect I think that automatically seeing it as “negative” in regards to gender variant people says more about the person making that perception than the ad itself…

    anyone who pays attention to this stuff knows that even the most sensitive and pertinent coverage of real transpeople’s lives and issues in the media is used by some as an opportunity to say, “You see! If you give rights to transgender people, we’ll see men dressed like this all over the place! Hell, we’ll even see men dressed like this teaching our children!”…

    it is sad that the mere possibility of one of these idiots doing so based on this ad using some extremely tortured logic would be seen as a good reason to abolish any and all depictions of male crossdressing in a humorous context…

    which brings up another point:

    Why is this ad automatically negative, but Ellen DeGeneres dancing spastically in a man’s sport coat and tie for laughs isn’t treated as equally offensive and negative towards FtoM’s?

  8. asdf Says:

    It’s the use of the word “wrong” that bothers me.

    Having said that, I think it’s the least bit transphobic. It is, however, totally sexist. The only female Nascar racer has a pit crew that wears high heels! And skirts! HILARIOUS! (not.)

  9. asdf Says:

    (Sorry, should have read “not the least bit transphobic.”)

  10. M Says:

    I’ve seen the ad on tv (it may have been a Hulu spot, I can’t remember my original viewing context) and I have to say, I have mixed feelings about it. Although other commenters argue that the ad is humorous because the pit crew is wearing the wrong clothes for the job, I totally disagree that that is where the average U.S. citizen would find the humor. I think the humor for the average viewer comes from the portrayal of masculine men wearing female clothing. I don’t think the men were meant to represent either drag queens or transsexuals, considering the overt showing of body hair, but clearly they are meant to look foolish. I think you are right that the potential damaging message sent to the average viewer is “this is what a transwoman would look like in real life” when that isn’t the case at all. I also question the use of the tag line, “You think this is wrong?” Yes, I know that the following lines say that it’s just “teamwork,” but for some reason, I still don’t feel comfortable with the dialogue.

    I applaud your efforts in educating your company. I would like to read a follow-up post in your blog as to the outcome of your talks with PR and the other execs involved. I know you said they won’t pull the commercial, but I am interested in knowing whether or not they intend to do something positive for the trans community. I think a positive outcome of this event could be to improve the company internally, such as: Protecting trans employee rights, including trans education in HR diversity workshops/sexual harassment seminars and/or taking steps to support trans medical treatment in employer-sponsored healthcare coverage.

    Good luck to you!

  11. Jessica Says:

    What Nancy and Tina said.

    I particularly liked the part in the behind-the-scenes video where she was signing the guy’s “moobs”. They did have nice racks. :)

  12. D Says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Everybody’s gotta be a victim. I’m tired of people being offended at every little thing. I don’t care any more if I’m PC, I just don’t care. It’s too much work to live your life constantly fretting over trying not to hurt people’s feelings. It’s out of control.

  13. IcerieCorne Says:

    Sweet blog. I never know what I am going to come across next. I think you should do more posting as you have some pretty intelligent stuff to say.

    I’ll be watching you . :)

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