How Do You Change a Conversation You Aren’t Allowed to Have?

With minimal institutional power or presence in American newsrooms, how can transgender people shift public discussion about us?

PHOTO: A scan of the last edition of The Gender Review, a Canadian newsletter than ran from 1978 to 1982 (Source)

It is an assumed but rarely-noted fact that transgender people are rarely discussed as a people and more often spoken of as a thing that is happening. Not a cultural constant throughout history, but a “revolution” — as National Geographic put it just four years ago. Not a kind of person, but a tipping point — as TIME Magazine famously declared in 2014 after apparently discovering transgender people.

We are depicted across the US media as both everywhere and nowhere. We are constantly new, each one of us the first at something, each of us to be assessed for our certainty, the tone of our voice. Reporters engage us like a people slowly crawling out from the dark, squinting at the sunlight and making an offering of anxiety and pronoun stickers.

These and many more features of the American media’s work about us are not merely simplistic or infantilizing or offensive — they are also wrong. They misrepresent a marginalized group three quarters of the country still — still — claims to not know. The American media is a broken platform from which we are forced to explain ourselves to lawmakers, employers, and the parents of trans children. Our priorities are not set by us but by the sensitivities and prejudices of a wholly cis, largely white, largely male news media.

A chart of racial demographics of political reporting teams at major news publications — all of which are majority white

It is a conversation about us led by people who are not us, and 200 years of reporting about transgender people should be enough for us to declare this model an utter failure.

For many transgender people, this gap represents nothing short of a crisis. For most, it is yet another system where ones survival hinges on their ability to challenge as few assumptions as possible. For myself, it is a problem to solve — how can we change the tone, perspective, and priorities of a news media that refuses to let us inside its Petrushka doll of ingroups? How do you make people who are not like you understand the importance of listening to — or even just calling up — people who are like you? How do you change the standards of a room you aren’t even allowed to enter?

This vision of transgender people as an event was never more clear than in the coverage immediately following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Title VII — without a doubt the most significant legal victory in the history of transgender rights. In their initial stories, most major news outlets refused to even quote a transgender person — an incredible feat given a trangender person (Aimee Stephens) was one of three plaintiffs and two transgender lawyers (Chase Strangio and Gabriel Arkles) were on the winning litigation team.

I was one of just two transgender people allowed on cable news to discuss the case — and the other was Laverne Cox, perhaps the most famous trans person in the country. This alienation of us from even the conversations about us is nothing new — roundtables, panels, podcasts, news programming, and news outlets consistently find us fascinating but seemingly unwelcome to participate.

Our most mundane life goals — a career, a relationship, a family — are regarded with the distant curiosity of zoogoers watching otters wash pebbles in creek water. Of course, that’s the best-case scenario. At worst, we are dismissed out of hand, critiqued by people inexplicably threatened by us, or regarded with the patronizing concern typical of all misogyny.

Its a rather new phenomenon for these criticisms to be heard at all. The better-or-worse democratizing effect of social media has given a few choice transgender people a voice, as well as the means to organize and protest. But our criticisms have been met with the disdain, retaliation, and harassment that always serve as the immune system for homogenous, broken systems. In the manner of all stereotypes, the few trans people who dare to let their anger show will be used to dismiss us as a distant mob — all in defense of the right to poke, prod, and judge under the guise of objectivity or “free speech.”

This repelling of criticism is not unique to transgender people, and the last month has witnessed a reckoning across lines of race and gender. Editors and publications have been taken to task for bigotries social and economic — harassment, tokenism, and condescension often accompanying pay disparities and hoarded opportunity. It is this industry — littered with biases at all angles — that dares to hold “objectivity” as its intent, despite utter domination by straight white men at all levels of leadership. This is the funhouse mirror used to reflect transgender people back at their readers — an image so distorted it is rarely recognizable to transgender people ourselves and especially alienating to transgender people of color.

The American media has a long and storied history of brutalizing transgender people through the written word, acting with no regard for our privacy or our safety. While significant progress has been made in the 68 years since Christine Jorgensen graced tabloid covers, we are still regarded with bemusement and fascination by some and reactionary horror by others.

Up to the present day, our bodies are shared as public goods, exhibits propped on wire, magic tricks leaving you guessing where the Jack of Hearts could have possibly been tucked away. In these fictions the news writes about us, we are either decadent mistakes, beleaguered pioneers, or embodiments of sin wielding informed consent contracts and gender-neutral driver’s licenses like some bureaucratic blood libel.

It would be remarkable if this were not the case. A cisgender reporter sent to write an article about transgender people is inherently a tourist. Much like any travel writer, they will carry their past experiences and judgments into our lives and those will be shown across their work. This is not to claim cisgender people cannot tell transgender stories — many do so with professionalism, compassion, and thoughtfulness. But when only cisgender people are writing about us — or judging the rare transgender narrative for publication — it’s exceedingly difficult to redirect the public conversation about us, let alone lead it.

There are no openly transgender reporters at most outlets. There are no openly transgender reporters (as of July 2020) at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, CBS News, ABC News, CNN, or MSNBC. There are no regular transgender columnists at The Atlantic, Harper’s, n+1, The Nation, Politico, The Economist, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Essence, Elle, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Time, or Newsweek. BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Outside, Bon Appetit, Gizmodo, Salon, Vulture, and The Ringer all, to my awareness, lack a single transgender staff writer. Only a few outlets have more than one trans person on staff, and the vast majority of trans reporters are left to fend for themselves in the wilds of freelancing.

Search any one of those outlets and you will find a massive wave of writing about transgender people and relatively little by transgender people. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association — whose trans-erasure is divulged by its very name — consistently rewards reporting about us but rarely if ever rewards reporting by us. Based on the output of this very cis environment, you could be forgiven for assuming transgender people are lithe creatures often spotted at dusk, armed with venom-filled sacs waiting for the first person who fails to ask us our pronouns. To most cisgender reporters, we are a set of rules, a figment of language making their job harder lest they offend us.

That offense, however, is not a matter of sensitivity as much as it is a matter of accuracy. If you are a good reporter, you will cover transgender people just fine. If you listen to people and trust them to serve as the experts on their own experience, transgender people’s identities will be no road bump at all. But if you are blind in the most Dunning-Kruger matter, loose with small details and eager to frame a narrative you built before you ever picked up your phone, then you most likely will not.

A transgender reporter will not be immune to biases — we are not inoculated against white supremacy, ableism, or even internalized transphobia by virtue of our marginalization — but on this matter, we do know how to listen. We are far less likely to view with skepticism the lives of those like us and far more likely to reject the messages told to every culture-consuming person about us— blunt, violent, and constant messages about our worth.

But most importantly, we will understand what is an important story to trans people and what is an important story to cis people — two divergent categories with minimal overlap. Legacy outlets are rife with stories about our pronouns, our fertility, our relationship with our bodies — important stories, but ones rewarded for their ability to help cis people gawk, stare, worry, and ultimately resist us. Our measure of newsworthiness is often directly correlated to our ability (or inability) to conform to very straight, very white standards of normalcy while emphasizing the threat we pose to that normalcy.

Shifting that conversation is not impossible from the outside, but doing so requires more resources, money, and time than most transgender people have. We, as a people, lack institutional power — making claims about our reliance on “cancel culture” all the more laughable. So the priorities of trans people are rarely heard — cisgender people with power in media, academia, publishing, and advocacy call the shots while we scream outside the tightly-locked door.

This is especially true of transgender people of color, who must not only fight against the cis tendencies of the media but the white supremacist tendencies of both the media and queer spaces — still too often dominated by white queer people like myself. It is only a recent development Black transgender people received any significant public attention at all — largely the work of Black trans women like Raquel Willis, Laverne Cox, Ashlee Marie Preston, Imara Jones, Indya Moore, and Monica Roberts, the last of whom has effectively served as the Ida B. Wells of the fight for trans liberation and trans safety. But, as these organizers will tell you, members of the media (and — it should be noted — LGBTQ advocacy and nonprofit spaces) are now in a rush to speak about dead Black trans women while providing very little space to listen to living Black trans women.

This makes fighting racism within trans spaces particularly important — we must ensure we do not reward or encourage the tendencies of the news media to treat white people as the base level. We cannot succumb to the scarcity mindset enforced upon us by the media — we must model the stories we want to see and project that image back to them.

With no significant institutional power — including presence in newsrooms — that can seem like a tall order. We cannot change a conversation we are not allowed to have. But as trans people do rise throughout society, we must repel the same bigoted traits that gives us a narrow and awkward media landscape. We must give cisgender reporters no choice but to see the full breadth of transgender people for who we are.

Writer | Media Strategist | Press @NWLC | Co-Founder @TransJournalist | Bylines: The Atlantic, Newsweek, Out, Openly, Rewire, The Daily Dot | She/Her