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What should the media do about attacks on trans people?


For CWA Canada

It’s an old newsroom adage that one shouldn’t become the story. Like much of the established way of doing things, it is at risk of becoming redundant and discarded in our era of political-social media manipulation.

Being trans has become part of the story. A manufactured outrage that started with bathroom bills several years ago has morphed into a cacophony of legislation in dozens of U.S. states seeking to limit transgender individuals’ agency in healthcare and many other aspects of their public and private life.

In Canada, reactive forces appear less organised than down south or across in the United Kingdom, but they exist all the same, giving cover to a retreat on inclusive sex education in Ontario several years ago and active in recent school board elections. Small groups of right-wing protesters have sought to disrupt drag reading events at public libraries, although thankfully the absence of a second amendment here at least stops them from showing up visibly armed.

Whether we like it or not, the right to exist for a small minority of people has become a lightning rod for regressive types, and celebration or even acknowledgement of trans existence is now a target for sustained online and real-life harassment.

(For evidence of this look no further than Kid Rock and other angry men shooting guns at packs of Bud Light beer after the company dared to market itself with a drag influencer, or the backlash to Hershey’s featuring Canada’s Fae Johnstone in its International Women’s Day campaign.)

This heavy-handed opposition is part of a deliberate strategy that seeks to remove any and all positive role models for trans and gender creative people while enforcing a strict and arbitrary norm for all of us, trans and cis folks alike.

We now begin celebrating Pride month, an annual affirmation that two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer people (2SLGBTQ+) deserve to flourish.

But how can coverage of this sequined and glitter-filled party, this rebellion against a dominant cisheteronormative culture, sit in isolation from the grim reality which surrounds it?

This darkening atmosphere has very real and meaningful outcomes. Just two weeks ago, Florida’s governor (and possible Republican presidential candidate) signed a series of laws designed to outlaw trans life, while Texas banned any and all gender-affirming care for minors.

How then should the media, one of its hallowed tenets being to speak truth to power, respond? How should a trans journalist navigate this merging of their professional and personal identities? What does the audience – and all of society – need to know to better understand the world around them, and whose job is it to tell these stories?

I’m not entirely sure.

I know we don’t need more faux fuss, like the recent TV segment about a trans woman who finished ahead of 14,000 other women in the London marathon as though it proved something about her physical advantages, without mentioning that more than 6,000 others finished ahead of her.

(Elite athletic bodies have recently ruled that trans women who went through male puberty are ineligible to compete in female categories; a ruling that does not apply to the non-elite portions of open events such as public marathons.)

We do need more nuance, and less both-sides reporting that gives a platform to those whose arguments dehumanise their opponents. We need more stories of everyday people who happen to be trans or know someone who is without it leading to the collapse of society. We need more trans journalists, editors and other media workers, and we need more allies to stand up in support of their story-telling.

Is that too much to ask?

(Morgan Sharp is a trans journalist and the director for small branches at the Canadian Media Guild. She has reported for Reuters and Canada’s National Observer, and is currently freelancing with a focus on gender, among other subjects.)

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