12/22/2020 15:21 EST | Updated 12/22/2020 15:25 EST

When Media Misreports Our Stories, Trans People Are Left To Clean Up The Mess

Improving the state of journalism is not something that should fall on the shoulders of the trans community.

Out of respect for the individuals referred to in this article, deadnames have been replaced with the correct information using brackets.

I was 33 years old when former Olympian and reality show contestant Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair’s June 2015 issue, dressed simply in a white corset. 

I remember standing in line at the checkout, listening to people joke about the way that Caitlyn looked: her shoulders, her jaw, her transness, a public display to be jeered at. The headline “Call Me Caitlyn” called to mind that breathy voice people do when they’re mocking rich women.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Caitlyn Jenner on Jan. 28, 2020 in London, England, five years after her Vanity Fair Cover.

A story like Jenner’s was a bombshell. Here was a celebrity, once known by a different name, directly rebuking what people thought they knew about her. Along with TIME Magazine’s cover the year before — featuring an iconic shot of Laverne Cox standing tall and proud against an off-white background with the words “The Transgender Tipping Point” — it was clear that trans issues were not only starting to hit the mainstream media, but had entered the public consciousness in a new way.

It was also made abundantly clear that the media had a lot to learn about trans identities and how they cover our stories. Newsrooms used elements of exploitation, like shock tactics, to put eyes on a story or amass clicks. Others presented Jenner’s story as if in a vacuum, with no discussion of the average transgender person’s day-to-day life, erasing from the conversation the material realities many trans people struggle with: unemployment, troubling access to health care and discrimination. Our community was faced with the exhausting task of explaining that Caitlyn Jenner’s experience doesn’t speak for all of us.

On Dec.1, 2020, Elliot Page, star of “Umbrella Academy,” “Juno,” “Inception” and the X-Men films (to name a few) announced that he was trans, and would be using he/they pronouns moving forward. The announcement was made via a tweeted screenshot that went on to discuss the material realities of being an out transgender person in 2020: the record-high murder rate of trans people, a majority of whom and Black and Latinx; the criminalization of health care by politicians, both locally and abroad; and the rampant transphobia shared by individuals with large platforms. It was a statement that highlighted the desire for celebration in his identity without denying the unfortunate drawbacks to being a trans person.

Trans people across the internet welcomed Page into the community with joyous declarations of solidarity and love. Meanwhile, news outlets from coast to coast ran headlines like “[Elliot] Page states he is transgender and is now Elliot Page,” deadnaming Page. Right-wing media pundits broadcasted harmful narratives about trans people, decrying what some people see as a loss for the lesbian community. Tweets like “2020: the year woke dudes congratulate people for not being lesbians” rang through the air. One outlet ran a story claiming the “mass acceptance of [the] Elliot Page gender transition is dangerous whimsy.” Many readers pushed back against these instances of deadnaming —  which attacks an individual’s mental health and disregards their identity — urging outlets and individuals to delete their content and try again.

Outlets have had numerous resources to turn to for guidance about reporting on trans issues.

By contrast, coverage by LGBTQ2S+ publications, like this piece from Them, drew from Page’s written statement and expanded on his discussion of the violence and discrimination we face. This article treats the subject as a human, not an object, and doesn’t gloss over the needs of the trans community as a whole.

Simple journalism like this is the least we can ask for. Reporting on trans issues remains so sparse that the number of trans lives lost every year is always an estimate, with the work of remembering lives lost falling on the shoulders of trans women like Monica Roberts (who sadly passed away this year). Even in death, we can hardly count on mainstream outlets to tell our stories. Aimee Stephens, who passed away in May amid a Supreme Court battle to prove she was fired by her employer for being trans, was deadnamed by the New York Times, the Associated Press and others in memoriam. 

Mark Blinch/REUTERS/File Photo
Elliot Page at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2019. 

After five years of trans people asking for better treatment from the media and vows to do better, it’s clear we have hardly moved beyond 2015.  Which begs the question: why do media outlets swim against the current, then and now? 

Since Jenner, outlets have had numerous resources to turn to for guidance about reporting on trans issues, including the Trans Journalist Association’s style guide. Instead, many reported on Page’s news using incorrect language. They could have followed Page’s lead, not referring to his deadname. Yet it appeared in numerous headlines until community membersdid the work of asking outlets to amend their messaging. This is a direct result of little to no trans representation in today’s newsrooms, a number so small and nebulous that we have no stats to quantify it.

Something as personal and sensitive as Page’s announcement should have been treated with care instead of farmed for reactions.

Shortly after Elliot Page’s news had broken, trans people were posting on Twitter about being exhausted and burnt out. As we often do in the wake of media failures, members of the trans community stepped in to clean up the mess, explaining again and again why deadnaming is wrong and harmful, or how to unconditionally affirm someone’s gender without invasively questioning their sexuality or body. Many of us wrote emails to editors, replied to social media posts, minded the “devil’s advocates” and carefully explained to our families why certain outlets had gotten it wrong. We had spent an entire week fighting for things we shouldn’t have to fight for any more, on top of working jobs, and the work that goes into simply living and fighting to be respected as trans people.

But improving the state of journalism is not something that should fall on the shoulders of the trans community.

Reporting the news bears with it a level of responsibility, not only to your subject but to your readers and affected communities. Something as personal and sensitive as Page’s announcement should have been treated with care instead of farmed for reactions.

Coming out as trans is coming out as who you really are, who you’ve felt you needed to hide from a world that is dangerous and unkind to so many of us, until you can’t take it any longer and announce your authentic self. In the five years since the tipping point, media should be closer to getting this right than it is. As the gatekeepers to our stories, journalists have the ability to let our joy out into the world  — if only they could work to stop the hate from coming back in.

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