There’s a game I often play with any article that features the words “trans” in the title: simply, “spot the trans person.” This is a game of losers, by and large, an unwinnable word search. More often than not you can skim through to find quotes about trans people, and words written around us, our identities and struggles. A direct quote from a trans person, someone with lived and real experience, is a rare find.
Take for instance, this article from The Guardian about the Hillary Swank film, Boys Don’t Cry. For many people, this film was their first view of trans people in any medium. A landmark film is a prime opportunity for a trans person to talk about how that film shaped their world. Instead, we have a cis male writer with pronouns in his bio talking about trans folks. Which, while a good start, is lacking the next step, which is involving a trans person.
You would think that there would at least be two sides to listen to.
We are seeing the same thing right now with news stories about the current situation around the Toronto Public Library and self-described feminist Meghan Murphy. For background: the Toronto Public Library provided Murphy a room at one of their facilities to hold a talk. Murphy branded the exercise as women coming together to talk about women’s rights. Her speeches are explicitly about trans women, and how the rights of trans women infringe on women’s rights and put them at risk. Murphy, it should be noted, was famously banned from Twitter for hate speech towards trans women online.
A rally was held outside the Palmerston branch of the Toronto Public Library in response to the event and the TPL’s initial refusal to reverse their rental decision, even in light of a massive public outcry. I and others have given depositions to the board of the TPL, written letters, made phone calls and rallied outside the library to make ourselves heard. Toronto councillors recently voted in support of TPL reviewing its policies governing the use of community spaces.
The TPL insisted on painting Murphy as a minority voice, seldom heard and worth protecting. The lion’s share of the media before the event cast Murphy as a victim, a champion of free speech, and someone whose voice has been denied for simply asking questions about trans people. Her headshot has been featured on a great number of articles about the situation.
If the argument is about free speech and expression, you would think that there would at least be two sides to listen to, but the media was largely forgoing trans voices in favour of Murphy and other cis people talking about trans issues. Take a gander at some of the articles that come up with a cursory Google search for weeks, and you will find yourself once again losing the word search game in lieu of talks about what the trans community thinks and what we are doing.
Even when trans voices are the ones that are the first to draw attention to issues like this, we’re still pushed to the sidelines. When the heat was starting to turn up on this issue, noted authors Alicia Elliott, Carianne Leung and Catherine Hernandez, all three cis women, created a petition asking the TPL to reconsider the stance on this issue. To date, their petition has over 8,000 signatures. Somewhat understandably, this drew the media’s attention. After all, all three are well-known, award-winning authors of note.
We could give greater context to the issues that exists within and around our community.
The CBC’s “As it Happens” has interviewed both Murphy and Elliott. At the time of writing, the National Post has written at least three articles about Murphy and the conflict. The CBC has interviewed, on radio and in print, Murphy and our cis allies. When trans folks made public that we would be attending and speaking at the TPL board meeting, so many allies and supporters showed that a second room had to be provided to accommodate everyone. And yet only one outlet, Now Magazine, showed up. The promise of trans voices speaking to our needs and pleading our case was not enticing enough for many media to properly cover, and even then, we’re a faint hint in the story. We were the loudest people in the rooms, but the quietest on the page.
This is a failing of the media in their pursuit of telling the full story of what we are doing here. It’s not like we’re not available, vocal and easy to reach. Just take a look at Twitter. When you post something and it reaches thousands of people, when verified Twitter accounts are retweeting your message and you have to turn notifications off just to stop the flood — you would assume that people are listening.
But seemingly not so for media outlets. Noted writer/public speaker and scholar Gwen Benaway, who ironically won the Governor General’s Book Award the day of the protest only to be locked inside the building by the police, has been particularly vocal on social media. If simple literary celebrity was the cause for choosing cis voices over one of our own, would Benaway not have sufficed?
This erasure is consistent with the longstanding negative attitudes faced by marginalized communities to this day. Like so many subjects in a documentary, we are people to be marvelled or gawked at. Look at the playful trans rights activist as they tweet about trying to be able to find a safe washroom. Wonder at the trans rights activist as they post screenshots of the hate mail we receive ad nauseum.
But if we were to be given the space to have our voices heard, we could give greater context to the issues that exists within and around our community. Take, for instance, this thoughtful Globe and Mail article about Benaway’s recent win of the Governor General Book Award. It highlights what it looks like for a trans woman to win a major literary award, and how that affects her life. How an increased public profile can be scary, can bring violence and hate speech into her life, but also allows her to be able to afford to live. It shows there is nuance in our lives and the events that happen within them.
As far as I can tell, this might have been one of the only pieces that interviewed a trans woman regarding this issue until very recently. It’s still rare to see someone sitting down with a trans woman and asking them what it is we’re even fighting for. And you can read it, if you’re a Globe and Mail online subscriber. Because of course, when our voices are finally being given space, it still comes with provisos.
There is a litany of trans voices available; hundreds of them were in the streets engaging in peaceful protest in front of the Palmerston branch of the TPL. We have made this situation trend on Twitter. At this point, our community has no reason to feel the media’s oversight is anything but intentional. It feels like the media feels more comfortable talking about us than to us — a community of many that is nowhere to be found.
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