Changing how we write about trans folx in media

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Olivia Stillman
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 6:14pm

At Michigan in Color, we pride ourselves on being a section by and for people of color, dedicating ourselves to producing inclusive content from all marginalized identities. Recently, in collaboration with The Statement, we published an article with contributions from several student leaders on campus. In the process, we accidentally published a contributor’s assigned birth name instead of her current name, Vidhya Aravind.

Unfortunately, I, in my role as co-managing editor, made a mistake. In doing so, I caused undeniable harm to her individually, in addition to the trans community at large.

A person’s chosen name is an important part of their identity and self. In assuming that Vidhya would keep her last name (which she did not), I unfairly took away that power by overlooking the complexity of names, and ignoring her Indian cultural heritage.

It would be false to say that my privilege as a cisgender woman did not play a role in this. When transcribing Vidhya’s interview, I realized she had not provided her last name. It crossed my mind if I should ask what last name she wanted used, but in the chaos of production, I let myself to think “good enough.” I wrote the last name used in her uniqname rather than asking her, like I should have.

That was both damaging and dangerous. Cis people often use dead names or improper pronouns when speaking with or about trans folx, creating discomfort and sometimes harm to the person’s mental health. Furthermore, news outlets often use dead names or improper pronouns for trans folx. High-profile examples of this include reporters continuing to use Caitlyn Jenner's assigned birth name, rather than the name she chose for herself.

The media has a prominent voice in the issue, and with power comes responsibility. Using the birth names of trans folx in such a public sphere not only causes damage to their person, but can also put them in danger. Having information like birth-names publicly disclosed puts trans folx at a greater risk of being publicly outed or harassed.

On a legal level, trans folx face high levels of institutional discrimination, particularly in their attempts to change their names. Even when courts approve of such changes, administrative processes to have their name present on all forms of legal documents are both difficult and burdensome.

Besides names, trans folx often have little legal protection when it comes to workplace discrimination, or are forced to use facilities of their gender assigned at birth, rather than the one they identify with. This includes anything from bathrooms to prison cells.

After my mistake, I sat down with Vidhya to discuss what needed to happen next. She explained her careful process in choosing her name — the cultural reason for claiming a new last name, and the ways she and those close to her have been processing and reacting to seeing her birth name in print. During this conversation, I realized how little I knew about the issues, or even the jargon surrounding trans folx.

When researching for this article, I became frustrated with the lack of coverage on trans issues. While organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, attempt to educate and advocate for LGBTQ issues, few of the major news networks extensively cover everyday discrimination trans folx face. Coverage of discriminatory bathroom laws is plentiful, but information on trans discrimination in the workplace or the lack of trans representation in television and film are only available on advocacy sites and blogs.

As a member of a news outlet, I recognize I am part of the larger issue of misrepresenting trans folx and the issues they face. Beyond the individual mistakes behind misusing pronouns or birth names, we also need to do a better job of covering trans issues. According to a 2013 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 72 percent of hate homicides violence crimes were against trans women, yet I find coverage of such violence minimal.

The media claims to take a neutral stance when relaying news to the public. However, not educating ourselves on the ways privilege can manifest itself in our work can reinforce dominant narratives of silencing and erasure of the trans community. Privilege is the ability to ignore aspects of violence or discrimination against trans individuals.

Some might argue that making an effort to cover specific situations of marginalized communities is working on a slant, but, in my opinion, not making more of an effort to cover these injustices is also showing bias. These issues are important to everyone — not just the trans community — and are necessary to fully understand the society we live in.

We must be respectful of marginalized communities, vigilant in accurately representing them and their experiences and work to create space for communities to represent themselves. The media has a duty to offer platforms to those facing discrimination and, for trans folx, we are consistently failing.

In context with society as a whole, we need to do better when it comes to being social justice advocates and allies to the trans community. My actions are just one in a stream of micro- and macro-aggressions Vidhya will face today. We must take it upon ourselves to continue our education, to acknowledge our own privileges and most of all, to understand when we cause harm and work to rectify it.

If you would like to find out more about issues faced by the trans community, please visit http://www.transequality.org/issues. For more information on reporting and covering the transgender community, please see GLAAD’s Media Guide.