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Journalists must cover trans people better
We invited lobbyist Gaelle Esposito to write about her experience facing anti-trans rhetoric in Arizona politics.
We’ve known Gaelle Esposito, a progressive lobbyist and partner at Creosote Partners, for more than a decade. This legislative session has been her first as an out trans woman.
She recently called Hank to complain about the disparate treatment that reporters, ourselves included, gave to the governor’s spokeswoman after she tweeted a vaguely hostile message at “transphobes” versus Rep. Alex Kolodin’s threat to “shoot” anyone who interferes with his right to raise his children as he sees fit. The spokeswoman’s tweet went viral nationally, drawing death threats to her and to Esposito (she had recently replied to one of Esposito’s tweets), while Kolodin’s statement got a few minor mentions in local media (we used it as our daily “laugh”).
Esposito wasn’t mad — just exhausted. We spoke about it for a while, and she asked what she could do to force reporters and readers to think more deeply about how they frame the conversation about trans people amid the constant drumbeat of threats that they increasingly face, from laws targeting their ability to receive healthcare to online death threats from the digital mobs that support those kinds of laws.
And since every reporter worth their salt reads the Agenda, we figured we would give her some space to help us understand.
Let’s talk about trans people.
Honestly, I would rather we didn’t have to. It feels like my community has been talked about plenty, and it’s unpleasant to watch your right to exist questioned and debated.
Republicans in the Arizona Legislature and throughout the country are advancing a variety of anti-trans bills this year that would make life for trans people more difficult and dangerous. The journalists covering these bills, and the fallout of a recent tweet about transphobia, need to work harder and learn more about covering our community to better reflect all that’s happening.
It goes without saying that I am not a reporter. To be a lobbyist is to be unloved, but to be a journalist feels like that with worse pay. Frankly, I don’t know what it takes to be a journalist and won’t pretend to. The hope here is not to tell anyone how to do a job I know nothing of, but how to understand transgender perspectives and issues when they intersect with it.
Politicians and anti-transgender groups have recently escalated their efforts to isolate us. In Arizona alone, each week this legislative session featured at least one bill hearing targeting the rights of trans people, despite Gov. Katie Hobbs explicitly stating these potential laws will meet her veto stamp. Nationwide, there have been almost 500 anti-trans bills in 49 states. As of the writing of this piece, 43 have passed and 363 are still alive. This does not include executive actions either.
Last year, former Gov. Doug Ducey refused to even acknowledge to reporters that trans people existed and signed two such attacks into law. Trans kids have had to sit through hearings where anti-trans legislators insult them so these politicians can rile up their base and try to hold on to power.
The fact is that anti-trans groups operate on the fringes of society. Every major medical organization affirms that trans people of all ages exist, and that access to gender-affirming care is necessary. Even an Arizona senator pushing these bills admitted in a House committee hearing that he intends to incite a moral panic with his legislation. Trans people are being targeted today in a way we have seen played out many times in history against other minority groups, and unbiased journalism should not require giving an uncritical platform to anti-trans voices.
Recent coverage following the shooting in Nashville provides opportunities to reflect on best practices. Most of the many news and opinion articles that followed included uncritical repetition of political talking points connecting all trans people to a tragedy that was the responsibility of an individual — and did so when it is clear that the shooter’s transgender status was not even relevant to the crime. Providing this background is absolutely necessary, because without it we only contribute to a narrative of demonization.
Locally, political operatives were quick to jump on Hobbs' former press secretary for tweeting “us when we see transphobes” alongside an image of a woman holding two guns from the 1980 movie “Gloria” hours after the shooting. I know firsthand that the tweet had no relation to the shooting, but local reporters offered breathless coverage of Republican voices that cried foul.
When you are writing these stories we need you to pause, think carefully, and remember the environment of extreme legislative and cultural targeting trans people face at this time. Take a moment, reflect on how you are talking about individuals and how it connects to the community as a whole.
This very publication provides an example of the problem that was endemic throughout other local papers and stories, but they gave me the platform so they’ll get picked on by name.
When briefly covering the aforementioned tweet, the Agenda immediately connected it to the identity of the shooter in Nashville. They started to give context, which is positive, but it was limited and failed a key test — it stated that the tweet was not related to the shooting, but allowed the implication that being trans was related to the motivation for the original crime. Police have not determined a motive for the shooting, and trans people are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than assailants.
Journalists, more often than not, are already trained not to inappropriately emphasize the racial or religious identity of a person in sensitive stories. Currently, trans people are not yet afforded that, and thus innocent people can get caught up in targeted hate after a horrifying event. Combine this with the passivity with which legislation is often covered by respectable and reputable reporters — in which proponents are afforded a legitimacy other hate groups would and should never receive — along with the constant, aggressive anti-trans propaganda right-wing media is peddling, and we are left with an overwhelmingly toxic atmosphere.
To drive this home, on the same day many of these stories ran, a Republican legislator said he would shoot someone who tried to stop his child from being circumcised as part of his Jewish heritage and faith. Little coverage was given to his much more explicit comments. Groups and individuals targeting the Jewish community are rightly treated as unacceptable and motivated by hate — the same can’t be said for those targeting the trans community.
Our attackers get plenty of time to make their “cases.” We find them everywhere, including right-wing TV networks and state legislatures. Sometimes, they'll get a national platform at a major conference, where they call for the eradication of “transgenderism.” Other times they hide in the shadows, making bomb threats to Budweiser factories for daring to pay a trans person to promote their product.
They could even be found trolling my social media. There, they have encouraged me to kill myself, called me slurs or simply wanted to make a hateful comment to a stranger.
Recently, as a result of the backlash to that tweet about transphobia, I had to make my accounts private. A team of doxxing protection experts encouraged me, among other recommendations, to delete pictures of me with the children in my family to keep them safe. I removed the photos. It felt terrible.
The anti-trans playbook is distressingly predictable: They seek to put us in boxes based on our perceived differentiation from their norm, to dehumanize and blame us for societal problems we have no control over and to exploit the fact that we are a small population many people may not have familiarity with to stoke fear and division. They do this to exclude trans youth from access to healthcare, school facilities and sports. They increasingly seek to exclude all trans people from access to any gender-affirming care or public life at all.
When we agree that these tactics are not the legitimate ground of policy discussion no matter how loudly anti-trans voices proclaim them, we build a better dialogue for everybody. By focusing on the best practices of groups like the American Medical Association and uplifting the stories and voices of actual trans individuals, we reduce stigma and help people better understand what being transgender really is like.
For journalists who want to cover these issues, there are fortunately several resources to help. The Trans Journalist Association Style Guide is a comprehensive tool that includes everything from guidance on how to be respectful in coverage, common mistakes to avoid, along with a glossary of terms and appropriate language to utilize. GLAAD took a comprehensive approach to creating a one-stop shop for media resources, including a checklist for a reporter to review when covering trans people and topics. The Transgender Law Center has a “Journalist Resource Series” that thus far helps with coverage on anti-trans medical bans and anti-trans athletic bans. The Trans Journalists Association, Media Matters, and the Human Rights Campaign developed a FAQ on writing about anti-trans violence with appropriate sensitivity. Finally, NBCU Academy made their own video featuring an NBC Out reporter and associate editor on reporting on the transgender community.
These resources should give anyone working on a story involving trans people or issues what they need to get started and feel confident that they are treating people with respect and dignity.
At the end of the day, trans people seek the same dignity and respect, no more, no less, that everyone wants. We all hope and work for a good life where we can be loved and accepted for who we are.
The next time you write about trans folks, please remember that.
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