News coverage of trans people must improve

Illustration of Venus Xtravaganza
Illustration by Emma Ford

Current media practices obscure anti-trans violence, need balance with more stories about trans joy

News outlets need to cover anti-trans violence more often and with a focus on humanizing survivors and victims in order to better reflect the reality of being transgender and to bring attention to the fatal consequences of discrimination. They also need to make room for covering trans successes and joy, thereby providing balanced coverage and not feeding into cycles of violence.

In a May 17 “them” article, James Factora analyzed coverage of anti-trans violence in five major American news networks. Collectively, they aired 19 news segments and spent only 43 minutes on the topic during the entirety of 2021. Fewer than half the news segments featured trans guests, and the vast majority did not even name a trans person who was killed. This erasure in individual news stories exemplifies the trends in news coverage as a whole, which rarely provides a platform for trans voices. It is a profound act of silencing.

While coverage of anti-trans violence was paltry at best for all the networks studied, Fox News featured 170 segments about trans people over the course of only three weeks. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this coverage focused on dehumanizing trans people. It coded trans women as abnormal and threatening when it reported on women’s sports and accused Disney of “grooming” children when the company objected to Florida’s discriminatory “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Historically, powerful social groups often justify their violence against groups they oppress by portraying the victims as violent and their sexuality as dangerous. One example of this societal-wide victim-blaming is in the violence exerted by white American plantation owners against the Black people they enslaved, and its current continuation in police violence. 

Although news networks do not always stoop to explicit victim-blaming, more subtle forms of discrimination can prove equally detrimental. By creating a narrative in which trans people are “othered” and viewed as a dangerous threat to societal cohesion, news networks influenwce their audiences’ worldviews and behavior. The rate of attacks against trans people — whether microaggressions, assault or even murder — will only rise so long as perpetrators feel justified in their actions. 

What would appropriate news coverage of anti-trans violence look like? First, it would mean simply covering the topic in the first place. Second, the focus should be on humanizing survivors and victims. News networks can hire more trans and gender-nonconforming reporters to reduce the likelihood of unintentional (or frankly, intentional) negative bias in reporting. Lastly, although coverage of violence is important, reducing trans people and especially trans women to hate crime statistics feeds into a cycle of violence. Balanced coverage must include articles and videos on trans joy.

Jennie Livingston’s classic “Paris is Burning,” the 1990 documentary about New York City’s ballroom culture of the ’80s, offers another way to think about what coverage could look like. 

The film explores, at length, the diverse personalities who created a rich culture in the face of intense discrimination from family members and the wider society. The vogueing and costumes are incredible. So much of modern slang — “shade,” “queen,” “yas,” “werk it” — comes from transgender communities. Viewers who were previously not aware of the debt they owe to drag culture may end the movie feeling like they found commonalities of experience that they did not expect. Against this backdrop of irrepressible creativity, Venus Xtravaganza’s murder, a strangling likely due to her being a trans woman, is especially heartbreaking since the audience is invested in her life and tight-knit community. 

Livingston, who is a white lesbian and an outsider to the ball scene, has since been criticized for creating a documentary about a community formed mostly of people of color, and for not adequately compensating the people she interviewed and recorded. It is important to situate the film within its historical context and recognize that it was groundbreaking in providing visibility and positive coverage for trans people. Current news coverage can build and improve on these gains by centering the voices and perspectives of people of color.

I think reporting more on violence in trans communities will not only bring much-needed awareness to a problem that is not discussed often enough, but will also go a long ways towards helping people who are currently transphobic see genderqueer people as a vulnerable population rather than a threat. It is a depressing, but effective, way of changing peoples’ worldviews.

I remember having a conversation with a conservative couple who told me they thought that trans people have it easy nowadays and that too much attention is paid to them. In their minds, maybe there had been some discrimination in the past, but it is gone now. They communicated implicitly but clearly that trans people made them uncomfortable and that they wanted anyone who was remotely genderqueer to be as quiet as possible about it so as not to disturb them. I brought up the sky-high murder rates against trans people and said that the discrimination was still ongoing and that silence would only enable the violence to continue. They were quiet a moment, and then changed the subject.

Had I changed their minds? No. But I had gotten my foot in the door. News outlets, with their further reach, can do much more. 

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