Over the past month, #Translivesmatter and #AllBlackLivesMatter protests have erupted across the U.S., rippling into global solidarity efforts from London to Cape Town. As activists raise awareness of intersectional violence within the Black community, and the severe vulnerability of the BIPOC LGBTQIA+ community, their work — and this discussion — have only just begun.
Meanwhile, media interest in the movement has increased. Alongside the heightened coverage, journalistic violence continues through acts such as deadnaming or misgendering. Non-violent representation requires journalists to rethink their modus operandi for reporting.
We’ve compiled a list of tips to help unroot cisgender-heteronormative biases and assumptions when reporting:
1) Normalize asking all interview participants for their pronouns — even if you don’t ‘assume’ they’re trans.
If you’ve been doing interviews for years and have never asked your subjects what their pronouns are, it’s likely that you’ve misgendered people or used less affirming pronouns at some point.
Instead of treating trans interview participants as special cases, make it standard procedure to ask all interviewees for their pronouns. You’d be surprised at how many people’s pronouns, including those of cisgender people, you might get wrong.
2) Determine if it is necessary to disclose someone’s transness.
When journalists report on a cis woman, they rarely refer to her as cis. At the same time, journalists often overemphasize transness.
Although trans erasure is important to be wary of, contemplate whether revealing someone's transness is integral to the story. In the case of many activists and contemporary coverage on the #Translivesmatter movement, it may be empowering to claim transness. However, this is not something a journalist should just assume.
If it’s integral to highlight someone’s transness, avoid reiterating their transness, except for where it naturally emerges in discussion. For example, you don’t need to say “a trans activist”, or “a trans man” more than once.
3) Be careful of tokenism.
As interest in trans issues has increased, publications have opened their purses and platforms to a group of people that are likely to be underrepresented again if we tokenize transness.
In order to steer away from tokenism and future erasure, journalists should focus on centering trans people in their reporting even when their transness is not the highlight of the story, and especially when transness isn't trending.
4) Contemplate whether you’re the right person to be writing about this.
When trying to ethically represent a group that is vulnerable to societal and structural violence, journalists should contemplate whether they actively partake in marginalizing this group. If you have a history of marginalizing a group, it may not be your place to take the reins on representing this community. For example, one could recognize their own homoantagonism or transantagonism and decide against writing a piece about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Contemplate whether you’re the right person to write the article, and if not, ask someone who is. Perhaps there are trans writers in the field who rarely have the same publication opportunities. If you discover that there aren’t any trans writers who are eager for the opportunity to represent their own community, be aware both of your positionality and of silencing participants with your direction.
5) Be mindful of dysphoria and ask people how they’d like to be represented.
Although not all transgender people experience dysphoria, it is important to check in with your interview subjects on their preferences for representation — from pronouns to images. Ask participants if they might prefer an illustration of themselves to a photograph, or perhaps offer them the opportunity to shoot themselves.
Some participants might choose to work with an LGBTQIA+ friendly photographer of their choice, or opt out of photoshoots in general. Never ever download images from a trans person’s social media, assuming that they’d be comfortable with it. If someone’s pronouns are “Defund the Police” or “Daddy,” respect that! Although it may seem impractical or a joke at first, people’s pronouns are always valid. Allowing room for new language and definitions of selfhood is integral to inclusive representation.
Don’t make the assumption that your modus operandi for reporting can be copied and pasted in the process of ethical representation. Spend time reading and listening to people within the LGBTQIA+ community. Ask everyone about gender and steer away from the guessing game.
In the process of building a more inclusive reporting style, you may even discover more about yourself and your own preferences when you allow the opportunity for options.
Nazlee Arbee is an independent writer and artist based in Cape Town, South Africa.