Crossing the Line? Reporting Transgender

Networking group Women in Media WA held an event examining the representation of transgender people in the media. The event was held at The Dominion League in Northbridge and featured a panel with both professional and personal knowledge on the trans community. Louise Pratt, a former WA senator, spoke of the challenges she faced when her partner was forced to transition in the limelight due to Louise’s position. Tina Ross transitioned in 2012 and was brave enough to tell her story. Dr Rob Cover from UWA, author of “Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity: Unbelievable Lives?” shared his expertise in gender.

WIM

Key Terms

The three terms you should familiarise yourself with when writing about gender diversity as a PR practitioner or journalist are ‘transgender’, ‘non-binary gender’ and ‘intersex’. If someone is transgender it typically means they identify as a gender that is different to the one assigned to them at birth. People with a non-binary gender or gender queer do not see themselves as exclusively a man or woman. Gender is fluid for gender queer individuals. Intersex means that biologically a person has both male and female characteristics whether it be their hormones, chromosomes, internal reproductive system or external genitals.

The Problem

In the past trans people were seen as ‘freaks’, the butt of the joke and in some cases even dangerous. Dr Rob Cover gave the example of the serial killer in the 1991 film ‘Silence of the Lambs’. Whilst Rob said there has been significant change in the past 5-7 years there is definitely still room for improvement. Many public relations practitioners and reporters are well meaning but can unwillingly perpetuate negative stereotypes.

  • Objectifying transgender people in an attempt to increase listeners, ratings or readership.
    Hayley Davis who facilitated the discussion gave the perfect example of this exploitation in the media coverage of the murder of transwoman Mayang Prasetyo. Mayang was killed and dismembered by her partner. The Courier-Mail chose to run the headline “Monster Chef and the She Male” with an image of Mayang in a bikini and repeatedly mentioned that she was a sex worker. Though the Australian Press Council deemed the story offensive and a breach press standards it illustrates we still have a long way to go.
  • Only showing the challenges to being trans and the “struggle with no end”
    Dr Rob Cover spoke of the danger of only presenting the negative side of being transgender. He said people are likely to commit suicide when they feel they don’t belong and they cannot see a future for themselves. This highlights the medias responsibility to show diverse representations of trans people, that it is not all doom and gloom, so the trans community can see how resilient they are. Dr Rob Cover praised the Amazon TV series ‘Transparent’ in their depiction of a strong, resilient, caring transwoman.
  • Not including a trans voice in the discussion of gay rights
    Louise Pratt expressed her disappointment that trans people were often left out of coverage on issues such as gay marriage. She spoke of several laws that are prejudiced towards the trans community that are often not bought into the public sphere by those working in PR and journalism such as the fact that an individual has to have major, invasive, irreversible genital surgery to be covered by the anti-discrimination act.
  • Asking members of the trans community inappropriate questions
    Louise Pratt said she felt stressed and traumatised by some of the stories that were reported on her and her partner. Louise made it clear it was not acceptable to ask someone about their genitals and encouraged those working in the media to make their interview subject feel comfortable.

The Solution

  • Positive gender diverse role models
    Tina Ross communicated her wish that she had known about transsexual US tennis player Renée Richards when she started to struggle with her gender. She recalls thinking “Am I the only one? What’s wrong with me?” Tina said she would have liked to have seen more role models who were not in the sex industry. Dr Rob Cover said he would like to see more representations of trans people in the media where they are not just pigeonholed for their gender.
  • Educating both children and adults about gender diversity
    Tina Ross commended programs in schools that educate children on gender diversity but emphasised the need to inform adults on the trans community. The panel said before we can change representations of trans people in the media we need to change how people think.
  • Being fair and ethical in producing content on transgender individuals
    Respect people’s history and pronouns and make use of the numerous resources available on gender diversity. Tina Ross explained for some trans people talking about their past can be very upsetting so let them guide the conversation or focus on the person they are today. When it comes to what people prefer to be called Tina said the safest thing to do is simply ask. The panel also suggested putting the number to QLife at the end of articles featuring a transgender person.

    The contact number for QLife the counselling and referral service for the LBTIQA community is 1800 184 527.

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