Transgender people live daily with this reality: they are systemically silenced, either because the lack of social protections mean that having their identity known can put their jobs, housing, and even lives in danger, or because they are denied access to the spaces where they could be heard, such as the news.
The latter is extremely complicated because it can be intentional ("people don't care about trans issues, so why air them?") or unintentional ("trans issues aren't even on our radar, or those of our audiences, so why would we air them?"). This is viciously cyclical because people won't care about issues they don't understand, or even know about, and they won't be on people's radars until we put them there.
As a cisgender, Caucasian gay male, I have recently been forced to face a startling question. It's a question that is unfortunately not a stunning realization for my transgender brothers and sisters: "What does a transgender person have to do to make the news?"
Why is this bee suddenly in my bonnet? Because on Saturday, May 9 I went out to Centennial Park at 10 a.m. to cover a transgender activist protest that was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. I wanted to get there early because I was sure it was going to be big news. Shutting down West End Avenue at Vanderbilt for fifteen minutes at lunch time on senior move-out day? Yeah, that was going to piss people off and I wanted to make sure I didn't get caught in the traffic and miss it. So I was there before the activists, and even before the cops who were trying to locate them.
I KNEW it was going to be big news when Commander Kay Lokey got out of the first cop car (there were dozens) and engaged LaSaia Wade, the march organizer. I KNEW it was going to be big news when Commander Lokey ordered her officers to shut down the street and redirect traffic around to allow the protesters their moment, their space, to be seen and heard. And it should have been big news. The only thing that was missing was … the mainstream news media.
It took a day or two for that to kick in: no articles on websites (except O&AN), no photos or videos (except O&AN), and no commentary (except … well, you know). I had been so excited for the day I didn't even assign the job: I wanted to be there myself, and I'm the print editor; I don't have an issue due until the end of June. Where was everyone else?
Perhaps no one got the memo? I did. I asked Wade if her organization had forgotten to send out press releases. She sent me a list of emails she sent it to, and it included multiple staff members at each TV station in Nashville, as well as The Tennessean, among others.
So I contacted reps from the same news outlets. Though I emailed around twenty people, only a handful responded at all, and now I wonder if it was because my subject line included the word transgender.
An assignment manager at WSMV responded. Even though my email identified me as managing print editor of O&AN and said I was working on an editorial about the lack of coverage, this is the response I received:
James, We were not informed of any coordinated demonstration, or that one would be taking place. That is why there was no coverage. Please feel free to send any press releases or future information to me directly, so I can put it in our agenda. You can also contact the station by phone regarding coverage opportunities.
Wade had emailed her press release to at least four individuals at the station, two days in advance. My email wasn't even read carefully enough to be understood, before it was answered and dismissed.
Let me be blunt: in most places the answer is "get famous, get caught in the 'wrong' restroom, get put in the WRONG jail cell, or get murdered." The last is a crapshoot because unless your community is loud and insistent, if you aren't around to insist on your identity, it can be easily erased. It worries me that not even the old imperative of the news, "if it bleeds, it leads," is enough to give voice to the trans community.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that the news establishment of Nashville is composed of uncaring or transphobic people. Are there some? There are some everywhere. I'm not saying they wouldn't care, if it were put on their radars. I readily admit that I have to actively try to keep trans issues on my radar, and I'm not always as successful as I would like to be.
But to stand in the middle of a circle of trans people and their supporters, and a large contingent of police, in the intersection of Nashville's West End and 25th at nearly high noon was an amazing thing! An amazing thing to show people. And almost no one but our readers saw. Because if you looked both ways at that crossroads, no one else was there to capture it.
It simply IS NOT ENOUGH to be not transphobic. Just because we do not actively impede or erase trans access to the airwaves does not mean we do justice to the voices of the oppressed. Sure, the news doesn't silence transgender people literally, in the sense of putting a piece of tape over their mouths. They come to us pre-silenced, and we have the opportunity to assist them in making themselves heard.
If we withhold that opportunity, that's how we silence them. To receive a news release threatening a shutdown of a busy city street and overlook that (despite what must have been over 100 police person-hours and traffic disruption) doesn't just say that the issue isn't valuable. It renders it a non-issue.
That's what happens to transfolk every day. Like a tree falling in the woods, they make no sound … because no one with a voice was there to hear them.