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Crossing the Line? Reporting Transgender

Crossing the Line? Reporting Transgender

See videos from this event – student video journalist: Frankie Mann

While guests squeezed into the basement of The Dominion League on Beaufort Street to hear the expert Women in Media panel discuss the media’s treatment of transgender issues, a buzz was palpable.

This topic was ripe for discussion.

The 10th anniversary WIM event had attracted a crowd keen to learn about whether there were protocols or ethical practices to follow when reporting transgender. Questions such as – does transgender always need to be referenced in a story, if so how, what pronoun should be used, what’s ok to ask about, were up for discussion.

The panel offered professional evidence based information, a keen understanding of our current laws and their impact and a mixture of public and personal experiences.

Women in Media committee member and panel facilitator Hayley Davis deftly navigated a path that ensured the evening honoured the topic, reporting transgender.

Panellist, academic Professor Dr Rob Cover, was unwavering in his response when asked how far the media had come from treating Trans people like freaks and the butt of jokes.

“Not far enough by any means,” he said.

Dr Cover has a PHD in both Queer and Media theories from Monash University. His book – Queer Youth Suicide Culture and Identity – Unliveable Lives? – examines the pressures placed on young people to present recognisable identities and sexualities.

He believes the 2014 front page headline ‘Monster Chef and the She Male’ in The Courier Mail, accompanied by denigrating references to murder victim Mayang Prasetyo as lady boy and sex worker, set a low bar.

“Although a lot has changed, this particular story was a surprise.

“I remember seeing this and being quite disgusted by it.

“But we shouldn’t bash people for being ignorant because it’s not usually intentional.

“This wasn’t necessarily someone being vile and cruel, it’s about being unaware of the implications of what is being written.”

“In the late 80s, early 90s we had films like Silence of the Lambs that gave these issues not only a minority status but also a danger status as well. It said transgender was dangerous and equal to being a serial killer.

“More recently there’s been a change in popular culture and representation, enough of a change for people to be outraged by that article and that’s what is really important.”

For Senator Pratt topics relating to gender and relationships were always going to be on a public stage. She was the second openly lesbian person to be elected into Australian parliament and her marriage to her transgender partner, Aram Hosie, was not left alone by the media.

“I happened to fall in love with a woman who decided about a year into our relationship that she was a he,” she said.

“He had to do it in the lime light because I was already out and everyone knew that he was transgender, while other people in this situation are able to present as their true gender without the media wanting to know what’s in their pants,”

“It’s one of those really awkward questions that journalists always want to ask – please don’t.”

Ms Pratt agreed that while things had progressed slightly not enough had been done, flagging issues with the current anti-discrimination laws.

“In Western Australia, you are only protected by the anti-discrimination act once you have legally transitioned and that essentially means major genital surgery in order to be legally recognised.”

Representation of good role models in the media was strongly advocated by each panellist as a way of delivering greater change in the way transgender is reported.

Panellist Tina Ross, representing the transgender community, said had there been a successful public transgender person represented in the media when she was growing up with her own gender identity concerns it would have helped enormously.

An avid tennis player, Tina thinks tennis star Renee Richards could have been a powerful role model for her had she known of her story.

“I didn’t know about her transition even though I grew up in Canada and she was in the US.

“That would have been huge when I was growing up – someone outside the sex industry as a role model.

“Having others out there was huge, you’re not thinking ‘am I the only one?’ ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and all those things.”

Dr Cover said the TV series Transparent was one of the first shows with a transgender character in a main role.

“Mora is the only resilient character in the series while the others are incredibly vulnerable,”

“This is an enormous transition [from Silence of the Lambs] and it’s a really necessary transition.”

Dr Cover described the media’s obsession with negativity, as damaging, particularly regarding transgender issues, as ‘Poverty Porn’.

“We often see the negative side and the sob story or how bad it can be and that’s the problem.

“What we need to see is the majority, where it’s okay, where people are resilient and coping,” he said.

“I really support people who have a transgender history but want to drop the Trans tag and just be recognised and accepted as their affirmed gender,” Ms Pratt said.

“You don’t always have to comment on someone’s Trans identity.”

Tina said the media has the power to bring about even subtle changes

“It’s great to have education about this in schools but I’ve always thought ‘why do we need it in schools, what about the adults, how do we educate them, what if we use the media to help educate the adults?’”

“Okay, if you turn the story into an educational article you might lose everybody but why not throw a sentence or two in at the top about how you asked your guest which pronoun they prefer to be used or something simple like that.

“They’re learning without even knowing they’re learning.”

Facilitator Davis spoke briefly about Qlife, a counselling service run for LGBT people, and their desire to become the transgender equivalent to Lifeline in the media.

“They’ve recommended that journalists potentially include Qlife contact details at the end of an article in the same way they would with a lifeline number when dealing with articles relating to suicide, giving LGBTI people the opportunity to get support if they need it.”

While the evening raised questions about whether certain protocols should be followed by reporters, the discussion showed the key requirement in the eyes of the panellists was respect for others.

RTRFM Broadcaster Meri Fatin took away the door prize, The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot, by Victoria Laurie.

Guests and speakers mingled after the event in true WIM fashion. Meanwhile, student journalists put their networking skills to good use.

Departing guests left entirely positive feedback, leaving the WIM committee with the challenging task of making the next event even better.

If you or someone you know identifies as LGBTI and needs support, Qlife may be able to help. Visit qlife.org.au or call the hotline on 1800 184 527 between 5.30pm and 10.30pm every day.

Words by Dylan Websdane: Dylan Websdane is a second year journalism student at Curtin University. He volunteers at community radio station RTRFM 92.1 as a news presenter and has recently been appointed the director of news. Dylan hopes to work as a broadcast journalist for a national or international network.