The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling protecting LGBTQ+ workers received widespread coverage in the media Monday. But the reporting largely lacked transgender sources, as Gillian Branstetter pointed out in a Twitter thread Tuesday.
This is another facet of many newsrooms’ failures to provide inclusive journalism, two experts say.
“I don’t imagine it would have taken a great deal of work to find trans people to speak on this matter,” Branstetter said in a phone interview with the Institute. “Trans people are speaking out for ourselves. It’s infantilizing to be ignored, particularly in a story that directly impacts us.”
We reached out to Branstetter, who is a media manager at the National Women’s Law Center, as well as Elliott Kozuch, press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, for their insights on how newsrooms can do better.
Why do you think the mainstream media mostly neglected to include quotes from transgender people when covering the Supreme Court decision this week? Are there any outlets that got it right?
Branstetter: When you look at the legacy outlets and top-line political stories, trans people are consistently erased or ignored — often because we don’t have the institutional power that attracts a lot of attention. But this is the most important legal victory in the history of transgender rights. It is the culmination of nearly a century of advocacy. The media often pretends that they discovered trans people in 2014 when they put us on the cover of Time. But in fact, we are legal scholars, we are lawyers, including two lawyers who argued in these cases.
If you were writing a story about one person you would go and find that person. So the idea that because we’re a small subset of the population and don’t quite have the institutional powers as an excuse is faulty in the extreme. Because we are telling our stories, we really just need reporters to listen.
Generally speaking, I think, The New York Times has done a better job of seeking out trans voices, depending on the beat. For example, they ran a fantastic article about a March for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn, speaking with the organizers, talking about how it came together, really conveying the mission of that event.
Kozuch: Aimee Stephens, the brave plaintiff in the Supreme Court case decided this week, did not live to see the outcome of her case. Yet, she did everything she could in her life to ensure that the rights of transgender workers to be themselves at work would be granted to all of us.
This is how many transgender and non-binary people in America live our lives. We fight for equality and justice that we may not live to see — in a world that often refuses to see us. But we move forward with the hope and faith that one day, a transgender child growing up in America will have the same opportunities as a cisgender child.
Even today, transgender people often go unseen or ignored in media, in part because of this very legacy of erasure. However, there are countless transgender lawyers (including ones who worked on these Supreme Court cases), transgender advocates and transgender people whose lives have changed for the better by this decision. If you’re reporting on this case, consider the transgender people who got us to this point, those who are moving us beyond it and the every-day transgender Americans who are finally seeing themselves reflected in federal law.
Media outlets that focus on the LGBTQ experience — like them, the Advocate or NewNowNext — do a good job of this and demonstrate the value in having queer journalists covering these issues. But even as a non-queer reporter, it is important to look beyond our own experiences and include the voices of those who have done the work and will be most impacted by decisions like this. In the first draft of history, these voices are crucial as we document this moment.
Can you describe why it’s harmful for newsrooms to leave out these sources?
Branstetter: First and foremost, it’s harmful to the reporting. You’re siloing yourself into a very narrow perspective on a historic event and giving into biases you might not even realize are there. Second, you’re framing transgender people and our rights as theoretical and open to speculation and debate.
When you’re a cisgender person writing about transphobia, it’s a bit like going to the aquarium and looking at the shark through the nice colored glass. When you’re a transgender person writing about transphobia, it’s like you’re in the ocean with a shark. Not only are the risks and threats of it more real, but you can also get a closer look. You can also see more detail. And you can also tell the story about it with more nuance.
Kozuch: We know that when we include diverse voices and experiences in writing, the reporting becomes more nuanced, and the journalist who interacts with diverse voices and experiences becomes a better writer with a more well-rounded understanding of the world they report on.
This decision is historic, yes, but it is not the end of the story. Reporters may consider speaking with LGBTQ employees who have additional marginalized identities, such as being a person of color, a person living with a disability or a woman. Through these experiences, we can clearly see that, while this case will improve the lives of workers in America, it cannot be the only step.
What is your advice for journalists covering the recent Supreme Court decision? How can they ensure coverage is inclusive?
Branstetter: What’s remarkable about this, is that if you look at the right-wing conservative outlets, we are the end of the world to many of them. We are all they talk about on a lot of days. They are misrepresenting us and causing harm to us. … I don’t need reporters to be activists. I’m not asking them to take some sort of staunch political position. I just need them to be accurate and thorough. …
One of the things that I’ve tried to do is emphasize that a lot of these issues come from a lack of diversity in newsrooms, which is true across a broad range of categories. But I know a lot of transgender reporters, transgender editors, transgender producers, illustrators, photographers and almost all of them are freelance with very few exceptions. Put them on your staff. Give trans people money.
Kozuch: One common mistake I’ve noticed some journalists making when covering this historic decision is referring to the LGBTQ community as the “gay and transgender” community. This can be harmful for a number of reasons. On social media, HRC saw many people wondering if this decision applies to the bisexual community, because they did not see that included in coverage. This confusion can be dangerous to bisexual employees who may be facing discrimination but who are not being informed that their rights have changed.
There are many resources out there to help journalists learn how to best report on LGBTQ people. HRC offers many guides, including a glossary and guides on language around transgender and non-binary folks, bisexual folks and those living with HIV.
To be clear, this case applies to any person who may be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Therefore, it applies to the LGBTQ community, as well as any straight and/or cisgender person who may be percieved as LGBTQ. This decision protects every single worker in America — and it is important to ensure that readers are aware of this.