Transgender Day of Remembrance: The Role of the Media

Way back in 2008, we commissioned a study by Harris Interactive, called “Pulse of Equality.” (which you can download here) In the wake of the passage of (and protests about) Proposition 8 in California, Proposition 102 in Arizona, Amendment 2 in Florida and Initiative 1 in Arkansas, we wanted to see where the country stood on issues of equality for everyone. That poll had a lot of significant findings, but maybe the most important was that around 20% of Americans said they felt more favorable about gay and transgender equality than they had just five years earlier.  Of those, the vast majority (4 out of 5) said a major reason was the fact that they knew an LGBT person. What does any of this have to do with the Transgender Day of Remembrance? Stay with me. 72% of Americans in that poll said they knew someone who was gay or lesbian, in their personal lives, in their families, or in the workplace. When the question was asked how many Americans personally knew someone who was transgender? Only 8% responded that they did. This study showed us that personal interactions have a profound impact on the way Americans view the movement for equality. But when personal interactions simply aren’t a reality, how do Americans develop our opinions? What fills in that gap? Going back to that same study, we already know that personal interactions were the most commonly cited factor. But 41% of those who found themselves more favorable of equality also said the news media was important. And 34% added that seeing gay or lesbian characters on TV helped, while 29% said the same about movies. The media fills in that gap. Our work to ensure positive and respectful portrayals of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the media is undoubtedly important. But if someone in the media misses the mark, almost three quarters of Americans personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, who can set the record straight (no pun intended) about their lives. This is why our work on correcting inaccurate, unfair, or disrespectful portrayals of transgender people is so crucial. For 92% of Americans, there isn’t an opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction with someone who is transgender. When the media falls short on these issues, there is no safety net. If a TV report focuses on "bathroom" distractions instead of actual issues when talking about non-discrimination legislation – if a newspaper uses degrading language and improper pronouns – and yes, if one of the gay-friendliest shows in television history casually throws around the T-word, we know that 92% of Americans don’t have someone in their lives to say “that hurts me.” I’m going to let you behind the scenes a little bit here. Thanks to the magic of the internet, we see most of the stories that come across the wires, everywhere from local papers to the major cable news networks. We also get reports from all of you about the stories we can’t catch. And when there’s a mistake? We make a few calls. We talk to the producers and editors. We explain the proper terminology, and we show them how to respectfully report on issues involving transgender people, remembering that they too are probably part of that 92%. And those mistakes usually don’t get made again. It may not seem like a big deal to many people when we get the Philadelphia media to change the way it’s reporting on the horiffic murder of Stacey Blahnik. (And there are at least a half-dozen more examples in the last few months alone that we never wrote about.) But to 92% of the people who will read those stories – that’s the ONLY interaction they have with transgender issues. It’s the only chance they have to learn about the lives of transgender people, too many of whom have been tragically lost. If an iPhone app or a reality TV special or even one of our favorite shows is using the T-word, we know that 92% of the people who will see it simply do not have someone who can explain the nuance to them first-hand. They don’t have someone who can talk in detail about the way it’s used in certain communities, and in our greater culture. They don’t have someone who can explain that – like many other words – it can be used by some to heal, but it is far more often used to hurt. On this Transgender Day of Remembrance, I ask you to remember that for those 92% of Americans who don’t have a transgender person in their lives, it’s the media which acts as both a primary source of information, and a filter through which that information flows. We all know the power of words. Let’s work together to make sure the media is educated about how to use that power.