When I was a 21-year-old intern at The Weekly Dig in Boston, I was tipped to a story about Boston University’s then-chancellor, John Silber. He was aggressively attempting to shut down the gay-straight alliance of the university’s affiliate high school.
I was a brand new journalist, so under the careful eye of my editors, I interviewed a dozen people, minding the ethics of asking for comment and interviewing sources on all sides of the issue. Yet even as I played by the rules of journalism, my identity as a queer person informed every aspect of the piece. My anger was a propellant, my humanity a lens and a weapon.
My editors made the piece a cover story, and after it was published, Silber, a controversial figure already, lost some public support. Performing due diligence ensured that my passion didn’t make the story any less true, but I never forgot the lesson I learned: Truth isn’t objective, reporting isn’t clinical, and the angle a writer takes is a responsibility and a choice. The power is enormous.
Perhaps because my training has all been on the job, I have long been skeptical of journalism’s relationship with capital-F Facts in the service of capital-T Truth, especially as delivered by capital-J Journalists. Or maybe it’s because, as a trans man, my Truth is not translatable via the Facts available to a Journalist who doesn’t know my language: the government’s paperwork doesn’t reflect all of my reality, the narratives about being “born in the wrong body” are a shorthand that reflect someone else’s life, not mine. I am not “brave” by the mere fact of my body and me choosing to live in it. I’m human, and exactly as special as 7 billion other people.
Narratives matter because they don’t just inform, they comfort. Stories, throughout time, have been our primary tool of meaning-making. They explain us to ourselves, and connect us to one another. I felt the impact of these sorts of narratives acutely when, at age 30, I began injecting testosterone. In searching for representations of my transgender body, I found only predictable, “edgy” accounts of born-in-the-wrong-body trans kids and their distraught, sympathetic parents; or she-looks-normal-but-she’s-not shockers on the girl next door; or warm and fuzzy profiles of ordinary trans people, cast as brave for presumably baffled readers.
At 30, a needle hovering beside my thigh, I experienced myself as terrified and happy and sometimes as kind of a dick — not especially edgy, and definitely not warm or fuzzy. My life wasn’t alien to the people I hung out with, either: new mothers, recent divorcees, and professors seeking tenure around my age. Regardless of our genders, we all faced changing bodies and identities in flux. We were all ordinary and heroic and foolish. Despite not having a single trans friend in my immediate vicinity, I didn’t need to open after-work beers with a Wikipedia-ready description of my body in order to be understood.
But the headlines weren’t telling that story. It was easy to look at the landscape of trans people through the eyes of reporters who weren’t trans and see a population alien to the human condition. The thought of letting my friends and family, and especially trans kids, read that coverage felt irresponsible at best and harmful at worst.
So I wrote stories about gender for big, mainstream audiences via the New York Times, Salon, and BuzzFeed. I tackled masculinity for the Atlantic (where I now work, as an editor at the global business site Quartz) and VICE. I worked as managing editor of Mic, where we covered trans issues without waffling over pronouns while making excuses about “style” to justify transphobia, even as legacy publications struggled with how to refer to Chelsea Manning. I even launched a column, Self-Made Man at the Rumpus, that created a narrative of transition that presupposed a universal experience with the reader, trans or not. I am not sure I would have written so baldly, and so regularly, about my life and the lives of other trans people if I had seen a single story, ever, before I began my transition that made me feel like the reporter saw trans people as fellow human beings.
In the years between my first shot of testosterone and Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show, varied and layered trans stories have thankfully become a lot more familiar to your average waiting-room reader. With knowledge comes vocabulary. And, since the time of Noah, with naming comes a welcoming into the family of beings. Social media and the digital outlets who have harnessed its distribution power have increasingly empowered trans people to translate ourselves to the world around us. I’m regularly asked for resources on what it’s like to be trans and, since we aren’t a monolith (“What is it like to be a woman?” “What is it like to be a gay man?”), it is a beautiful advancement to be able to point people to the many trans writers who are exploring, in harmony, that very question.
Even so, many members of the media remain ignorant of the ways their other-ing of our bodies informs their framings. A recent noteworthy example is the Buzz Bissinger Vanity Fair cover story on the complicated life of Caitlyn Jenner — decorated athlete, reality star, conservative, trans woman. Jenner’s story is deeply, powerfully American, her trans status a meaningful, if less interesting, sub-narrative about celebrity in 2015.
Vanity Fair’s choice to tap Buzz Bissinger to write the profile wasn’t in itself problematic — if he had chosen to write a story that foregrounded her humanity over her trans status, it would have made a lot of sense. Bissinger, a fantastic reporter with an outsider’s perspective, is the man who took on Texas high school football with humane, righteous honesty in Friday Night Lights. His perspective on who Caitlyn Jenner truly is and what she means could have been an exercise in reflection that we Americans, whatever our gender, desperately need.
But Bissinger’s take, while lyrical as always, made many rookie mistakes any trans writer would have avoided, such as the silly before-and-after sequence pairing a facial-feminization surgery with a pronoun shift, implying that we leave surgery and suddenly “become” men or women. Bissinger’s ignorance here reinforces a falsehood that people who have never had our experience believe so blindly and (forgive me) so stupidly: the idea that transition happens like the flip of a switch. Who among us has prepared for a “life-changing” moment (the birth of a child, the death of a parent) to realize that the power of the experience did not come from the moment itself, after all?
Bissinger’s angle — that of a cisgender man with apparently minimal interactions with trans people — also led him to reveal and even revel in the distance between himself and his subject, writing, “With apologies to members of the transgender community, who are rightfully sensitive about the use of language, I constantly used ‘he’ instead of ‘she,’ and at one point called Caitlyn ‘dude’ out of force of habit, and closed conversations with ‘All right, man, I’ll talk to you soon.’” Bissinger seems to be suggesting that he gets that it’s problematic to misgender a subject but, hey, what’s a cis dude going to do? It’s hard to imagine a writer casually referencing their own racism or sexism this way.
There are plenty of trans writers who can expertly translate our stories for people who are outside our experiences — it is what we do every time we leave the house. To a community with some of the highest suicide rates in the world, media visibility can be a lifeline. Beyond indirectly influencing social policy by humanizing transgender people, cultural visibility — the fact of being “seen” — is a crucial component to human dignity. Reporters who aren’t trans, and their editors, who insist on applying their lenses to our bodies, have a responsibility to our truth over their own. And if that’s too much to bear: let us write our own damn stories.
**My pronouns are he/him**