This Is What Transphobia in the Media Looks Like

Andrea James is mapping the people and platforms publishing biased content about gender expression and identity.

Jun 26 · 5 min read

When The Atlantic published its July/August 2018 cover story on transgender youth, Andrea James was among the chorus of trans writers and activists who excoriated it for being biased. “Editor Jeffrey Goldberg published it despite many warnings that it was likely to be a dog whistle, a kind of bias that most people won’t notice,” she says.

The article focused on the disputed concept of “desistance,” which is perceived to delegitimize the experiences and struggles of the majority of trans youth. “It also came out that elite journalists”—including the author of the Atlantic article—“were excluding transgender journalists from backchannels where they were discussing coverage,” James says.

For James, railing against the piece on social media wasn’t enough. Anti-trans bias is hardly restricted to one outlet or journalist, and she wanted to expose it at a macro level. So she set to work on The Transphobia Project, an interactive map of the people and platforms creating biased content about gender expression and identity and the connections between them. It’s live on Kickstarter now; her project video offers a look at the prototype.

Left: Andrea James. Photo by Russell Carpenter, ASC. Right: James’s interactive chart, Academic Pathologization of Transgender People (2003)

A history of outing bias

James is no stranger to data visualization, or to outing biased or fraudulent actors. Her first job out of grad school involved creating infographics at the Chicago Tribune; in addition to her work as a writer and activist, she’s an actor, director, producer, and voice coach (she consulted with Felicity Huffman for the film Transamerica), the creator of Transgender Map, an educational resource for trans people and allies, and an affiliate of Quackwatch, a site that polices health-related fraud. “I found my calling in consumer activism,” she says.

In 2003, James created an interactive chart that identified researchers and organizations promoting disease models of gender identity, some of whom advocated non-affirmative care models for transgender youth. (Affirmative care, which the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged health practitioners and parents to adopt as best practice, supports and affirms a transgender person’s gender identity and expression; non-affirmative care discourages them, and is no longer considered ethical by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health and other experts.) “Critics like me compare [non-affirmative care] to reparative therapy techniques used to ‘cure’ gay people,” says James. “That is considered unethical and illegal.”

James’s chart revealed that a number of the key proponents of disease models of gender identity worked at the same clinic in Toronto, which practiced these gender identity change efforts on children. Armed with this information, James and fellow activists targeted the children’s clinic and its practitioners, and through their advocacy helped prompt provincial investigation that shut the clinic down in 2015.

Prototype of The Transphobia Project

The Transphobia Project takes aim at biased media

The Transphobia Project also visualizes bias, this time with a stronger focus on media. Any time media is published on the topic of gender identity or expression, a “t-index” is assigned to that work, as well as to the author, any coauthors or editors, the platform it appears on, and the organizations that support the platform. The t-index essentially functions as a bias score — the greater the t-index, the more biased content that person or platform has published.

“Some academics are obsessed with their ‘h-index,’ a score which measures their impact in their field,” James explains. “Some academics inflate their h-index via logrolling, where they cite each other in journals they control, creating the impression that they are more authoritative than they [actually] are. That’s where the idea for the t-index came from. The same shady behavior happens in media.”

Individuals and organizations are represented as dots on the chart; the higher their t-index, the bigger the dot. When you select a particular dot, its spider web of connections appears. Click on The Atlantic, for instance, and you’ll see colored threads connecting it to various authors and editors, who in turn are connected to other publications they’ve written for. (James notes that she appears on The Transphobia Project herself, for content some members of the trans community consider negative; appearing on The Transphobia Project does not automatically mean a person or publisher is transphobic, but patterns emerge as certain people and platforms become more prominent.)

Prototype of The Transphobia Project

Inoculating media consumers against bias

James has three foundational goals for The Transphobia Project: “More trans journalists employed full-time at media outlets; coverage of trans issues to include input from trans editors and fact-checkers; and more non-trans journalists to be aware of how to avoid bias in trans coverage. I hope my project will help editors and publishers identify those with a history of fair and accurate coverage on trans topics, [and] those who don’t have that history. Finally, I hope it will help media consumers see when trans coverage contains bias, both pro- and anti-trans.”

Bias doesn’t have to be explicitly hateful to cause damage; purportedly balanced articles like The Atlantic’s are proof. “Some scholars propose thinking about bias as a disease, a sort of social contagion,” James wrote in a recent essay for Boing Boing. “Since trans people are typically presented as the diseased ones, let’s turn the tables.” Consider The Transphobia Project part of the cure — an inoculation against pernicious, invisible bias in the media we consume.

Rebecca Hiscott

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