The Emotional Toll Of Covering Trump’s Military Trans Ban
Covering trans issues as a professional means I need to maintain a certain distance. But no matter what, these issues affect me as an individual.
I was editing an essay when the first email notification came in, but I ignored it. Then came a second, and a third in quick succession. Curious, I switched tabs to see three emails about Trump’s trans military ban. Editors were emailing to ask if I would cover it for them, but I had missed the news when it first broke. When I do my writing, I keep my cell phone off and in another room to avoid distractions like Twitter, so I hadn’t seen the tweets from Trump declaring the service of 15,000 trans people in the military invalid.
I had missed most of the previous two work days because of personal stuff, like meeting fellow trans Establishment contributor Sam Reidel in person for the first time. Wednesday was supposed to be my day to catch up, so my first instinct was to focus on my existing deadlines and sit this newscycle out. But as I tried to connect back to my editing, I couldn’t dispel a nagging thought: Who was I to sit this one out? My followers and regular readers look for my opinion and reporting because they put value into what I have to say. How could I not write about such a major trans story, possibly one of the biggest of all time?
Once I made the decision to cover Trump’s tweets, I immediately jumped into action, pitching several websites with article ideas. Slowly the assignments started to come back in, from ELLE, GO Magazine, and The Washington Post. Everything happened so fast, and the deadlines were so tight, that I felt like I had no chance to breathe. I had no time for Twitter or Facebook. The story was all that mattered. I dove completely into my work.
How could I not write about such a major trans story, possibly one of the biggest of all time?
I quickly churned out an op-ed for GO, which the editor published immediately in the early afternoon on Wednesday with very little editing, then shifted my attention to my piece for WaPo. Not having any time to make myself lunch or go out to grab anything, I actually called my mom and asked her to come over and help me out. (It is a little embarrassing to admit, yes.)
Through it all, the emails kept coming in. Editors who had ignored my pitches for months were suddenly changing their tune and seeking out my work on the ban. I felt like their token. I’ve struggled with being labeled “the trans writer” for awhile now. While I’m blessed to have had my work on my own identity open so many career doors, it’s also difficult to be continuously pigeonholed into writing only about that identity. Even now, I’m aware of the fact that editors are much more likely to say yes to me if my pitch is about a trans issue. I’m painfully aware of my typecasting, and was reminded of my place in the media landscape once again as the requests for work came pouring in on Wednesday.
‘We feel like sheep led to the slaughter.’theestablishment.co
I took a break that evening and substituted an evening job and a shower for my dinner, then came back to my work to edit and add citations to my latest piece. Somewhere around 10 p.m., I finally collapsed in my bed, after 13 hours of writing and reporting work. It was easily the longest continuous output of my career so far.
When the election happened, my manager at my day job made a chilling comment that has stayed with me: “Trump getting elected will be good for your writing career.” There’s a degree of cynicism to this that bothers me, but in essence, my manager was correct. Months later, here I am, essentially profiting off of Trump’s bigotry. Intellectually, I understand that I should be fairly compensated for my work, but at the same time, so many trans people are going to get hurt from Trump’s ban. Who was I to make money off of that?
Yet, Thursday morning, I went right back to work, trying to catch up on the work I was meant to do on Wednesday before completing reporting on my piece for ELLE. My partner, herself a trans advocate, came to visit later that afternoon. We quickly dropped into a rhythm, her taking calls from reporters while I pecked away at the keys on my laptop with moments of conversation peppered in between.
I decided to go to bed earlier that night after about 10 hours of writing, and as I lay there scrolling through my Twitter timeline for the first time in what felt like days, the momentousness of Trump’s tweets started to viscerally hit me.
Covering trans issues as a journalist often makes me feel disconnected from the community. I work alone, at home, mostly interfacing with others through social media or with my editors through email. Covering trans issues as a professional means I need to maintain a certain distance in the name of journalistic integrity. But no matter what, these issues affect me as an individual, as a citizen. In order to survive, and to deliver stories for the greater good, I’ve had to learn to compartmentalize my own fears and anxieties as a trans person.
Covering trans issues as a journalist often makes me feel disconnected with the community.
And the ban that had so thoroughly demanded my professional effort the previous few days was profound in its personal implications. It wasn’t just targeting trans people serving their country — it was a symbolic blow against every trans American. The Family Research Council, an anti-LGBTQ religious organization, has laid out a five-step plan to make it impossible for trans people to exist in American public life, and step five is a total ban on trans people serving in the military. Since Trump’s election, the FRC has made significant progress on completing its list, a terrifying prospect for myself and all of my trans friends.
Despite my dogged writing, I couldn’t help but feel completely powerless to stop the continued hate campaign that Trump’s ban represents. “Should I seriously look into moving to another country?” I thought as I saw the despair and anger coming from the trans community. My work combating Trump’s transphobia is crucial, I realize, but it can also feel like not enough in the face of such unending attacks. Despite my platform, I often feel helpless to exact real change.
These feelings are compounded by the fact that I don’t fully trust our allies — who make up much of the audience I’m serving — either.
Trans discrimination isn’t an invention of the right wing. Liberals have been perfecting it for years.theestablishment.co
Sometimes I get the feeling that allies who read my work aren’t really interested in helping to improve the lives of trans people. While the right seeks to eliminate us from public life, so often the folx on the left meant to protect us are arguing with us or making their allyship conditional on the tone we use in our advocacy. What good is having a platform in The Washington Post if those likely to read my words end up arguing about ancillary topics like whether a trans woman’s sexual partners are gay or not, or whether we’re “biologically male”? Plenty of liberal publications have covered detransitioners like Walt Heyer, who the White House cited in an official memo justifying the ban. Whether they feel like it or not, those outlets are complicit in thwarting progress for trans rights.
While I’m professionally engaged in emotional labor with the hope of telling trans stories that enable people to learn, I still see the constant Twitter threads and the comments sections calling me a man or mentally ill, or both. And there are always trans stories from well-meaning cis allies that unknowingly end up hurting my community in how they frame and handle trans stories.
Sometimes I get the feeling that allies who read my work aren’t really interested in helping to improve the lives of trans people.
At the same time, I’m thankful for the platform that I do have. I’m lucky to be able to speak to so many people about my community’s struggles. I constantly get messages from people who tell me that my work changed their life and honestly, the feeling I have when I hear that is indescribable. When it comes to the nasty comments sections, well, there’s a reason why my name is at the top of the article and not the bottom. Being a self-employed writer is a tough gig.
My precarious existence as a trans freelancer came into full focus Thursday night as the Senate prepared to vote on the “Skinny Repeal” of Obamacare. As a self-employed writer, I depend on the Affordable Care Act for my health insurance, and as a trans woman, I depend on Planned Parenthood for my hormone prescription. After the anti-trans politics of earlier in the week, the vote was the final push my emotions needed before breaking. After almost 24 hours of work with only sleep breaks in between, I openly wept.
The next morning, my words would go out to thousands, and yet, in that moment, I felt so utterly voiceless and alone.