As Trans Issues Take Center Stage in Media, Trans Journalists Fight For More Than Just Visibility
Stel Kline was named the host of Morning Edition at the South Dakota Public Broadcasting News (SDPB) radio station in October 2021 – and in the process became the first and only out transgender person employed in the organization.
Last month, Kline took to Twitter with an update: “there are now 0 trans journalists working at @SDPBnews.”
“My position has been terminated despite being told there was nothing for me to improve on at a recent quarterly review,” Kline said. “I was told the reasoning is that I am not objective and have a problem with authority.” Kline’s bosses pointed to a retweet of a post with a Simpsons meme reading “women are not the only people who get abortions.”
Kline argued: “In my interview I was very clear that as a trans person I am unable to be impartial about attacks on my humanity. Objectivity is not a static identity, but when wielded as such becomes the power of those with the most power.”
Kline has now filed an administrative appeal against SDPB.
Tensions between Kline and SDPB arose before they even started working at the radio station. According to emails verified by nonprofit outlet Current, Fritz Miller, the director of programming and communication at SDPB, asked editors to scrub Kline’s pronouns from their hiring announcement.
“I’m suggesting that we dump the ‘they’ pronouns and use their last name throughout the article,” Miller wrote, according to Current. “I understand and appreciate that Stel is comfortable with sharing that information, and is doing what they can to live their true self, but I fear that the more hate-mongering segment of our population will seize upon this stuff and make it the issue du jour.”
After Kline asked for further explanation, the station relented, and the article was published with their pronouns properly used.
Eight years after Time Magazine declared America had reached “The Transgender Tipping Point,” the very existence of transgender and gender non-conforming people is still a matter of “debate” or “politics.” Now, a counter-movement has risen with the goal to restrict – or rescind – the rights and acceptance granted to trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.
Despite that, there has been progress and positive change for trans and gender non-conforming people in the last decade. That includes further inclusion in all sorts of spaces and industries, from politics to entertainment and sports. When it comes to journalism, however, strides made for trans and gender non-conforming people are not as clear-cut.
To get a picture of transgender and gender non-conforming journalists today, Mediaite reached out to the Trans Journalists Association (TJA), an organization created in 2020 specifically for coalescing gender-diverse media workers into a singular body.
TJA began as a Facebook group, followed by a Slack group with 100 members before officially organizing. Co-founder Kae Petrin, a data & graphics reporter at education nonprofit publication Chalkbeat, told Mediaite that “more than 500 additional trans and nonbinary journalists have joined TJA since our launch.”
Members “include podcast producers, investigative journalists, media critics, editors, data reporters, web developers, breaking news reporters, essayists and novelists, as well as current students,” Petrin told Mediaite. “We’re working in radio and TV, at alt-weeklies and magazines and legacy papers, at digital-only nonprofit startups, and freelance.”
“Honestly, we heard from far, far more trans journalists than even we were expecting when we launched,” they added.
Many trans journalists have found a place – and prominence – in the industry before the TJA’s creation or even TIME’s 2014 article: retired New York Times copy editor Donna Cartwright, veteran editor and current Los Angeles Blade Sports Editor Dawn Ennis, and “TransNation” columnist turned Out Traveler editor Jacob Anderson-Minshall are some examples. Out trans figures recognized in entertainment or politics – such as former MTV host iO Tillett Wright, Virginia Del. Danica Roem (D), Pose executive producer Janet Mock, and Axios correspondent (and former child actor) Ina Fried – are journalism veterans as well.”
Still, some in the industry argue that non-cisgender people in journalism don’t receive as much recognition or opportunity as non-cisgender actors in entertainment or non-cisgender athletes competing in sports.
Part of the problem is the fact that there aren’t any known definitive examinations of transgender workers in media.
“Unfortunately, I’m unaware of any broader research studies on gender-diverse media workers,” Petrin told Mediaite, noting that they are hoping to secure funding to conduct one soon. The limited resources available to trans organizations, and the limited resources that non-trans organizations dedicate to trans people or issues affecting them has led to a continual limitation in availability of research or data.
To better understand the landscape, Mediaite spoke with two trans non-binary journalists about their experiences working in journalism: Tre’vell Anderson and Nat Rubio-Licht.
Rubio-Licht is a breaking news reporter at Protocol, a tech and policy news site operated by Politico. Before that, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a tech and aerospace reporter and Seattle Magazine as a digital producer.
Rubio-Licht first learned to express themselves through music: “I took a journalism class my senior year of high school, but prior to that, I thought that I wanted to be a professional choir teacher.”
By high school, they found comfort in presenting as “androgynous,” defying gender norms and performing in alto and tenor vocal ranges. Rubio-Licht began using they/them pronouns at 14.
Eventually, Rubio-Licht decided music was not the best career choice for them.
“I did nine years of choir, five years of musical theater, all the works,” Rubio-Licht said. “Then I took a music theory class and realized it was not my cup of tea. So I decided to instead opt for doing the other thing that I was really good at, which is writing, and fell in love with journalism from there.”
Rubio-Licht attended Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism, where they worked at the school’s newspaper The Daily Orange. Growing up in the town of San Ramon right outside the Bay Area, Rubio-Licht’s teen-aged social circle included many who were “experimenting with their gender identity, experimenting with their style, coming to terms with their sexuality, all at the same time” — so Rubio-Licht wasn’t ostracized or bullied for doing the same.
Syracuse University was a generally progressive environment, with other queer students, but it still took time for Rubio-Licht to have their identity understood instead of assumed.
“I would have to teach professors how to use my pronouns and how to refer to me. It was interesting, but I guess that has helped me refine how I show people how to respect me. That’s a lot of being non-binary, and being trans in general: being a teacher to other people, showing them how to be respectful of us.”
That trend continued into their professional journalism career.
“A lot of sources have just assumed and misgendered me, like a lot of people just assume that Nat is short for Natalie or Nathan,” they said.
Still, Rubio-Licht has found that most people who know they are non-binary “genuinely want to learn and understand,” and feels non-binary journalists have generally been respected in the industry, especially at Protocol – a sentiment Rubio-Licht credits to the sizeable LGBTQ+ population within the Politico family of sites (which also includes E&E News and Greenwire). Most of the staff at Protocol has already adopted use of pronouns in their social media bios or email signatures, and the style guide was quickly updated when it was pointed out that it did not specify a process for updating a subject’s pronouns or gender identity after publication.
Rubio-Licht hasn’t personally faced many negative experiences as a non-binary journalist, but also recognizes the privilege of that – especially considering they’re covering hot-button topics: “I know – God, I feel like I’m gonna say this and then I’m gonna start getting harassed online – I don’t get harassed online a lot.”
Tre’vell Anderson had a similarly unintentional path into journalism – and they experienced first-hand the challenges of being out in the industry. Anderson is currently the editor-at-large of Xtra Magazine and co-host of the “FANTI” and “What A Day” podcasts. They previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and Out Magazine.
Although now an industry veteran, Anderson didn’t begin considering journalism until high school.
“I was part of the Model United Nations team at my high school. We were amazing national champions,” they told Mediaite, “but the adviser for the Model United Nations team was also over this magnet program that we had, and she liked my writing and said, ‘you should join the school newspaper.’ So I joined the school newspaper. And that’s kind of how I started.”
Anderson went to Morehouse College, and worked at the school newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, eventually rising to managing editor. “I had changed my major, like 12 times. I ended up settling on sociology, but I was like, by the time senior year came, I was like, ‘Okay, what the hell am I gonna do with a sociology degree?’ So long story short, I made the decision to go to grad school for journalism, because out of my four years in undergrad, the most consistent thing was working on the student newspaper. So I said, ‘Why don’t we try this out? You know, for a career.’”
They graduated from Stanford University with a master’s in journalism in 2014, interned at LogoTV that summer, and was accepted into what was then known as Metpro, or the Minority Editorial Training program, at the Los Angeles Times. Anderson went on to become an entertainment reporter focused on film and diversity in Hollywood, working at the paper until 2018.
“It was in grad school that I started playing with my gender presentation – wearing heels, makeup, dresses, etcetera. But I did not claim the language of transness, or being non-binary, until about 2017-2018,” they said.
“That’s when I started using different pronouns. That’s when I started kind of pushing back against some of the style choices of the publication at the time, particularly around covering queer and trans folks. At the time, The LA Times had not updated its style guide, particularly as it related to covering LGBTQ communities, since the 90s.”
Challenging the copy desk of the Times, a paper founded in the 19th century, was no easy feat.
“Because a lot of the work that I was doing was interviewing trans or queer folks whose gender expressions challenged some previous conventions, I kept getting in arguments with the copy desk, which would tell me, ‘the style guide says this,’ and I’d be like, ‘okay, but f**k the style guide, this is our lives, you know?’”
“Long story short, we ended up updating the style guide, and I helped with that work,” Anderson said.
By the time they left the Times, Anderson was “already having experiences as a known visibly queer, visibly trans person, not only in the newsroom, but out in the field doing the work, which, you know, came with its own set of challenges.”
Still, Anderson doesn’t think the industry has changed much since they entered journalism.
“I would say that most of the changes have ultimately been within me,” they said. “I don’t think the industry itself really has changed in any significant and meaningful ways,” pointing to restrictions that are still being placed on journalists regarding their participation in Pride parades or statements they can make on social media.
“I’m not sure that the industry has really shifted to become a place where Black and brown folks, or queer and trans folks can find a home in this industry and in this work,” Anderson said. “That’s not to say there aren’t those of us who are doing it, and making do with what we have.”
Anderson asked: “How many Black trans journalists have a staff job in a newsroom?”
When Anderson posed that same question on Twitter, they only learned of one: Tat Bellamy-Walker, a NBC News diversity reporter.
“That is not a scientific way of [evaluating] the prevalence of Black trans people in media,” Anderson acknowledged, adding that they know many freelancing or part-time Black trans journalists, “but I think that tells the story of whether or not we are welcomed inside of these spaces.”
There are recent examples of non-cisgender people working full-time in newsrooms, including Gina Chua, who was global managing editor of operations at Reuters when she came out in an email to her co-workers in 2020. She made history when she was named executive editor there, before accepting the same role at the new media startup Semafor. (I profiled Chua in 2021, writing she is “now considered the most senior journalist in a major news organizations in the country — and possibly much of the world — that is transgender.”)
Peabody-winning journalist (and former Viacom executive) Imara Jones, creator of the TransLash Media project; current New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen, once described as “Russia’s leading LGBT rights activist”; Christina Kahrl, sports editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and a former ESPN senior editor; Emily St. James (formerly VanDerWerff), a former editor at Vox and The A.V. Club; and Meredith Talusan, the first out trans journalist to receive an executive position at Condé Nast and also the first out trans person on staff at BuzzFeed, are amongst other prominent examples.
Until April, Jennifer Finney Boylan was a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times. Upon the publication of her final article — “I’m a Trans Woman. Bullies Don’t Surprise Me, but Allies Still Do” — she tweeted, “This leaves the NYT without a dedicated author telling trans stories for Opinion. I hope others will follow in my footsteps.”
There is also plenty of evidence that incorporating trans journalists in the industry has broadened the purview of journalism to overlooked stories.
Formative coverage of violence against transgender people was pioneered by a journalist who was transgender herself: Monica Roberts, publisher of the blog TransGriot, who passed away in 2020.
“I had the opportunity to meet her and be in community with her before her death,” Anderson said. “Monica Roberts, yes, made a career out of the work that she was doing with TransGriot. But she was the only one for so long doing that work, and she shouldered so much. She did her own thing – she had to – largely because the type of work that she was interested in doing, newsrooms wouldn’t have allowed her to do.”
The website TransGriot.com is a publication led by Dee Dee Watters (and named after Roberts’ original blog and moniker) that continues to operate today in her honor. The NABJ’s LGBTQ+ Task Force, which Anderson co-chairs, also started a scholarship program named after Roberts, and the organization inducted her posthumously into the NABJ Hall of Fame. Additionally, similar approaches to the unique one Roberts took in covering violence are still employed by multiple online blogs, including the Planet Transgender blog published by Kelli Busey and the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents (PGHLesbian.org) site led by founding editor Sue Kerr.
It’s not lost on trans journalists that while progress has been made in some newsrooms, when they do arise opportunities remain few and far in between, and limited in nature.
“When we become one of the only trans people doing something in a particular type of space, while I do think there are certain lessons that can be learned and things that we can take away from those individual experiences, it’s also important to recognize that… it’s a lot of pressure to be the only one,” Anderson explained to Mediaite.
Being out and visible also offers little protection for transgender journalists in the media industry, as Stel Kline’s termination illustrates. “Yet we do it anyway,” Anderson said. “We push through anyway.”
“To me, the lesson is that they shouldn’t have been the only ones,” Anderson said.
Mere visibility, especially in as large a landscape as media, is not the cure-all to issues facing non-cisgender journalists. Of the little research on trans people and media that is available, there are decades of American and British-compiled evidence that media depictions of trans or gender non-conforming people are overwhelmingly “negative,” “stigmatizing” or “isolating.”
“I would like to say to the people that are running newsrooms: hire more gender-diverse reporters,” Rubio-Licht said. “I think it’s important to have sets of eyes and perspectives on stories that are from different backgrounds.”
Being told they are not capable of being “objective” is a common accusation levied against journalists from marginalized identities or backgrounds, and punishing journalists from discussing topics they have direct knowledge or experience with remains an acceptable practice at all levels of journalism, from the Washington Post to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Associated Press.
“Traditionally, the division between journalism and activism has been motivated in part by a fear of being perceived as biased. Unspoken in that concern is who will perceive that bias,” Michael Blanding wrote in Nieman Reports in 2018.
As journalists such as Jo Yurcaba, Kate Sosin, Orion Rummler, Adam Rhodes, James Factora, Katelyn Burns, Katie Barnes and others have shown, gender-diverse people are completely capable of covering gender, just as they can – and have – covered all topics.
As Lewis Raven Wallace wrote in 2019: “In my experience, trans people aren’t inherently more knowledgeable than cis people about gender and its discontents, but chances are high that we have thought about these issues a lot more than the average cis person.”
Or as Rubio-Licht put it to Mediaite, “Our identifying factors shouldn’t be something that disqualifies us from reporting because that’s how newsrooms stay straight, cis and white.”
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.