When even Canada's top LGBT publication struggles to find the right words, will journalists ever accurately reflect the complexities within the trans community?
Elisha Lim, a well-known Canadian queer activist, graphic novelist and celebrated artist, hoped the transition into living as gender queer—an identity that rejects the limitations of the binary female and male, and trades “she” for “they” and “her” for “their”—would be relatively easy. The pronoun change was quickly becoming a contemporary trend in Lim’s community: many of their acquaintances were already using gender neutral pronouns. But when Xtra, Canada’s largest gay and lesbian newspaper, approached the artist for an interview on their work at Toronto’s Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) in April 2011, Lim found resistance where they least expected it. When Lim tried to implement the neutral pronoun in an interview with Xtra, it refused.
“There was this one moment where I said I prefer the pronoun ‘they,’” Lim says. “It was kind of my shaky first attempt so I wasn’t too confident about it, and the interviewer sort of laughed and said, ‘We’re not going to use that. But anyway what about…?’ I walked away after the interview and thought, ‘Now wait just one minute, I think that I should be mad!’”
Lim sent an e-mail to Xtra’s editor in protest. A day later, with no reply, Lim took to Facebook. It started with a casual status on Lim’s personal wall—something along the lines of: I can’t believe Xtra won’t let me use “they.”
Friends and acquaintances instantly showed their support, “liking” the status and commenting with similar stories. Realizing they weren’t alone, Lim and their then-partner Coco Riot—who also identifies as gender queer—created a petition on Facebook called “Please don’t call me ‘she.’” Within 24 hours 1,000 people had signed the petition in support.
Riot, a Toronto-based visual artist and cartoonist for Shameless magazine, is glad the community made its disappointment known. Having faced similar constraints speaking to the Montreal Gazette and winning an apology from the newspaper for its pronoun misuse, Riot knew “they” was a pronoun worth fighting for—especially at an LGBT publication.
“Xtra doesn’t make much effort to show the diversity of the queer community,” Riot says. “It’s very white- and male-identified and middle class. [The pronoun] ‘they’ is also one of the [things] this gay newspaper is not handling well in Canada. Xtra is not respecting or representing the queer community.”
When we met over deep-fried food in an Elvis-themed bar on Bloor Street West on a stormy day this past June, Lim was obviously still excited by the support they received. At first, Xtrarequested that the petition be deleted, suggesting Lim’s post was misleading. When Lim responded to the paper with an idea for an alternative to removing the petition—providing Xtra with exclusive rights to Lim’s side of the story—Xtra asked Lim to please leave it alone. Six months later, conflict flared up once again. Canadian gender-queer musician Rae Spoon very publicly declined to appear on the cover, explaining on their blog that they were boycotting the paper until “they” was editorially accepted as a pronoun.
After half a year of disagreements, Xtra relented, but with a note explaining how “they” works. Lim feels this was a reaction to the pressure from the community, but Lesley Fraser, copy editor at Pink Triangle Press (Xtra’s publisher), says the paper was misrepresented. “We were represented as having this policy of not doing that [using “they”], which wasn’t true,” she says. “We just didn’t have a policy.”
How can the media keep up with a community so changing, so evolving, so in transition? As the number of visible trans people grows, media outlets are dealing with subjects and stories they don’t have the knowledge or experience to cover. As a result, their subjects can be framed by disrespect, confusion and inaccurate information. The process of moving away from hurtful labels to something more politically correct is a pattern Canadian media has seen before. The trans community is calling for change, and as it has in the past with emerging communities, the mainstream media is struggling to understand and embrace their demands.
From pronoun mismatches to inappropriate questions regarding a subject’s body parts and surgery plans, there’s clearly a lot of misunderstanding surrounding how trans people should be both spoken to and spoken about. Consider the April 2012 article from the National Postby Tristin Hopper, “Human Rights tribunal to would-be women: You can take your penis with you.” The lede reads “A man doesn’t need to have his penis removed to legally become a woman,” and the article later uses a quote that suggests men get their reproductive organs “lopped off ” in order to be recognized as a woman in gendered documents like passports and birth certificates. To people in the trans community and their allies the wording in the piece is offensive, misleading and sensational—and it almost completely leaves out an explanation of the range of gender reassignment surgeries and legal regulations related to gender identity.
This lack of understanding carries over to anyone who doesn’t fit into the confines of gender binaries. When worldfamous androgynous model Andrej Pejic came to Toronto to model during fashion week, CityNews journalist Avery Haines pulled out a chair for him and threw him questions like “Do you identify as a woman?” and asserting “when I look at you, I see an absolutely beautiful, ridiculously tall, lean, gorgeous woman.” Haines’ questions continued on the topic of gender, and while they were thoughtfully met by Pejic, who explained gender doesn’t define who he is, Haines failed to show any understanding of the subject at hand. This trend is evident throughout Canadian media, from the Toronto Sun’s categorization of stories on Thomas Beatie (a famous trans male who became pregnant) into the “weird news” section, to the Vancouver Sun publishing the birth name and past photos of Jenna Talackova, a trans woman who competed in the Miss Universe Pageant.
The disconnect between the media and the community grows larger when even Xtra is out of touch. For nearly 30 years, it has been the country’s most visible, colourful, and popular LGBT publication. It’s out, it’s proud, it publishes sexually explicit content, and grabs big-name advertisers. But it’s having trouble keeping up with the fast-moving times.
As the queer community has expanded to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transexual, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, allies, pansexual and asexual, as well as those who identify as gender queer, Xtra’s masthead does not yet include a trans person and content has remained fairly limited to lesbian and gay issues. But staff say the paper is slowly shifting to a new place of inclusion and fairness.
“I think it’s a murky grey area that’s always changing,” says Xtra assignment editor Danny Glenwright. “The LGBT acronym just keeps getting longer as the years go on. We’re all learning all the time, and we’re all trying to adjust the way we report on stories.”
At Xtra, every step in the writing process is being reexamined—from interview to the final edit—to ensure that journalists are getting it right. Andrea Houston, one of Xtra’s reporters, explains that she starts each interview by asking people how they identify, which pronoun they prefer and if it’s okay to label them with those words in an article. Danny Glenwright agrees this is the best step toward accuracy. “It’s a new terrain for journalists,” he says. “We’re not used to asking for permission when we describe somebody. Normally we just do it.”
Houston adds, “We’re used to going by our instincts. At my previous paper, a mainstream daily, I didn’t ask anyone [how they wanted to be identified]. But I value this skill: I value that I’ve gotten into a habit of doing this. It’s respectful. As much as I’m trying to break stories and get to truth and corner politicians and evildoers, I also really want to be respectful of people, and I want their message to be conveyed accurately.”
But speaking with Ken Popert, executive director of Pink Triangle Press, it’s clear editorial ideologies don’t exactly match those of the big decision makers. Popert’s sparse, clinical office appears just moved in, decorated sparingly with a framed blood-stained t-shirt on the wall. His take on Xtra is a little different from that of some of its younger staff. Popert says the paper—despite its explicit tagline “Canada’s Gay and Lesbian News,” heavy Pride presence and strong community following—is not a publication for the queer community.
“Our focus is not on communities, as such,” he says. “If you look at our mission statement, we’re a vehicle of the sexual revolution. Now, as it turns out, gay and lesbian communities are very receptive of that. That being said we call ourselves community papers for obvious reasons. For us, the gay and lesbian communities are mobilizable groups.” For Popert, Xtra was meant to be a voice in the community—not a voice for it.
Perhaps this reasoning is the easiest route for Pink Triangle Press when combatting criticism of incidents like the conflict with Lexi Tronic in December 2011. Houston had written a piece about the dangers of sex work and interviewed Tronic for the story. On December 12, Glenwright posted a link to the article on his personal Facebook wall, including Tronic’s birth name—which wasn’t even included in the original story. This was inappropriate because it’s considered to be disrespectful to publicly refer to a trans person’s former first name without permission. Tronic declined to contribute to this article, but according to her statement published on the blog Leftytgirl, she kindly asked Glenwright to take down the post, attaching the WikiHow page on “How to Respect a Trans Person.”
“Danny responded back to me that it was his personal Facebook page and he was using my name to ‘spark dialogue’ and thus he was not going to remove it,” Tronic wrote. “I shared with him that I found my former first name being printed on his page to be hurtful, and I pleaded with him to remove my name.”
But Glenwright didn’t; instead blocking Tronic on Facebook and failing to answer calls (Glenwright insists he was just busy with production). Unsure what steps to take next, Tronic shared the conversation between Glenwright and herself with a few people she thought might offer guidance. They were outraged, initiating a widespread boycott of Xtra on December 13, the day after Glenwright posted Tronic’s birthname on his Facebook wall. “They felt that it was an abuse of power on behalf of the editor and disrespectful to me,” she wrote.
The next day when the story started gaining attention, Glenwright called Tronic to apologize. They had a lengthy discussion about growing up in Winnipeg, a connection Glenwright used to justify his intentions on Facebook; he had wanted to show mutual friends in their hometown how far Tronic had come. The conversation ended with accepted apologies and discussion of better trans coverage in Xtra. Tronic called off the boycott and assumed everyone would move forward. But this wasn’t the end of the conflict. Tronic says a day passed and Glenwright had still not removed the post. Glenwright is unclear today on the exact timeline.
Two days after the controversial Facebook post, Glenwright published a much-discussed semi-apology: “Response to a strange boycott,” a piece that framed him as a victim who’s still hurt by the Tronic he knew as a kid growing up in Winnipeg. Glenwright links Tronic to “some of the worst bullying” he had ever received as a “young, awkward, (not yet happily) gay kid,” adding, “she is someone who unearths memories I’d rather suppress or forget.” Although the status concerning Tronic was removed from Glenwright’s wall, his words made the trans community even angrier.
In response to this series of controversies, a panel discussion was organized with members of the trans community. Susan Gapka, one of the panelists in that discussion, raised the idea of intention versus impact and explained that although media may not intentionally be trying to be offensive, the impact on the community is significant. When I met with Gapka nearly a year later, her views hadn’t changed. Dressed in a long periwinkle blue skirt with a matching floral top and purple sheer stockings, she sips hot coffee from a Thermos outside the Rogers Communications Centre at Ryerson University and recounts the many offences she has seen in the media over the past few decades.
Gapka, now middle-aged, is the founder and chair of the Trans Lobby Group, and is a well-known advocate for trans rights. She has tirelessly pushed for social justice in Toronto, getting herself out of a life on the streets to advocate for affordable housing, supporting those with mental health issues and fighting for LGBT rights. She won the City of Toronto’s Pride Award in 2004 and she has quickly become the person media outlets turn to for the trans perspective on issues. In the Globe and Mail in April 2011 she was described as “a wondrous weirdness that descended like that mammoth spaceship in Close Encounters” with a voice “somewhere between Gregory Peck and Foghorn Leghorn.” But Gapka remains hopeful. “Being trans is getting a little bit less hard, but not always,” she says, adding her own personal advice for journalists is: “Be kind. Whatever you call us, be nice to us. And if you don’t know, ask.”
One of the first loud, gay voices in Canada, 68-year-old Gerald Hannon remembers a time before trans rights had even started to enter the conversation. Keepsakes, clippings and photos line the museum-like walls of his 16th-floor apartment. In a shadowy corner, behind the large C-shaped fabric sofa, a Virgin Mary figure has been sawed in half and turned into a side table. It quickly becomes clear the love of Hannon’s life was a magazine called The Body Politic. The radically political gay magazine gave a voice to those silenced throughout the ’70s and previous decades. The publication ran alongside Xtra for a short time in the ’80s, both within the Pink Triangle Press company, but was eventually replaced by the splashy upstart, Xtra. Although Pink Triangle Press claims to carry on the work of The Body Politic, the content today is more sex than societal reform.
Hannon flips through the issues he helped create, showing off a cover featuring him and his boyfriend at the time, both young, handsome and obviously in love. Hannon first came across the magazine at a gay dance when he was 27; issue one was being sold for 25 cents. Having travelled throughout Europe for a year in search of fellow revolutionaries, Hannon finally found the vehicle he had been looking for: a smart, boundary-pushing, political gay publication that sought to bring like-minded men together. He immediately got involved. “It was my life for 15 years,” he says.
Now writing his memoir, Hannon admits the community The Body Politic helped build and strengthen has grown too complicated for single publications to mirror. He, along with Lim and Popert, are quick to pass the baton to the internet, where many different voices can be published for little-to-no cost and minimal constraints. Lim points me to No More Potlucks, a queer culture, arts and politics website (and on-demand print magazine), the Shameless blog (which recently changed its tagline to explicitly include trans youth) and the new art and politics blog they have started with Riot, Call Me They.
Many young people are also turning to YouTube. Ryan Cassata, an American musician and trans activist from Bay Shore, Long Island, was only 15 when he first spoke out about trans youth and his personal experiences on YouTube. With hundreds of thousands of video views over the past four years, Cassata has appeared on talk shows such as The Tyra Banks Showand Larry King Live. Some forms of media, however, weren’t as educated and respectful as he expected them to be. Satisfied that the discussion would provide positive insights to viewers after being prepped with thoughtful questions by Tyra Banks’ producers, Cassata sat on Tyra’s couch prepared and confident. But what happened next on air was a shock as “The ‘professional’ Tyra Banks read from her notecards, asking me the most impersonal, most offensive questions, I have ever been asked,” Cassata says.
These questions included: “Are you getting your period?” and “Are you getting breasts now?” The most offensive, says Ryan, were cut. “Tyra Banks asked me ‘Do you use tampons?’ It was like she had completely forgotten that the only reason I was sitting on her couch was because I identified as a transgender male,” he says.
Although many of his experiences with the media left Cassata feeling like he’d been portrayed as a “freak” whose identity was more important than him as a person, an article inPulse Magazine this past March about his music career, he says, “portrayed who I really am” and gives him hope. “The only way to reach equality is to diminish ignorance, especially ignorance based on stereotyping and false portrayals. The only way to diminish ignorance is through education and exposure. I encourage everyone to stand up and join the movement,” he says.
While Cassata focuses on his identity as an artist, Bklyn Boihood (or BBH) co-founder Ryann Holmes is concerned about the visibility and portrayal of people of colour and focuses specifically on masculine-of-centre (MoC) people of colour, a relatively new term that aims to encompass all those leaning toward the masculine end of the gender scale, whether they be trans, lesbian, bois or any other identity. BBH aims to build community awareness and bridges of self-love. Holmes thinks the biggest issue in the media today is the lack of narratives coming directly from people in this community. She’s never seen herself represented on TV or in the mainstream news. “On a less mainstream level, there is light and visibility around MoC people, but there’s still only a few lenses. We’re so conditioned to hear one story about one particular type of people,” she says.
Holmes says lack of representation and a heavy focus on negativity in place of celebrating people’s gifts and strengths affects all types of people of colour in North American media: “Media will articulate our struggle rather than the ways that we’re powerful.” To combat this, she advises, “don’t be afraid to tell the real story, and let people unpack it. Everybody is going to have their preconceived notions about everybody; that’s just the world we live in. But the cool thing is the door is open now to hear something from somebody else, to hear it in their own words.”
While Canadians can turn to Trans Pride Canada’s media reference guide—a webpage with a downloadable PDF created by a non-partisan network of people working together for trans rights—it isn’t nearly as extensive as the guides, examples and statistics provided by U.K. organization Trans Media Watch (TMW). Founded in 2009, TMW believes in “accuracy, dignity and respect,” and aims to provide guidance to the media when portraying transgender people and guidance to transgender people dealing with the media. A survey it conducted in the U.K. between November 2009 and February 2010 provides evidence the media needs to improve: 78 percent of participants—a group made up of 250 self-identified transgendered people and six individuals with transgender family members—felt media portrayals were either inaccurate or highly inaccurate. An overwhelming 95 percent felt the media does not care what trans people think of trans coverage.
“I think most individual journalists are not negatively inclined at all,” says Jennie Kermode, TMW’s chair. “I think there’s massive ignorance that we’ve gradually begun to chip away at. Some of that has to do with not just problems we address directly, but advocating in the press. Other journalists will read that and start to look at it a different way.”
The media, in Canada and elsewhere, is undergoing a transition. Many organizations have seen the need for change, “coming out” in a way. From new style guides and resource sites for the media, to panels built from the community offering advice to mastheads, change is evident. But no transition is easy, and from freelancers to editors, the education of the media will be a long journey of growth, understanding and respect.
“Journalists should be the avant-garde of bringing information to people,” says Riot. “They should always ask ‘How do you want me to talk about you?’ It’s very easy to say right now ‘the audience won’t understand,’ because maybe you don’t understand. But journalists should be responsible for bringing those ideas to the people and thinking that people can understand them, because they can.”
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ