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Corporate Media Enabled Trump’s Anti-Trans Policies

Media coverage of marginalized groups targeted by Trump should recognize the humanity of those communities

Trump is going to do what he’s going to do, but the media could at least get the basics right. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Trump is going to do what he’s going to do, but the media could at least get the basics right. (Photo: Shutterstock)

To my knowledge, I am currently the only openly transgender Capitol Hill reporter, maybe the only one in history. Almost every day, I walk the halls of the Senate or House office buildings, trying to do my job alongside an entirely cisgender press corps. Along with that comes the realities of existing in a public space. Thanks to copious amounts of coffee, I use a ladies’ room on the Hill several times a day, alongside congressional staffers, other reporters, and lobbyists. No one bats an eye at my presence, not even the most arch-conservative folks milling about the Capitol on any given day.

But even inside my relatively safe Capitol Hill bubble, there’s been growing dread over my future as a trans American.

I had suspected a formal policy that would erase the status of trans people was lurking behind the scenes, long before the New York Times broke the news on Sunday of a draft memo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging key federal agencies to define gender as something determined “on a biological basis,” thus leaving trans people legally exposed to gender-based discrimination in everyday life. For example, an employer could condition employment of trans people on their compliance with sex stereotypes based on assigned sex at birth, and trans people would be left with no legal recourse.

The signs have been there for a while. The Trump administration has rolled back almost every Obama-era policy advancing the rights of trans people in the United States, including the rights of trans schoolchildren, trans health-care patients, and trans members of the military.

These policy changes were enabled by a media environment that frames trans issues as some sort of debate between various factions, like the religious right or radical feminists and the trans community. Even supposedly liberal news outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic have used a debate over the lives of transgender people as a quest for clicks. The issue with that framing is that losing such a debate results in a loss of human rights for an already heavily marginalized community—and that’s what we’re seeing now. HHS officials have even argued, according to the Times, that trans people were “wrongfully” given civil rights.

And now, in the aftermath of the most devastating piece of anti-trans news in decades, the media is again failing. This week, we have anchors on major television networks, who have a responsibility to cover these issues seriously, making basic language mistakes like referring to trans people as “transgenders.” It’s cringe-worthy, but when you don’t have trans people on your production or editorial staff, you can end up coming off like a buffoon. Trump is going to do what he’s going to do, but the media could at least get the basics right.

For me, the most frustrating part of the media coverage of the memo is the overly simplistic idea that these policies merely invalidate trans feelings. This isn’t a feelings issue, it’s a material issue. One of the central roles of government is to issue legal identification, and trans people have a right to identification that doesn’t out us as trans. No other demographic is subject to having one’s private medical history disclosed by presenting an ID. This shouldn’t be the case for trans people either. We shouldn’t have to disclose our status just to apply for a job or to vote, as we do in many states. Cis people are not entitled to that private information, and we shouldn’t be required to disclose it just to take part in normal, everyday life.

Trans people also have unique medical needs, and insurance coverage for expensive treatments for gender dysphoria has only recently started to expand under Obama-era rules banning insurance companies from excluding transition care from their policies. The Trump administration’s leaked memo would deem those needs null and void, since an individual’s sex would be declared permanent and unchanging. The memo represents a full-frontal attack on the ability of trans people to go through everyday life and have their transitions forgotten. The memo says it would settle disputes over a person’s sex with a genetic test. Conservatives claim they want a small government—apparently that means a government so “small” it can see our DNA?

The media has thus far enabled the Trump administration’s actions against trans people and the larger LGBTQ community by glossing over the president’s record—and it shows no signs of stopping. During the 2016 campaign, Trump made overtures to the LGBTQ community, claiming he would offer better protection than Hillary Clinton (a claim he repeated again yesterday). Time and time again, reporters and pundits failed to interrogate the meaning behind his statements and declared Trump a champion for LGBTQ rights even though he represented the most virulently anti-LGBTQ party platform in history.

These pundits’ basic failure all along was assuming that promises to protect LGBTQ people extended to recognizing the humanity of trans people or the validity of marriage equality. Trump is not the strongman protector he imagines himself to be; he’s merely a bully playing on the bigoted fever dreams of his fervent base for votes, and the media plays along. That political journalists still report the president’s divisive words without laying out this underlying context is unfathomable to me.

In fact, the corporate media has already moved on from the ongoing erasure of trans people. Outlets have turned their attention to another group deemed “dangerous” by Trump: a large caravan of desperate asylum seekers with nowhere else to go. It shouldn’t be this way. Coverage of the marginalized groups that Trump regularly targets should recognize the humanity of those communities. Move beyond the sound bites and transphobic hot takes and learn why trans people need the legal recognition we’re asking for.

We all just want to have an existence outside of our trans identity. Let me be recognized by the government the same way everybody on the Capitol grounds sees me. This is my material reality, not my feelings. Forget my feelings and let me exist. Let me be a reporter—and a human being—not a debate.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Katelyn Burns

Katelyn Burns is the Federal Policy Reporter for Rewire.News. Prior to joining the team, she was a freelance journalist covering breaking transgender news for them.us as well as bylines for The Washington Post, VICE, The Establishment, Allure, and many others. Previously she was a reporting fellow for Everyday Feminism, writing a series on toxic call out culture in online activist spaces in addition to a series on the trials and tribulations faced by trans people in accessing employment. Katelyn is a parent and is based in DC.

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