Q&A: Trans media workers make their own space

The Trans Journalists Association was born out of a Slack group for LGBTQIA media workers and dissatisfaction with how NLGJA has failed to support its trans members. The group is non-hierarchical (meaning there’s no central leadership) and is currently surveying members about how it can best provide support, whether that be professional or financial, or both.

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We spoke with one of its members and co-founders, Oliver-Ash Kleine, a trans media worker whose producing can be heard on American University radio, the Mother Jones podcast, among other outlets. They talked about next-steps, why TJA needs to exist and how it’s already making a difference. Apply for membership here and donate here. Read about TJA’s cause in Kleine’s own words at Them.us.

The conversation is edited for length and clarity. 

Marlee Baldridge: What was the impetus for making TJA? And what were the actual logistics of turning the Slack group into an organization that aims to amplify the voices of trans journalists? 

Oliver-Ash Kleine: We were in this [Slack] group. Often people would post about articles that came out and [there were] bad articles about trans people all the time. So there’s always fodder. Always. And we were really frustrated about that. We were really, really frustrated about that. We recognized that we were really uniquely positioned to address it, because we were journalists and we were also trans and if anyone was going to really speak up and make a difference without it, like it kind of had to be us. And so we decided, and there really weren’t a lot of other great resources. You know, I think that the only other resource that is kind of a broad, general trans resource that I would send to a journalist would be Alex Kapitan’sRadical Copy Editor’s guide… And, you know, unfortunately, because it has the word “radical” in it, mainstream media outlets aren’t going to adopt [and] aren’t going to really listen to that. 

We wanted to create some resources for newsrooms from an association that they, hopefully, will listen a little bit more to. We already kind of had our online community but we kind of wanted to formalize it and make it more accessible because it’s really important … And so we started meeting and figuring out what materials we wanted to create for our launch and took the next few months and just did it.

MB: How hands-on is the organization trying to be with newsrooms reaching out to TJA? Do you plan on being more involved like API or Poynter? Or  is TJA there to provide self-education tools?

OAK: At this moment, we’re more of an education tool. At some point I think that expanding is definitely in the cards, but we’re really not that far yet. And so we kind of figured: What do we need? What do we need for launch? We don’t need to have everything figured out about our organization. But we kind of need basic resources. And so we see what we’ve put out this week as kind of just a first step.

I definitely don’t see speak for the whole organization. I’m one person, and we’re [TJA] non-hierarchical. I will say that there’s been a lot of excitement and energy put into the launch. We haven’t really set firm plans about what’s ahead. We’ve talked about doing a study of how many trans people are in newsrooms. How bad are the numbers, you know? And setting measurable goals for newsrooms in the industry to improve.

I think that in an ideal world, we’re a well-funded organization that can give trans people jobs. I would love that. The folks who are employed can educate newsrooms and be a resource for reporters in a way that currently we can’t because we just don’t have the bandwidth. I think that we’re really invested in forming community and I would love to see some kind of gathering. We’re all over the country and conferences aren’t always accessible. We [want to] do more structured and intentional mentorship.

Based on what our resources are and what the needs are for the group. We’re accepting new members right now and we had 150 new requests for membership, which is fantastic. In the form, we asked what our members want from us, and because we’re non-hierarchical and really invested in responding to what our membership wants and making sure to support them, I think that what we do next will really be informed by our greater community.

MB: So how do you feel about the reception? 

OAK: I’ve been totally overwhelmed. It seems that we’ve had an almost entirely positive reception. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any trolls, but… I’m a radio producer for my day job, and I posted it on a listserv. Within the same day, someone said, “We used this resource to inform one of our interviews today.” We’re already making an impact.

It’s newsroom by newsroom, editor by editor, but that’s how this is. That’s how coverage improves and having resources that are accessible in that way is so much more than I could have done as an individual … Someone responded on our initial Twitter thread saying that if this existed 15 or 20 years ago, they might still be in the industry. And I think that is an indication of how hostile newsrooms are to trans people, and how much talent we already have lost, and we’re continuing to lose. Our association itself won’t fix that, but it will at least give our members a community to support each other.

MB: The NLGJA has been accused of not really addressing trans issues at their conferences and people have described significant gaps in their support. How would you characterize those gaps? Why do you think they were there in the first place?

OAK: I will start by saying I’ve never been a part of the association. I have never attended any of their conferences. I have no connection to the association, but I know a lot of people who have submitted a lot of work by trans people, and who have tried to push the organization to be more trans welcoming and inclusive.

They aren’t listening. If they’re making any changes,  anything that they’ve done has been small, incremental, that isn’t a meaningful change. My understanding is if you go to one of their conferences, there are hardly any trans people on panels even when the panel is about reporting on trans issues and trans experiences. We saw with their awards [June 24] that … I believe only one out trans person was awarded, and a cis person won for best trans coverage. My understanding is that the leadership is very cis. And if you go to its style guide, it’s truly the worst style guide I’ve seen. This is the association the media is going to learn how to write about trans people. Their guides suck.

There was a need for something else and something that centered trans people. If they had been doing their job around trans issues, we might not need to exist, but you know, we do now and we’re very proud of the work that we’ve done.

MB: How do you see the deficiencies in media coverage of trans issues?

OAK: We see it with the empty objectification of trans people and how through the objectification of trans people with a hyper-focus on our bodies, and how they change sometimes. You see it even in the language that we use to talk about trans people when we use words like “identify as,” as I don’t identify as non-binary, I am non-binary and when you say “identifies,” that’s inherently questioning whether that’s real. You wouldn’t say “this woman identifies as a woman,” you would say she is a woman. So why do we use different language with trans people? We see that difference when it comes to writing about trans people span from the start … with the whole premise of the story and spans to the way that we objectify and reduce trans people, and also the words that we use to even write about for most of the time and it’s really frustrating. 


MB: Is there anything else you think readers should know about or be looking to?

OAK: Your readers should know, and journalists generally need to know, that only about a quarter of Americans know a trans person well. 

That means that the way that the media is telling stories about trans people has a big impact on public discourse and how people think about and talk about trans people. That’s a really big responsibility. One that the media really needs to take more seriously, because right now they’re really failing trans people and their audiences.

More resources for covering trans media workers from GLAAD.

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