Q&A: Kam Burns

Kam Burns is an engagement editor at POLITICO. Burns is also a cofounder of the Trans Journalists Association (TJA). 

Janelle Salanga, Deputy Editor at The Objective, spoke with Burns about TJA, POLITICO, and where newsrooms are failing (and succeeding) when it comes to reporting on trans issues. 

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

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How are you doing right now?

Honestly, I’m okay. All things considered, I have a really good support system. Another thing I remind myself all the time is that, among trans people, I am extremely privileged. 

I’m on the trans-masculine side, I am able to afford hormones. I live in Washington, D.C. I don’t live in a red state right now. So I am extremely, extremely lucky. 

A big part of why I’m so involved in TJA is because people take me seriously because I’m a trans man — for better or for worse. And so kind of channeling that privilege into trying to change everything is how I’ve been coping.

Where are you finding that support? What does support from TJA look like right now?

In terms of organizations, there’s a queer group at POLITICO, which is pretty good and has been supportive. TJA is also a big one. It’s a lot of just keeping the conversation open, and also supporting and uplifting each other’s voices. 

I also run the TJA Twitter account, so it’s a lot of retweeting our members [and] stories about what’s happening right now. We have a Slack, which is where most of the communication happens. And we made a new channel recently dedicated to anti-trans legislation, because it’s ramped up significantly in the past few months, just for us to kind of commiserate and talk about things and try to figure out what to do if we’re being directly impacted by it.

Backing up a little bit, tell me about how TJA has grown since 2020. How has that development equipped the organization to be more supportive now, with this current wave of anti-trans legislation, than it may have been in 2020?

I’ve said this in other interviews and other members have said this too, but the immediate growth and response we got in early 2020 was far beyond what we could’ve possibly imagined. When we launched, I think we had about 15 members and were expecting to get maybe another 50 applications. 

We got, like, 300 and now have about 500 members, which is amazing. I think it’s so important for our members to log in and see that there are 500 other people working in this industry who are also trans, who are also trying to make this change happen. 

It’s just wild because when I first started in journalism, I was like, I can count on one hand the other trans journalists that I know are working right now. A lot of members are students, a lot of them don’t work full-time in journalism, because it’s hard to get a job in general and especially if you’re trans. 

So it’s not like a ton of us are working full-time in the industry, but it’s just knowing that we’re all here and we all have the same shared interest. And our older, more established members being able to support these students and newer members as they start their careers has been wonderful to see. 

You mentioned the internal support TJA has been providing. What has the organization been doing externally?

Myself and Oliver-Ash Kleine, one of the other co-founding members, spoke at ONA’s last annual conference in June of last year and at ONA Insights in the fall. We’ve also been represented at NICAR and SPJ, so it’s really great to see that these organizations are reaching out to us and want to hear our voice and our perspectives.

Informally, we get emails every day from different newsrooms asking what they can be doing better, or asking for specific advice on specific things. So we do a lot of communicating with those newsrooms, either through answering their one-off questions or having more in-depth conversations. 

We also partnered with SPJ a while back on the Race and Gender Hotline, a 24-hour quick-turn sort of thing for if people have specific questions and don’t want to put the labor on trans people and people of color in their newsrooms. We also have a style guide, which I try to plug as often as possible. And we’re in the middle of writing an update right now, because a lot of stuff has changed, and will continue to change.

How has that been, in terms of emotional labor and logistics? 

It’s very much based on: Who has the time, energy, and emotional bandwidth? […] A lot of people don’t right now. And so, it’s been challenging, but I think having these sorts of things in place — like the style guide and the hotline — are super helpful, because we can just send an email that’s like, “Hey, this section of the style guide says this about what you’re doing.” 

Or something as simple as, they’ll ask how they should refer to a source and we can just say, “Ask the source.” It can be a little frustrating when people email us stuff that like you could CTRL-F the style guide and find it but people are coming to us in good faith, for the most part. 

Where do you see newsrooms stumbling or succeeding when it comes to covering trans issues? 

The thing I’m seeing trending across the board is that a lot of newsrooms, when talking about the Texas law specifically and healthcare in general, refer to gender-affirming surgeries or gender-affirming procedures which, when we’re talking about kids, 9 out of 10 times, that is just not what’s actually happening. For children, gender-affirming care is a haircut or new clothes and teenagers can have hormone blockers — no one is performing surgeries on children. 

That is something that’s getting lost and is contributing to the fear mongering, whether or not people realize that that’s what they’re doing. And it’s those little things, where it’s like, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the difference between gender-affirming care and gender-affirming procedures is so different in terms of what people are thinking about. 

When we’re talking about these issues, it’s important to get a variety of voices. For example, when people talk about trans people in sports, the majority of the time they’re talking about trans women. And it’s important to say that specifically. And you can’t just talk to like white trans kids in Texas, because this is impacting families of color. 

We also have to talk to low income families who can’t afford to leave Texas and what this means for them. Trans people are not a monolith — we have so much diversity and variety. If you’re only talking to one trans person as a source for your story about trans people, you’re going to get a very incomplete picture.

In terms of what people are getting right, we’re finally seeing people not deadname or misgender and we’re seeing more acceptance every single day, which is huge and should not have been as much of an uphill battle as it was, but we’re getting there. And the fact that a lot of newsrooms are covering this at all, because this is not the first time that this has happened and it’s getting more national attention. 

How do you think newsrooms, especially in states where anti trans legislation is moving through legislature, can best support the journalists that are working on those stories?

We pretty frequently say, hire trans journalists in your newsroom if you don’t have them because we are a population that’s only growing. Beyond that, I think the biggest thing is, once you have a trans person in your newsroom, actually listen to what they’re saying and what they think that you need to be doing differently.

I don’t live in Florida, or Texas, or any of those places so I don’t know what the specific needs of the community are there, but there are trans journalist who live in those states and do know and the newsrooms there should be listening to them because they know what their community needs and what needs to be reported on. 

I don’t think that every trans person should be senior trans correspondent for their newsroom, but I think if they have that perspective to bring to the table, and they’re willing to do that, then that should be heard and supported and uplifted.

There’s a balance of going into a newsroom because you think that you can make real change versus going to a newsroom where the climate isn’t necessarily hospitable to or honoring your identity. Do you have thoughts about navigating that dilemma for trans journalists who may be looking for work right now or heading into the field at this really pivotal moment?

There are pretty obvious red flags to look out for when applying for jobs. Little things, like the person who’s interviewing [you] does not have pronouns in their Zoom or their email signature or anything like that. 

Or if they don’t currently have any trans people on staff. In terms of being in a newsroom already, I think it’s really up to the person and how much work they want to put into trying to change the newsroom culture, and at what point they decide that it’s not worth it anymore. Or, if they decide that it’s not their responsibility at all, which is absolutely fair. 

A lot of times, just by having a trans person in the newsroom, people are thinking about these things more than they would if there wasn’t. Just having one person can make a huge difference. I think mostly, it’s really, really important to set boundaries and realize that it’s not your job to completely fix your newsroom.

This piece was edited by Curtis Yee

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