Let’s talk about a group of people: columnists and opinion writers. They’re a small group but they get a lot of attention. What they say and do doesn’t necessarily impact me directly, but sometimes it challenges what I believe, offends me, or even makes me upset. I feel their beliefs and ideas have become the orthodoxy that everyone just goes along with. It’s not that I’m anti-columnist or anti-opinion writer. I just think it’s reasonable to scrutinise their claims. I’ll probably face blowback for even just saying I don’t entirely agree with their views.
If this feels unfair to single out a group like this in a published article in Crikey, imagine how it feels if you replace “columnists and opinion writers” with “trans people”. Voila! I just gave you the outline of an article that appears in Australian media every week or so.
Consider the difference between the two groups. Regular columnists and opinion writers are by definition cultural elites. They have access to enormous audiences that others don’t, which they can use to shape the way the public thinks and feels. Australia’s media are whiter than the general public. In short, they’re a powerful group.
Trans people suicide and self-harm at elevated rates. They’re more likely to be subject to violence and live in poverty. They’re generally excluded from the media — I can think of a single trans journalist with a full-time job at a mainstream Australian news publication. I can’t think of one regular trans columnist. It’s not really a fair fight between the two groups.
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Back to columnists and opinion writers. I feel for them. Like scavengers surveying the savannah, their livelihood depends on their ability to spot things that others don’t. They’re constantly on the lookout for an interesting or controversial take on something. And what is hotter right now than “the trans issue”? And shouldn’t they be able to have their say on it?
Yes, they should. I truly believe the media should be able to write about anything that’s interesting and newsworthy. We get nowhere by completely censoring debate. The issue is that historically the media has systematically excluded the voices of marginalised groups while we have the same confected discussions over and over again, often badly. Since 2019, there have been 12 adjudications about Australian media being inaccurate, offensive or harmful about trans people.
Even as we, the media, have come to accept our issues with diversity, we promise to do better — yet then we continue to make the same mistakes. For example, I would bet my house that there are more articles written or interview segments in the last year complaining about trans people — which are more or less the same stuff over and over again — than there have been written by or featuring trans people about any topic.
You want something newsworthy and interesting? Imagine if we used this rare and privileged platform to go and speak to five trans people about what it’s like when both candidates for prime minister of Australia denied that trans women are women in a televised leadership debate. No one wrote that article (including me).
But a lot of people have written about how using genderless pronouns or terminology denies women’s existence. It’s boring to publish that again. In fact, writing that using “birthing person” rather than “woman” is hurting the feminist movement both misdiagnoses the problem and punches down. Who’s restricting reproductive rights access in America? It’s not trans people. In fact, the same people who fought to overturn abortion access are the same ones who are also rolling back access to trans health care. Plus, trans people want access to abortion too. If you knowingly choose to exclude trans people by incorrectly saying that only women access abortion — at best a falsehood — you’re actually cutting out your allies in the fight for the right to choose against a common foe.
Why do I care about this? I’m a white, straight, cis male in a comfy media job who taps out words about the internet a couple of times a week. Writing about this stuff isn’t really my beat (although the crossover between internet radicalisation, politics and transphobia has become troublingly common). I’m not an LGBTQIA+ activist. I’m not signed up to whichever secret mailing list distributes the gay and trans agenda.
The reason is that I got into journalism because I wanted to share information with audiences that helps them to live good lives. This often involves elevating the voices of those who don’t already have a platform so audiences can understand their plight.
I am writing this because it’s not a fair fight. On one hand, we’ve got an influential and privileged group of people whose world view is being challenged. On the other hand, we’ve got a group who are killing themselves in large numbers because of the stigma they face for trying to live life as they choose. As I wrote this article, the Labor government rolled back a change on a Medicare form that used “birthing parent” rather than “mother”, a change that literally erases the existence of trans men who give birth.
Journalism should be balanced, but that doesn’t mean we need to present both sides as equal. When we present topics as if it’s an even trade-off between someone’s discomfort with someone’s fight to merely exist, we’re doing a disservice to trans people, columnists and opinion writers, and our audience.