Why Media Matters in the Fight for LGBT Rights

Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History announced that it would be adding a significant number of LGBT artifacts to their storied collection. Among the new additions are set props from Will and Grace, the diplomatic passport of the U.S.’s first out gay ambassador, David Huener, a tennis racquet that once belonged to transgender athlete Renee Richards, and the original transgender pride flag, designed by U.S. Navy veteran Monica Helms.

According to the Associated Press, “[t]he donation is part of a larger effort to document gay and lesbian history, an area that has not been well understood at the museum.”

While some may view artifacts from TV shows or movies as meaningless items that exist solely within the confines of pop culture, studies have actually shown that individuals who were exposed to LGBT characters on TV or in film were more likely to find themselves in favor of marriage equality, demonstrating the power of pop culture and how it can influence public policy decisions.

In an effort to better understand what activists see as the next frontier in how media can help advance LGBT rights, we spoke with activist Fiona Dawson. Dawson has most recently been working on TransMilitary, a documentary series exploring the military’s continuing ban on transgender service members. Additionally, Dawson serves on the Board of Directors for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

What do you think the wider impact positive representation of LGBT characters and stories in the media has on society? Do you feel that seeing stories that accurately represent LGBT characters advance matters of personal policy?

I think there’s a huge impact on society with positive representations of LGBT people whether they be fictional characters or reality storytelling. We’ve seen the positive impact already as marriage equality, employment protections and hate crime recognition has become more and more established in correlation with the increase of people saying they know someone who is lesbian or gay. It’s exciting to see advances and yet we must remember that we have more achievable work to do. According to the Williams Institute, today 9 out of 10 people know someone who is lesbian or gay, yet only 1 out of 10 Americans report knowing someone who is transgender. Knowing someone nurtures respect, changes hearts and minds and influences policy.

In recent years, the inclusion of gay characters in sitcoms, dramas, and other scripted TV shows has increased. Over time, we’ve seen characters that mirrored society’s own gay stereotypes have become more nuanced, toned down, realistic representations of people. Transgender people—whether in a reported piece or on a scripted TV show/movie—are often still portrayed in ways that only reinforce society’s existing stereotypes. What would you like to see change in how trans people are portrayed in the media in the next 10 years?

I’d like to see not only accurate, diverse portrayals but reality personalities and more transgender people employed as actors—to play cisgender and transgender roles. Someone’s gender or gender identity should not type-cast them as an actor. Yes, someone with ‘lived experience’ may well have an edge but just because someone doesn’t have a ‘lived experience’ of being cisgender doesn’t mean they’re less capable of acting a cisgender part. Why do we employ cisgender actors for trans roles and yet are more hesitant to employee the reverse?

The media has a huge opportunity and responsibility to shape culture. Through all media channels and genres transgender people can be portrayed and portray themselves as who they are; in the same way that other people and communities have over time. It seems that right now the media is in the phase of giving exposure. However, well intentioned people are getting it wrong but for the most part not due to ill-intent or malice, but simply because they haven’t stopped to educate themselves on how to get it right. Those who want to drive change and typify transgender people in society can channel that ambition through multiple media channels now available.

Your recent work has focused on the fact that transgender people still cannot serve in the military, even after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Have you found that people are generally aware that the DADT repeal didn’t cover trans people? Are there issues in how the media pushes their messaging on the subject?

No, I have found that even LGB and some T people are generally not aware of the continued ban on trans people serving in the United States military. This is analogous to how we often merge our mental model of sexual orientation and gender identity. We use the ‘LGBT’ acronym so readily that we forget transgender people have a sexual orientation too. Regarding DADT, the repeal of this law permitted people to serve regardless of their sexual orientation. So, a transgender person who identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual has that prohibition lifted. However, several medical regulations still prohibit that individual from serving if they identify as a gender different from the one associated with their sex assigned at birth. The issues I see in the media are again down to ignorance on how to use language to describe what it means to be transgender and why transgender people are banned. Furthermore, the continued objectification of trans people and focus on body parts and medical treatments further hinders progress. I’ve heard a reporter ask, “So what did you do about your breasts when you were deployed?” The brilliant answer given was, “Well, I wore my uniform just like everyone else.”

I recently had a conversation with a lesbian cisgender woman who proudly put her arm around her wife and said that, “DADT repeal was such a relief because our marriage was finally recognized and I could serve without having to hide such an important part of me.” My response was, “That’s fantastic. Congratulations. Wouldn’t it be great if a transgender person could serve without having to hide their whole being?” To my surprise, this service member immediately had concerns about surgeries and in her eyes the vague distinction between when someone ‘goes from one gender to the other’ being a problem for the military to manage. When it was pointed out that this would be no more difficult for example than providing a cis male viagra or a cis female a hysterectomy, her mind started to think in a different track. As really, the life-saving medical treatment a transgender service member requires is just as individualized and accessible as many other medications, treatments and surgeries that cisgender service members currently received. The difference, however is that they are even more lifesaving. Further, being transgender is about gender and not just biological sex assigned at birth. When the media starts focusing on all people as holistic human beings we will start to see us all relate to one another much easier.

Who are some kick-ass women in LGBT activism or in the media that our readers might want to know about?

Oh gosh! There are some kick ass women in Houston, Texas! You should know Januari Leo, who is one of the most dedicated, intelligent and ferocious LGBT activists I have ever met. At the same time, she is humble, compassionate and unassuming. Januari has worked in the HIV/AIDS community for 18 years and volunteers on countless board, committees, task forces etc. She and her husband have two awesome kids, who they are “trying to teach that love is love, no matter who’s on the receiving end!” Others to mention are former League of Women Voters of Houston Executive Director Christina Gorczynski and her wife Ali, and in the Washington DC area, the powerhouse Sarah McBride who works for the Center for American Progress. Sarah and her late husband Andy received a letter from President Obama and Michelle on their wedding day this year for their, “extraordinary commitment. . . to making our Nation more equal and more just.”

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Whether you support the concept of having a military or not, Americans embrace our country’s foundation of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is what makes us great. We respect and value our men and women (and those in between) in uniform. We know they are kick-ass soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardsmen. Their jobs are physically, mentally and—dare I say it—emotionally demanding. When Americans can see that transgender people are performing these jobs just as well, if not better, than their cisgender counterparts then we are poised for a human equality revolution. We can move away from the disrespectful, inaccurate and harmful media tropes and see transgender people as equals within society. If any readers want to get involved please visit www.transmilitary.org. Facebook/SupportTransMilitary and follow @TransMilitary and @fionajdawson.

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