Opinion ||: How the Media Harms the Trans Community, and What You Can Do About It

Noah Leibowitz

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The year 2015 is widely regarded as a milestone for the transgender community. It was then that Caitlyn Jenner publicly came out as a trans woman, one of the first times in history that mainstream media gave significant publicity to a trans person in a generally positive light. It was the year that I am Jazz, a reality show about a trans teenager named Jazz Jennings, aired on TLC. It was very easy for mainstream media to embrace the story of a wealthy white trans woman who could easily afford to transition on her own terms, or the story of a trans teenager who is lucky enough to have an accepting and supportive family. These stories depict a world that is finally safe for trans individuals to exist in. Yes, as far as the general public is concerned, 2015 was a year of explosive progress for the trans community.

However, just as television rarely provides an accurate depiction of reality, the mainstream media’s recent interest in the trans community is anything but an accurate depiction of the trans experience. In reality, 2015 had the highest number of recorded trans murders in the United States’ history — at least 21, though that number is probably too low, as many victims are misgendered by authorities and the media. The media rarely reports on the myriad of issues affecting the average trans individual. There are no film crews documenting the daily lives of homeless trans youth. There are no CNN specials discussing the life expectancy of trans women, which is 35 years on average. Contrary to popular belief, sugarcoated positive exposure from mainstream media has done very little to aid the trans community.

But just as the media is capable of portraying the trans community in a positive light, it is also capable of promoting transphobia, which in turn fuels hatred of trans individuals, and ultimately leads to acts of violence. Transphobic reporting is a major cause of the violence that the trans community faces; because of this, there needs to be a conscious opposition to transphobic media figures.

One media figure in particular has risen to fame in recent years, mostly due to his unapologetic expression of misogyny, transphobia, and thinly-veiled white supremacy — Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is a British journalist and Associate Editor for Breitbart.com, a conservative news website. 

He is famous for sparking the infamous “Gamergate” controversy, a misogynistic online crusade against women working in the gaming industry, with an article in which he claimed that the gaming community is being “terrorized by an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners.” According to video game developer Brianna Wu, the article influenced countless misogynists to send graphic rape and death threats to several female video game developers including herself, a testimony to the very real violence perpetuated by his influence. In response to Wu’s critique, Yiannopoulos publicly outed her as a trans woman in an article that consisted almost entirely of personal attacks on her gender identity.

Yiannopoulos is a prime example of a blatantly transphobic media figure. In a Breitbart article titled “I Am So Done With The Trans Outrage Brigade: Why I’m Supporting ‘Drop The T,’” he wrote, “If you ask me, when a guy says he needs to cut part of himself off for the world to make sense, we should start with his head.” Aside from the clear-as-day call for his followers to behead trans women, he also deliberately used transphobic slurs throughout the article. How can the trans community survive when influential media figures like Yiannopoulos use their influence to advocate for the brutal murder of trans people?

Life for trans people is hard enough as it is without his hateful rhetoric. Even in the District, which has many of the most progressive and trans-inclusive non-discrimination laws in the U.S., the trans community faces extremely high rates of discrimination: 19 percent of trans individuals have been denied medical care due to discrimination, 25 percent have been denied a lease and over 40 percent have been denied a job, according to the 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment Report. This assessment makes it very clear that these laws are either inadequate for the needs of the trans community, or deliberately unenforced. How can trans individuals survive in a city that does not protect their basic rights?

And then there’s the incredible economic disadvantage: over 46 percent of trans individuals earn below $10,000 a year, 20 percent are homeless, 20 percent are uninsured and 36 percent are unemployed. Often related to these factors are the serious health issues facing the community: 21 percent of trans individuals are HIV positive, 60 percent have seriously considered and 34 percent have attempted suicide. In a city where the trans community is heavily discriminated against in housing, employment, and medical care, how can we expect trans individuals to succeed economically, let alone maintain their physical and mental health?

The sheer commonality of transphobic violence in the District says a lot about its citizens’ true opinion of trans people. According to the assessment, discrimination is only one of several forms of violence that the trans community faces: nearly 50 percent of employed trans individuals have experienced workplace harassment, 74 percent have been verbally assaulted, 42 percent have been physically assaulted, and 35 percent of trans individuals have been sexually assaulted. Furthermore, 24 percent of homeless trans individuals have been physically or sexually assaulted by police, and 40 percent of trans individuals living in a shelter have been physically or sexually assaulted by inmates or staff. In light of these figures, it is honestly difficult to fathom how a man like Yiannopoulos can be taken seriously by anyone with even a basic sense of human empathy; yet, he has supporters and followers all over the world. Even at American University. 

In fact, thanks to the folks in AU’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, Yiannopoulos will be speaking right here at AU in April. Yes, American University, which prides itself on being an “affirming” place for its trans students, is actually allowing a man who denies the validity of trans identities and advocates and perpetuates transphobic violence all over the world, to set foot on its campus.

While there is endless room for critique of Yiannopoulos’ political agenda, there is also plenty to be said about his credibility as a journalist. His journalistic success relies entirely on his ability to spark outrage, and he often completely flips his opinion on subjects in order to accomplish that. For example, prior to “Gamergate”, he was relentlessly critical of gaming; not only questioning the content of popular video games, but also personally attacking the character and masculinity of adult males who play video games. However, in a successful attempt to profit off of misogyny in the gaming community, he abandoned all of his previous opinions of gaming and started portraying himself as an avid gamer. Yiannopoulos is not a journalist; he is an opportunistic reactionary who writes deliberately hateful opinion pieces solely to fuel his ego and his bank account.

Many proponents of YAL’s upcoming event believe that allowing him to speak at AU is an exercise of “free speech,” but if Yiannopoulos’ credibility and journalistic integrity are so questionable, then why did YAL decide to bring him to AU if not solely to promote hate speech? There are plenty of credible conservative journalists who do not rely solely on controversy and shock value to promote their work. There are plenty of credible conservative journalists who actually contribute useful ideas and information to public discourse. There are plenty of credible conservative journalists who don’t respond to critics by tweeting “I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.” As a popular media figure, Yiannopoulos has all of the free speech in the world, but it is unreasonable to believe that a man with so little credibility and journalistic integrity should be entitled in any way to a platform to spew violent hate speech at a private university. Furthermore, the fact that an event like this is even permitted by AU speaks volumes about the AU administration’s willingness to stand up for the marginalized groups that it claims to protect.

To every cisgender student who has ever claimed to be an “ally” to the trans community, now is your chance to prove it. It is not enough to simply have a few trans friends. It is not enough to simply share an article about Caitlyn Jenner on Facebook. It is not enough to simply feel guilty about trans oppression. I am not calling on you to single-handedly put an end to transphobia. No single person can eliminate the deep-seated oppression of the trans community. But this is our own backyard. Will you stand idly by while Milo Yiannopoulos continues to perpetuate transphobic violence right here on AU’s campus? The dying members of my community do not have time for your passivity.