Telling Stories from the Transgender Community
My news director assigned me last week to tell the experiences of transgender high school students in the Bay Area. A day into making repeated phone calls and eager pleas for interviews, I realized it was mid-June and high school was out. Time to re-think the story. What other story could I tell? Not being a member of the transgender community myself, I reached out to two people. I found myself half-listening to the Communications director at the Transgender Law Center talking to me over the phone about all the things that the Center works on, and awkwardly explaining that I was looking for a story that would be interesting and important. At the same time, I was reading a long-winded email from a contact I had randomly reached out to; she was an individual I met at a budget rally at San Francisco City Hall who works at the Transgender, Gender-variant, and Intersex Justice Project. I dug around my papers for ten minutes before finally finding the business card she had given me over a month ago; I wrote her an email entitled “KPFA reporter seeking guidance.” I don’t know what she had imagined when she opened the email, but she was kind enough to respond with all kinds of ideas for stories that she felt could be told from the transgender community.
I ended up following two leads: a time-sensitive news piece on a transgender woman on a hunger strike in a San Francisco jail (see above), and a lengthier feature on transgender women emigrating to the United States from Mexico (stay tuned).
And so far, it has been an incredible learning experience about how to position myself as an ethical and honest reporter.
My first interview was with an attorney at the Transgender Law Center, who was kind enough to put up with my can-we-meet-half-an-hour-later texts and my overly enthusiastic phone calls asking how their weekend was in awkward overtures of friendship … this was my first moment of important self-awareness.
I realized during the interview that I was so eager to please, very self-aware of my privilege, and nervous that I’d say something insulting. When it comes to these stories, I am hyper-aware that I do not personally know what it is like to be a transgender individual, so I try really hard to be correct and respectful and posit myself as an ally. This makes me sound very awkward, and I am aware that I sound awkward, and I trip myself up. I don’t want to come across as someone from the mainstream white, cisgender community that is interviewing and trying to befriend someone from the transgender community because they’re exotic or different. I don’t want to sound like I’m coming to visit their community for my own personal ratification as a liberal, “open-minded” person. I don’t want to be the kind of person that has to even say that I’m open-minded. You either are or you aren’t, and saying so doesn’t really make it so.
Treating all individuals as human beings worthy of dignity is the basis of my interactions with everyone. I try very hard to live up to this principle as an individual and as a reporter. For me, the person in front of me is whoever they are according to themselves. This is why, while I cannot speak from personal experience, I empathize with transgender individuals and their fight for recognition of their gender identities.
I concluded after my interview with the lawyer that the best way to respect them and their expertise would have been to interview them like I interview anyone – with respect and with a critical mind. I have to ask good questions and get good responses. I have to push back because I try to do so with all my interviewees. I don’t have to treat them like they’re made of porcelaine, or be overly eager to please, in order to show that I’m on their side. I’m a reporter. In this case, my choice of subject belies my ally-ship.
This evening, I’m heading to interview members of El/La Para Translatinas about their stories coming to the U.S. as asylum seekers. I want to tell them that I’m there to hear their story, and that I’m honored to be a vector for sharing their experiences. Earlier today when I said so to my contact over the phone, she responded, “Oh, you’re sweet.” I felt like she was putting me back in my place. And she’s right. It’s sweet to be trying so hard, but it’s not your sweet intentions that count. You talk the talk or you walk the walk.
I still don’t know how to position myself to tell other people’s stories. Do your stories become my stories when edit, cut, produce, and narrate them for the air? And, ultimately, is your story also my story because we’re both fighting the same fight for justice?
What do you think?
… to be continued …
I originally published this story on June 21, 2016. <https://atravelintention.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/reporters-notebook-1/>