In 1997, I took my first baby steps into both the online and offline worlds as a woman, or at least as a female-identified person. The former brought me great joy as I connected and interacted with fellow trans people and learned more about myself and the community I now understood myself to be a part of, but the latter cost me my job and a few friends.
Part of the problem, of course, was the media. Credible and positive portrayals of trans women in any medium were a rarity then, and the existence of trans men had not yet penetrated straight American culture to any discernable degree.
It wasn’t just the mainstream, though. Most often, the very worst coverage on trans women came from gay and lesbian media. Trans voices were not present or even welcome in these media, and it showed in the coverage. We weren’t real people in the media then; we were Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Bosom Buddies and Bugs Bunny. In spaces other than our own both on and offline, trans women and our lives were all too rarely considered as anything more than comic relief.
Every inch of progress we’ve made since, we earned. When trans perspectives were shut out of the big gay and lesbian media outlets of the time, we started making our own media, and when blogs, podcasting, and Internet radio became popular, trans people began making ourselves heard in numbers never seen before.
Some in lesbian and gay media saw what was happening in the grass roots and were in the forefront of trans inclusion, but others had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward fully inclusive community coverage. It made for some rather bizarre situations. such as in 2004 when Transexual Menace activists protested in front of the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign. New York’s Gay City News and Pacifica Radio both sent reporters to cover those protests, but the Washington Blade, under then–editor in chief Chris Crain, with its editorial offices just blocks away from where the protests took place, chose not to bother sending a reporter to either event.
2007 changed everything in terms of transgender inclusion, not just politically but also in terms of how the media covers the trans community. Here was a community that was being routinely ignored by the media, yet when House Democrats went with a noninclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Acy there was a huge community shakeup, with over 400 civil rights organizations coming together under a single banner to oppose the exclusion of gender identity protections from ENDA.
Suddenly, it was a new era. Love us or hate us, you weren’t going to ignore us, not anymore. That which was once considered “lesbian and gay” became “GLBT” and later “LGBT” (ladies first). There was plenty of discussion and debate about what it all meant, but one thing became abundantly clear was that there were four distinct communities involved in these conversations now, not two, even if that “B” still wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
Blogs and other online media that defined themselves as LGBT-inclusive started including the work of trans media-makers like myself, Autumn Sandeen, and Marti Abernathey. Others rose in community notoriety through their own blogs, such as Jillian Weiss, Monica Roberts, and Katrina Rose. While the trans presence among professionals in commercial media was still almost nonexistent, no one could deny we were now a part of the cultural and political conversation going on within the LGBT community.
But now trans voices are not only mainstream, we’re as mainstream as any LGBT media ever gets. In 2014 you can’t even avoid us on television. Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera call out Katie Couric on-air for asking about their genitalia. Janet Mock schools Piers Morgan and trans women unite behind her. The fight for basic human respect and proper representation of trans women is now joined in earnest, and we are winning. We don’t fight our own community media (much) anymore; now we are the media.
Laverne Cox is a TV star, Janet Mock is a best-selling author, and even grunts like me who were once calling out media like The Advocate for misrepresenting trans people can find themselves looking with pride at their own byline under that very same banner almost a generation later.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
REBECCA JURO is a journalist and radio host who writes about media for Advocate.com. Her work has been published by The Bilerico Project, The Huffington Post, Washington Blade, and Gay City News. The Rebecca Juro Show streams live Thursdays from 7 to 9 p.m. Eastern.