Empathy as Key to Reporting on Gender and Sexuality

All we need is for newsrooms to wake up to this fact

While waiting for a doctor’s appointment in Mumbai, a trans woman from Kerala overheard someone else talking on the phone in Malayalam. She discovered that the person was a trans man from her home state, who was at the clinic for the same reason she was – to get gender affirmation surgery. They started talking, exchanged numbers, kept in touch and eventually fell in love.

In reporting the news of their wedding, this is how a major daily chose to frame the headline: ‘Mumbai: Man who became a woman weds woman who became a man.’

The report itself confirms what the headline suggests – that the daily treats the couple as some kind of circus sideshow instead of two human beings who have battled intense discrimination and stigma because of their gender identities. Early on, it reveals their ‘deadnames’ – the names they were given by their natal families, which they choose not to use anymore.

Throughout the report there is the sense that the reporter doesn’t quite accept who they are, and that this is the ‘novelty’ on which the entire report is based.

This is far from the worst example of how the mainstream Indian media regularly depicts the lives of people who are queer, trans and/or gender non-conforming.

A digital news website had the following headline about a lesbian couple who died by suicide in Ahmedabad: ‘Lesbian couple throw kid and jump into river to unite in death.’ After Queerabad, a city-based queer and trans rights collective protested strongly, they changed the headline to the far more sensitive and accurate ‘Stigma against lesbian couple leads to suicide with child’ – putting the onus of the deaths on a society that perpetuates intense violence and discrimination against queer people instead of on the victims of this violence.

When a trans man died by suicide in June, a spate of news coverage about him was, as Manasa Rao points out in The News Minute, both inaccurate and insensitive. Instead of fact-checking, which should be a given, many reporters misgendered the deceased. They claimed that he was ‘crossdressing’ and had ‘cheated’ his wife into believing he was a man.

Countless more examples can be found where trans people are regularly misgendered, misrepresented, and written about with blatant insensitivity. Mainstream publications continue to use ungrammatical ways to talk about queer and trans people that reveal how little they care to represent these communities accurately – it is not uncommon to see the words ‘a transgender’ or ‘transgenders’ scattered throughout reports. Many identities are entirely invisible in reportage and therefore public discourse – people who identify as asexual, for instance.

The point is not to enumerate all the ways in which the media lets down queer, trans and non-binary people. But it is more than past time to acknowledge that even the most otherwise progressive newsrooms seem to lack basic empathy when it comes to reporting on gender and sexual minorities.

This has real and direct impact on millions of people, especially those who are the most marginalised in other ways, based on caste, class, religion, disability, and so on. Representation in the mainstream media shapes public discourse, and adversely affects the way already stigmatised communities are seen.

The truth is that this problem can be very easily addressed. There are innumerable collectives on gender and sexuality working in every conceivable language throughout the country. There is no excuse for the media, operating in any medium and any language in any location all over India to use outdated, inaccurate, or insensitive language when all it takes is an open conversation with these collectives about how to report in a way that is factual and sensitive.

Many of these collectives actively work on media advocacy and have language guides and other resources they can share with media persons who report on these issues. All it takes is one journalist or one editor to take these resources seriously enough to access them and actually use them. In fact, in instances of sensitive reportage, it is very often the case that it is one aware and empathetic journalist who is doing their best to report in the way these communities deserve.

However, the onus should not be on rights collectives or even on individual reporters to fix what is ultimately a systemic issue. It is editors at the highest levels who need to take gender and sexuality seriously as a beat, and assign enough time and resources to reporters to engage with the subject meaningfully. We also need to see queer, trans and non-binary people represented in newsrooms themselves.

What would an empathetic newsroom such as this look like? First of all, it would significantly increase both the quality and quantity of reporting on these issues. Second, it would keep in mind the language is powerful and must be wielded with care when it comes to people’s lives, so regional and diverse gender and sexual identities would be properly identified, and people would be referred to in line with how they identify. Third, important developments in law and society, including events such as Pride which are already widely covered, would be covered with greater depth and nuance.

This is an important time for people who identify as queer, trans and/or non-binary in India. Section 377, which criminalises intercourse “against the order of nature”– which has been weaponised against queer people in India, is finally out. Intense protests by trans collectives seem to have led to some changes in the disastrous Rights of Transgender Persons Bill (2016), the government’s response to the landmark NALSA judgment. These are complex subjects, whose implications need to be examined by the media both within the law, of course, but also beyond it. An engaged, aware and empathetic media needs to look at the ways in which affirmative action, education, employment, basic respect and dignity is denied to the most marginalised queer, trans and non-binary people in India. This need is urgent – all we need is for newsrooms to wake up to this fact.