Transphobic Bigotry Should Be A Wake Up Call for Niagara News Media

556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vfLast week Caitlyn Jenner, former 1976 Decathlon Olympic Champion and long celebrated as one of the best athletes to ever live, graced the cover of Vanity Fair in her first public photo since coming at as a trans woman. The event followed almost a year after black trans actress Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time, and was arguably a new high water mark for trans visibility in mainstream news media.

Not long after, it was announced that Caitlyn was to be awarded the Arthur Ashe award for courage in the sporting world. The award was named after Ashe who broke barriers as a black man in tennis in the 1960’s and 70’s and who later in the 90’s become an advocate for those battling HIV/AIDS after he contracted the virus from a blood transfusion. The event followed a year after ESPN faced criticism for giving the same award to Michael Sam – a black man and the first openly gay player drafted in the National Football League. The radical nature of the award, the platform it provides, as well as the serious barriers faced by athletes who become public champions for social justice is central to understanding the award and why it was given to Caitlyn.

Almost immediately, larger society reacted in ways which only cemented why this was the right decision. As transphobic attitudes struggled to find popular and acceptable ways to couch their views, they found a prop in differently abled military vet Noah Galloway. The frame shifted to the award being about the courage veterans face up against the courage Caitlyn exhibited as a trans person (and that trans people exhibit in general). The entire thing was a farce. Galloway was not “passed over,” and the framing was created and furthered by people who by their other words and actions suggest they don’t genuinely care about either of these groups of people – veterans or trans people – two populations with some of the highest rates of homelessness and suicide.

Niagara experienced this story through this frame as St. Catharines Conservative MP Rick Dykstra retweeted a popular meme of Galloway from the MilitaryUSA twitter account with the caption “what a joke.” Dykstra was immediately confronted on it on twitter, including by me, and offered a response, “Individuals make these decisions and never seek out media or special interviews. It was a story, it’s overplayed now.” Dykstra’s response, a double down on an offensive position, was clear in that for Rick, Trans people can only exhibit “courage” by remaining individual, invisible and silent. The level of absurdity of a politician – who is constantly seeking out media and special interviews in order to advance political policy and positions of his party – degrading a marginalized population because they seek a similar platform to influence society, was breathtaking in its idiocy.

For Dykstra, the story was already “overplayed” on June 3rd, before the Huffington Post picked up on his tweets and reaction to them. For those who know Niagara media and their treatment of Dykstra, it is unsurprising this was a story outside of the region before it was one here. Still, the St. Catharines Standard soon followed with an article of its own. Following largely on the theme of borrowing from twitter, the story was slim in its context of the Ashe award and failed to mention that the entire Galloway meme was not only offensive, but factually incorrect. CHCH TV in Hamilton followed with a similar news segment along these lines and Standard columnist Grant LaFleche followed not long after with a column urging Dykstra to revisit his comments (to date Dykstra still has not removed his original retweet or his justification for it). LaFleche’s column was a solid middle of the road nudge, that still offered up the supportive line that Dykstra himself is a good politician and not a bigot, “I have known and covered Dykstra for a long time. He’s been an effective MP for the city and I know he isn’t a bigot. So lets put that aside right away.” Why talking about his effectiveness as an MP, or offering this apology, was deemed necessary was a sad sign of how little critical news coverage is given to Dykstra, his views, his party’s policies and his own role in the Harper Administration. Even as he belly flopped into the waters of ignorance and intolerance – they still felt necessary to hold him up. “What a joke,” indeed.

LaFleche’s column and Dykstra’s own stupid comments would be eclipsed on Friday when local online news source Bullet News Niagara and writer Kris Dube published a transphobic rant on the “nonsense.” Misgendering Caitlyn throughout, claiming that transgender people need “treatment,” and adamantly claiming that Caitlyn is a man because she was “born a man” – the “opinion” is a study in a complete lack of self awareness. Dube claims he is tolerant and accepting, and even after an avalanche of criticism (by Bullet News Niagara standards) – he stands by his piece which is poorly written and horribly offensive. Both Dube and Dykstra have refused to revisit their statements – even though both have opened up a platform for extremely hateful, nonsensical and transphobic voices. Dube’s article shared by readers with the commentary “Fuck Bruce Jenner,” “I am beyond descuted with the whole *Bruce Jenner ordeal….it’s fine to be a woman but to make this big deal out of it is just awful….Obama should he ashamed…” Dykstra gets tweets of support, “People say you’re taking heat. LOL. Whatever. His name is Bruce, not Caitlyn. Needs help, not praise.” Outside of refusing to revisit their own views – which they claim are not a transphobic – neither have done anything to reign in these supportive comments and tweets.

To Bullet’s credit – they did publish a countering letter to the editor at midnight last night by Kristyn Anthony. It is a thoughtful letter written by a queer journalist who grew up in the area and left – the closed mindedness of the area being an inspiration for that move. Beyond that though, the staff and Dube seem content to leave up the original piece unedited.

This media coverage, which comes as Pride Week is being celebrated in Niagara, has shown the complete lack of diversity in Niagara news media. Even the best column written on this topic – LaFleche’s – is fixated on repeating “transexual” ad nasuem, even though it was itself a call to recognize society’s lack of understanding. No one is going to be able to give justice to this topic if it is the first time in their life they have ever had to confront it. The privilege, arrogance and sheer ignorance with which it has been addressed, and the space opened for others to pile on the same, illustrates not just individual fault but larger structural issues. If you search “transgender” on the Bullet News Niagara site there is one result outside of this story and it is an event description which was sent to them. How was Dube so tired of talking about this topic when he clearly had never written or thought about it before vomiting up his “opinion” for us? The response that it is “annoying” because Jenner is a celebrity holds no weight for these people who clearly are not invested in trans people who are not celebrities either. Again, they are really calls for trans people to remain invisible in our society.

Some have called for jobs, some have called for emails to ad clients and other staff, and some have written letters to the editor. I think all of those efforts could be worthwhile – especially in conjunction. Outside of that though, the news media in this region needs to take this coverage as a wake up call and actually provide space and platforms for trans people to write about their lives and the issues that effect them locally.

The Toronto bar El Furniture Warehouse is trying to make good on their transphobic social media posts on Caitlyn by funding trans youth programs and providing them with weekly meals. This is a start and hopefully something which is kept up and built on. Niagara news publications are in a similar position to take a step forward and begin reversing transphobia in our community. A paid column by a trans writer in the area would bring accountability to this “boys club” and also ensure that the views of the community are not filtered through people who simply can’t understand the experiences (I include myself here).

Bullet, Metroland, the Sun. We don’t have a lot of options and we don’t have a lot of media jobs in Niagara. Those sources that do remain should be invested in being accountable to the community they cover if they want to remain relevant. Keep it up with the dinosaur pulpit and you don’t deserve to survive. It is time for us to adapt – not the other way around.