- The Handbasket
- How one magazine is changing the game for trans-inclusive coverage
How one magazine is changing the game for trans-inclusive coverage
A recent project from SELF focusing on trans youth in sports shows how legacy media can and must evolve.
Trans people are under an unprecedented attack right now for the crime of simply existing. Media outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with conservative Substacks and other prominent right wing social media brands, are hellbent on “just asking questions” about trans lives for clicks. And their bigotry and craven need for attention at any cost seems to eclipse any awareness of the impact of their words.
When SELF magazine published a project last week featuring stories about trans youth and sports called “Let Them Play,” it marked a huge departure from the way so many other legacy outlets have tackled one of the most important cultural issues of our time. Articles in the SELF package like, “What It Looks Like When Trans Kids Are Simply Allowed to Play Sports” and “How to Make Your Local Youth Sports Leagues More Welcoming to Trans Kids,” emphasize the joy of youth sports and how making sports more inclusive is anything but cause for a moral panic.
I wanted to know how this remarkable project came to pass, so I spoke to SELF Editor-in-Chief Rachel Wilkerson Miller about its genesis, how to evolve a legacy media brand, and the moral obligation of journalists to stand up for the most vulnerable.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Marisa Kabas, The Handbasket: How long was this project in the works?
Rachel Wilkerson Miller, SELF: It was in the works for a while. We wanted to get everything right. We were really meticulous, working with the research desk–which includes fact check and legal–to make sure that everything was really buttoned up. We wanted to be super careful.
MK: And as far as wanting to be super careful, why was that?
RWM: I think there were many things we were trying to keep in mind as we worked on this. The first is just making sure that we're telling stories about and for trans people in a way that felt really responsible. So just the baseline: avoiding any tropes or stereotypes, just making sure we're being really thoughtful about how we are representing a very vulnerable group of people, especially when you consider that we're also talking about trans children. So that was a huge part of it. Another part of it was making sure that if we're taking a strong stance about these topics that we are being very precise and meticulous, in terms of what we're saying and the facts.
And then from the legal standpoint, you know, again, we're talking to children in these cases. We wanted to make sure that we had consent forms from their parents that they understood. We anonymized them. Particularly in Frankie's big feature story, we didn't share their last names. We kept identifying details out of it. But even with that, we just wanted to make sure they were super comfortable with it, that they knew what they were doing so that they weren't surprised by anything when it came out. Or if it did get picked up and, you know, bad actors started circulating it, they weren't gonna be surprised by anything like that.
MK: Totally. And, what was the genesis of this idea? What conversations did it grow out of?
RWM: I think what happened was that I was just watching what's been happening both around the country for the past couple of years to trans people, and then also the media coverage of what's happening around the country to trans people, with growing frustration. I felt like they weren't taking seriously that this is a crisis, and that they might be exacerbating that. But to “just ask questions” about this is, to my mind, really bad journalism. The questions have been asked and answered.
We also take a lot of care to make sure our everyday content is just really inclusive in terms of how we talk about gender, how we talk about what has historically been called “women's health.” We really try not to use that kind of phrasing anymore. We're more precise when we're talking about, like, who can get pregnant. We always say “pregnant people” versus “women.” Little things like that. So this is something that's folded into our everyday content.
But I was thinking about like, what can we do as a brand to just make clear this is important. We want everyone to listen, we want everyone to pay attention. And I don't actually remember how the idea kind of came to me fully formed. But I just had the thought of like, oh sports, that's a perfect angle for us. We cover sports through the lens of fitness, through the lens of mental health. And all of this is a huge mental health story, to my mind. So it was just kind of like, oh, that's the angle. That's what we can do.
So from there, I think I Slacked Sally Tamarkin immediately. Sally is non-binary. They were freelancing at the time, and “I said I have this idea. What do you think?” They were all for it. And basically I asked them to help me get it going, to assign out/edit a lot of these stories. They had the great idea to reach out to Frankie [de la Cretaz] who both of us have worked with in the past. And so we brought Frankie on as a consultant and we met to talk through their thoughts on how we should frame this package, what we should avoid, which was incredibly helpful. We paid them for their time, just wanna be clear. They weren't volunteering here.
One of the things that they said was like, I wanna make sure that we don't just tell the traumatic stories of trans kids playing sports. That's what you hear all the time, but trans kids are already playing sports around the country and it's not a big deal. Actually, their teammates are fine with it. No one's actually really thinking about it that much. And their point was like, we don't want to undermine the very real struggles that a lot of kids are having, but we also wanna tell a story about [how] this is in a lot of ways like what adults are making of it.
MK: I think it was really noticeable that it wasn't focused on trauma, even though that's alluded to and obviously acknowledged. It brought it back to the idea that trans kids are just kids. I was curious how you made the decision to focus solely on kids for this package.
RWM: Well, I was thinking about who the SELF reader is, and I was thinking about how people are sort of metabolizing this issue at the exact moment we're in. And my feeling was like, I think we have a lot of younger parents who read SELF who might have an elementary or a middle school or high school age child, and that might actually be the first moment where they encounter this issue in a meaningful and personal way. And so that to me felt like a really good place to reach people.
And I know that generally speaking, engaging with people in debate about these topics is like, you kind of have to decide is that worth it or not? I will be the first to say in many instances, I don't think it's worth it. You don't wanna argue with people who just aren't interested in learning. But I actually do think that there is a group of people who just like, haven't actually thought about this that much, and they maybe aren't that online or they don't know any trans people. And they're just kind of seeing bits and pieces of this on social media, and they're generally pointed in the right direction on these issues. Like they broadly are OK with gay marriage and things like that. But they're just asking questions, and I think those questions might actually be genuine and in good faith. And if somebody sat down and explained this to them, maybe they actually would see things differently.
So that was definitely top of mind for me. We want to really bring people in with us. And I think particularly when you watch the video, but, but also when you read Frankie's article, it's just like, oh my God, I forgot what kids talk like and how sweet they are and innocent they are and wholesome they are. Like, I thought that was just so important to counteract this very scary narrative that's out there.
MK: Are there plans to build on this with future projects?
RWM: I'm not sure yet. I mean, I'm really excited that we got this one out the door. I'm really pleased with how it turned out and I'm really proud of it. So I would love to think about how we can expand on it. And I don't know if that is more in this series, or if we start talking about a different level of sports, or if there's a different approach entirely. I haven't really figured that out yet.
But I think I can confidently say that we will continue to talk about trans health care, trans inclusion, gender expression and really just being in full support of things like gender-affirming care, hormone therapy, whatever it may be. As a brand that is still in line with our values, and we'll continue to create content that pushes that forward.
MK: I think it's really fascinating how you said that even in your everyday coverage, you try to integrate inclusive language, and you mentioned your values as a brand. SELF has been around for a long time and it’s been mostly known for women's fitness and wellness. And I wonder, how did you approach taking what people know about SELF and moving it into the future?
RWM: I think it's a work in progress for sure. I've been here a year, which is a long time, but also not a long time, particularly when you're dealing with a legacy brand. So, some of these things are slow going, but I do think it starts small. I also had a really good foundation to build on. I think past EICs have done a really good job, and there is a ton of content on SELF about topics that some people would deem controversial.
We have a huge library of content about abortion, and why that is health care, and everything you need to know about your own abortion, supporting a friend getting an abortion–everything like that. We have content from 2020 about police brutality as a public health issue. How gun violence is a health issue. This content actually is already kind of part of DNA. And so it did feel like a natural extension of it and it was just building on it.
One thing that I did last year after I started was had Tuck Woodstock from the Trans Journalists Association come in and do a workshop with my team, particularly focusing on trans inclusion and health content. I had taken his workshop when I was working at Vox, and I thought it was really great. And he'll do a workshop that's specifically tailored to a particular organization. So he was really great, and it was a great opportunity for my team to just ask questions. And I thought that was really helpful.
So again, just like slowly but surely just trying to make sure everyone on the team is just thinking about these things, just making sure that when we're editing everyday content that we're looking out for things like that. And then from there, I think you, you start to build up to just pushing it forward more. And I think that's also when the audience might start to notice.
MK: There's been really widespread frustration with the way trans trans issues are covered at legacy media outlets. There was the open letter to the New York Times from trans writers and allies in April imploring them to do better, and they haven't. What do you think explains this resistance to moving forward?
RWM: It's a good question. I thought the letter was great. I was one of the signers of it because I had been a New York Times contributor. It was really exciting to see it, and it's so frustrating to see it just kind of go nowhere. Like the Times just won't engage with this in good faith. And that bums me out because the people who wrote that letter were ready to engage in good faith. It wasn't, you know, it wasn't some kind of attack. It was a genuine, “Hey, this is dangerous. We are scared. We are worried.”
I think it is weird that major media outlets are devoting so much of their time and energy to this [anti-trans pieces]. Like, I don't know why they care so much. Trans people are not a threat. The health issues have been asked and answered. We as media have such a role to play in deciding what the news is, and no one can tell me otherwise. And the bigger an outlet you are, the more power you have there. And like there are so many things going on right now that we should be talking about more urgently than a handful of trans kids getting access to puberty blockers.
And I've said this before publicly: I took puberty blockers as a kid because I was going through early puberty. Nobody cared. It was not a big deal. Kids have been taking puberty blockers for years, and no one's worried about their bones or whatever BS excuse they use now.
I also don't want to discount the role of anti-trans feelings in all of this…I do think at a certain point, you just kind of have to be like, ok, these people actually believe what they're putting forth. You can't ask these questions from a neutral point of view. you can't continue to make this the news. There's something influencing your reporting on this. You don't report on things you don't care about, that you don't think are important.
MK: I think the package you did was so brave. I wonder what your advice would be to other people running outlets and newsrooms for how to cover trans issues without fear of backlash?
RWM: Well, I don't wanna say that we didn't fear backlash, but it's like you have to decide whose backlash you're afraid of, and what you're afraid the consequences will be. You know, if we lose readers over this, my feeling is like, I don't think you're actually gonna like our content that much because this is a part of everything we do. And this is still in line with our brand values of inclusivity and bodily autonomy.
You have to decide what your lines in the sand are. And when you're willing to just say no, this thing is not ok, we have a moral obligation to talk about why it's not. And it can take many different forms. It's not just about trans inclusion: it's about race; it's about cops; it's about quote unquote crime. There's so many versions of this happening right now, and I think a lot of it just goes back to journalists have kind of bought into this idea that true neutrality exists. And I always see this idea skewed more conservative than anything. And since I was in journalism school, I just didn't really buy into that.
I think it's important to be direct about what you believe and what's driving you, and to report the facts with that in mind. But I think there's a real fear of this idea of being biased. I think that’s been weaponized against journalists and gotten into everyone's heads. And it's like, why get into this if you don't want to tell stories that you think matter and give a voice to people who are marginalized or who need support? I don't know why you go into this work if you just want to support existing structures of power.
MK: What has the response been like from trans readers and supporters?
RWM: It's been really nice, which has been the best feeling in the world. Seeing trans people sharing this and saying nice things was everything to me. That was so meaningful. That made me feel like we did something right. And I was really proud of that.