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Transmissions: A journalist's journey

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida still carries<br>much emotion nearly a year after the mass shooting there killed 49 people.<br>Photo: Michael Nugent
The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida still carries
much emotion nearly a year after the mass shooting there killed 49 people.
Photo: Michael Nugent  

Every spring, for the last eight years, NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, hosts a convening of LGBT journalists. The event, sponsored by the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and the Arcus Foundation, brings together some 75 or so journalists from across the country, representing both independent and mainstream media voices.

For the last couple of years, I have been one of those voices.

The event is distinctly different from NLGJA's more public convention in two very specific ways. For one, it is an invitation-only affair. Everyone in attendance is handpicked for the event. Secondly, the convening is hyper-focused, consisting of two long days of presenters and panels. The presentations always cover a wide gamut of topics, though it became clear that this year had some distinct similarities between the presentations this time.

First off, much more of the content this year focused on issues near and dear to my heart: issues revolving around trans and non-binary people. This was refreshing, as I have felt a lack of trans-focused content at convenings past, usually getting more out of stolen moments with other trans attendees and presenters.

More importantly, the presentations that included or focused on gender-related content were not simple 101s. There were discussions on covering transgender people of color, on issues with established media narratives surrounding transgender people, and an in-depth discussion on effectively covering non-binary issues in the media.

I feel it also worth noting that trans and non-binary presenters were not segregated solely on identity-focused presentations.

Second was an age-old issue in journalism: objectivity. In the era of the Trump administration and the many ways it is attempting to roll back rights gains for LGBTQ individuals, it has become even trickier to straddle the line between activist and journalist. This began with our very first presentation, titled "Objectivity is Dead," and came up several other times throughout both days.

Of course, this was an even bigger issue given where the convening was held this year. It was a deliberate choice of organizers, who usually hold the event in the northeast United States, to hold this year's conference in Orlando, Florida. It was just last June that 49 LGBTQ and allied people were slaughtered at the Pulse nightclub on Latin night. It was the deadliest mass shooting of LGBTQ people in the history of the United States, and the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman.

The presentations on the second morning brought this home, with members of the media who reported on the shooting discussing their experience covering Pulse while fearing for family and friends, and a solo presentation by Ricardo Negon-Almodovar, a survivor of the massacre.

Saturday night, after our last presentation and before the closing dinner, we visited Pulse, still closed and decorated with personal memorials from across the world. The site, alongside a fairly busy road away from the tourist crowds elsewhere in Orlando, appears lost in time, with the various makeshift memorials set up in Pulse's parking lot undamaged by passersby or weather. The area feels appropriately somber and sacred, in stark contrast to the bright rainbow banners covering the chain link fence separating the lot from the nightclub itself. You don't leave the site unmoved.

The convening and all these themes also came together in an unexpected way in the midst of the first day's program. The Rosen Center – the hotel that hosted the convening – had marked one of the restrooms nearest our meeting area as an all-gender facility. This led to plenty of opportunities to gauge the reactions of other guests to such a rebranding. I am happy to report that the all-gender restroom was viewed positively.

Except for one incident.

The hotel had many other events going on, including weddings, a pet convention across the street, several spring break groups, and a large church convention just down the hall from the restrooms.

One of the folks from the church group decided to play potty policeman, cornering a non-transgender woman leaving the all-gender restroom, shouting his favorite verses from the Bible he was waving around. Reports were that this man not only verbally assaulted her, but his gesticulations led to her being struck by his holy book, too.

The hotel staff reacted, adding security outside the restroom, as well as another sign directing people to facilities on the level above.

"There are people who apparently can't control their behavior," said a representative of the Rosen Center. "We are here to make sure that we are protecting you, and I have directed our security staff to stand there the entire time you are here."

As I mentioned, this was not my first such convening, though this was clearly the best one I've been to. As an opinion columnist with a long history of transgender activism, the issue of objectivity is slightly different from many of my compatriots in the news department, but I am nevertheless tasked with reporting facts in my work.

Likewise, the trans-related content was of value for me not only to help hone my own writing, but was also good to view on a meta level. The trans community is not what it once was, and it is not stuck in tired tropes. We're at a different level, and the presentations echoed this. It was refreshing to see this in action, and see that NLGJA and those who put together the program for this year's convening understand that.

I am honored to have been a part of the event, and even more proud to see those in attendance welcoming trans issues so strongly. We should see more of this.

 

Gwen Smith salutes her #LGBTMedia17 associates. You can find her at www.gwensmith.com.

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