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Home » How should journalists cover Pride in states that have passed anti-LGBTQ+ laws?

How should journalists cover Pride in states that have passed anti-LGBTQ+ laws?

A year-old viral tweet from lesbian playwright Claire Willett has again been making the rounds on social media. It makes a simple ask: “for pride month this year can straight people focus less on ‘love is love’ and more on ‘queer and trans people are in danger.’”

There’s a reason the message resonates this year. As Pride month begins in June, lawmakers are considering more than 450 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in statehouses across the country. States like Florida have passed laws even criminalizing parts of Pride celebrations, like Senate Bill 1438, which essentially bans children from attending events with drag performers.

How should journalists cover Pride in all its multi-purpose glory — a celebration, a protest, a performance, an opportunity for education, and a show of solidarity — in a year when queer and trans rights are under coordinated attack?

Pride events, while often bedazzled and fabulous, are much more than parties. What started at New York City’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, with a street riot led by Black and brown trans women for civil and human rights, is now an important demonstration of hope, queer joy, and resistance that saves lives.

“We want to make sure that we can turn queer kids into queer adults,” said St. Pete Pride organizer Dr. Byron Green-Calisch, a pansexual Black man. “… We know that representation plays a massive part in increasing feelings of satisfaction and decreasing depression in youth. So (we are) providing spaces for youth to come and see queer adults, and the simple fact that ‘it gets better.’”

Journalists have an enormous ability to shape public opinion about queer people, a responsibility that the profession has failed to fulfill throughout history. From “penny papers” at the turn of the 20th century that peddled embellished or false crime stories about gender diverse and queer people, to papers of record like The New York Times dismissing the early signs of the AIDS epidemic in headlines like “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS,” the news media has a troubled history of representing the queer community. Shoddy coverage of the LGBTQ+ community only reinforces the negative stereotypes that lead to laws like these being passed.

As queer families are targeted by laws criminalizing various facets of their existence, and laws go into effect that would affect custody battles involving children who are receiving gender-affirming care, poorly executed coverage also has the real potential to harm families and children.

Here are some considerations for journalists planning Pride coverage this month.

Journalists need to ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish through their coverage of Pride events, recognizing that their goal will likely depend on their location.

“In some places, it might be to document a celebration with citizens in our community,” said Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, which is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. “That would be a perfectly legitimate reason. But we’re here in Florida, and I would say that you probably want to be a little more ambitious than that.”

McBride pointed to the Civil Rights Movement as an example. Just as in the 1960s, she said, it’s important that journalists avoid presenting “both sides” in a false equivalency.

“There are moments where people are asserting their equality at the same moment that the state is asserting their inequality, and that looks very different,” she said. “And so recognize that we’re in a moment in time right now where there’s a huge gap between what it means to exist with dignity and a full intact set of human rights.”

Dr. Green-Calisch echoed this point.

“Just because something has been politicized does not make it political,” he said. “I think it’s a very, very important note to say that we’re talking about people’s existence right now.”

McBride said journalists should educate readers and viewers on the specifics of anti-LGBTQ+ laws. Many of the new bills are based on templates written by national conservative groups, which are disseminated to local lawmakers to adapt to their state and then backed with multi-million dollar funding campaigns.

“This is a really good time to press the absurdity of those laws and to take the opportunity to do some explanatory journalism about how those laws are even going to work and who can be prosecuted because they’re different in different states,” McBride said. “You don’t have to put your own viewpoint in, but you definitely shouldn’t shy away from leaning into the controversy in a way that educates the public without inflaming the situation.”

If a journalist chooses to mention protesters against Pride events, it’s important to put them in proper context given relative size, rather than presenting “both sides” as equal participants. If there are 100,000 people at a Pride parade and 50 protesters, reporters should recognize that represents .05% of the crowd and tailor their reporting accordingly.

“You don’t want to create a false equivalency in your coverage of protesters,” McBride said.

Journalists have a responsibility to understand the history of the event they are covering. The first “Pride” was a riot. On June 28, 1969, a group of queer patrons at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City decided enough was enough. Led primarily by Black and Brown trans women, these queer people fought back against police mistreatment in a street riot that lasted days. Thirteen people were arrested.

Every year afterward, LGBTQ+ people and their allies marched peacefully along Christopher Street in support of greater rights for queer people in what has become known as a Pride parade.

“It was an act of civil disobedience,” said Dr. Green-Calisch. It’s important that journalists know that Pride today is not “just waving flags and smiling,” but a celebration of the “fight to have the rights that we do today.”

This year, Pride is likely to take on more aspects of protest than simple celebration.

“There has been increasingly a transition into really embodying what Pride was originally intended to be, which is a protest,” said Max Fenning, president of PRISM, a South Florida nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ youth. “So that’s a big part of it; we show up to these more fiery than we did in the past.”

It’s also imperative that journalists be as specific as possible in their language when reporting on Pride events and anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Many proposed laws target drag performers, including laws that ban their performances in public places or at events with children; transgender people, such as laws that ban gender-affirming care for minors; and LGBTQ+ people generally, such as laws that ban educators from teaching about the gay community. When covering these laws, journalists need to be careful not to conflate different things, for example, not all trans people are drag performers and not all drag artists identify as transgender.

“The key difference is that transgender is an identity and an innate quality of a person, whereas drag is an art form,” Fenning said. “So being transgender means that you do not identify with the sex that you were assigned at birth, the one that was put on your birth certificate. It is a state of being … whereas drag is an art form, and for some a profession, a type of dress that essentially turns gender expression into performance or into art.”

The distinction is important in part because many LGBTQ+ laws are written to be intentionally vague.

“The purpose of that is so that (the laws) can be overinterpreted and overenforced and overimplemented. And so it’s important for journalists to be very, very clear and very, very precise in terms of what these pieces of legislation do and do and do not,” Fenning said.

For example, S.B. 1438 technically bans the “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts,” which is not simply a “drag ban.”

“It’s actually anti-trans,” Dr. Green-Calisch said. “The reality … is that there are trans people that live and exist in ways that are incongruent with the language of this bill, which is why we’ve been raising as many concerns as possible because now you have people that may walk into a library and could possibly be arrested for existing.”

Limiting public understanding of the bill to banning all drag does a deep disservice to the LGBTQ+ community — and is inaccurate reporting.

By calling S.B. 1438 a drag ban, “We’re essentially giving these conservative politicians who have to dance around it when writing it, we’re sort of giving them what they want,” Fenning said.

Photojournalists should be thoughtful about the photos and videos they choose to represent a Pride event. They should resist choosing the most salacious outfits to get the “best picture,” and instead make choices that accurately represent the diversity of the crowd gathered.

McBride pointed out the disproportionate number of photographs published from Pride parades that show, for example, men in leather harnesses or chaps.

“I get that those photographs are sometimes the most interesting … (but) they are not necessarily representative of the community,” she said. “Go back to: What’s your purpose? Are you trying to make the gay community look as weird as possible? Especially in Florida, right? I feel like it’s mostly moms and their kids, but you don’t often see that in the photographs.”

Some Pride organizers in Florida say they’re nervous that unrepresentative photography at their events could lead to criminal charges under S.B. 1438. Jeffrey Sterling, CEO of Stonewall Pride Inc. and organizer of Wilton Manors Stonewall Parade & Street Festival, chose to drastically change the event staff and performers’ dress and conduct codes so that children could attend without any potential fines or jail time against organizers or parents.

“No buttocks, no genitals visible for females or female-presenting people wearing prosthetic or fake boobs,” he said. “There’ll be no vulgarity, no sexualized language, no touching yourself in a sexual way. No touching others in a sexual way. No dancing in a sexualized way. So if you’re an early Madonna, that ain’t going to fly. Later Madonna, where she got older, is more like what we’re talking about.”

Sterling is worried about press photographers focusing on any infraction they see, rather than the overall family-friendly environment.

“Everything reported in the press is fodder to feed the cannon of (Gov. Ron) DeSantis. So I just asked them to be fair on that,” he said. “If out of 50,000 people, there’s one set of breasts out, actually, that’s pretty good.”

Journalists should also ask permission, especially of parents of minors, before photographing any close-up or identifiable images.

“Obviously consent is the key word,” Fenning said.

It’s important newsrooms and journalists have coverage plans for violence at Pride events. Violence is not a far-fetched possibility. In March, police in Orlando said a traffic sign was tampered with to read “KILL ALL GAYS.” White nationalist organization the Proud Boys have already publicized their intent to violently disrupt Pride events, according to multiple watchdog organizations. Drag events, especially those for children, have been the target of hundreds of threats, intimidation tactics and armed protesters.

“Certainly there’s an increased chance of violence at all of these events this year,” McBride said. “The rhetoric has been so heated and people have been so emboldened that I think everybody needs a contingency plan for covering some sort of outbreak.”

Pride organizers and participants are well aware of the threat.

“There is a heightened uneasiness” this year, said Fenning, whose organization PRISM will be tabling at Pride events in Florida, where a law just passed allowing people to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. “That is a major concern for a lot of people at Pride.” He anticipates a somewhat bittersweet undertone to many Pride celebrations.

Queer journalists are sometimes seen as “too close” to the issue to report on Pride and LGBTQ+ rights objectively. But this is simply not true.

“It would be horrific to suggest that because you’re queer, you have a bias that prevents you from adequately documenting what’s going on in your community. That would be ridiculous,” said McBride. “I think that anything where you have a marginalized community, you want to have voices from that marginalized community informing how you cover them, because otherwise, you’re defaulting to a point of view that is reflective of the power structure, and you’re not even realizing it.”

Deferring to queer newsroom leaders also helps “get away from some of those distortions” that can be common in Pride coverage, she said.

And even with the threat of violence, and real attempts to strip LBGTQ+ people of their rights and dignity nationwide, journalists can and should still capture the joy at Pride events.

“Queer joy is an act of resistance in itself,” said Dr. Green-Calisch.

“There is something so powerful about seeing your community reflected in full force and showings of joy and showings of power,” Fenning said. “Being able to see that as a young person, being able to see people that have lived experiences not too dissimilar from your own, (who) are able to just exhibit this pure joy, this oftentimes despite the odds, is really, really, really impactful for a lot of young people.”

This article was made possible thanks to the support of the Gill Foundation.

This article was updated to remove part of a quote that provided an unclear statistic about suicide prevalence among LGBTQ+ youths. 

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