This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.
What does it mean for journalists to serve marginalized communities? For many mainstream newsrooms and academic institutions, efforts to better serve underrepresented groups might come in the form of public listening sessions, style guide updates or optional lunch-and-learn presentations.
But some journalists — especially those whose communities have been hurt by traditional news coverage — are tired of settling for slow-moving conversations and empty gestures. Instead, they’re rejecting the conventional wisdom of “objectivity” for an approach that doesn’t just “listen to” the community, but centers it and honors it.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I fall into this latter camp. Like many reporters, my work comes from a desire to uplift marginalized voices, speak truth to power, and other cliches that one might find on J-school hallway posters. I believe that objectivity is a laudable goal when it comes to covering a political race or football game, but not when the question is whether certain children should be legally allowed to exist.
I aim to center community in all of my work, but particularly on “Gender Reveal,” an independent podcast where I interview trans artists and luminaries (think Chase Strangio, Torrey Peters and Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner), recap the latest political and cultural gender news, attempt to answer listener advice questions, and generally try to get a little bit closer to understanding what gender is.
I work very hard on the show, but it simply could not exist without the wisdom and vulnerability of the trans people I interview — nor without the donations of my largely trans listener base. And if I’m going to ask my community to trust and support me, it has only ever felt right to support them, too. So, over the last few years, I’ve used “Gender Reveal” as a platform to redistribute more than $222,000 in grants, donations and mutual aid.
To be clear, this money doesn’t go directly to our sources (we don’t pay for interviews or access) or even necessarily to our listeners. Regardless, if you’re the type of person who argues against journalistic involvement, the “give money away” model likely conflicts with your concept of ethics. Even if you support activist journalism, it might sound idealistic to care this much about “giving back” to communities you serve. (Podcasts with exponentially bigger followings have been known to rake in donations without offering so much as a single subscriber perk … and that’s not to mention media companies with, like, actual budgets and resources and billionaire owners.)
But I’ve always been overly aware that, like many journalists, I make a living by relaying the stories of people who, by and large, have fewer resources than I do.
When I started “Gender Reveal” in 2018, I financed the show through PayPal and Patreon donations while also working full-time as a magazine editor. My salary at the time was roughly $38,000 — far less than the $51,480 made by today’s average American worker; but unfortunately above-average for a trans person. (Per 2021 research, trans men and nonbinary people make an average of $36K annually, while trans women make even less.)
As someone who didn’t have dependents or crushing debt, and who had enough expendable income for occasional vacations and a growing vinyl collection, I felt (and still feel!) vaguely weird about soliciting listener donations — especially when so many trans people are crowdfunding money for essentials like food, housing and health care. So, I came up with a compromise: Twice a year, I would turn a month of Patreon income into grants for trans people of color who were, in turn, doing work to support and uplift their communities.
Our first round of grants was, I believe, $500 split among four recipients. But our audience (and, with it, our Patreon) slowly grew, eventually allowing me to quit that magazine job while still increasing our grant budget. Last year, using a combination of Patreon funds and grant-specific donations, a team of eleven paid judges (all trans people of color) awarded 33 grants of $500 each.
As an equity educator, I have been told by executives making six figures that there is simply no budget for DEI initiatives (or, for that matter, fair wages); it feels important to consider what community support and mutual aid can look like when it’s built into the DNA of a project, rather than treated as some sort of frivolous side project. To that end, allow me to offer a partial list of other ways we’ve found to redirect funds to trans people:
- Our collaborative merch shop exclusively stocks designs by trans artists. When an item sells, we send half of the profits to the artist and the other half to an organization of the artist’s choosing, such as Trans Lifeline, Sylvia Rivera Law Project or A.B.O. Comix.
- Through our Theymail program, we offer sliding-scale ads to help listeners get the word out about their small business, fundraiser, or community event.
- All of our episode transcripts are done by a paid team of trans listeners, as is our graphic design.
- Sometimes we just hand out money! For example, on Trans Day of Visibility 2021, we introduced Trans Day of Staying In and Having a Nice Snack, a project where we Venmo’d more than a thousand trans people $10 each for (you guessed it) a nice snack. The previous year, we put out a fundraising ask on social media for Indigenous People’s Day and ended up redistributing $14,500 in mutual aid.
I could go on about our various fundraisers, but the point isn’t to toot our own horn. In fact, as I’ve been writing this essay, I’ve been afraid that it will come across as very holier-than-thou, savior-complex-y. So, to close, two disclaimers:
The first is that this is absolutely all mutual aid, not charity. When the pandemic hit and contract gigs dried up, the “Gender Reveal” Patreon was my only remaining source of income, which means that I’m technically employed via the benevolence of like 1,100 queer people on the internet. Trans listeners have sent me guest recommendations and birthday cards and memes and handmade art and HRT advice and reminders to sometimes-take-a-break-Tuck-seriously-just-chill-for-five-minutes. The very least I can do is to try to take that $20 that all trans people are constantly passing around, and try to turn it into, like, $50.
The second disclaimer is that I am not, in any way, doing this to be exceptional. In fact, I am begging y’all to make all of our work seem unremarkable.
“Gender Reveal” is a podcast that, after four years, is only successful enough to underpay two people. But somehow, through a modest Patreon and a Twitter account and the power of Google spreadsheets, we have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the hands of people who needed it: for rent, and for hormones, and for gas, and for art, and for survival.
And if a little transsexual interview show can figure out a way to be in meaningful community with its listeners, I can only imagine what someone could do with a Patreon that’s 25 times as big, or with the budget and resources of an actual media company. I can only imagine what would happen if we all stopped playing by the rules of capitalism and “tradition” — as if the gold standard of objectivity was passed down on a stone tablet, rather than popularized in the last century — and started really, tangibly showing up for each other. I dare you to find out.