Pride month reminds us that we all deserve the right to be who we are, as we are, and to define ourselves on our own terms. It also reminds us that amid increased queer visibility in mainstream media and growing social acceptance, some sexual and gender minorities continue to face discrimination and violence, which disproportionately affects transgender women of color –particularly Black transgender women, who live at the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Consider these statistics:
- Before the pandemic, the poverty rate for transgender people of color was three times higher than the national average of 12% (James, et. al., 2016).
- 47% of Black transgender people reported verbal harassment, physical attack, and/or denial of equal treatment, with Black transgender women suffering most (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2020).
- At least 50 transgender or gender-diverse people were murdered last year, and the majority were Black and Latinx women (PBS, NewsHour, 2021).
The Importance of Trans Communicators of Color
The experiences of people who differ from traditional gender, racial, sexual and class norms show why public relations cannot merely be about building positive relationships between organizations and stakeholders, but must also be about countering dangerous stereotypes, creating safe spaces, and standing up for the full equality of all people.
Transgender people of color have engaged in public relations work for many years. However, their voices have remained largely invisible in the PR field. Our study, At the Intersection of Race, Gender and Sexuality: A Queer of Color Critique of Public Relations Habitus shines a spotlight on their voices.
Summarizing the Study
Thirteen transgender communicators of color were interviewed for this project. We found that advocacy, representation, and empowerment were key themes that fueled the public relations practices of our participants. We expound on those themes below.
Three Key Themes
1.) Advocacy: In their work as communicators, our participants employ a range of strategies. Some communication strategies focus on “normalizing” transgender people of color through messaging that emphasizes shared humanity and traditional American values (e.g. freedom, liberty, etc.). Other strategies highlight the unique experiences that constitute what it means to be a transgender person of color. Communication context determines the type of strategy employed by participants. For example, if a target audience is unfamiliar with transgender people, advocacy would likely include assimilationist language that focuses on the similarities of transgender people of color to other groups. Conversely, when advocacy occurs within LGBTQ communities, specific issues pertaining to transgender people of color would be the primary focus. Regardless of the strategy, participants’ advocacy was led by an ethical imperative to address the multiple forms of marginality their constituents face.
2.) Representation: Participants expressed frustration with the sensationalizing and stereotyping of transgender people of color that frequently appear in media. To correct this problem, participants highlight the need for more transgender people of color to be in charge of creating and disseminating of transgender representations. They also recognize that the ciscentric, racialized history of media and communication fields poses institutional barriers for transgender communicators of color to attain seats at the decision-making tables in media corporations, PR agencies and other professional settings. Therefore, institutional and structural changes are needed for members of historically marginalized groups, like transgender people of color, to occupy more positions of leadership and power.
3.) Empowerment: Empowerment is an important concept for our participants. For some, empowerment means that allies and advocates should create more inclusive environments to ensure that transgender people of color have a seat at the table. Other participants went further, suggesting that allies and advocates should relinquish some of their power and privilege to individuals who have been historically marginalized. Participants also looked inward for empowerment, relying on their own resources and agency.
Our study also produced helpful takeaways for professional communicators. The takeaways mirror the three key themes above and are inspired by the PR practices of the people we interviewed.
Three Takeaways for Communicators
1.) Advocacy should be guided by the context for communication. In other words, there are opportunities to emphasize commonalities, and there are times to focus on differences. At all times, advocacy should be driven by an ethical commitment to the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, gender identity, and presentation.
2.) Representation matters. Authenticity is the goal when depicting historically marginalized groups. Representation is also needed in the workplace. If we do not have transgender people of color as decision-makers in our organizations, we need to include them in our talent pipelines, hire them as consultants, and partner with their organizations.
3.) Empowerment: If you consider yourself an LGBTQ ally, actualize your allyship through engaging in actions that are supportive to transgender people of color. For example, neither of the study authors identify as a transgender person of color, but we both stand in solidarity with queer people of color, and we demonstrate our commitment through our research and scholarship.
As an additional takeaway, we recommend that practitioners and scholars explore literature about queer people (e.g. Ciszek, 2018), queer people of color (e.g. Logan & Ciszek, 2022), race (e.g. Logan, 2021), and humanity (e.g. Ciszek, Place & Logan, 2022).
Even though Pride is typically held in June, everyone can support transgender people of color and other members of the LGBTQ community every day through our work as communication professionals.
Please see the open-access abstract in the Journal of Public Relations Research here.
Nneka Logan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Virginia Tech University and is a member of the IPR Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Erica Ciszek, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the IPR Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.