Changing Minds: Journalists See a Universe of Genders

By Mandi Smallhorne-Kraft and Ida Jooste *

Image of two people crafts speaking with each other.

Face-to-face contact is transformative for journalists

In 2019 Anna Miti, a seasoned health journalist in Zimbabwe, founder of the Health Communicators Forum, and former AVAC Fellow, was looking at the media landscape and seeing both a problem and an opportunity. In Zimbabwe, like in many regions of the world, trans and gender-diverse (TGD) people cannot safely seek HIV prevention or treatment services because of myriad barriers; social, cultural and legal barriers. As a result, little is known about this community, even as national epidemics in across Africa become increasingly concentrated among marginalized populations.

Miti understood that the media could influence perceptions about gender. She had seen the media’s role in breaking gender stereotypes. Internews and International Media Support (IMS) have both developed strategy documents for how media can achieve this. (Internews Gender Equality and Inclusion Strategy (2022-2024) and IMS: The crucial role of media in achieving gender equality).

But many journalists themselves held stigmatizing attitudes, or had so little awareness of the issues that harmful or inaccurate assumptions were going unchallenged, even among those who regularly write about health issues. Anna had the idea to educate the journalists and harness the power of the media.

Cultural norms, taboos, rumors and old habits can all make it challenging to adopt ideal health practices. An informed media ignites conversations that change such norms over time. Local media, trusted by communities and speaking local languages, can be an especially powerful agent in changing social norms. To do so, reporters must understand many things: the history and politics, the facts and the evidence, the surrounding anxieties and aspirations, and most importantly, the real people found among the affected communities of any given health issue they report on.

For Miti, improving journalists’ knowledge of gender issues had to start with encounters. For the media to spark conversations that would reach transgender people, and win their attention, required building trust. Cisgendered reporters and transgender advocates needed a chance to get to know each other.

The HIV Connection

Zimbabwe has a high prevalence of HIV. UNAIDS data show almost 13 percent of the 15-49-year-old age group is HIV positive. Despite these high numbers, it’s an ongoing effort to get HIV onto the news agenda. Editors tend to spike stories as “not interesting or controversial enough”, said Anna.

As convener of media science cafés, which take place at the Zimbabwean NGO Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC), she and the team work to find ways of keeping HIV prevention issues on the news agenda. Focused on biomedical HIV prevention, the cafés bring journalists together to discuss issues they’re tackling in their work, and to learn from relevant experts, such as scientists working in the prevention field, civil society organizations and health advocates engaged in HIV prevention. Supported by AVAC and integrated into the multi-partner Coalition to Accelerate and Support Prevention Research (CASPR) program, these events have proven their value over time. The media café program, which is also active in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda, is a part of AVAC’s 25-year history of working to foster leadership by African organizations and to make sure science makes sense at the community level.

Gender dynamics are a significant factor in the HIV epidemic, and the cafés have already done transformative work in this area. For example, an exercise called “In His Shoes/In Her Shoes”, challenged gender role stereotypes with participants imagining themselves if they were a different gender. A follow up discussion explored the harm done when gender issues are framed as a “battle” between men and women. “That exercise resulted in a really intense but productive dialogue. The journalists and everyone else seemed to take away new perspectives” said Anna.

But now the plan was to go further.

Changing minds requires making connection. Ending AIDS depends on reaching communities that are often overlooked and even criminalized. Health issues of every stripe land most heavily among those with the least access to healthcare or the corridors of power that secure it. So it’s no surprise that gay, transgender and other communities of sexual minorites are at high risk of HIV infection. One study in 2020 in Zimbabwe showed that HIV prevalence among male and transgender sex workers was as high as for female sex workers. Although figures for the non-sex-worker TG population are not easy to come by, research by local organizations and anecdotal evidence suggest they are highly vulnerable to HIV as well. A recent global scientific review concluded, “Trans feminine and trans masculine individuals are disproportionately burdened by HIV. Their unique prevention and care needs should be comprehensively addressed.”

Could the work of media science cafés change attitudes toward gender-non-conforming people? Manju Chatani-Gada, Director of Partnerships & Capacity Strengthening at AVAC, has long experience of trying to change minds and engender inclusivity in societies. “It’s critical to be engaging with the media. At AVAC we have a long commitment to supporting the work of advocates, and as we’ve deepened our efforts to advance equity, it’s been very important to also work with ministries of health, program implementers and very much the media, too.”

Anna had heard journalists remark that there are none, or hardly any, transgender people in Zimbabwe and thus no need to focus on this community in HIV storytelling. But she knew it wasn’t true. She and the HIFC team began to work with Trans and Intersex Rising Zimbabwe (TIRZ) on a media café with journalists where they could introduce themselves to each other, explore the issues and begin an exchange. TIRZ Programs Director, Queen Bee Meki Chihera, played a crucial role. Queen Bee is deeply concerned about HIV infection rates, especially high rates her organization’s research had revealed among young transgender men. Despite a previously adversarial relationship with media, driven by what she characterizes as “distortions” in reporting, she well understands the leverage of journalism: “We need journalists to bring transparency, and to follow up on promises made by government,” she said.

Something Clicked

A date was set in October 2019 for an initial media science café, with a talk by Chamunorwa Mashoko of ACT (Advocacy Core Team, a collective of 20 civil society organisations working for access to decent health services for all in Zimbabwe and part of the Coalition to build Momentum, Power, Activism, Strategy & Solidarity (COMPASS) Africa), followed by Queen Bee, who spoke about the difficulties faced by trans people in negotiating life, from accessing health care to facing discrimination and violence. “Some of the journalists were shocked,” Anna recalls. “Others were really, really surprised and really not comfortable.” One journalist who is normally talkative went very quiet, she said.

Participants now say it was transformative. Face-to-face exposure to a person who is “different” is one of the most powerful tools available to change minds. The differences fade as people find the similarities.

“Something changed; something clicked for a lot of those present,” said Manju. “I was actually surprised at how big an impact it made. Queen Bee was the right person with the right message at the right time.”

Queen Bee has been a welcome and willing guest at several media science cafés since that seminal event in October 2019, answering questions and opening minds to the way gender dynamics and prejudices affect everything, from family relationships to risk of infection, to, crucially, access to health care. Transgender people are subjected to invasive questioning and casual cruelties when they seek medical care and it has been enlightening for journalists to hear from Queen Bee how such stigmatizing treatment drive sexual minorities away from the health services they desperately need.

More Media Connections. More Shifts.

And the information has hit home. Articles which have been published following these events have focused on “the difficulties in getting access to services, and how homophobia affects people seeking services,” said Anna. (Many of these stories appeared in local languages or on the radio, but these two examples can be read in english: Dreading To Go Home: The Plight Of Transgender People in Zimbabwe and Trans woman opens up on journey.)

“Before the face to face meeting with the transgender community at Transmart, I used to view the community or paint the community with one brush”, said Michael Gwarisa of the Health Times.

Gwarisa said he did not know the difference between a trans person or a gay person or lesbian. However, following the workshop where presenters from the transgender community shared their experiences, he came to a new realisation. “I started appreciating some of the challenges they face in terms of accessing basic services such as health, travel and even in terms of exercising their electoral right to vote”, said Gwarisa. He said awareness raising via the media should continue. And health care workers should also be engaged to ensure they do not deny the trans community any services based on their sexual orientation.

Catherine Murombedzi, a freelance journalist in Zimbabwe agrees: “I feel the workshops really helped me understand issues of transgender people; it’s difficult writing about them because we are very homophophic as a people due to culture and religious beliefs”, she said. “From a health journalist’s perspective it’s always important to look at different sides so that we leave no one behind.”

In another ground-breaking move, in a country where LGBTQ people face legal challenges, Queen Bee has appeared on Anna’s radio programme. As expected, it elicited some bigotry, but also opened a door to information that had before been taboo in the media.

TIRZ went on to hold a series of media trainings in partnership with Zimbabwe’s National Aids Council and others. In particular, TIRZ conducted training on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, SOGIE, including for journalists in Chinhoyi and in Marondera, two towns out of Harare. Other trans advocacy groups are also raising their profile and expanding the perspective of journalists through the café. Transmart Trust held its first-ever media engagement, presenting at a media science café that was hosted by the Health Communicators Forum, a health journalism organization affiliated with the HIFC. Transmart works towards recognition and rights for transgender and intersex people.

The most recent media training with Queen Bee was in December 2021 where she highlighted how COVID-19 was also affecting sexual minorities. She said she is really pleased with the results of slowly but steadily building media connections and awareness. The narrative has changed.

* This article originally appeared as a blog published on June 22 in AVAC.