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Rethinking Communicative Activism Through the US Transgender Rights Movement

Thu, August 30, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Sheraton, Beacon H


Over the last decade there has been an unprecedentedly rapid rise in attention to transgender individuals and the issues they face, both in mass and new media (Billard 2016b, 2017, forthcoming) and in political institutions at every level of governance (Billard 2016a; Taylor, Lewis, and Haider-Markel forthcoming). Much, if not all, of this increasing attention has been due to the hard work of transgender rights activists, who have fought both publicly and “behind the scenes” for the cultural and political equality of transgender people. But how have these activists worked to achieve this? What media and communication strategies do they employ in their activism to secure the salience of transgender concerns and improve the status of transgender individuals?

Born in some ways out of the institutions of the gay rights movement and in some ways out of direct opposition to them, the transgender rights movement in the United States nonetheless takes a markedly different approach to their cultural and political activism. Whereas the institutions of the gay rights movement followed—and, indeed, helped establish (Montgomery 1981, 1989)—what we now consider traditional means of mass media activism (Alwood 1996; D’Emilio 2000; Davidson and Valentini 1992; Doyle 2016; Gross 2001; Khan 2012; Moscowitz 2013; Nardi 1997; Walters 2001), the transgender movement has shifted away from mass-media-focused activism toward what I’m calling “communication activism.” In contrast to mass media activism, the transgender movement’s communication activism seeks to saturate the communication ecology at all levels—macro (i.e., mass media), meso (i.e., local and community media and communication resources), and micro (i.e., interpersonal networks)—with voices in support of transgender equality.

Based on three months of participant-observation at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) through a fellowship with the Consortium on Media Policy Studies, this paper outlines the foundations of a theoretical shift from media activism toward communication activism. This framework was developed through abductive analysis (Tavory and Timmermans 2014; Timmermans and Tavory 2012) and will be further developed through subsequent fieldwork both at NCTE and at various sites of activism affiliated with NCTE’s work. The present manuscript currently reviews key literature on media activism in US-based social movements, and draws insights from Media System Dependency theory (MSD; Ball-Rokeach 1985, 1998; Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur 1976), Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT; Ball-Rokeach, Kim, and Matei 2001; Kim and Ball-Rokeach 2006), and public sphere theories (e.g., Bruns and Highfield 2015; Calhoun 1992; Dahlberg 2005; Fraser 1990, 2014; Habermas 1974, 1987, 1991, 2006; Young 2006), to propose the core elements of communication activism as it functions in the contemporary communication environment, and illustrate how this mode of activism functions at NCTE.