For journalists Susan Strongman and Murphy, the starting point of their Media Grants project and investigative series HERE WE ARE came from a statistic they came across one day.
“There’s a study called Counting Ourselves that found that trans and non-binary people experience mental distress at rates nine times higher than the rest of the population,” Murphy says.
“The media doesn’t often look at the complex issues that feed into that.”
After reading the study, Murphy and Susan decided to investigate the reasons why mental distress rates for trans and non-binary people were so high. They took an in-depth look at the “multiple barriers faced by trans people” in three key areas: homelessness, the justice system and the health system, and at how discrimination in those areas impacted on their mental health.
Their findings resulted in a multi-platform project on Radio New Zealand featuring digital stories and video interviews, as well as original illustrations commissioned from gender diverse artists to help bring the stories to life.
Their project won a Media Grant in 2019 and has just been shortlisted for a Voyager Award for Best Editorial Campaign/Project in 2021.
“It was fantastic that we had this Media Grant and this budget, because it meant that we could hire and pay gender diverse creatives to be a part of it,” Susan says.
“The artists, like Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho, did such a beautiful job.”
When it came to finding gender diverse people to interview, Murphy had a lot of connections. They reached out to people in community leader roles, or people who they knew had a lot to say about these topics.
The pair knew their project’s point of difference was proactively telling stories from, and by, the trans community that highlighted the diverse experiences within that group, rather than simply reacting to a tragedy or discriminatory event as media coverage on trans issues often does.
“It was kind of overwhelming, the amount of people who had something they wanted to share,” says Murphy.
“Even after we published, people have been contacting us saying, ‘I’ve had similar experiences in the justice system and the healthcare system.’ People don’t often get the opportunity to tell their story as in-depth as this, either,” Murphy adds.
Establishing trust with their interview subjects was important in sourcing stories, Susan says.
“I think people from those communities are pretty reticent about talking to any old journalist, so this project wouldn’t have worked without Murphy.”
As a member of the trans community, Murphy says they knew how important it was that the people they were writing about felt they were in safe space to tell their story.
“I felt a huge responsibility to make sure that people were comfortable when we were working with them, but also that they felt they were being represented in a way that was who they are.”
It was key for both Susan and Murphy that HERE WE ARE contained stories that spoke to the full range of gender diverse experiences – the positive and the negative. Some of the stories featured are heartbreaking – transgender prisoners being assaulted and isolated in prisons that don’t match their gender; the vast difference in mental health care offered depending on where in Aotearoa you live; or the discrimination in terms of housing, with one woman being given three hours’ notice to leave her flat because her landlord disapproved of her being transgender. All these experiences with intersectional discrimination – or discrimination against various aspects of who a person is – contributed to mental distress for the people receiving it.
Murphy and Susan published positive stories too, which showcased the beautiful diversity that trans people and their mental distress experiences can bring.
“It’s a big part of why we did the three videos, which were just really nice stories about people who were doing great things who happened to be gender diverse,” Susan says.
Murphy agrees, adding, “There’s not often a lot of stories that showcase trans joy and so we wanted to balance that a little bit, and have those videos alongside those longer, heavier pieces.”
Because transgender stories often aren’t given the spotlight, care or context they deserve, both Susan and Murphy see tremendous value in having the series appear on a mainstream media platform like RNZ.
“It normalises a community that people might not otherwise see or know much about,” Murphy says.
None of it would have been possible without the funding from the Media Grant, the pair say.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it. Resource-wise, it wouldn’t have been able to happen,” Susan says.
Murphy adds, “If someone is sitting on an idea that they’ve had for a while, this [Media Grant] is the perfect opportunity to dedicate some time and resources in getting that across the line.”