Stories That Matter: How Serena Daniari Is Highlighting Trans Pandemic Triumphs
Daniari's work at Condé Nast's Them is centered around her community, and proving that reporting on what you know firsthand is an undeniable strength.
This is the first of a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Serena Daniari is a journalist, producer, and activist. She remembers being told in journalism classes at New York University not to cover stories that she is connected to in any way because her personal experience will override the facts and reporting. Years later, after becoming a published journalist because of her voice, and sharing her experience with her transition online to family and friends, Daniari is one of the foremost journalists covering the trans community and LGBT issues.
Her work at Them, and the publication’s ongoing coverage of the LGBT community, is filling a gap that exists elsewhere in media. Crucially, Them’s editorial team has turned to people that are a part of the community in order to correct this imbalance — working from the inside out, rather than outside in. Daniari’s piece, “The Joys and Fears of Transitioning During a Pandemic,” allowed for trans voices to be amplified during the pandemic. And it allowed for positive and unique perspectives to shine through during a time when coverage remained generally negative and dark.
The depth and sensitivity of Daniari’s coverage call into question the age-old rule that many journalists have chosen to keep in their practice — do we really need to avoid covering our own community and stories that we have a personal connection to, or does the coverage lose something when we avoid doing so? Daniari shares her perspective covering the trans community, the value she feels is added when journalists have a personal connection, and how she feels publications and editors should go about working with journalists that are a part of communities whose perspectives have been historically left out of the mainstream media. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
To start off, do you want to share a bit about the work you and the team are doing at Them?
Daniari: Absolutely. So, as you probably know, there is a definite lack of LGBTQ-focused media outlets. Even when they do open, many of them have been shuttered in recent years. We do have INTO and Out. But BuzzFeed shuttered its LGBTQ vertical and I think the Huffington Post did the same. I feel like more and more people are talking about our community, specifically trans issues, and trans has become such a force. It’s a major topic in the culture wars. It’s having a moment in the cultural zeitgeist. Yet for some reason, there are fewer and fewer outlets dedicated to covering these stories.
Even when the community is being covered, I noticed, especially when I was first getting started in journalism, there were so many inaccuracies in the ways that these stories were being reported on by cis reporters. This really reflected a general lack of understanding of my community. Oftentimes subjects would be referenced by their dead names or they would be misgendered. There would be a fixation on surgeries and medical processes, so many times the narrative was very much focused on just the body and the transitioning.
You can tell this coverage comes from a very sensational perspective instead of one that was humanizing and accurate. So I sort of decided to bridge this gap in the media, being a trans reporter. That’s why a lot of my work, I feel like, is injected with a personal perspective. Much of my work has a personal essay component to it because it’s hard to divorce myself from being completely objective, to be honest. This obviously comes from the fact that I’ve gone through this experience and I’ve faced a lot of the challenges that I actually report on. But I actually feel like this is a benefit. The work ends up being deeper, and I’m able to go deeper into the story.
Oftentimes my subjects, people in the trans community, have an intense distrust of media because they’ve been hurt by the media so many times. For example, I was reporting about the homicides in Jacksonville in 2018 — there were a string of homicides of Black transgender women. There were a lot of cisgender reporters over there having difficulty getting any access or building any trust with these subjects because these individuals had their sisters killed and the local media was using the wrong names and incorrect pronouns. It’s like, why would these people have any desire to speak to journalists who don’t have any desire themselves to represent you fairly and accurately?
It is extremely important not only to make sure that people and their voices are represented accurately, but can you share a little more about the idea of being a part of a community and coming into a new area where you don’t know individuals, what kind of benefit there is to building trust and just coming in with a better understanding of the situation?
Daniari: Yeah, I think there is just a level of insight that I and other trans writers have into the big issues that cisgender people may not have, to be honest. A lot of the stories that we cover at Them don’t even make a blip on the radar of what most journalists would like to cover. Oftentimes I’ll be reading a story from a publication that has an LGBTQ vertical but doesn’t have a trans journalist as part of their staff or freelance community. Many of these stories neglect to cover some of the issues that are really prescient to the trans community. There are very real and extremely urgent issues for our community, like joblessness, lack of health care, the string of trans bills. But maybe a fraction of them may be covered by mainstream media outlets. For example, I covered the injectable estrogen shortage a few years ago and it was a big issue for trans women, trans feminine people, and no one was covering it, just I was. Trans women were having a really difficult time accessing what the medical establishment now considers to be a life-saving medication in our community. I remember thinking if there was a shortage of insulin, a massive shortage of medication that a substantial portion of the population needs for health and happiness, well it would be all over the headlines.
I’m very embedded in this world, this community. I know about these stories because I lived through them. I think there’s a personal touch to some of this, but I also have a unique perspective being the only trans person in a newsroom. When I was working at Mic or the Huffington Post, our audience was primarily cis and straight. So to get this audience to care about trans stories, about LGBTQ stories, you have to bring anecdotes and build a connection with them in order to make it more accessible to them and get them to care about this reporting on a fringe community that doesn’t affect their lives. Oftentimes this helps to share the story from a personal perspective because it connects people to the broader issues that are going on. If you do it right then that audience might begin to see trans people for the first time as human beings with a story and not just an abstract community that is just represented in TV or movies as fake characters.
That actually brings up a good point in the fact that, in mainstream news, there is often coverage of the trans community that is based around a violent event or something specifically science- or health-related. How is your work at Them increasing coverage of all of the topics centered around the LGBTQ and trans community, not just the negative news or breaking news items, the coverage that helps to normalize individuals, increase interaction, and build bridges?
Daniari: That’s actually a very central component of my work. I and the rest of the team at Them have noticed that mainstream coverage of the trans community and LGBTQ people is heavily focused on narratives of despair and suffering. Death and violence. Of course, these stories need to be told. There truly is an epidemic of violence against trans folks in this country. It seems to be only getting worse. But I think the problem that comes up when that’s all that is covered is that we begin to view trans people as more of a statistic. These individuals are many things beyond their transness — they are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. They deserve to be represented as fully realized human beings. They’re working people, people with accomplishments, people who have legacies and accolades that deserve to be mentioned.
Trans people are more than just the struggles we face. A lot of the work that we do at Them is centered around queer joy and happiness. Not only that, and this may sound strange but queer and trans mediocrity. Queer and trans people just existing and living and being themselves without the need for some grisly attack or horrific event to make their story and their lives worth mentioning.
You know, it’s so interesting, and I feel like I keep having this type of conversation over and over for this series, but we would never be sitting here discussing, like, a white cisgender person and how we need to increase coverage for that community. We’re not asking the question of “can you be white or cis and cover the community fairly?” Because that’s so heavily what the Western media is and knows, yet there are no conversations out there questioning that coverage and who is writing the stories. So it’s interesting that we have to go out of our way to make sure there’s a representation of people who have existed for millennia and asking if it’s OK if people who are from that community write about that community and are they doing it correctly.
Daniari: I think that’s spot on. I feel like, at the beginning of when people really started to focus on and talk about trans issues, I don’t know if maybe Caitlyn Jenner was the turning point for that. But I feel like at that point it was like “write about us! Write about us!” and now the conversation has begun and we’re now asking for people to write about us accurately and respectfully. We need to pay attention to who is in a position to actually be able to do that. So, I think that’s a great point.
Do you think we’re close to mainstream media, and obviously Condé Nast is a major publisher for this publication to be under, but do you think we’re close to a time when mainstream media will cover the community, like you said, in a way that not only highlights the wins but the mediocre stories that deserve to be told?
Daniari: I think there are glimpses and glimmers of that, and I’m optimistic about the future. I envision a world where trans people aren’t being murdered in cold blood, and, hopefully, there’s less intensity to cover that and we can shift our focus to talking about the achievements and triumphs and just everyday realities of love and relationships and sex as it pertains to queer and trans people. All these universal experiences that it almost feels like trans people don’t get to participate in because we’re so busy focusing on the fact that we’re dying and we can’t get health care and we can’t get a job interview and all of these things. So I feel like first society needs to fix itself a bit and then the journalist aspect will follow. Because right now it does make sense to me why these issues are at the forefront. It is hard to show trans people accurately and show the glory of trans people just existing when we really are under attack. So I mean it’s honestly a conundrum, it’s a difficult balance to strike. That’s why I think the solution, at least in the interim, is that whenever I am writing about these urgent or dark matters, that I write beyond the issues and talk to the people, go into the actual communities. Continue to amplify the personal stories within the work, making sure we’re depicting these people as human beings and not just names and statistics.
Yes, and I think you did a really great job of that in “The Joys and Fears of Transitioning During the Pandemic” That’s obviously a very important story to tell from the pandemic. Everybody was talking about their experience but most of the experiences, other than basically the people who were having kids, were really negative. How did you get the idea to focus on the positive of transitioning and how did you find that story?
Daniari: I think the first part is where I think being trans really helped me to write a story like this because, as I mentioned, the trans community is very tight, we’re a small community on social media and a lot of us follow each other from different states and areas. So I started to notice [during the pandemic] an uptick of people who I followed on social media were talking about how they started transitioning. That was a “wow” moment for me, and I began to think about my own transition and why it took me as long as it did.
I started transitioning in 2015, in my senior year of college when I was 21. It took me so long because I was just distracting myself; I was working all the time, I had a full-time academic schedule; I had all these extracurriculars because I was trying to avoid having to deal with myself. There were so many other things that I could do to mask the issues that were really bubbling underneath the surface.
When the pandemic hit, I think a lot of people were not able to do that anymore. The world had to be still and everyone was alone with themselves in their homes and apartments and they now had to contend with hard questions about themselves. I thought to myself that, if the pandemic happened before I started, I’m sure I would have started the process then because you can’t ignore those questions and feelings anymore when it’s just you and all of the rest has been taken away.
It is very interesting because yes, the pandemic has been devastating for everyone, trans people included, but one of the surprising silver linings that emerged for the people I talk to is that, through this isolation, they were finally able to come to terms with their gender identity and become comfortable exploring it and making progress in it. Many people finally had the downtime to undergo procedures and do things they had been wanting to do for a very long time. For surgeries, there is recovery time needed. It’s hard to do if you have a job or you’re in school or have a busy social life. It was like people finally had sort of the freedom and leeway needed to really make yourself transform into the person you’ve always wanted to be, the person you authentically are.
So I reached out to some folks on social media, I also have contacts at the LGBT Center in New York, I reached out to GLSEN to connect me with trans youths who may want to share their stories. The stories that were most impactful were the ones that were featured.
Do you think a cis journalist could have covered this story in the way you did? I mean, even just reaching out for stories via social media?
Daniari: You know, I think it’s questionable. I don’t know if a cis journalist would think this was a story, to be honest, or think about what it must be like to undergo such an immense change during a pandemic. I feel like so much of the coverage of COVID-19 was about returning back to normal, or the death toll, and obviously these are important things that affect everyone. I think a lot of journalists were fixated on that because I think that’s what most people wanted to know about. But my work has always been about finding those stories that fall through the cracks that don’t make mainstream media that are uniquely centered around the experience, needs, questions, or concerns of trans people. So I’m not sure a cis journalist would necessarily have thought of it.
In terms of outreach, trans people do talk to cis journalists, but I do think there’s a level of trust where they know that their story is safe in the hands of this person because they come from my community. They understand this experience in a uniquely personal way, so maybe I can go deeper, share more. Even with like colloquialisms that are unique to our community, things that maybe cisgender journalists have never heard before so there’s maybe an extra added layer of research that they may have to do. I don’t have to because I have lived here; my whole life has been researching trans through being a trans person in America.
What was your favorite part of this piece? The research, the writing, the way it was received….
Daniari: I loved how complicated and in the gray area it was. That’s why the headline is “the joys and fears” — this is a story that, you know, is not like the pandemic was great for being trans or the pandemic was really bad for us. It’s more about exploring the nuances and the competing emotions that come with it. Like, wow, there was a global pandemic happening. Everything’s shut down, life, as we know, is over; that’s extremely crazy. But then there’s this benefit that comes out of it.
One of my subjects compared themselves to being in a cocoon and experiencing a metamorphosis. In the end, they got to come out as who they really are. All of this was riddled with challenges faced too. Some of my subjects lost jobs and were terrified about how they were going to make a living. Some extremely interesting insights came out of it. One of my subjects spoke about how they would get their gender, their femininity, affirmed by their interactions on the street and in the world, their hookups with men. They weren’t able to get that anymore. So it’s all these things that you might not even realize that sort of came to light and it made me understand the pandemic through a different lens, so many different experiences.
This was a universal experience, all of us, not just the trans community, learned a lot about ourselves and our needs and our aspirations. Ultimately that’s what this story is about, taking the transness out of it if you will. It’s a universal experience of finding yourself in a really challenging, unpredictable, and turbulent time.
That is so true. Thank you for sharing. Are all of the journalists and editors at Them part of the community?
Daniari: Yes. All of us are members of the LGBTQ community; I think that’s how it should be, to be honest. That’s why people resonate with Them so much. We have queer youth writing to us all the time about how a story made a difference to them. We did a piece about how autistic trans people use their full bodies to express joy, it’s called “stimming” and we had people write in that they had never read about this ever and it made them feel seen and validated and truly feel visible! I think that’s why it’s important to have people who are LGBTQ or who belong to certain marginalized groups telling our own narratives and being in command of our own narratives.
True, it’s like we said before, we would never be having this conversation 20 years ago, 30 years ago, when newsrooms were completely made up of cis white males, and still are to a degree. It’s insane that we even have to have a conversation about whether or not it’s OK if everybody in one newsroom or publication is part of the same community. But can you share what your journalism education was like? Do you remember being taught by a professor or an editor about how you have to stay away from stories that you’re close to or that you have a tie to because there’s no way you could cover it in a legitimate way?
Daniari: Yes! I have a media degree from NYU and I do remember all of the journalism classes that I took. I think it was ingrained and pounded into my head that you just don’t cover stories that you have a personal connection to because your emotions get involved and you’re no longer able to write objectively. You put too much of your voice into it or whatever. I think at the time, when I was in college, that was what was expected of journalists — a very detached and factual sort of base reporting. But how I actually started my journalism career is very different.
I was actually not a journalist, I was blogging online when I started my transition to my people — my friends and family on Tumblr and Facebook and my WordPress. People started following me and I started developing a following. Trans people would contact me online and thank me for sharing my story. And oh my God, it was silly stuff like make-up tips and sharing how I’m going to get my first hormone shot and things like that. Then an editor reached out to me and asked me to write a piece for Allure, which is another Condé Nast publication, and then another editor and it started a domino effect. Editors wanted me to cover trans issues.
It was so interesting because clearly there’s a gap in that publishers are wanting to cover this issue because the topic is becoming more and more prevalent and more of a talking point. A controversial talking point at that but there’s clearly a need. I was like, I feel like I can fill this need. I understand this community. I also think it’s important to note that, like, I am not claiming to be the voice of all trans people. I don’t think all trans people are the same. Trans people are not a monolith. I mean, there are so many ways to be trans as there are trans people in the world. But I do think that I just get it in a way that a lot of people don’t.
The point I’m trying to make is that I was never expected to divorce my personal story from my reporting. In fact, it was encouraged for me because of how my editors noticed me was me writing about myself. Then I started to write about issues facing trans people. My experiences would inform the way the piece was shaped or the leads I had or who I spoke with, what questions I asked them, how I structured the piece.
So yeah, it’s interesting, but I kind of threw everything I was told in college out of the window, and just went with my gut. I personally think it’s better if you have a personal attachment to the story because you’re more invested and it makes you a better reporter and makes you want to get to the truth of what is happening and who these people are and how we can solve the issues that we’re facing as a community.
So do you think that a trans reporter covering politics at, say, the New York Times would be able to write about legislation impacting the trans community unbiasedly?
Daniari: Absolutely. It’s honestly my hope that trans writers and journalists don’t always get pigeonholed into covering trans issues as I do because I choose to do this. It fulfills me. I do write about other issues as well but I wouldn’t want any journalists to feel like they have to be tied to any sort of subject matter on the basis of their identities.
Trans people are exceedingly competent, intelligent people doing amazing things across industries and are totally capable of reporting on any issues objectively. So yeah, I mean, I hope that newsrooms will hire trans people to cover everything. Science, medicine, politics, culture. Above all, we’re human beings. So we live at the intersection of all of these realities. Not just our transness.
That’s actually some of the conversations that I’m having with multiple journalists at other publications. Some of them mentioned, for example, that editors were turning to Black journalists in the newsroom to cover anything related to BLM and a lot of the violence that went on last year. Some of them were like “Yes, let’s do it!” and then others absolutely did not want to. And they were upset by the fact that their editors came to them to cover it. So yeah, it’s like what you mentioned. Everyone should be able to write about what they want, not just be a voice for their community, because there are some people who do want to be that voice but then there are some people who just want to be human and want to be a journalist and just want to write about anything they want, not their community.
Daniari: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s all about a personal choice. I think it’s a personal decision that reporters have to make for themselves. I don’t feel like editors should force anyone or narrow the scope of what any newsroom covers based on any aspect of their identity. Beyond being unfair and small-minded and presumptuous, it’s also putting an immense burden on these reporters. These issues are often very heavy and emotional.
If people come from that experience, they live it outside of office hours and outside of reporting. So it’s putting intense labor on journalists on top of the labor of being a reporter that is not fair and undue if it’s not desired by the person doing it. I think that really needs to be a part of the conversation too and not just assigning a Black reporter to cover BLM or trans reporters to cover trans murders. I mean, that is very toxic, emotional, painful work, especially if the proper resources and support are not provided to the reporters.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Predict: What Happens Next
Continuing coverage of the trans community — the good, the bad, and the average — is Serena Daniari’s goal, and she will continue working toward a world where trans coverage and representation is as standard as any other kind of coverage. She hopes that trans journalists will be accepted and encouraged in newsrooms to cover whatever beat they prefer.
Them is currently working to be a go-to digital resource for the LGBT community. Its editors want to help people all over the country do things like find LGBT therapists in their area, or locate a gender-affirming doctor that takes their insurance. They want to be helpful in answering any and all questions one may have about their community. Look for this in the coming months.
Stay Close: A Special Series on Journalists Covering Their Own Communities
Stay Close is a special multi-part series that takes a look at journalists who are covering their own communities, and how their personal ties to the subjects they report on allows them to be stronger confidants and better storytellers.
Read: More From Serena Daniari and Other Trans Journalists
Daniari’s story on the shortage of injectable estrogen in Mic: “An Injectable Estrogen Shortage Reminds Trans Women That Our Fight Is Far From Over,” July 19, 2018
Them’s coverage by Elly Belle on stimming in the autistic trans community: “Trans Autistic People Use Our Whole Bodies to Express Joy,” September 3, 2021
NPR’s interview with three trans journalists on how they report on news affecting transgender people, and how being a part of the community shapes their stories: “Trans Journalists: It’s ‘a Privilege’ to Tell the Stories of the Trans Community,” April 9, 2021
Meet: About the Author
Jessica Kantor is a freelance journalist who writes about health/mental health, human rights, and issues facing underrepresented communities. She is a living kidney donor. Her work can be found in Fast Company, What’s Next Magazine, Healthcare Quarterly, and others.