Reflecting on Our Own Use of Trans and Non-Binary People In Stock Images

We spoke with journalist Serena Sonoma and GLAAD representative Nick Adams to discuss Broadly's use of stock photos of trans and non-binary people and what the media industry can do to be more inclusive.
trans flag and hand
Images via Stocksy.

This week, Broadly launched The Gender Spectrum Collection, a stock photo library of over 180 images of transgender and non-binary people aimed at creating better representation in media. The project emanated from a need for more inclusive photos on Broadly, but we also wanted to make the images available for free to other media outlets to help create better visibility for transgender and non-binary people throughout the industry.


In the spirit of transparency and self-reflection, Broadly conducted an internal review of our archives of stories covering transgender and non-binary people. Our intention was to hold ourselves accountable to the standards we’re suggesting for our industry, and to better understand how the choices we make could have negatively or positively affected perceptions of the transgender community.

Broadly writer Diana Tourjee and editor in chief Lindsay Schrupp had a roundtable conversation with Nick Adams, Director of Transgender Representation and Media at GLAAD, and writer and Broadly contributor Serena Sonoma, to review a broad sampling of Broadly articles on transgender and non-binary issues that used stock photos, and discuss where we could have done better.

This discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On the significance of stock imagery in illustrating news items that are related to transgender issues

Serena Sonoma, writer and Broadly contributor: Even though we are just now having more representation with TV shows, such as “Pose,” or transgender actors and actresses, such as Chella Man, who is a deaf trans male artist and just got a role on the web series “Titan,” there's many times when I will write a story covering trans or non-binary people and the stock photo used for the article will be of a cis person. I realize there’s a lot of reasons why that occurs, and it’s mostly due to how few photos show trans people as we are.

I would say it's definitely important to have photos of trans people when it comes to covering stories about trans people, but when working with what we currently have, I would much rather see a cisgender woman used as a photo for a trans woman than a man. This is of course, all speaking from my perspective. I don't know how other trans people would view that.


Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation at GLAAD: Since the vast majority of Americans think that they've never met a transgender person—more Americans believe they've seen a ghost than believe they've met an actual living transgender person—they don't really have a good idea in their minds of who trans people are, what we look like, how we engage with the world.

So the photo, especially for stories about transgender people, has an even greater importance because this might be the first time a reader's ever seen a photo of a transgender person, when reading this story. I think the photo is an opportunity to give them something concrete to think about and to visualize as they read the story, whatever the topic of the story may be about.

Lindsay Schrupp, Broadly editor in chief: That makes so much sense. I think as an editor, when we're going through the process of selecting a photo for the story, we're really trying to find the right photo for this particular story. It's easy to miss that we actually also have a responsibility to think about how we're representing a community, and what the impact of this particular image could be for— like you said, that one individual who's never even met a trans person, or doesn't think that they have

On how Broadly has done in choosing photos to represent the trans community.

Sonoma: The first article that Diana sent, the one about how to tuck as a trans woman, you said that the original image was that of a man in stockings.

Diana Tourjee, Broadly staff writer: Yeah, it was.


Sonoma: You definitely wouldn't want to go that route, which I'm sure you guys know. As a trans woman, tucking can be a bit of a sensitive topic for some of us. But even more so for those who are looking to seek bottom surgery, or just have dysphoria around their genitals. An image like that is invalidating a little bit.

It's important to our visibility to have photos of trans people when it comes to covering stories about trans people. But, at the same time, when working with what we currently have, I would much rather see a cisgender woman used as a photo for a trans woman than a man.

A lot of trans women that I've talked to have said they'd much prefer to see a cis woman play the role of a trans woman because it's much better than a portrayal by a man. So I'd say the same thing about how we are portrayed when it comes to photos in digital media. I'd much rather see a cis woman photo for a trans story, than using a photo of a man, even though that's not the most preferable thing.

Tourjee: That’s what we’ve had to do. We have some other pieces related to the tucking article. We have a piece about sex for trans women, where a cis woman model is in panties. It's another example similar to the tucking story. These stories often utilize cisgender subjects, and images of hands or body parts that are completely abstract. Articles discussing sexuality and dating tend to be paired with an image of an isolated body parts, or just subjects who we believe to be cis.


Adams: I had a question for you: When you use a cisgender model, like a cis woman portraying a trans woman on any one of these stories, do you, on purpose, cut the face off? Crop it down to the torso? Are you intentionally avoiding the face?

Tourjee: It depends. We published a piece about how trans women tend to deal more with substance abuse in higher education. With a piece like that, whether we're using a trans subject in a photo or a cis subject, we wouldn't want to use someone's face, because then it's making implications about that actual individual. If the story is of a different nature, we might use a cis person and not be that concerned about their face being obscured, but it just depends. So the answer is yes, but context is important.

Adams: I think the only challenge for me, in looking at some of the photos that had people in them, whether they were cis or trans, for that matter—when you have this disembodied torso, or arm, hands, or hips, and the face isn't included, it feels very reductionistic, and it seems like it's sending out a message that trans people are ashamed, somehow, because we don't show our face.

There was a very famous CBS special in 1967, where Mike Wallace talked about “the homosexuals.” And in that special, he spoke to a gay man who was willing to be on camera, but he sat behind a potted plant, which became sort of this joke within the gay community for many years: if you're willing to go on TV to talk about being gay, but you're gonna sit behind a potted plant to protect your privacy and your identity, isn't that a mixed message of, ‘I'm proud to be gay, but ashamed to be seen?’


Tourjee: I think that's a perspective that I haven't really taken into consideration. It will be valuable moving forward, particularly because on those stories that we don't have an ethical problem using a face, sometimes we might choose not to because of traffic performance, because we know sometimes people can associate themselves more generally with an article if it's not a specific person. There are certain editorial decisions that are made that don’t consider the perspective that you're talking about.

On using objects and symbols to represent trans issues

Tourjee: In another article, we have a story about a trans woman's successful lawsuit following the denial of medical care. The image that we chose for that piece is a good example of another common situation for us. You look at the headline, and we're talking about a serious issue. A million dollars awarded to a woman who was denied surgical care, who is trans. It connects us into a more important political issues facing trans people of today in the country. What kind of image should accompany this? And are we satisfied with a painted trans flag on a chalkboard?

Schrupp: From an editorial perspective, I think it's really harmful when you don't have trans subjects represented in these type of stories, because these stories are about legislation that's impacting trans people's lives, and we're not really showing who it's impacting at all. So showing objects, or showing people outside of the community, or I think, the trans flag personally might be worse; or this one in particular because it's painted and it's a very juvenile sort of looking thing. I think that can also trivialize just how important that story was.


Adams: I think that for this one, because I think of this as more of a healthcare story than a legal justice story. So you review this as a generic two trans women in a hospital setting because people would assume that those two stock women were the actual plaintiffs in this case. So I'm gonna take it as a given that the best case scenario in all these situations, would be to have an actual photograph of the real subjects. But I'm assuming, and I'm not in editorial, so I don't know, but a lot of times when that isn't possible, what you have to do is go to the stock libraries. So maybe for this one, maybe some sort of stick image around justice. Like justice served, or justice wins, justice prevails.

I don't mind the flag here. This isn't my favorite version of the trans flag, but it does represent at least, pride, victory, triumphant. This is a good story. They won their case. You know?

On objects in place of people in medical settings

Tourjee: Let's talk about this idea that we're writing about trans healthcare, and then we'll use images that are specifically medical setting, but not necessarily anything to do with the subject at hand, and whether that's a good idea, or a bad idea, or somewhere in between.

Sonoma: I think that it's working with what we have, unless we can create something more to represent trans people in that setting. I think general photos are better than an alternative. It's just that it gives the illusion that it can be anything, or that people can take anything from that image, and it's not be seen as, or I'm my opinion, be seen as offensive, or anything like that. I think the use of symbols, things that symbolize a story, is more ideal with what we're working with, or what we have to work with.


Adams: For medial stories, I'd almost prefer to see the generic imagery of a nurse or whatever. I think in the right context, in the right media outlet, with the right reporter, with the right editor making that decision, including a picture of a trans person actually in a medical setting could be good. I think also for trans people to see that is good. It might reinforce like, go get self-care, and go get a medical check up. But I think that in other situations, with less sophisticated media outlets, or editors, having a trans person in the scene in the doctor's office, in the hospital, just reinforces the idea that that's somehow what being trans is about: being in doctor's offices all the time. Then medical transition is what defines us. So for me, that was a little bit more complicated.

On depicting transgender and non-binary youth

Sonoma: I think using faceless images to illustrate stories for trans youth is probably the best thing you can do. Only because I have my own anxieties when it comes to trans kids' photos being shown in articles because it could make them open to transphobia, and things that they shouldn't have to deal with, as they're growing into themselves. But that's just my opinion. I'm sure it's very nuanced across the community.

Adams: GLAAD worked on a document with the Human Rights campaign, The National Center for Transgender Equality, and PFLAG, called Going Public. It's public advocacy rights for you and your family; a guide for parents of transgender, and gender expansive youth. It is literally an entire guidebook and resource for parents about the consequences of putting transgender youth into the media. So I also have strong feelings about this because I think that, in addition to exposing them to potential transphobia and discrimination, if their name is tied to their media portrayal in any way, it also eliminates the possibility for them to be low or no disclosure in the future as they get older.


So if you were gonna use images of youth in stock photography, I would recommend that they be old enough to make an informed decision about what that means for them, which I think means at least teenage years. And obviously there are some youths out there who've already done lots of media, and who are already public personalities, so I will refer media outlets to youth who are already public in the media at a young age, but I will not help media outlets find youth who have not previously done media, who are younger than 14 or 15 years old.

On the state of media representations of trans people today

Sonoma: Imagery is one of the easiest ways people pick up what being trans looks like. So you have cisgender artists portraying trans women in film, or vice versa. Despite how hard and how long and how much we have been pushing for more visibility in our community, a lot of people still don't know a lot about trans identities. So that can give them an obscured idea of not only what they look like, but who we are. It can be unfair that trans people have to focus so much on our image just to be respected, but that's just the way society is.

Most people given a voice in the media are cis adjacent, or they look cis, or conventionally attractive, but that's not what it means to be trans. But since they look closer to the majority, they're the ones given the mic and having their voices taken more seriously. I feel that the vast majority of society still sees trans people as something that isn't real, or something that they can invalidate and try to erase. And I feel that a lot of our cis allies can show up a lot more by just educating their community about who we are, and realizing that we're so much more than just an image.

Tourjee: We have to very intentionally seek out images that aren't of white cis women when we're writing about trans women. And we've accepted that we're gonna use a cis subject, or probably a cis subject. And it's very difficult sometimes to find enough stock photography with enough diversity of that, not even diversity of race, but diversity of activities that the people are doing. So if you find stock imagery of people of color, then it's just a few different collections that don't really give you a lot of opportunity to use them that often.

Adams: Just in general, the transgender community is as diverse as the culture around us. We literally come from every socioeconomic class, every sexual orientation, every gender expression, every race, every ethnicity, every religion. And yet, we're in early days, in terms of having anything resembling authentic media representations of our community, that we haven't even begun to represent the depth and breadth of that diversity.

Tourjee: So it seems like in terms of doing better, we need to be thinking really critically about representation beyond one identify qualifier, right?

Sonoma: True.

Adams: I think America has in their minds, that they understand what a trans person looks like, and that there is a way to look transgender. We know anecdotally from actors in Hollywood going in for parts, who are told, 'You don't look transgender enough.' And that is ridiculous in so many ways. So one of the important things I think about stock photography and photographs of trans people, is capturing the lived experiences of transgender people who are immediately perceived to be cisgender people by others, and trans people who are immediately perceived to be transgender people by others, based on stereotypical assumptions about what a trans person looks like. Those lived experiences are different, and I would like to see people who are sophisticated enough to have images that represent the range of those experiences, and know how to match them appropriately to the story.