Learning from “Call Me Caitlyn”: Using storytelling to drive change.

In terms of visibility for transgender people, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover is a huge cultural moment. By sharing her story with the public, she’s contributing to a growing national conversation about the experiences of transgender people and the very real challenges that still face the community.

However, not everyone is bound to get the same kind of virability as Caitlyn–especially without national media clamoring to be the one to tell their stories. But research suggests that members of marginalized groups can still be heard and transform culture by using media to tell their own stories.

In her research, media scholar Sonja Vivienne of Queensberg University of Technology in Australia, explores digital storytelling (storytelling through visual mediums) as a tool for everyday activism. She published a study in the 2011 issue of Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review exploring the relevance of digital storytelling for the trans community.

The article was based on a case study of three participants in a 2009 digital storytelling initiative between Shine SA, the Australian government-funded sexual health education and information network, and The Rainbow Family Tree Project, an organization (founded by Vivienne) dedicated to providing “a space for sharing (trans) stories of life, love, family and loss.”

Based on an examination of the stories shared, Vivienne suggests that trans digital storytelling can be a resource for challenging limiting understandings of gender and gender-based prejudices. “Digital storytelling has enabled a greater number of formerly excluded individuals to participate in the shaping of culture through their digital stories,” she explains. “Some stories (shared) focus on physical transformation, others explore the reconstruction of friends and family networks post transition. Some storytellers utilize before and after snapshots; others use metaphor and illustrations as a means of both performing identify and maintaining anonymity.”

Beyond education and activism, trans storytelling can provide a valuable online resource for transgender people themselves. “Digital story form and online distribution afford extended audience reach and longevity,” she notes. “Sharing personal stories in online spaces addresses the social and geographic isolation experienced by so many trans people.”

To build support for gender issues, it is essential that those at the margins share their stories. This not only transforms culture, but also allows those most affected by transphobia and bigotry to find and hear from each other. Digital storytelling, Vivienne argues, “offer everyone, regardless of their gender identity, an opportunity to better understand the nuances of human existence and the inspirational potential of living beyond gender stereotypes.”

Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review

Sonja Vivienne, Queensberg University of Technology

Posted: June 9, 2015