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11th June 2024
Trans People in Lithuanian Media: Widespread Stigmatizing Content

The Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson of Lithuania conducted a two-year qualitative analysis of media content to study how transgender people are portrayed in various Lithuanian media outlets. The analysis examined what attitudes are formed towards transgender individuals and how frequently their voices are heard in the media.

Key Findings

The analysis revealed that trans-related topics are widely discussed in various contexts, with 4,249 mentions related to transgender people or gender identity recorded in the Lithuanian media over two years. However, transgender voices are represented in only 2% of these publications.

A significant portion of media publications stigmatizes transgender people by perpetuating common societal opinions and beliefs rooted in ignorance and fear. Only a fraction of the content portrays transgender individuals positively.

“The researched content can be divided into two essential groups. The first one pathologizes and stigmatizes transgender people, presenting them as ill, denying or belittling their identity, or considering them a trend. This group also includes publications that associate transgender people with ideology, often using the term ‘genderism’ and suggest transgender people have secret intentions to interfere with others’ private lives.

The second group normalizes transgender people, presenting them simply as an existing identity without belittling it. This group includes real experiences of transgender people, their difficulties, personal stories, and stories of parents of transgender children. Unfortunately, such messages are rare in the media, and the voice of transgender people is heard in only 2% of all publications,” says sociologist Kristina Rūkaitė, who performed the analysis.

Kristina Rūkaitė. Berta Tilmantaitė photo

Fear-Mongering Rhetoric

The media often employs fear-mongering rhetoric, presenting trans identity as a threat to the traditional world order, something that is ‘spreading,’ or as a threat to religious beliefs and freedom of speech.

K. Rūkaitė notes that such content inverts existing power dynamics in society:

“One of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania is simultaneously belittled and portrayed as extremely powerful and to be feared. This type of content creates an enemy, fostering a discriminatory environment and posing real physical and emotional dangers for transgender people in society. It can also lead to stagnation in legislative changes. Such content is regularly broadcast and becomes more active during certain societal events.”

Although stigmatizing content is often published in marginal media channels, similar messages can be seen in all popular Lithuanian news sites, including commentary, political debates, or scandalous news aimed at attracting readers’ attention.

“Even small, yellow press-type messages can spread widely and be repeated many times. This way, channels that spread harmful messages about transgender people, even when small, can gain significant influence,” says K. Rūkaitė.

Themes of Gender Identity Used for Entertainment

Even when transgender people are not directly portrayed as a threat or disorder, the image created in publications can still cause harm and foster negative attitudes. For example, the media often exploits transgender topics as click-bait, to attract readers by creating provocative, entertaining content.

According to the researcher, some media outlets regularly use these topics to draw in readers.

“As an example, the tv3.lt site published eight articles about the same transgender woman, J. Alves, and various plastic surgeries she underwent during the analyzed period. In addition to being unethically referred to as ‘Ken’ in all headlines, her trans identity is portrayed as the epicenter of an exaggerated penchant for plastic surgery, with click-baiting headlines such as ‘Ex Ken who changed gender sheds clothes: reveals racy snaps.’ There are many similar cases,” says K. Rūkaitė.

Lack of Representation

Some media content presents gender identity issues and transgender stories as important and equal. These include interviews with transgender individuals and their relatives, expert statements addressing fears, and presenting trans identities as real human experiences and part of human rights.

“The above-mentioned publications do not always use ethical language, and stereotypes are often repeated, but the content presented to the public allows for a truer picture of how transgender people live in Lithuania,” says K. Rūkaitė.

According to her, one of the most important conclusions of the analysis is that when discussing political, legal, or other public issues related to transgender persons, their opinions are exceptionally rarely presented as equals. The expert emphasizes that not only the representation but also the overall quality of media content about transgender people needs to improve. This change is essential for fostering a more inclusive and accurate understanding of transgender individuals and their experiences in Lithuanian society.

Based on the analysis, recommendations were prepared for media representatives. These guidelines are designed to be used when covering topics related to trans people and gender identity, as well as when interviewing trans persons. The guidelines (in Lithuanian) can be found here.

The period analyzed in the study: from 2021 July until 2023 July. This research is a part of the project Centering the Voices of Transgender People, carried out together with the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud in Norway. The project is funded by EEA and Norway Grants.