The Woman Who's Making History as the Black, Trans Editor in Chief of a Publication

Ashlee Marie Preston sits down with Broadly to talk about the responsibility journalists have to represent marginalized voices—and how she found herself at the forefront of the movement to boycott a radio show over transphobic comments.

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Aug 7 2017, 8:23pm

All photos courtesy of Ashlee Marie Preston.

Ashlee Marie Preston walks into the Coffee Bean on Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood and places her phone display side on the table. She'd recently recorded a video for "Now This," the social video news organization, and the vitriolic comments were pouring in.

"It doesn't make me upset," she says. "When people are misgendering me it's like, okay, cool. At the end of the day, I know who I am."

Preston received media attention last month when she became the first trans person of color to be named editor in chief of a publication, but she most recently made waves by being at the forefront of the movement to boycott the syndicated radio show, "The Breakfast Club," after its host, Charlemagne Tha God, appeared to goad comedian Lil Duval into making statements about killing trans women. She was initially urged to see the clip by Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. "At first, I was like, I'm busy, I'm rushing, I have to contour," she tells me. "But she was like, 'No, you need to see this.'"

In the clip, which has since gone viral, Charlemagne asks Duval what he thinks of Trump's ban of transgender people in the military, seemingly trying to egg him into saying something controversial. He then asks Duval what he'd do if he learned a woman he was dating was transgender. "This might sound messed up, but I don't care, she dying," Duval responds. "You manipulated me to believe in this thing. If one did that to me, and they didn't tell me, I'mma be so mad I'd probably going to want to kill them." Charlemagne laughs before saying, "that's a hate crime," but allows Duval to continue talking about how, in that kind of situation, the comedian would be "tricked" into being gay.

"The first thing I realized was that Charlemagne was baiting him," Preston says. "It was just another way of sensationalizing trans identity. What they didn't expect was for him to start talking about death, and ways in which the murder of trans women are justified."

Later in the segment, Charlamagne holds up a book by the trans trailblazer Janet Mock, a recent guest on the show, and the two take turns commenting on her appearance. "She's a married woman, a celebrated author, the epitome of credibility," Preston says. "They stripped her of all of those things and reduced her to nothing more than a 'would you or wouldn't you?'

In the days since the exchange, Preston has used her platform, Wear Your Voice Magazine, to draw attention to the human cost of hateful rhetoric. On July 30, she also attended Politicon as a VIP guest and interrupted Charlemagne's conversation with NBC journalist Ari Melber. "Your music and your ideology reinforces transphobia that kills us," she yelled from the audience. "Trans people are not a joke!" Charlemagne has since denounced violence against trans women.

She also ingratiated herself with right wing speakers at Politicon, including Tomi Lahren and Scottie Nell Hughes. Lahren had recently recorded a Facebook video, in which she stated her support for Trump's ban on trans people in the military because "the military is not a social experiment," citing concerns about "complications stemming from hormone therapy."

The highlight of the festival, says Preston, was when she and Lahren ended up in the same bathroom — a space some conservatives have claimed as a kind of sacred ground for cis people. Preston took her time at the mirror, primping her hair and readjusting the trans flag she was wearing as a cape. "I lagged it — I was really trying to savor the moment," she says. "I couldn't get over that she had to share the bathroom with someone she'd tried so hard to prevent from having that right." Preston says she told Lahren she hoped she would consider the responsibility she had not to further misrepresent the trans community. "She was like, 'I really mean no harm, I think you're an amazing person. I like everybody,'" says Preston. (Lahren has not yet returned Broadly's request for comment.)

Preston wasn't always comfortable in women's restrooms. Early in her transition, just the idea of going into a public restroom gave her a panic attack. "I think, when it comes to bathrooms, trans people are just as uncomfortable as people like Lahren — if not more so," she says. "There's this feeling of being like an imposter. When I was homeless I had no choice, though. I'd just try to go really fast and hope I didn't run into anyone."

She moved to Los Angeles from Louisville, Kentucky at the age of 19 and transitioned shortly after the move, a decision that sent shockwaves through the rest of her life. "The moment I had the courage to live authentically and unapologetically, I faced a lot of backlash from society," she says. "The LGBT community threw the first stone. My gay friends left me and I fell into the same places many of us do," she says. She found herself homeless, "cast away to the land of misfit toys, for lack of better words."

In her hometown, she says, there was no language for being trans. "I would pray to God and just ask, what is happening? At nine, I started developing breasts." At the time, she remembers being weirdly attracted to the movie, "It's Pat," starring SNL's Julia Sweeney as the androgynous titular character. "People couldn't identify me either."

In LA, she says she watched as many of her trans friends were killed or ended up in jail, and she turned to drugs to cope. "But the drugs weren't strong enough to numb that reality and so it was like, okay, this is a crossroads. Are you going to wait for the drugs to take you out or are you going to fight for yourself as hard as you want others to fight for you?"

"A lot of times, traditional journalism doesn't understand that they have a responsibility for unpacking the narratives of marginalized communities."

Preston started writing as a corrective to a media sphere that so often portrays trans people as victims and broken. "No one can tell our stories better than we can," she says. "A lot of times, traditional journalism doesn't understand that they have a responsibility for unpacking the narratives of marginalized communities."

At Wear Your Voice Magazine, she's says her goal is to "transform the traditional media landscape while redefining social norms and dispelling myths associated with feminism." She also wants to give space for trans perspectives that don't often appear in major outlets. "Just because Caitlyn Jenner has signed off on it, doesn't mean the trans community has signed off on it," she says.

Today, Preston is also considering a run for city council of the 10th district of Los Angeles, one of the city's most diverse areas, encompassing a chunk of Koreatown as well the historic neighborhood of West Adams. "If I run, it'll be crazy because I don't do respectability politics," she says. "I'm not changing my hair color either," referring to her neon, millennial pink highlights. "You get what you get."

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So far, she's embarked on a listening tour, talking to local business owners and homeowners associations. Her goals are to create after school programs and help first-generation families.

"I'm relatable to so many different communities because I don't fit into one box," she says. "I'm not going to say what people need me to say so that they can take me seriously as a transgender woman. There's a lot of disingenuousness to politics; I'm going to come at it from an honest place."