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🎤 Interview: H Conley
H Conley (they/them) is a journalist, audio maker and artist from New York City. They fell in love with radio while working in a creamery, and left their cheesemaking job to go to journalism school. They report on food, climate, trans health, and queer identity. Their personal essay I Realized I Was Trans While Making Cheese was featured in Bon Appétit’s first pride package. Their work has also been published in STAT News, The Guardian, Edible Manhattan, City Limits, Meat and Three from HRN, and the Embodied Podcast from WUNC.
When H first pitched their piece, “Refused: When You Are Too Fat For Top Surgery” to me, I knew I had to talk to them more about their work and learn more about their background. The first newsletter for Sounds Like Impact was about weight stigma, but it had never crossed my mind that people could be denied an essential procedure because of it. I’m so excited for you to learn more about H and the intersectional lens they bring to reporting. Also, they used to be a cheesemaker?!? I am excited for you to learn more about H. This interview was conducted via Google doc, so no audio this time, but that means more time to listen to their work!
To start, can you share a little about your journey into storytelling?
I’ve always loved stories. I have a visual impairment and reading was a challenge growing up , so I consumed endless hours of books-on-tape while drawing at the kitchen table. When I got my first job in a creamery the summer of 2015 I had hours and hours in the cave or on the production floor during which I listened to every episode of This American Life back to 1999. When I became a full-time cheddar cheesemaker after college I filled my 10-hour shifts with as many different types of podcasts as possible. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to make audio stories.
While still working full-time as a cheesemaker, I got a part-time internship at HRN, a food radio network in Brooklyn. I did research and booked guests for The Farm Report and created short stories for Meat and Three. After sustaining multiple work-related injuries, I quit my job and went to journalism school.
You are a graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. There are people who started in print journalism and transitioned to audio, those who have always done radio or podcasting, and those who have never gone to J-school that get into audio (like myself!).
What advice would you give to people who are interested in storytelling but don’t come from traditional journalism or even writing/radio backgrounds?
I got my start in audio as an unpaid intern at HRN and was able to get a glimpse into the audio world that I wanted to be a part of. I was able to learn so much about writing and editing and I made stories that I’m still proud of, but I also saw the gaps in my own knowledge. I spent a year after that internship applying to audio jobs without success. I decided to go to J-School because I couldn’t continue to write the same cover letters and send them out into the endless void of the internet.
I’m no advocate for unpaid labor, but having the opportunity to create stories for HRN, to work with journalists and audio makers, and to get a sense of my own skillset helped me decide I really did want to pursue this path, and that I needed to get more training in order to do that. I think finding that sort of opportunity is incredibly helpful to know if radio is really right for you and to figure out what else you need to turn it into a career, in my case, J-school.
You work successfully in both print and audio. How does your approach to crafting a print piece differ from how you build a story for audio?
And how do you decide whether a story is better for print or audio?
I love this question! I would love to tell every story in both audio and text because they are so different and lend themselves to different sides of a story. My audio documentary for Embodied is focused on Chala’s life story and personal experience being turned away from top surgery, it is deeply emotional, but I was only able to scratch the surface of the medical/scientific side of BMI cut-offs in top surgery. For my story in STAT News on the same topic, I was able to zoom way out and talk to many people affected by these cut-offs and talk to a dozen doctors and surgeons to gain a better understanding of why these cut-offs exist in the first place and why more and more doctors are getting rid of them.
Print lends itself to the dryer and more technical side of health reporting, whereas audio can capture the human side so much more fully and beautifully.
Food, climate, queer health and identity, blindness and visual impairment are the topics you write about. Why those topics?
These topics are all deeply personal to me. I studied food and agriculture in college in the Environmental and Urban Studies department, and have cared deeply about the sustainability of the food system since I was a kid. I worked on small farms in college and wrote my senior thesis on US food policy. Before I found out journalists can have multiple beats, I thought I would only make audio about food. For my health reporting class at J-school I was struggling to decide on a food-related beat and my lovely advisor, Emily Laber-Warren, encouraged me to write about communities I’m connected to.
As a trans person who is legally blind, I didn’t want to be siloed into only reporting about trans people or disabled people, but I realized these are areas where I already have expertise and can connect to my sources on a deep personal level. I think I can tell better stories about people in my own communities because they don’t need to explain themselves to me and I don’t need to explain myself to them so the report and comfort come naturally and good stories flow easily.
What gaps do you feel like have historically existed in the coverage of those topics, and how have you gone about addressing them?
I read The View from Somewhere by Lewis Raven Wallis at the start of J-school and it really helped clarify my perspective on this.
I think the concept of objectivity (as in if you have personal investment in a topic you can’t speak fairly on it) has been a major detriment to journalism since it generally means journalists weren’t supposed to be experts in the field they reported on. I’ve been so touched by sources (on all my beats) telling me that my background knowledge has been such a relief because they don’t have to explain themselves to me, we can just have real conversations.
So I think that implicit understanding is what’s been missing and is the reason so much journalism feels so cold and distant, like people helicoptering into situations they don’t really care about.
The piece you pitched to Sounds Like Impact was “Refused: When You Are Too Fat for Top Surgery” from WUNC’s Embodied podcast. And you recently wrote about top surgery and weight stigma for STAT News. Can you tell us about how the idea for these stories came about?
I had top surgery in June of 2021 and first pitched a story to my feature writing class at CUNY with the working title “How to know if you should remove your boobs.” I never wrote that story, but in my interviews for that story I found out about these BMI restrictions. I was appalled. Top surgery was so important to me and pretty easy to access, so the idea that other trans people were being denied care based on such a ridiculously outdated concept, the BMI, was deeply concerning. The fact that I’d never heard about it because I’m slim was disturbing.
What are one or two takeaways you would like listeners or readers to have about these stories?
For a long time, the needs of fat people and trans people have been ignored by many in the medical field. The flippant dismissiveness of the doctors who told Chala and Vince they had to lose huge portions of their body weight without care for the mental health repercussions of that kind of interaction hurts and disgusts me to this day.
But, I think the takeaway from these stories is that despite the challenges, they got top surgery and they’re glad they got top surgery. I was also so encouraged by the doctors I spoke to in the last six months who all said that BMI cut-offs are on their way out, that with more experience and research, more surgeons are realizing that they can operate on people across the weight spectrum and they’re getting better at figuring out how to care for people. I hope these stories leave you hopeful for the progress being made.
Bon Appétit contributor Chala June, whom you interviewed for both the Embodied piece, and for “How do folks who work in food recover from eating disorders?” allows themself to be so vulnerable before you. What was it like to interview Chala twice about very sensitive topics?
It was hard. I love spending time with Chala and it felt awful to ask them to go back over these traumas and re-open these wounds. I interviewed them three times over the course of about five months and it only got harder once I knew how painful it would be. They’re a very open person and when I first brought up this reporting project with them, they maintained enthusiasm about participating but we had to reschedule some interviews because there were days that it was just too hard to talk about.
And how would you describe your approach to getting people to open up?
In J-school some professors emphasized not sharing a lot about yourself with your sources, which I adhere to when interviewing scientists and researchers, but with other trans people it’s natural to share my experiences. Connecting over our commonalities helps me go deeper with my sources because I show them that I know what they’re talking about and they don’t need to justify the desire to not have boobs to me. I know how serious the need for top surgery is, and we can joke about the weird similarities in our mental processes and understanding of ourselves. Chala is so funny and we spent the beginning and end of each interview just joking around and talking about food.
Increasingly there has been more coverage of issues affecting trans people in the media, but unfortunately as it relates to harsh legislation being proposed or passed to restrict the rights of trans adults, children and their parents.
Aside from yourself, would you like to recommend other reporters or podcasts that provide holistic coverage to cut above the sensationalization in mainstream media?
I followed the coverage closely in 2021 but I’ve been avoiding in depth coverage recently because it all feels too repetitively painful. But, I highly recommend Chala’s recent appearance on The Black Kitchen Series and their story for Condé Nast Traveler about finding queer family in Costa Rica. These are stories of Black trans joy and euphoria, of food and family, and they’re the kind of positivity I’ve needed recently, and a lot of people need right now.
Is there any new or upcoming work that you would like to share with us?
I just had a story about a sustainable grazing practice published in The Guardian. I also just got accepted into the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ+ Voices, which was a total shock. I’m raising money for my tuition and would greatly appreciate any donations.
What was the last thing you listened to?
What was the last social impact action you took?
Donating to mutual aid funds and individual trans folks raising money for health care and housing.
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
My former classmate, Wyatt Stayner’s health reporting for the Prison Journalism Project is deeply impactful and important. Also, Nicholas St. Fleur and the team at Color Code’s reporting on health disparities for Black folks on Long Island.