Nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people’s stories

Transgender people make news of all kinds, so reporters of all kinds need to know how to write about them – not just journalists whose beats regularly include diversity issues. Recently, government reporters found themselves writing about Pvt. Chelsea Manning, crime reporters in Orlando covered the murder of Ashley Sinclair, and Cosmo got an exclusive shot at punk rocker Laura Jane Grace’s coming out story.

A good starting point is this style guide from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which monitors media coverage of the LGBT community. But the issues go deeper than the basics of pronouns, adjectives and names.

“You can still be insensitive using the right words,” Janet Mock, an advocate, author and former journalist at People, said in a phone interview. “You can still completely be dehumanizing using the right words.”

The kinds of stories journalists write, what information they include, and how they ask for that information are all just as important or more important than which words they use. With that in mind, here are nine ways to do justice to transgender people’s stories:

1. Stop writing the same story.

“There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when every story about a gay person was the coming out narrative,” Nick Adams, associate director of communications for GLAAD, said in a phone interview. But, he added, “with trans stories we’re still in that period.”

The coming out narrative is often framed in the same way, Adams said, and the story becomes “I was a man and now I’m a woman” — something that at best is an oversimplification and at worst is a rejection of the identity of a person who may have never identified with the gender on his or her birth certificate.

By concentrating on the coming out narrative, journalists may ignore other issues that affect the transgender community. With the Manning story, Mock said, “it took days to get to the media to talk about healthcare and rights for prisoners, and those are the bigger issues. [Journalists] were hung up over ‘he, she, Bradley, Chelsea’ ” instead of focusing on the question of how we should treat people when we incarcerate them.

2. Pursue the ordinary.

When journalists focus too much on the “heavy” issues and get stuck on medical transitions, they miss the opportunity to show that most transgender people live full lives that don’t revolve around these issues. In a 2010 Poynter Online article, NPR vice president of diversity and former Poynter dean Keith Woods argued that such a misplaced focus leaves people in marginalized communities “frozen in permanent pathology” and causes journalists to miss “the normal parts of their lives that make them laugh, cry, rejoice.”

3. Stop asking for before and after photos.

Journalists often ask transgender people for before and after photos, and sometimes refuse to write about them without such material. Before making such a request, journalists should ask themselves whether they want the photos to tell a full story or just to entice readers.

Jos Truitt, executive director for development and policy at Feministing.com, a feminist blog and online community, said in a phone interview that many transgender people feel like reporters are trying to fit them into a standard narrative: “So-and-so was born this, but they always felt they were such-and-such. You have to give the name, you have to give the pictures to get your story told.”

This is especially problematic because of the perceived power of the journalist in these situations. Transgender people are part of a marginalized group, and the traditional journalistic value of giving voice to the voiceless makes it important to tell their stories and amplify their voices. But the fact that a story subject has handed over a photo doesn’t mean running it supports that value or does justice to that person’s story.

“We can’t just accept people for who they are now,” Mock said. “We have to compare it to who they were before.”

4. When you’re told someone’s name, use it.

Even in stories where the appropriate pronouns and names are used, Truitt said, journalists will sometimes say things such as “she goes by this name” or “she wants to be called” or “she calls herself.” Such distancing by the journalist casts doubt on the transgender person’s identity.

Mock said journalists may have trouble accepting a name and pronoun given by a transgender person because they get caught up in verifying what they see as facts, such as a person’s legal name. But Adams notes that court-ordered name changes and the medical treatments necessary to obtain a court-ordered gender change can be prohibitively expensive.

And journalists don’t always insist on such legalistic distinctions: “Reporters accept celebrities’ stage names (or symbols) at face value and don’t constantly remind readers that Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta,” Adams said in an email.

Truitt’s suggestion for journalists on this point is straightforward: Assume “that the person that the person you’re talking to has the expertise to identify themselves.”

5. Stop asking about someone’s medical transition process.

Ask whether the answer is relevant to the story. Do you need to know where someone is in their transition process in order to write about that person, however they’ve become newsworthy?

It’s as simple as mentally reframing the story, Truitt said: If you were writing about a woman who isn’t transgender, “would it be relevant to ask her what her genitals look like?”

Generally speaking, a person’s decisions to have surgery and take medications are private matters between that person and his or her doctor. Granting transgender people that same level of privacy should be common sense: Even if you’re writing a coming out narrative, readers probably don’t need to know about specific medical procedures.

6. Stop using outdated or dehumanizing language.

The GLAAD style guide goes into more depth about outdated terms, but the first thing to know is that “transgender” is the accepted umbrella term. It’s incorrect to refer to someone as “transgendered” or as “a transgender.” Using the former is unnecessary and using the latter has the effect of objectifying or reducing people to their gender identity.

7. Learn from your mistakes.

Riese Bernard is the founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com, an online community that describes itself as for “lesbians, bisexuals, and otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends.)” She and her staff make an effort to be inclusive of all women, she said in a phone interview, including transgender women. “When we started, it’s both embarrassing and really revelatory the degree to which we knew nothing about trans issues, particularly trans women’s issues,” she said. “We made a bazillion mistakes when we first started.”

For example, the site faced a fan backlash when it published a story written by a transgender man. Autostraddle doesn’t publish material by men, Bernard said, so allowing such a contribution sent the message that transgender men aren’t “real men.”

By featuring transgender women’s writing and covering issues that impact transgender people, Bernard said, the Autostraddle team has made an effort to learn from its mistakes. For Autostraddle, “being trans-inclusive goes beyond articles about trans issues,” Bernard said. Publishing the work of transgender writers — including stories that go beyond the typical coming-out narrative — is an important part of being inclusive, she said, because transgender people are as diverse as the rest of the population, and their needs and stories are as well.

8. If you’re unsure about which pronoun to use, ask the person you’re writing about. If you can’t do that, defer to the style guide.

When journalists use a different pronoun than the one a transgender person uses, they tell the reader that the transgender person’s identity is fake. This is especially insidious when it happens in a crime story. When a transgender woman is killed, Mock said, the story “becomes ‘a man killed a man’, when in actuality, a man targeted a woman who is a marginalized, trans-stigmatized woman and murdered her.”

The intent may not be to dehumanize a transgender victim of crime, but it may happen because “a crime-beat reporter may not be typically someone who writes about LGBT issues — they get their facts from the police,” Adams said, and as such can wind up simply repeating information from authority figures.

Such missteps can be avoided by giving all reporters guidance about transgender subjects – this GLAAD guide may be helpful — so that they recognize the importance of using the appropriate name and pronoun. When writing about transgender victims of crime, it’s also important to see the violence in the broader context: Transgender women, especially transgender women of color, experience violence at dramatically higher rates than other LGBT people, according to a National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs study.

Transgender women accounted for half of all victims of LGBT-related and HIV/AIDS-related homicides in the U.S. in 2012, according to the NCAVP study. “The main way you see trans people show up in the media is as dead bodies,” Truitt said.

9. Remember that transgender women are women, transgender men are men, and everyone is human.

“It’s not actually all that complicated,” Truitt said, offering a simple question for journalists reporting on transgender people to ask themselves: “I’m speaking to someone who is a person — is this okay to say to a person?”

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  • Lauren Klinger

    That is a great point — one we too often take for granted that journalists will do. Thanks!

  • Eva Odland

    Thanks Bruce, for showing that no matter how informative and well written a piece is about reporting transgender issues there are still people who are so hateful and ignorant towards us that they will post something like you just did. Why even bother reading anything Bruce? You seem to have the world all sorted out. You being an obvious expert on truth.

  • Cath Goodband

    great article and brilliantly written- rbruce20 should read the last paragraph over and over again till it sinks in

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  • KRobert

    The truth according to major medical organizations who have the education and resources to determine these things? Or the truth according to some wingnut?

  • rbruce20

    Why not report the truth that there is no such thing as transgender. There may be many gender roles, but there are only two genders. There may be some who wish to mutilate their bodies to achieve some sort of desire, but it does not change the sex they were born with. A women will always be a woman and a man will always be a man no matter what happens to their bodies. Please stop appeasing a very small activist group and just report the truth.