Bradley Manning news raises questions about how to refer to transgender people in stories

The New York Times

Television reporters "weren’t immediately sure how to tell" the story of Bradley Manning's announcement on "Today" that he identifies as a woman and will seek hormone therapy, Brian Stelter writes.

Savannah Guthrie, who broke the story, "used the pronoun 'she' to refer to Private Manning throughout most of the interview, but used 'he' when trying to emphasize the change had just been announced."

Manning picked a bad time of the year to send journalists running to their stylebooks: The New York Times' associate managing editor for standards, Phil Corbett? "[A]way until Tuesday, Aug. 27," according to an auto-reply email. Washington Post standards editor Tracy Grant? "[O]ut of the office until Monday, August 26." Los Angeles Times copy overlord Henry Fuhrmann? "I will be away from the office this week."

"I think that's being discussed," says Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (who says  he's "away for a few days") when asked about Post style. What's a media reporter to do? In a later email, Grant confirmed the discussions: "We're in the process of reviewing our style in light of the Manning situation," she wrote.

Corbett's email refers reporters to Greg Brock, the Times' senior editor for standards, who sent Poynter the Times' stylebook entry, which he says he's sending "to those who might be working on the coverage."

transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.{new 3/05}

A few minutes after that email, Corbett emailed to say pretty much the same thing: In general, he writes, "We use the names and pronouns preferred by the subject. And we would refer to someone's transgender status only if it is relevant to the story."

Here's the Associated Press' style:

transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

And here's GLAAD's style, from its media reference guide:

Transgender An umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male (FTM) or male-to-female (MTF). Use the descriptive term (transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, FTM or MTF) preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

Some more from GLAAD:

Problematic: "transgenders," "a transgender"
Preferred: "transgender people," "a transgender person"

Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun. Do not say, "Tony is a transgender," or "The parade included many transgenders." Instead say, "Tony is a transgender man," or "The parade included many transgender people."

Problematic: "transgendered"
Preferred: "transgender"

The adjective transgender should never have an extraneous "-ed" tacked onto the end. An "-ed" suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and can cause tense confusion and grammatical errors. For example, it is grammatically incorrect to turn transgender into a participle, as it is an adjective, not a verb, and only verbs can be used as participles by adding an "-ed" suffix.

Problematic: "sex change," "pre-operative," "post-operative"
Preferred: "transition"

Referring to a sex change operation, or using terms such as pre- or post-operative, inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to transition. Avoid overemphasizing surgery when discussing transgender people or the process of transition.

Here's the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association's stylebook entry:

transgender: An umbrella term that refers to people whose biological and gender identity or expression may not be the same. This can but does not necessarily include preoperative, postoperative or nonoperative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators, and intersex individuals. When writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly. When possible, ask which term the subject prefers.

Fuhrmann, who is attending the Asian American Journalists Association's annual convention in New York City, emailed as this post was being published:

We're in the process of drafting an update to our guidelines, which date to about 2003. Not having a copy of either version at hand, I can say generally that we refer to subjects by their chosen gender identification, in line with the guidelines recommended by GLAAD and NLGJA and with AP style. We use the name and personal pronoun that conform with how a person lives publicly.

Later in the afternoon, I heard from Valentina Djeljosevic, the Chicago Tribune's deputy editor of Editing & Presentation. "The Chicago Tribune follows AP style," she wrote in an email. "We’ll say Bradley Manning on first reference since that’s the name readers know. We’ll add that Manning identifies as Chelsea, and we’ll use 'she' when a pronoun is needed."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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