Whether you’re covering politics and mentioning Chelsea Manning’s whistleblowing, writing about the cast of Orange Is the New Black, or commenting on a volleyball match involving player Tifanny Abreu, journalists from all beats and publications need to be able to write about transgender and non-binary individuals without promoting stereotypes and harmful narratives.
A lack of knowledge of gender issues and existing media guidelines – as well as an overwhelmingly cisgender workforce – still allow for offensive practices and dehumanizing stories to make it into the news.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) recently found that while 75 percent of non-LGBTQ Americans know a gay or lesbian person and 31 percent known someone who is bisexual, only 18 percent report knowing a transgender (trans) person.
“If a stereotypical or defamatory portrayal of a gay or lesbian person appears in the media, viewers can compare it to someone they know in their family, their workplace or their school,” says Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD. “However, when a stereotypical or defamatory portrayal of a transgender person appears in the media, people may assume that's what all transgender people are like.”
For example, transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, are disproportionately affected by hate violence. However violence against the community is still minimally covered and often inaccurately reported, Adams points out. Journalists often rely on official reports that misgender the victim and use their birth name, without seeking out people in the community who knew the person and could provide accurate information.
“When the mainstream media publishes homophobic or transphobic content, it sets the tone for how people [think] they can behave towards LGBTQ+ people,” says Amelia Abraham, freelance journalist and author of the book Queer Intentions. Abraham still sees journalists making critical mistakes, most commonly comparing being transgender to having a mental illness, and sensationalizing specific stories to build a case against an entire community.
More broadly, it’s important to avoid only platforming transgender people within the context of them defending their right to exist, and allow them to talk about all different kinds of subjects, she says: “We also need to profile trans and non-binary people in all areas – science, the arts, media, etc. – succeeding and triumphing in their fields, in order to counter the negative press that [they] receive, and to make visible the fact that trans people have lives that go beyond their gender identity.”
However, the cultural fight for greater awareness and visibility has slowly started to shift things in the media industry. In 2017, The Associated Press approved the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in“stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her.” The same year, Condé Nast launched “them,” an LGBT-focused platform. In March, VICE created a more gender-inclusive stock photo library.
However, the industry still has a long way to achieve equality and inclusivity. In the meantime, journalists are responsible for being more respectful, appropriate and humane their own work. To do so, we’ve listed some tips from Adams and Abraham for better handling diverse gender identities in your work.
Use the right words
A person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender, regardless of whether or not that person has taken hormones or undergone surgery, says GLAAD’s Nick. If you’re unsure which pronoun to use, ask the person, politely, how they identify and how they’d like to be addressed.
Non-binary people — people who identify outside of the “man” and “woman” binary — may use the singular “they” pronoun. “Journalists may need a sentence at the beginning of the story explaining that the person uses they/them pronouns, but then the story should use the person's pronouns accurately throughout the rest of the story,” Adams says.
But Abraham argues that writers should give their audience more credit: “[Readers] are able to understand this. Where clunky, use the person's name instead of ‘they.’ If you feel your readers need it, clarify that the person is non-binary around first usage of [the] pronoun.”
Do not use a person’s birth name without their permission
When a transgender person's birth name is used in a story, the implication is almost always that this is the person's “real name,” Adams points out. However, you should never reveal a transgender person's birth name without their explicit permission.
“A transgender person's chosen name is their real name, whether or not they are able to obtain a court-ordered name change,” he says.
Phrases to avoid include, “she wants to be called,” “she calls herself,” “she goes by," or other phrases that cast doubt on a transgender person's identity.
Do not focus on medical issues
“It is inappropriate to ask a transgender person questions about their genitals or other surgeries they may or may not have had,” Adams says. “These discussions distract the journalist and the audience from seeing the whole person, and from focusing on larger issues that affect transgender people like discrimination, poverty, and violence.”
Abraham also agrees, advising writers to avoid focusing on surgeries unless that is the nature of the article, and it has been pre-agreed upon with sources.
Use “transgender” as an adjective and not as a noun
Transgender should always be used as an adjective, not a noun, Adams says. No one is a transgender, for example, but one can be “a transgender woman” or a “transgender man.”
If you think your audience needs clarification about what that phrase means, you can explain that a certain person was designated male or female at birth, but his, her or their gender identity is male, female or non-binary. Avoid saying someone was born a man or a woman.
For more information on gender identity and other topics related to the LGBTQ+ community, check out GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, which is a comprehensive tool with a section on covering the transgender community and a glossary of terms — including those to avoid.