How To Write About Transgender People
The media doesn't have to get our stories so very wrong.
It's not that hard to write about transgender people. Though bias can play a part in some of the questionable decision-making around covering us, more often the problem is a basic lack of knowledge about trans issues — and a failure to follow established media guidelines.
1. Follow established guidelines.
One of the first things you can do is check out The Associated Press and GLAAD guidelines, which are continually updated for the most current information about writing on trans issues and about trans people. You should also become familiar with correct terms — our vocabulary matters. Using "transgender" as a noun is never acceptable; it's an adjective. For example, a woman who was assigned male at birth and later transitioned is a transgender woman — not "a transgender," and not a "transgendered" woman. "Transgendered" is not a word. Likewise, we were not "born as men" or "born as women." We were born as babies.
These guidelines provide a lot of information about the language we use, and the language you should use if you write about us.
2. Use your subject's preferred name, pronoun, and picture.
When was the last time someone asked you to prove that you're a man or a woman, or that your name and the gender marker on your driver's license match what's on your birth certificate? We will tell you who we are. Your job is to listen, not to decide that you have a better idea about who we are just because you think we are "confused." We don't need you to explain our identities to us, and we do not need your permission.
Use the names, pronouns, and pictures that we provide. If you are honestly confused, ask politely what our preferences are, and then honor our answers. If we provide information in confidence, don't reveal that information.
3. Consider the consequences of releasing private information.
Only 17 states and the District of Columbia provide employment and housing protections based on gender identity/expression. A federal law designed to create those protections has been held up in Congress for decades, specifically because it includes trans people. In Maryland, a relatively progressive state, 2013 saw the arrival of marriage equality and a legislature with several out gay and lesbian delegates; that same legislature voted down a trans anti-discrimination bill.
More disturbing, however, are the statistics about violence where trans people are concerned. Hundreds of trans people are murdered every year, with trans women of color making up by far the largest group of victims. Thousands more trans people are assaulted, harassed, or otherwise targeted, frequently by cisgender people who claim to be responding to the "shock" of discovering that their victims are trans. Further, because trans women of color are both more likely to be attacked and more likely to be arrested than other categories of trans people, they are also more likely to be prosecuted for defending themselves against hate crimes.
Considering these issues during the preparation of the Grantland "Dr. V" story, for example, could have led the reporter or at least one of the 15 people who reviewed the story as it progressed to make different decisions about the story. If you release information about a trans person that is not already public, or that the trans person about whom you are writing does not want released, you may well be putting that person's career and personal safety at risk. It's really that simple.
4. Outing a transgender person is not your call to make.
Many trans people move from their old lives into their new lives and don't look back. Others blend or bridge the two. We all make different decisions, for different reasons, about how we choose to handle our transitions, whom we tell, and how we tell them. Your responsibility as a member of the media is to report the news, or to tell the story you were assigned. Please don't ask for our old names (often called "dead names" in the trans community). If we wanted to use them, we wouldn't have changed to our new names. Please don't ask if we have pictures from "before," and if for some reason we share them with you, they are not yours to broadcast.
A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that approximately 41% of transgender people had attempted suicide, as compared to not quite 2% of the general population. Several high-profile trans writers and activists have reported their own suicidal feelings, and have described the constant bullying, harassment, and hate mail that comes with being outed.
5. Being trans is almost never the actual story.
Suppose you've decided to write an article about a woman who buys a zoo in the Pennsylvania countryside. It is probably relevant that her parents were biologists who nurtured her love of animals, or that they left her a fortune with which the zoo could be purchased…but it doesn't matter if this hypothetical woman is cisgender or transgender. If she's trans, her old name has nothing to do with her zoo-keeping aspirations.
Perhaps you found out, in the course of your research, that the woman in your article used to have a driver's license on which she was labeled as a man, or that her college education happened pre-transition. Suppose that this confuses you, because you don't understand trans people, and you don't think you know any trans people (how do you know?), and you have no idea what to do with this information. Here is what you do with it: nothing. The story is about the zoo, and about how this woman loves animals and has a lot of money and so was able to buy the zoo. It's not about a picture of what she looked like in college, before she changed. It's not about her old name. It's not about your speculation regarding what kinds of surgeries she may or may not have had.
And even if the aforemetioned zoo person was instead a trans politician with a decidedly anti-LGBT voting record, it's still possible (and important) to cover that person's story in a way that asks necessary questions, not sensational ones.
6. There is no "single story" about transgender people.
In a 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against telling, or relying on "a single story" about any culture or group of people. Just as there is no single gay experience, there is no one "right" trans narrative. Finding one story that you like and then trying to make the stories of all other trans people you encounter adhere to that same narrative is unfair, unreasonable, and deeply problematic. As Adichie puts it, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete."
7. Private parts are private.
Because gender is so often conflated with sex, and because reporting on trans issues has so often followed a narrative based on our physical, not emotional, transitions, we often encounter the perspective that questions about our bodies are reasonable. Really, though, they're not. Recently, Katie Couric made the mistake of asking trans women Carmen Carerra and Laverne Cox about their private parts, an invasion that Ms. Cox and Ms. Carrera handled with admirable grace. If we need to tell you what's in our pants, we will go ahead and tell you. They're just bodies — our bodies, not yours. Likewise, our private parts are not a joke, any more than yours are; they're not your business, any more than yours are our business.
8. Transgender people are not inherently deceptive.
A common aspect of the cisgender response to trans people, especially when the cisgender person has done something hurtful or hateful to the trans person, is the claim that the trans person deserves it — because being trans is somehow "deceiving" people. If you write a news story in which you frame your discovery of someone's gender history as some kind of vindication, or as if you were somehow being lied to when the subject of your story didn't mention that her birth certificate once said something quite different, you are doing it wrong. You are perpetuating the myth that we are somehow sneaking around lying to everyone, when in fact we have gone to enormous expense and effort to be as true as we can.
9. Remember it's actually not that hard to do it right.
Part of what happens all too often is that writers overthink their stories. When someone notable comes out as trans, for example, there is frequently a great hullabaloo about what name the press should use, and how to do the pronouns. At the same time, though, cisgender notables choose names for themselves all the time, or change their names for professional reasons, and the press figures it out. If you don't need to include Sigourney Weaver's original name in a review of Alien, you don't need to include Lana Wachowski's original name in a review of Cloud Atlas or even mention that she's trans. There are members of the media who regularly report on trans issues with empathy and understanding. MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, in particular, makes a point of inviting trans women to be part of discussions relevant to the trans community, and she introduces her trans guests correctly. It's entirely possible for the cisgender media, whether gay or straight, to get trans stories right.
10. And most of all, a trans person’s identity is not about you or how you feel.