One Question Journalists Could Ask To Improve Reporting On Transgender People

CREDIT: Pawel Kaminski/Disney ABC

Katie Couric and Grantland have recently provided two examples of how not to talk about the lives of transgender people. In Couric’s case, model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox helped her understand that it’s rude to ask trans people about their anatomy, because doing so suggests that their genitalia is what defines them and thereby detracts from everything else they are as people. Grantland’s story about “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” revealed what can go wrong when a person is outed as trans to other sources and how ugly it looks when a trans identity is used to sensationalize a story.

Writing about transgender people — particularly for people who are cisgender (not trans) — is as much an art as it is a science, a process that begins by simply understanding the community being written about. Under the umbrella of “transgender” is a vast diversity of different identities that challenge the gender binary, including trans women and trans men who may or may not have had various surgeries, intersex people, genderqueer or androgynous people, genderfuck and genderbending people, people who prefer the term “transsexual” to distinguish between people who have had surgery and those who haven’t, plus cultural-specific identities like hijira and two-spirit, to name just a few. The use of an asterisk with the word “transgender” (e.g., trans* or LGBT*) is sometimes used to specifically draws attention to this continuum of identities so as to avoid having it pigeonholed as just those who transition from one side of the binary to the other. Some of these people may be open about their identities, while others are not. All of their experiences vary, and any of them can have specific preferences about how their stories are told.

What unites the members of this community with each other is the discrimination and mistreatment they experience for violating gender norms. Simply being true to their identities inhibits their ability to get jobs, to find homes, to be safe from violence, to receive effective healthcare, and to be trusted by authorities. Gender conformity is a force all people experience, and its negative impact is arguably what unites LGB and T efforts for equality in society. Trans people experience this at its extreme, because their very identities violate the gender norm. As a result of the massive stigma they experience, they are much more likely to struggle with mental health issues and economic inequality, including extreme rates of poverty and unemployment.

This is the complex and alarming reality in which transgender people’s lives function, which explains why care and consideration must be utilized when writing about them. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) offers some vocabulary tips in its AP stylebook supplement, and GLAAD’s media guide offers some more specific guidelines for telling their stories. Not all of these tips, however, would have helped Couric rethink what kinds of questions she wanted to ask nor saved Grantland from scrutiny over its sensationalized story.

Mainstream journalism ethics guides have traditionally had little to say about how to handle trans subjects, and many outlets are trying to balance competing obligations as they adjust their own style guides and internal practices. Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of OutSports, lambasted Grantland for its insensitive reporting on Essay Vanderbilt, and provided these three rules that he follows for writing about trans people:

  • Don’t “out” trans people.
  • Always refer to a trans person as their self-identified name and gender. Every time. Without exception.
  • Don’t discuss their pre-transition life without their express consent. Don’t show pre-transition photos and DO NOT mention their former name without their express approval.

Zeigler’s hard-and-fast rules won’t work in every situation. There are still plenty of stories yet to be told about transitioning and about the nature of transgender identity itself, and there will also be stories in which the erasure of a person’s past identity simply isn’t possible if everything is to make sense. What’s important is to distinguish between stories where transitions are integral to the narrative, and where the fact that a subject is transgender is wholly incidental to what’s actually being written about.

All of these guidelines are helpful for writing the final story, but they won’t necessarily help avoid pitfalls during the reporting process. Instead, an overarching question about intention might assist reporters and their editors to consider the different aspects of their coverage:

Does this story do its best to uphold the dignity, privacy, safety, and individuality of the transgender people it includes in the same ways it would cisgender subjects?

It’s a broad question, but simply by asking it, writing team can see the story through the lens of the trans people featured in it — from the first pitch, through the reporting process, to the final published piece. GLAAD and NLGJA can answer some specific questions that may arise, and where the guidebooks come up short, the individuals in the story can fill in the gaps themselves. An important aspect of this approach would be to invite the transgender people being written about to express their personal preferences about how to discuss their identities, which they might not feel comfortable asserting on their own.

Though the number of people who openly identify as transgender is a fairly small proportion of the population, their stories and their struggles are going to increasingly become part of national public discourse. One clear example of this is an effort by a conservative coalition called “Privacy For All Students,” which is trying to challenge California’s new law ensuring that transgender students can participate in school activities and use school facilities in accordance with their gender identity. Groups like the National Organization for Marriage are supporting the campaign, as are individuals with nationwide audiences like Fox News’ Keith Ablow. The coalition has already demonstrated its intention to out and humiliate specific transgender young people under the guise of protecting other students’ “privacy.” If it’s determined that they collected enough signatures for a referendum on the law, a multi-month media campaign to pass that referendum would no doubt multiply such tactics and increase the need for journalists to report on transgender issues, both in California and across the country. Finding ways to focus on trans people as individuals with public policy needs, not as curiosities or threats, is a way for journalists to not only be sensitive, but to make sure they get the whole story.