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What Do People Mean When They Say They Want The ‘Truth’ About Transgender People?

CREDIT: E!
CREDIT: E!

Bruce Jenner’s coming out as transgender has greatly increased the visibility of transgender people, but it has likewise increased the number of writers talking about transgender identities. Though guidance is widely available for how to respect trans people, that guidance relies on a bit of understanding about exactly what it means to be transgender. Some recent cases demonstrate that skepticism — or outright antipathy — regarding gender identity remain an obstacles in these conversations.

Last week, Dallas Morning News columnist Tod Robberson challenged the idea of respecting transgender people’s pronouns and identities, criticizing the New York Times and Associated Press for their approaches. Noting that style guides dictate that pronouns should be respected even if a person has not undergone transition-related surgeries, Robberson pleaded, “See how confusing that gets? What is the actual, at-birth gender of the person we’re talking about? And what gender will the person be identified as, once reassignment surgery is completed? Who knows?”

Robberson’s chief concern was “truth,” and whether respecting trans identities somehow “distorts” it. “If the act in question was undertaken by an individual who had yet to change his/her name or declare his/her sexual identity, it undermines our integrity as journalists to alter the facts just to suit a newfound sense of social justice in support of transgender rights,” he wrote. He worried about confusing audiences with “inaccurate pronouns,” and concluded that journalists should “use the correct words to accurately and truthfully report the news,” even if his version of the correct words don’t match how subjects in a story personally identify themselves.

As Media Matters pointed out in response to Robberson’s post, following the guidance is pretty simple, and actually helps maintain consistency. Still, what Robberson’s questions imply is that he feels that he needs to figure out people’s gender independent of how they identify themselves. In particular, his concerns about surgery and his confusion between anatomy and identity indicate that he perhaps doesn’t understand what it means to be transgender or that he doubts the assumptions required to appreciate the media guidance for writing about them.

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A more apparent example of this kind of doubt can be found in a new post at The Federalist called, “It’s Not Hateful To Point Out Bruce Jenner Isn’t A Woman.” Whereas Robberson offered confused hesitation, Daniel Payne owned his rejection of transgender identities, as many other Federalist writers have done. He argued that journalists “are doing a grave disservice to a segment of the population desperately in need of psychological counseling,” causing them harm by “accommodating their illness.” This is despite the fact that gender dysphoria was declassified as a mental disorder several years ago.

Payne’s attack on transgender equality relied on myths about transition regret, and he distorted data about the high suicide attempt rates in the transgender community. Instead of recognizing that the same study also found rampant discrimination in employment, housing, health care, public safety, and public accommodations — basically every facet of a trans person’s life — Payne simply assumed “the presence of tremendous pain, confusion, and despair” must stem from their “misconceptions.” After asserting that Bruce Jenner “is not a man,” he concluded, “People who believe they are transgender need help, and they need the truth. We should deny them neither.”

Both Payne and Robberson arrived back at that word “truth,” but both seem to be stuck reconciling what is actually true about transgender people with what they think is true about transgender people. Payne’s biases are a bit more obvious than Robberson’s, but both struggle to accept that some people simply experience their day-to-day reality as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth. Simultaneously, that is an identity that is influenced by their biology as well as one that reflects the social constructions of gender ingrained in the culture. It’s an experience that’s not defined solely by their anatomy, clothing, appearance, name, or pronouns, but those are all aspects of their lives that help allow them to identify themselves authentically. When it comes to questions about who a person is and how that person should be identified in writing, the person’s own truth is the only one that matters for journalistic authenticity.