Last month, these tropes played out yet again in Grantland’s recent article about Dr. V. Reporter Caleb Hannan originally set out to write about a golf club, but his editors let him expand the scope of his story when he realized that Dr. V was a trans woman. Hannan based his article around his experience of this “discovery” despite the fact that he had agreed to Dr. V’s stipulation that the story focus on her work, not on her. She committed suicide shortly before the article was published. While it is impossible to draw a direct link between Hannan’s questioning of Dr. V and her suicide, this incident felt disturbingly familiar to many trans women who saw a link between Dr. V fearing threats of being outed, which can have catastrophic results in our transphobic culture, and ending her own life. Grantland Editor in Chief Bill Simmons said part of the failing was not consulting any trans people while editing the story.
But the presence of trans people should not be necessary to prevent basic failures of journalism and human decency. Most mainstream media organizations—including the Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post—have guidelines for reporting on trans people. Those guidelines aren’t perfect, but they are much better than what actually happens when disregarded in favor of objectifying tropes. For reporters who want to do better, there are resources, including a guide produced by GLAAD and a helpful article with tips for journalists at Poynter (for which I was interviewed). Yet journalists continue to focus interviews with trans women on transition and the state of their genitals. There are examples of journalists interviewing trans women with respect, most notably on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, but they are few and rarely mainstream.
This is particularly sad because there are so many important, compelling stories about trans women that need to be told. As a group, we face staggering rates of discrimination and marginalization by every measure, including housing, employment, healthcare, incarceration, and violence. As statistics, these facts are difficult to grapple with, but they suggest that there are so many stories out there about trans women’s struggles and resistance—stories about the reality of life.
The marginalization trans women face is extreme and needs to be reported more broadly, but stories about the full spectrum of our humanity are necessary to represent trans women as real people to media consumers. The trans women in my life are an incredibly resilient, creative, brilliant, and even visionary group. We deserve to have stories about our lives and accomplishments told in ways that don’t reduce us to our genitals. Journalists should especially focus on positive stories about trans women of color, given they are targeted with the most poor press coverage. Finally, transition is simply not always relevant to a story about a trans woman, and surgical status is rarely relevant unless it’s the particular focus of the a story, which needs to happen much less often. It’s almost always inappropriate to ask a trans person about the status of their privates. Sometimes an article about a golf club can just be about a golf club.