- Get over the pronoun hump. Do it now.
I’m annoyed that we’re still talking about pronouns.
Not to sound salty, but I came out as genderqueer in the year 1999, when trans politics were still playing out on LiveJournal. At the time, my friends and I advocated fiercely for the use of the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir.” We were told over and over that these singular gender-neutral terms were too difficult or clunky to adopt. And yet, when some trans and nonbinary people began to promote the use of “they” and “them” instead, the grammatical incorrectness of “they” as a singular pronoun suddenly became paramount. Some cis people even had the nerve to ask, “Why can’t someone just invent a singular gender-neutral pronoun?” We did—and y’all ignored us.
Calling someone by a given word is not a struggle unless you make it one—it’s basic etiquette.
Two uneasy decades have passed, and somehow, cisgender people are still making a big deal out of pronouns. See, for example, the recent flap over Associated Press coverage of singer Sam Smith: in an article about Smith’s choice to use “they” pronouns, the AP continued to refer to the singer as “he.” This despite the fact that the AP’s own stylebook okays the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.
It should not be hard for journalists to ask for people’s pronouns and then to use them correctly. Pronouns are a big deal to trans and nonbinary people, because animosity toward our pronouns has generally been undergirded by animosity toward our identities writ large. Calling someone by a given word is not a struggle unless you make it one—it’s basic etiquette.
Without further ado, here is my hot tip for journalists: call people by the pronouns they ask to be called by, without qualification, and your pronoun troubles will be over, and I can stop wasting my word count on a pronoun that’s been used in the singular since 1375.
- Try Googling it
I recently had an editor ask me to define “transfeminine.” It was a classic failure of what I’ll call the TGI Test—Try Googling It. Writers and editors, if you’re unsure about the definition of a trans or queer term, try Googling it before you ask the nearest trans person. Constantly educating people who haven’t bothered to educate themselves is exhausting and frustrating.
To be fair, definitions and acceptable terms in trans and queer communities can change quickly—terms like FtM and “bio-male” that were considered useful fifteen years ago now read as dated or even offensive. I end up Googling trans terms all the time.
If Google doesn’t provide a clear consensus, there are a number of glossaries and guides that journalists can consult. Two decent primers are the GLAAD Media Reference Guide and Alex Kapitan’s “Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide.” The Transgender Law Center has a useful resource for reporting on youths. German Lopez at Vox answers basic questions and breaks down common myths about trans people. Finally, this resource from the National Center for Transgender Equality explains what questions might be insensitive or unnecessary when speaking to a trans or nonbinary person.
Most important, don’t ever assume someone’s identity or pronouns. If it’s relevant to the story, ask.
Covering trans people well goes beyond grammatical integrity. In the words of Kapitan: “A style guide can never serve as a replacement for being in relationship with the real people you are writing about.”
- Beware of false balance
Many journalists have been taught that a fair story gives airtime to opposing viewpoints in order to find an impartial middle ground.
This approach to reporting quickly falls apart when it’s applied to historically oppressed groups of people. There have always been detractors who believe trans and nonbinary people are delusional, confused, or sick. There are also many cisgender people who are supportive. The diversity of viewpoints within and among trans communities is also woefully underreported. Which of these “sides” goes into a fair story on a trans topic?
Avoid reflexive “both sides” reporting, and it will likely lead to more sensitive reporting all around.
As Samantha Allen has written for the Daily Beast, stories about trans issues can be written with the appearance of “balance” at the expense of context and depth. Reporters should not formulaically cite the arguments of anti-trans fringe groups when there is a lack of evidence to support their reasoning.
Disingenuous arguments—such as the myth of the trans predator in public bathrooms, the myth of confused trans youth receiving treatment prematurely, and exaggerated “detransition” stories—have often been drummed up by small groups of activists who capitalize on others’ discomfort with trans people to make us into a scapegoat. Articles that pit trans people against these activists feed into their hands, reinforcing the perception that there is something inherently difficult to accept about the existence of trans and nonbinary people. Avoid reflexive “both sides” reporting, and it will likely lead to more sensitive reporting all around.
- Respect trans people’s trauma and distrust
Transgender issues can be touchy, hard to cover without offending someone. There are good reasons for this. Trans and nonbinary people have been scrutinized, debated, punished, and persecuted more often than we have been simply listened to. We have also been systemically excluded from the field of journalism, unable to serve as the tellers of our own communities’ stories.
Five years ago, a cover story in Time magazine declared that the country was at a “transgender tipping point.” Now cisgender media makers are showing up decades into a difficult struggle, suddenly interested in what trans people are saying. Much of this coverage has been wonderful: we can now read and hear about trans people as musicians, artists, athletes, actors, politicians, activists, professionals, and parents, in addition to the constant barrage of stories about trans people as victims of crimes and plaintiffs in anti-discrimination suits. But “visibility” falls on our communities unevenly—national media tend to promote the stories of rich, white trans people more often than the stories of trans and nonbinary people of color and working-class trans people. What’s more, increased visibility has helped drive the backlash against and political targeting of trans people.
In other words, cis journalists and audiences may be excited by all the hype, all the debate, all the seemingly “new” ideas. But for trans and nonbinary people, the coverage comes at a cost. Many of us risk violence and discrimination by choosing to speak about our trans experience at all; many of us have already sacrificed family, friends, housing, jobs, and safety in order to tell our stories.
Reporting on trans issues should start with a deep understanding of these risks and losses. Sources might not trust you at first, or at all. Readers might criticize your work in harsh terms. Listen carefully to their reasoning, and believe them about their pain. Letting trans people speak for ourselves and be experts on our own experience is one small way that journalism can begin to rebuild trust with trans people.
- There’s no such thing as the trans thought police
Trans and nonbinary people have been stereotyped as tragic, villainous, brave, confused, deceitful, and difficult, among other things. The “difficult” archetype hits particularly close to home for me—trans people who ask that our names, pronouns, and basic humanity be respected are often accused of being “thought police” or “language police,” an accusation I’ve occasionally faced in personal and professional contexts for nearly twenty years.
Depictions of a social-media mob of trans people trying to silence debate distort the real power relationships at play.
The “thought police” imagery is particularly hot right now in conservative media (Try Googling It), and even on the left there is a perception among some cisgender journalists that trans people are not “letting” them write stories without jumping all over their language or calling them transphobic.
The idea of a transgender thought police is a dangerous fantasy. After all, trans people, particularly transfeminine people of color, are exceedingly likely to be the victims of other people’s violence and gender policing, and are rarely in a position to control or police others. Depictions of a social-media mob of trans people trying to silence debate distort the real power relationships at play.
If your story offends nearly every trans commentator on the topic, perhaps it’s because they have a legitimate critique. And listen, I don’t condone name-calling. But if trans activists collectively have been forceful or even vitriolic in our criticisms of news media, I’d argue the harsh tone is earned: Decades of not being listened to will put an edge on just about anyone’s Twitter feed. Trans people’s real lives and livelihoods are at risk in these endless “debates” over our existence. No cisgender person was harmed in the writing of this, or any, article about trans issues.
ICYMI: How I missed the Ukraine storyLewis Raven Wallace is an independent journalist based in Durham, North Carolina, and a cofounder of Press On, a Southern movement-journalism collective. His book and podcast, The View from Somewhere, focused on undoing the myth of “objectivity” in journalism and uplifting stories of marginalized journalists, will be released in October 2019. He is white and transgender, and was born and raised in the Midwest with deep roots in the South. Find him at lewispants.com and @lewispants.