The Feature

I tripped up while reporting on gender and sexuality. Here’s what I learned.

September 1, 2016
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

My eyes had barely opened before a combination of muscle memory and neuroses took over. I reached for my iPhone and did what I expect most journalists do the morning after they publish a big story: Check Twitter. My thumb scrolled through the mentions.

“Most of this, ‘How LGBTQ romance is striving to give everyone a happily-ever-after,’ is awesome,” the Tweet read on that unseasonably warm morning last October.

“Most?” I fretted.

I hoped the tweet was merely the gripe of an internet troll. As a reporter freelancing about LGBTQ romance novels for Slate, I had been obsessive about the need to do right by a wide-ranging community that wasn’t mine. I had fact-checked the story, line by line, and asked writer friends, in addition to my editor, to evaluate whether I approached the topic with appropriate nuance and sensitivity.

In the story, I raised the question of whether straight women who write romances pairing male protagonists are practicing a form of appropriation. In response, I quoted extensively from Man, Oh Man!, a guide to writing such stories by best-selling romance author Josh Lanyon. “…Let’s be honest in our biases and not pretend that all gay men write more realistic romance fiction about gay men than all straight women who do their homework and use their experience and imagination to fill in the blanks,” Lanyon wrote.

This defense sounded all the more authoritative coming from a gay man, and so I included it in the story. There was just one problem I discovered soon after that tweet. “Josh Lanyon” is a pseudonym–apparently, for a woman. While there are valid reasons for women adopting male pseudonyms throughout history to present day, including gender bias in publishing, Lanyon’s guide offered expertise that did not come from lived experiences.

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A journalism degree and years in professional newsrooms failed to prepare me for this situation. It didn’t occur to me to investigate “Lanyon’s” gender–and sexuality–in my reporting, and after the fact, doing so seemed wholly inappropriate. Had I asked such questions, however, I would have never given “Lanyon,” or anyone else, a platform to speak for a community that’s not theirs.

Almost as soon as I filed an update to the story, I started researching how journalists can approach coverage of gender and sexuality with equal parts professional integrity and humanity. Formal standards are only just beginning to evolve. The Associated Press Stylebook, long considered the “journalist’s bible” in the mainstream media, didn’t include an entry on “LGBT” until 2014. Individual publications are changing their own house styles with regards to gender-neutral pronouns, though often in fits and starts. The words that journalists choose in interviews are just as important as those on the page. We’re supposed to be objective bystanders, but we’re dealing with real people who are only beginning to gain tentative acceptance from society. The better informed the journalist, the harder it is to accept newsroom standards that only go so far to protect transgender sources in the best-case scenarios and fail them in the worst.

Even well-intentioned journalists can come up short. I continued making small but significant word changes almost until this article went live on Despite extensive follow-ups and fact-checking, I may have missed other nuances in my reporting because I don’t have the lived experiences to know better. Consensus was sometimes just as difficult to come by in my interviews with LGBTQ journalists, however. That’s okay. If journalists are thinking about how to ask questions, not merely assuming that the profession entitles us to ask anything, we’re already a step ahead in covering gender and sexuality.


Revising language standards

As a cisgender woman, I align with the gender identity–female–assigned to me at birth and the “she/her” pronouns that go along with it. Apart from my gender identity, my sexual orientation is straight. A journalist interviewing me would not have to think twice to accurately reflect those facts. That same journalist interviewing a transgender source might have to make a conscious effort to do so.

At the LGBTQ publication The Advocate, journalists ask all sources for their sexual orientation and gender identity at the outset of an interview. The mainstream media could consider doing the same for gender, which impacts pronoun usage in all stories. Media reports consistently misgendered musician and civil liberties nonprofit spokesperson Evan Greer, using pronouns that did not accurately reflect her gender identity. In response, Greer started an online petition calling on newsrooms to confirm all sources’ gender pronouns.

If journalists are thinking about how to ask questions, not merely assuming that the profession entitles us to ask anything, we’re already a step ahead in covering gender and sexuality.

Meredith Talusan, BuzzFeed’s first openly transgender staff writer, understands the value of standardizing the practice, even if it isn’t always practical. Asking only visibly trans people about gender identity further marginalizes them, says Talusan, who typically goes by “she/her” pronouns in the media and “they/their” in the trans community.

The AP Stylebook perhaps inadvertently reinforces perception over reality. Per the 2016 version: “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” The wordy directive could encourage journalists to ask appearance-based questions that may be irrelevant to the story. Those open to more nuanced guidance can turn to the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) stylebook and GLAAD’s media reference guide.

Some legacy media outlets are ditching the AP’s guidance. Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh heralded the newspaper’s decision last year to accept the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, rather than newly coined words such as “xe” or “ze.” While The New York Times’ Amanda Hess agreed with Walsh about the practicality of “they,” she rejected any move toward standardization, underscoring GLAAD’s recommended deference to sources’ preferred pronouns. “In a very real way, accepting the fluidity of gender requires rejecting standards in general,” Hess wrote.

Journalists may be tempted to avoid pronouns for trans sources altogether. That’s the AP’s advice. “AP news stories adhere to traditional grammar in formulating sentences: e.g., plural pronouns agree in number and gender with plural antecedents,” the Stylebook’s co-editor said in response to a reader’s question on how to approach requests for they/them/their. “While a news story might note an individual’s pronoun preferences if relevant, we avoid constructions of the type you cite.”

Doing so may make a journalist’s life easier at the expense of their source’s. “It would be okay to not use pronouns at all, but it would also be this solution that singles out gender nonconforming people,” Talusan says.

Using “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is not as hard as reporters and editors may think, says former Advocate Managing Editor Sunnivie Brydum. Brydum, a queer cisgender woman, will include a brief sentence with the source’s identity and preferred pronoun to signal to readers that she hasn’t “forgotten the basic rules of grammar.”

Language is about more than pronouns. Take deadnaming, the practice of using the name assigned to a trans person at birth rather than the person’s chosen name. Many of the journalists I interviewed noted that it’s just as easy to refer to Caitlyn Jenner, who won the 1976 Olympic men’s decathlon, than by her deadname, even though different trans people protect their deadnames to varying degrees.

Deadnaming gets more complicated in instances such as Matter’s feature story on a couple in which both partners identified as trans. Talusan served as an editorial advisor on the story, which involved a “ton” of back-and-forth on gendered pronouns and names. The team decided on a source-selected, gender-neutral substitute, rather than a deadname, for the portion of the piece describing one of the sources prior to their transition. “There’s space to do that in a feature story,” Talusan says.


Reconsidering deadline decisions

General assignment reporters have a tougher job of reporting on gender than feature writers with often direct access to sources and more flexible deadlines. It’s all too easy for reporters to misgender a trans victim of violence if a police report refers to a dead man in a dress. That description should indicate that the victim could be trans.

The Advocate’s Brydum urged reporters to avoid gendering the victim in the initial breaking news story. This applies especially in a time crunch that precludes reaching out to the victim’s family members, even though they might not know their loved one’s gender identity, and members of the community. (Here’s one local news outlet that demonstrated professional integrity and humanity.)

Some stories are more complex than others. Talusan, who just returned to freelance writing, recounted a story that one of her former BuzzFeed colleagues wrote about the spike in murders of black transgender women in Detroit. Although the victim presented as a transgender woman in her sex work, sources on the ground identified the victim as a gay man in his personal life.

BuzzFeed editors asked Talusan to review the story. The victim might have identified differently from day to day, she thought. Perhaps the victim privately identified as transgender but didn’t always present as such for safety reasons. A journalist’s job depends on the ability to draw out a person’s private thoughts and feelings, but that’s impossible when subjects can’t speak for themselves.

Jay Wu, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, or NCTE, works with journalists from various media outlets. Although Wu identifies as a nonbinary trans person who uses “they/their” pronouns, they couldn’t criticize a Washington Post reporter who covered the murder of a local transgender woman for choosing to quote the victim’s father. The father referred to his “son” and used the “he” pronoun.

“I have seen people argue that if someone’s family thought of this person as their son, that you also have to respect the family’s wishes,” Wu says. “I think individual reporters weigh that differently.”

I press Wu. Is there a balance between sensitivity to the grieving family and sensitivity to the victim? Wu isn’t sure what the best practices are yet.

Perhaps journalists shouldn’t be so rigid in their approach to a topic as fluid as gender. Still, I thought the Post article, which ping-ponged between gendered pronouns and included the trans woman’s deadname, could have done better.

Sarah Blazucki, NLGJA’s vice president of print and online, agrees. “Most likely, as a reporter/editor, if I couldn’t verify with the person themselves, and got conflicting answers from friends/family, I’d try to write with as few pronouns as possible and use the person’s name. I’d want to avoid harming the deceased and the family (but perhaps be more concerned with the transgender person),” says Blazucki, who identifies as a queer lesbian cisgender woman. She would “respectfully” pose questions to the victim’s family but ultimately, her interest is in the truth. Her description of that obligation stuck with me.


Developing news ethics

In their search for the truth, journalists can look to the standards that evolved in most newsrooms for gay and lesbian coverage. “With outing specifically, one thing to really keep in mind is that we’re at a cultural moment where being outed as trans is arguably just as bad, if not a lot worse, than being outed as gay,” BuzzFeed’s Talusan says.

Consider the following: More than one in four trans people has been the subject of physical or sexual violence, according to the NCTE. Trans women and trans people of color face even higher rates of violence. Using the right pronoun can be a matter of life and death, particularly for trans people who choose not to be open about their trans identity or history.

Beyond “off the record” agreements with their sources, journalists face important decisions when they inevitably make discoveries during the reporting process. What should they decide to include, and omit, about transgender sources in their final story?

Grantland’s “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” represents the classic case in “what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being,” as ESPN’s Major League Baseball writer and editor Christina Kahrl wrote in post-publication guest editorial critiquing the piece. A refresher: Freelance journalist Caleb Hannan discovered that his subject, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, fabricated her professional and educational qualifications and separately, that she was a trans woman. The pressure of being outed may have led to Vanderbilt’s suicide.

Journalists need to develop ethics around the potential consequences of revealing information about transgender sources. Deciding which facts are essential to the story and which are merely sensational goes back to Journalism 101. From my experience, readers can tell when you left out something relevant or wrote around a particularly complex issue. Hannan could have noted that his source had not attended MIT or the University of Pennsylvania under any name rather than equate her deception with her gender identity. For his part, Hannan regrets how he handled the reporting and writing of his story.

The popularity of transgender stories can be attributed, in part, to “prurient fascination,” Talusan says. It’s important for journalists to examine their motivations for wanting to pursue a story in the first place. Is it because of journalists’ own prurient fascination? Or is it about explaining the marginalized to the society that put them in that position?


Interviewing dos and don’ts

Journalists should also consider the language they use in interviews with transgender individuals. In a video for Teen Vogue, trans model and actress Hari Nef confronts seven questions to never ask a transgender person. BuzzFeed’s Talusan says there’s a big difference about what’s off limits to ask at a party versus in an interview, and she makes that clear to her sources.

Transgender individuals, and other marginalized people, don’t have a responsibility to educate journalists about the most intimate details of their lived experiences. Often, they agree to be the subject of a story because journalists are exploring an aspect of their identity and experiences for the general public’s consumption, which may require asking uncomfortable questions. Helpful tip: Preface the sensitivity of the question. Ask yourself: Do you really need to inquire about surgical status?

Most of the time, that answer should be “no.” The Advocate’s Brydum points to a Fusion video in which trans activist Janet Mock played the role of a journalist interrogating a cisgender source. You do not want to sound like her, or Katie Couric, or Piers Morgan. A person’s surgical status just isn’t in the public interest. Perhaps the only exception is if a journalist’s profile focuses specifically on a person’s transition, Brydum says.

“I think the best way to do that with humanity is to let the source lead the conversation,” she says. She suggested a sample question for that scenario could be, “What steps have you taken to align your gender identity and presentation?”

At BuzzFeed and in her freelance reporting, Talusan views her sources as collaborators, rather than assuming it will be difficult to get information out of them–an approach that has always served me well in interviews. She’ll ask what topics are off limits before she dives into the story and documents boundaries in a way that can be referenced, such as in a recording, in case that ground shifts over time.

Late-in-the-game reluctance doesn’t sound unfamiliar from what journalists face when reporting on any sensitive topic, regardless of how their sources identify. Talusan will remind sources of the sheer amount of time and work that go into reporting a feature story. Journalists can help sources get over their nerves. If that’s not possible? “For me, both as a trans person and as a journalist, I obviously try my best to honor my subjects and to respect them, and ultimately I probably wouldn’t publish something that they deemed too private, even if they said it was okay beforehand,” Talusan says.


Shifting news judgment

Such news judgment is at the heart of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism course on covering gender and sexual minorities. Associate Professor Doug Foster’s decades in journalism didn’t quite prepare the gay cisgender man for the questions that would arise. In one of the initial classes, his students got into a heated debate about pronouns, reflecting a tension point in newsrooms considering gender. Is the primary loyalty to the reader for whom the story is written, or to the source without whom the story is not possible?

“Making the decision means leading to a moment where there’s a disruptive relationship with lots of readers,” says Foster. About half of Foster’s students, however, made a compelling counterargument: If the Fourth Estate has reached a point where it’s unwarranted to investigate surgical status as a basis for gender identity, journalists must defer to their sources’ preferred pronouns.

Foster agrees with the complexity at hand. Teaching the next generation of journalists about reporting on gender and sexuality is not as easy as sitting them down with the NLGJA style guide, he says. The class provides space to challenge long-standing conventions, such as where journalists’ primary loyalty should lie and how it might shift depending on the target audience and outlet.

Journalists may not be social activists, but we have updated our vocabulary at the behest of advocacy work throughout the history of media.

Regardless of whether I’m writing for a mainstream or LGBTQ-focused publication, I would argue that readers have a responsibility as members of our society to evolve with it.

“Change is scary for everyone, but I think that you don’t want to be left behind and you don’t want to leave readers behind. If people are using ‘they’ as pronouns, then they have every right to do so,” says Neal Broverman, The Advocate’s executive editor. “I think it’s our responsibility to just explain it.” All that takes, in many cases, is one sentence. Broverman, for instance, is a cisgender gay man who uses “he/his” pronouns.

Journalists may not be social activists, but we have updated our vocabulary at the behest of advocacy work throughout the history of media. Perhaps the most notable example in recent memory occurred when the AP Stylebook in 2013 dropped the term “illegal immigrant.” The AP stopped short of embracing “undocumented immigrant,” per the long-standing guidance of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. While several prominent newspapers followed suit and even The New York Times encouraged journalists to “consider alternatives,” “illegal immigrant” still appears in copy across the country.

The pace of change appears to be faster at more progressive media outlets. The Huffington Post uses “Latinx” as a gender-neutral identifier that “makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender nonconforming or gender fluid.” Both NLGJA’s and GLAAD’s style guidelines caution journalists against emphasizing whether a person has had “sexual reassignment surgery,” but better to use that term than the antiquated “sex change operation.” Some outlets, including The Advocate, use variants of “gender confirmation” and “gender affirmation” to talk about procedures, not necessarily surgical, validating who the person has always been. The NCTE’s Wu once recommended the term “transition-related medical care,” which could cover a wide range of services.


Reporting a source’s truth(s)

As much as I’ve embraced change, I’m concerned about getting things wrong. I already made a preventable error with “Lanyon,” although the sources I spoke with chalked that up to a journalistic rite of passage. I should have known that being a public figure does not guarantee authenticity, à la Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who presented herself as an African-American activist. I should have recalled more lessons from Journalism 101, interviewing sources first-hand whenever possible and more thoroughly vetting sources’ backgrounds.

But identity isn’t so easy to check off the list. Identity is inherently personal. If a source identifies as transgender and uses “they,” I don’t have a reason to doubt them. I may be scared of getting things wrong, but whenever I think about the Grantland story, I’m aware of the grave consequences of getting things right.

Journalism isn’t about me, or about any one reporter or editor. Journalism is supposed to reveal truth and speak truth to power.

“I think of it as part of what’s exciting about being a journalist is dealing with all of these questions and making these evaluations about how you want to present the truths, because they are always multiple,” BuzzFeed’s Talusan says. She welcomes the challenge as the media increasingly reports on gender and sexuality.

I’m right there with her.

Christine Grimaldi is a freelance journalist and writer based in Washington, DC. Most recently, as the federal policy reporter for Rewire.News, she covered reproductive health, rights, and justice under Congress and the Trump administration. More of her writing is available on her website, and she tweets at @chgrimaldi.