How to cover transgender people in the media

On Saturday October 29 I spoke at the MediAtlanta conference on the topic of covering transgender people in the media.

My goal for the day was to focus on the GLAAD Media Guide. I feel that it is not only a good, but a necessary supplement to the Associated Press Style Guide for journalists who are covering, or who want to cover, transgender people or topics.

There were a few points I made sure to highlight that I feel every journalist should know. Firstly, there is an instinct to write that someone is “born a man” or “born a woman”, but it is important to write instead that they are either “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth”. As the GLAAD Media Guide points out, “… people are born babies…” not as men or women or any other gender.

Then there’s the confusion around pronouns. It cannot be repeated enough, ever. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask. This is what transgender activists encourage. The way I explained it at MediAtlanta was that when a journalist is doing their due diligence they will ask a source how to spell their name, they will get their age, they will get contact information, they may get any title(s) or the names of any organizations the source may be a part of, what is asking the source what pronouns they use? It’s one extra step that can make all the difference in making a source comfortable and keeping a source who will want to work with you again in the future.

There’s no reason to assume pronouns; not based on body type, not based on clothing, not based on the pitch of someone’s voice – there’s no reason to assume pronouns.

In that same vein, the GLAAD Media Guide states that: “Ideally a story will not use pronouns associated with a person’s birth sex when referring to the person’s life prior to transition.”

Some other miscellaneous things that I think are almost never relevant to a story or that I think don’t make a relevant story: asking about transition or transition plans, asking about surgeries or surgery plans, asking an interviewee what their family thinks or centering what the family thinks.

I was pleased to talk at this event about a number of scenarios of how the media handles covering transgender people; from the poor way that paparazzi treated Caitlyn Jenner, to the inattention that most media outlets had when protesters took to standing outside of Target bathrooms, to the way the media is handling the current state of transgender politics. I mentioned specifically how I was seeing the best reporting on transgender issues coming from Buzzfeed.

As the session was wrapping up I felt it was important to try to address the systemic ways in which we can bring forth a better field of journalists on this. I call for the Associated Press to take lead on this, if their style guide, as I’ve often heard it called in my classes, is going to be the ‘bible’ for journalists, then they should be the prophets leading the way in training those who use their style to better cover, write about and interview transgender people.

We also need Communication and Journalism departments and schools across the country to take up the banner of teaching in their classes how to cover transgender people. In my formal education I have learned about how to sensitively cover people of different races, ethnicities, religious and sexual orientations, but I was not taught how to cover transgender people.

For those journalists interested in covering the transgender community, please try to look past coming out stories and other such narratives. There is plenty to be written about how transgender health (particularly transgender mental health), there’s plenty to be written about conversion/reparative therapy, there’s plenty to be written about the rates of suicide and murder the transgender community faces, there’s plenty to be written about homelessness and joblessness and poverty that the transgender community faces.

The media could, simply through better reporting, help activists and organizers lead conversations that politicians and representatives aren’t ready to have and that the public at large doesn’t know yet how to have.

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