How To Write About Transgender People and Why It Matters
Within the trans community, the state of reporting on our lives is often likened to reporting about gay men during the 1980s and 90s. We are other. If the writer is an ally, we are brave souls who risk our lives to ‘come out’ and share our identity with the world. If the writer is not, or is even simply uninformed, we are sex-swap-half-men-snowflakes, wrapped up in our own entitlement. We never exist as people, only cultural flash points to be debated and scrutinised.
If the only representation we get in the news cycle is being wheeled out to debate Piers Morgan or J.K Rowling and defend our right to exist, people may assume that we are self-obsessed, existing only to act as a foil to modern conservative society. We have lives outside of our gender identity, just like everyone else.
This bias in reporting and writing about trans lives has very real, and extremely damaging effects.
1) Mainstream reporting sets the tone for how people think about and behave towards trans people.
GLAAD estimates that, while 75% of people personally know someone who is homosexual, only 18% know someone who is openly transgender. This matters, because negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media about gay people can be challenged and cross referenced with the readers own experiences in a way that is not applicable to trans people.
When opinion pieces by well-known anti trans activists such as Julie Burchill and Germaine Greer are published without critique or proper context, publications allow transphobia to set the narrative about trans lives. Because these individuals have tangentially linked credentials, unaware readers may assume that they are experts on transgender issues, when in reality, they are spouting transphobia and inaccuracies that have devastating consequences for the community at large.
2) Reporting that perpetuates negative stereotypes can result in violence towards trans people.
If an individual’s views go unchallenged, and instead are reinforced by transphobic reporting, this may cause the individual to become more intolerant in their beliefs, and less receptive to changing social norms. According to Trans Media Watch, 21% of those surveyed had been the victim of a hate crime related to negative media reporting. In 2014, an inventor was outed by the publication Grantland, which resulted in her suicide. And to provide a personal angle here, my own access to medication was restricted following transphobic reporting about the access of under-16s to hormone blockers, which prompted a backlash against one of the pharmacies prescribing this medication, leading to said pharmacy denying all trans patients, regardless of age, medication for a time.
The distance afforded to cisgender writers and their audience when reporting on trans people and their lives often shields them from the awareness that words matter a great deal. A flippant comment in a tabloid may cause actual, tangible harm when released into the mainstream, and in the very worst cases, may have devastating consequences.
3) Bad reporting has the effect of pathologizing and ‘othering’ trans people.
It is possible for authors to use the right words and still cause offence, because the way that stories are framed is equally important. When writers misrepresent trans identities with phrases such as ‘identifies as a man’ and ‘goes by the name of’, it signals to readers that the individual in question’s identity is fake, suspect, or up for debate. This has the effect of pathologizing trans lives and perpetuating harmful stigma. By framing identity in this way, the writer suggests that the ‘diagnosis’ is entirely self-imposed and indicates that any attempt to reinforce that identity is akin to reinforcing mental delusions.
4) Focus on gender identity is often unnecessary and may obstruct reporting on the actual story
Trans women of colour are disproportionally affected by violence, particularly in the US. This overall trend is minimally covered, because stories about their deaths focus on sensationalising their gender identity (often misgendering them in the process) and treating their trans status as a reason for their death in a way that blames the victim. Hate crime, racism and the lack of effort put into investigating these cases should be the story, not the victim’s gender identity.
The recent press coverage of Freddie McConnell and his fight to be recognised as his child’s father is another good example of this. Journalists have continually focused on the ‘novelty’ of a man giving birth, with all the vigour of a modern-day P.T Barnum, rather than the implications for human rights law and UK equality legislation as a result of his legal battles.
Having established that poor media representation can have cause tangible harm, let’s examine some of the ways that writers can self-correct when reporting on trans lives. While this guidance is aimed at journalists, it is applicable for anyone writing on gender identity, whether in a formal business capacity, or informally on social media.
1) Do not talk about gender identity if it is not relevant to the story
If a subject’s gender identity is not relevant to the story, don’t include it. For example, if you were writing a press release about a new business, it might not be relevant that the director is a non-binary person. The exception to this would be if the subject felt it was important. In our example, if the non-binary business director wanted to emphasise the pride they felt at being a non-binary person in a high-level business position, you might wish to include this. In a similar fashion, be careful not to ask leading questions about gender identity; let the subject lead the conversation.
2) Avoid language that is pejorative or prejudicial
It should go without saying that derogatory terms should never be used, but it is also important to avoid writing in such a way that indicates prejudice against trans people. For example, phrases such as ‘identifies as a trans woman’ or ‘calls himself …’ may indicate to the reader that the subject’s identity is fake in a way that may cause prejudice. Instead, write ‘is a trans woman’ or ‘is called …’.
3) Ask for pronouns, never assume
The ability to have your pronouns guessed correctly is a privilege, and one that not all trans people have. It may be awkward to ask someone for their pronouns, even when you think they may be obvious, but it is even more awkward to assume and have to be corrected. You do not have to explicitly state someone’s pronouns in your writing, simply use them correctly throughout. Additionally, avoid the term ‘preferred pronouns’, as it may indicate that having the correct pronouns used is a preference and not a basic right.
4) Never assume someone is publicly ‘out’
Just because the person you are writing about may be out online does not guarantee they are in real life. Always prioritise an individual’s safety, and if they ask you not to disclose their gender identity, no matter how interesting it might be, do not disclose it. Remember, being outed can have significant consequences for trans individuals.
5) Do not include unnecessary information or pictures
Lady Gaga was born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. This fact is not relevant to every news story about her. Neither are old names and photos of trans people.
6) Be cautious with statistics
You might wish to use statistics to back up your arguments when writing, as I have in this article. However, statistics about trans people, and the LGBTQA+ community more generally have to be used cautiously, because of the inherent challenges in collecting accurate data about this group. The UK government’s own statistics regarding the LGBTQA+ population vary widely, may not encompass all identities and will never be 100% accurate due to the stigma attached to publicly identifying as LGBTQA+. Try and present statistics within this context and avoid relying on them to substantially prove your argument.
7) Transgender is an adjective, not a noun
Transgender is a descriptor, for example, ‘a transgender man’. It should always be followed by a noun. ‘Transgendered’ is incorrect, and also, not a word.
8) Avoid language that distances the subject from readers
As we have already covered, language that distances trans people from readers contributes to harmful stereotypes. If in doubt, consider whether you would use the same language about a person who is cis, and if it sounds weird, it probably is.
9) Ensure terminology is up to date
Language changes over time. The words used to describe skin colour for example, are very different in 2020 than they were in 1950. Terminology that was common even 5 years ago may be offensive to use now. When talking about trans people, the term ‘transvestite’ is generally considered offensive, as is the previously mentioned ‘transgendered’. Generally, stick to using ‘transgender’, unless otherwise directed by the person you are writing about.
10) Consult experts
No one knows more about the trans community than the trans community themselves. Reach out to trans people offering proofreading services and ask for advice. Importantly, do not assume that all trans people will be happy to help – remember that it can be tiring to educate strangers about your existence day in, day out. Make sure to offer some form of compensation for time and services where appropriate.
If this is impossible, there are numerous style guides online, such as this one from GLAAD.