(Per Wikipedia: Media outlets, such as newspapers maintain stylebooks as a guide for grammar, punctuation and principles and practices of reporting.)
Cassidy Lynn Campbell, a Marina High School student who was recently named Homecoming Queen, made news over the last few days by being the first openly transgender student to receive this honor. The existence of such an event, and its subsequent media coverage are certainly worth celebrating! Sadly, much of the coverage has been riddled with ignorant and insensitive language. As the media seem to need some guidance on how to report on transgender persons, I have decided to create a brief glimpse into appropriate phrasing around stories involving persons who identify as transgender.
For the purposes of this guide, I will begin with the AP Stylebook, and that of The New York Times which are seen as an industry standards.
AP: “transgender 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.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. See transsexual.
transsexual A person who changes gender by undergoing surgical procedures.”
The New York Times: “transgender (adj.) is an overall term for people whose current identity differs from their sex at birth, whether or not they have changed their biological characteristics. Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader. Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person. If no preference is known, use the pronouns consistent with the way the subject lives publicly.”
These are a good start. I think I can take it further, though.
To the AP guide, I would prefer language about self-identification to that of physical presentation. I other words, if I am a transgender woman who does not present in a conspicuously feminine way, I am still a transgender woman, and likely prefer she/her pronouns. I would also add to their definition of transsexual that a person either has undergone, or intends to undergo surgical procedures to alter their apparent birth sex. In the community, we describe people as transsexual whether they have (post-operative) or have not yet (pre-operative) undergone GRS (Definitions of this acronym vary, but many prefer genital reassignment surgery.) As a general matter, de-emphasis on the surgical aspects of gender transition better reflect the experiences of transsexual persons.
The Times’ language is basically agreeable. Neither the Times nor the AP, however, address the issue with enough breadth to eliminate the entire scope of language which is either offensive, or inaccurate.
I want to first take on the Times’ use of the word “pertinent” with respect to using a person’s former name or perceived gender identity. The mere fact that a person may identify as transgender does not create pertinence of the old information. Old information is likely embarrassing to the subject, and great care should be used in avoiding its disclosure.
The only proper use of old information would seem to be in the event that a well-known public figure is undergoing gender transition. If there is a press release disclosing that Brad Pitt has begun identifying as a transgender woman and would like to be called Brittany, there is a reasonable justification in educating the public about this change.
The use of old information should pass these tests:
Was the person a public figure in some capacity prior to the news event?
Was the person known to the public primarily for reasons not related to their status as a transgender person?
Some important points in closing:
A transgender person didn’t “used to be a ____” (person of their presumed gender at birth.) Think of the time before transition as being the time in which that person was desperately trying to conform to the conventions of a gender that probably made no sense to them.
If we didn’t “used to be a ____” we also can’t “become a _____” When referencing the period of time during which a person began altering their lives and/or appearance to reflect a gender other than the one presumed at the time of birth, use the word “transition” In this way, the phrase “after you became a woman” becomes “after you transitioned”
Think of transition as a process over a period of time, rather than a specific point. One does not, for instance, magically change their entire apparent identity through any surgical procedure.
The very notion that a person is changing genders is flawed. A more accurate way of looking at this is that the person is changing aspects of their outward identity to reflect the their true gender as they understand it.
For the most part, people now accept that people do not choose to be gay…. apply this logic to people who are transgender. It is accurate to ask what motivated someone to transition (with the knowledge that this is a deeply personal question.) But, asking why someone became transgender is basically impossible to answer, as it is an immutable truth which has always been present.
The use of a person’s transgender status for the sake of being salacious is abhorrent. Transgender persons are not a side show attraction, they deserve to be treated with the respect and dignity shown to all other human beings.
I’m sure other thoughts will occur to me in time, but this is a good start.
All my love,