journalism and gender-variance

07/03/2009

This is the last of my reprints from en.gender, so I promise there won’t be any more blasts from the past. Yay!

When Taysia Elzy and Michael Hunt were murdered late in 2008, a huge amount of attention was focussed on the fact that Taysia was transgender. Reporters made sure to point out that “he” had not had “the surgery” yet, that “he was living as a woman”. Commentary by readers was similarly obsessed with Taysia’s gender, and if the fact that the two of them were murdered was mentioned at all, it was mostly as an afterthought. The Huffington Post has a good summary article detailing events around the case.

Unfortunately it’s an all too common complaint against reporters covering trans-related stories. There was a rash of murders last year of trans people in the US, especially amongst black women, and yet most of the reporting was much more concerned by their gender than by their murders[1]. Closer to home, the Sunday Times in South Africa ran a feature called “Tranny Day”[2] in October of 2008. And most recently, I came across this little gem:

from LA MetBlogs:

I went to the tranny session and out of all the minorities struggling to find their voice in the LGBTI movement, none is between a bigger rock and a harder place than trannies. Generally considered a liability – as in, “You Buffalo Bills and walking Thai surgery centres represent that slippery slope argument they keep talking about” – trannies are the black sheep of the LGBTI family. My group was stymied as to how to make their social and political challenges relevant to the movement without alienating the public and indirectly hurting the gay community as a whole. What I took away from this was: that’s how non-white gays and lesbians used to, and still do, feel![3]

Nice huh? I thought the “Silence of the Lambs” reference was particularly classy.

Journalists don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to presenting the concerns and circumstances of transgender people sensitively. Granted, there’s still alot of misunderstanding and lack of knowledge around transsexuality and transgender people, but one can only excuse so much through ignorance before the argument falls flat. There are plenty of resources out there for journalists who care to look … sadly it just seems like many of them don’t.

The Associated Press updated its style guide in 2006 to take modern terminology and common usage of language around the LGBTQI community into account. Good style guides are also available at various places online:

  1. GLAAD Applauds Updated Associated Press Stylebook Entries
  2. GLAAD Media Reference Guide: Transgender Glossary of Terms
  3. NLGJA Stylebook Supplement: T

Just in brief, some basic guidelines and definitions to follow might include:

  • Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of him or herself as either a man or a woman. For transgender people, this gender identity is in partial or total conflict with their physical gender.
  • A transsexual person is somebody who’s gender identity is in direct opposition to their birth sex. Transsexual people sometimes do not identify with the broader term “transgender”, so use the term the person you are interviewing is comfortable with.
  • An androgyne person is somebody who’s gender identity is an equal mix of male and female elements, or else is in flux. Use gender neutral pronouns such as zir/zie or singular plurals, unless the person in question uses different pronouns.
  • A neutrois person is somebody who has no sense of gender identity, or else regards theirs as a distinct third type. As with androgyne people, use gender neutral pronouns unless otherwise okayed.
  • Transition is the process by which transgender people bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identities. This may include any or all of the following: counselling, hormone therapy, surgery, electrolysis and voice training. Transgender people do not always want to transition to the sex opposite that of their physical body. This may be especially true of androgyne or neutrois individuals. Most transsexual people do, though they may elect not to or be unable to have certain treatments due to costs or medical risks.
  • Terms such as “tranny”, “she-male”, “he-she” and “it” are all deeply offensive. Avoid using them.

Beyond language usage there’s also the question of … tact. Understandably, journalists are always looking for something to make their piece stand out and draw readers, but there are certain boundaries that need to be respected:

Obviously, the first and most important rule is that you respect the person. You’re talking to an individual, a human being, not a gender. Ask the person how they want to be referred to and stick to that, and respect boundaries they set on what they are willing to share or discuss.

  1. Refer to a person by the pronouns and conventions of their gender-identity, not their physical sex, and use their chosen name. So if somebody identifies as male, use male pronouns and conventions, whatever their biology and/or gender presentation at the time. The same goes for a person who identifies as a woman, as androgyne or as neutrois.
  2. Trans people are born the gender they identify as, so don’t refer to the past in terms of “when you were a “guy/girl”. If you have to bring up the past, which is a touchy subject to most trans people to begin with, stick to “before you transitioned”, or something along similar lines. Similarly, a trans woman might have been born physically male, but that doesn’t equate to her being born a man. She was born a woman, though with a male body.
  3. Gender identity is not sexual orientation. Gender identity is who you are, sexual orientation is who you are attracted to. Just as there are straight, gay, bi and asexual non-transgender people, trans people also exhibit all orientations. Sexual orientation is expressed in terms of the person’s gender, not their birth sex. So, for example, a trans woman attracted to women is a lesbian, the body she was born with notwithstanding.
  4. Privacy. Besides the obvious that there are certain things people will not be comfortable discussing, not respecting a trans person’s privacy can have devastating repercussions. Most transgender people blend completely into society in the gender they identify as, with nobody the wiser. Publishing sensitive information can not only compromise this, but place a transgender individual at serious risk of losing a job or a home or of being targeted with violence.
  5. Do not discuss genitals. Ever. How would you like a perfect stranger asking you about yours? Whether the person has had surgery or not is similarly none of your business. The only people who have a right to know these things are medical professionals and intimate partners.
  6. Most importantly, don’t treat them differently. A woman with a trans history is simply a woman with a medical history. The fact that she had to have a birth condition medically rectified has no bearing on who she is. Treat her as you would anybody else.

Mina.

Notes

1. 2008 at TDoR

2. Tranny Day – Sunday Times ZA

3. Equality Summit or: GayCon 2009 – LA MetBlogs

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