How to cover gender responsibly, an incomplete guide

Trans visibility is on the rise, which means that, hooray, there’s more media coverage of gender, including discussions that really take gender beyond binaristic views, that explore different gender identities and the spectrum of gender expression, and more. This is all very exciting, but it comes with a really important pitfall: The more stories produced, the more room for error, and some media organisations are making glaring mistakes that could be easily remedied with consistent style guides, and regular update of same.

So here are some quick and by no means comprehensive tips on covering gender responsibly.

  • Always use the gender descriptors employed by a subject. If someone says she’s a woman, she’s a woman. If someone says they’re a genderfluid person, they’re a genderfluid person. If someone says it’s (yes, some people use that pronoun) agender, it’s agender. If you are unclear on the best term to use, ask a subject directly. Do not ask that person’s ‘preferred’ gender, ask simply what that person’s gender is. If you feel that readers will be confused, link to a resource disambiguating the issue — consider asking your subject for recommendations.
  • Use the correct pronouns. There are a variety of pronoun systems in use, and if you aren’t sure about which ones to use, ask. Again, don’t ask about ‘preferred’ pronouns, ask which pronouns the subject uses. If the pronouns are unfamiliar, link to an external resource. You may note that many publications are still behind the times on pronoun usage (as well as name stylisation) and that as writers, you may need to fight editors, and that as editors, you may need to fight highers-up. Do it, at the very least to get the issue on the record, and if you can’t enact a change, make your subjects aware that they will be misgendered to give them the option of pulling out of the piece.
  • Transgender is not a verb. Or a noun. Or a modifier. It is an adjective. There’s no such thing as ‘a transgender’ and people don’t ‘transgender down the street,’ and ‘transmen’ don’t exist either. There are transgender people, who presumably transit down the street using the mode they prefer. Trans/transgender should be used solely as adjectives: She is a transgender woman/trans woman. Transgender people are seeing more media representation.
  • People who are not men or women often identify under the nonbinary umbrella, but not all do, especially those who do not subscribe to Western notions of gender. Some nonbinary people are genderqueer, but ‘genderqueer’ is not a swap-in for nonbinary. (All Baptists are Christian, not all Christians are Baptists.) Not every nonbinary person identifies as transgender.
  • Not all nonbinary people are butch/transmasculine/lean/etc. Nonbinary femmes exist. Nonbinary people and others who identify outside the male/female spectrum come in a wide range of body types, identities, and sizes. Reiterating that people in these groups must look a certain way is harmful.
  • There’s no such thing as ‘trans enough.’ Some transgender people choose to pursue some degree of transition depending on their level of dysphoria, their comfort level, their resources, and what transition looks like for them. Others do not. A person with breasts, hips, a smooth face, and an hourglass figure is a man if he says he is.
  • Never deadname transgender people. It is unnecessary, cruel, and sometimes even violent to reference a subject’s deadname. Similarly, do not use incorrect pronouns, even when referring to the subject’s past. If you’re afraid of confusion, avoid the use of pronouns altogether. For example, instead of ‘as a little girl, she always knew something was wrong,’ consider ‘even as a child, something was clearly wrong’ or ‘he says that even as a child, he always knew something was wrong.’
  • Move beyond transition narratives. There are all sorts of interesting and cool stories to tell about trans people, so tell them. Transition is one stage in the lives of some trans people and it’s not necessarily the most important one.
  • Get over your obsession with genitals. The contents of our pants are relevant to ourselves, our health care providers, and, in some instances, our romantic or sexual partners. (Not all romantic partners are sexual.)
  • Stop confusing gender and sexual orientation. When you mean to be covering LGBQ issues, drop the T. When you want to cover gender and sexual minorities, add that T back on, or use GSM. Lumping gender and sexuality together contributes to harmful stereotypes. At the same time, be aware that sexuality for transgender people can be fraught, and address the issue carefully.
  • Do not use the term ‘sex’ to describe gender, whether you are talking about cis or trans subjects, unless a subject uses it herself. ‘Sex’ is a collection of traits that aren’t necessarily consistently defined. Is it about genitals? Karyotype? Physical appearance? All of these things appear on a spectrum. You can discuss ‘gender assigned at birth’ on the basis of superficial traits used as a yardstick by parents and health care providers. Don’t use ‘biological sex’ either.
  • Gender confirmation surgery (sometimes referred to as a ‘sex change’ (please don’t) or ‘sexual reassignment surgery’). Avoid discussions about surgery at all, unless directly relevant, as for example if you are writing a feature on the high costs of gender confirmation surgery and the fact that many health insurance companies still refuse to cover it. Do not refer to human beings as ‘pre-op’ or ‘post-op.’ Do not ask subjects if they have had top and/or bottom surgery.
  • Medicalisation. ‘Gender dysphoria’ is a medical diagnosis not because being transgender is a condition, disease, impairment, or other medical problem, but because this is the only way for trans people to access health care services — without a diagnosis, most health insurance companies will not pay for necessary treatments and therapies. Patients who want to take hormones, pursue surgery, and evaluate other options for bringing their bodies into closer alignment with their gender identity need this diagnosis to get clearance. This kind of medical gatekeeping is the subject of considerable discussion and controversy in the trans community — avoid contributing to it.

Image: Gender Stereotyping, Chrish Dunne, Flickr