Say My Name: Why Can't Journalism Acknowledge the Transgender Community?

Lori McCue

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Twenty-year-old Ascher Thomas asks that you use plural gender pronouns to refer to them. And today, they’re so angry. Their slight frame shifts in their seat as they pull their hands out of the pockets of their loose fitting jeans, tucking their feet, clad in fashionably over-sized sneakers, under the couch. Thomas fidgets with their short braided hair, visibly struggling to get their thoughts out. They can barely articulate their rage at the situation of Private Chelsea Manning, the army whistleblower vilified by the media after her “announcement”: in August that she is transgender. Though her gender was assigned male at birth, she identifies as female.

“No one gets to say, ‘Oh, since you’re not a real girl yet, I don’t have to change how I refer to you, because you still look like a man,’” Thomas says, referring to news outlets, such as CNN, that have continued to call the private “Bradley Manning.” The network says that its policy is to use masculine pronouns because Manning “has not yet taken any steps toward gender transition through surgery or hormone replacement,” according to “an August 2013 article.”:

Manning announced her gender identity just one day after being sentenced to 35 years in federal prison for espionage, theft and computer fraud for leaking Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield documents. News organizations were divided on how to refer to Manning in the days that followed: the Huffington Post began using female gender pronouns in all of its coverage immediately, while NPR waited a day after Manning’s announcement to use the name Chelsea.

A 2011 survey conducted by the Williams Institute in California reveals that there are 700,000 Americans who identify as transgender. This growing community has forced the media to evaluate how it terms and names these subjects, whose gender identities may not be apparent.

And while transgender characters have appeared more frequently in entertainment programming — such as transgender actress Laverne Cox’s character in the Netflix series _Orange Is the New Black_ and Alex Newell as the transgender character Unique on _Glee_ — many say the media’s refusal to acknowledge Manning’s preferred gender identity diminishes the growing visibility of the transgender community.
“You’re speaking over others whose voices need to be heard,” Thomas says, “and you’re just being a jerk.”

Some of the coverage of Manning since her coming out has been insensitive at the very least. FOX News Channel’s morning show, Fox & Friends, for example, “teased an Aug. 27 segment”: about Manning with the Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” xoJane’s social justice editor s.e. smith (whose name is stylized using lowercase letters) says the response to Manning is proof that transphobia is alive and well in journalism.

“People internalize the message that it’s acceptable to treat trans women like this: to call people the wrong name or deliberately use the wrong pronoun,” smith says. “In the more immediate sense as a tribute to our transphobic society, they enable things like harassment and sexual assault of trans women in their gender identities.”

smith identifies as genderqueer, and uses the personal pronoun “ou.” In July, the blog Gawker picked up “a story smith wrote”: about cultural appropriation of yoga and misgendered the author by using feminine pronouns in its post, ““Should Atheists Be Allowed to Do Yoga?””: When xoJane’s media team reached out to correct the error, Gawker published their emails below the blog post with a sarcastic, “Okay.” In a July 10 Slate article titled, tellingly, ““What is a ‘Preferred Gender Pronoun,’ and Is It Always Obnoxious?””: J. Bryan Lowder commented, “There is something self-defeating about expecting the world to essentially read and sign a disclaimer before engaging with you, especially when the situation is impersonal.”

But a growing segment of youth seems to agree that this gesture of common courtesy is important for this more malleable definition of gender. In a June 2012 survey of 10,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, respondents were asked to identify as male, female or transgender, or to fill in their alternative gender. As “reported”: by Ruth Tam in _The Washington Post_, 1,000 chose transgender, and about 600 wrote in an array of alternative responses, from “gender neutral” to “gender fluid.”

Fluid gender identity may be gaining mainstream acceptance among young people, but to the rest of the country, transgender identities might be a new idea. smith says journalists have a special responsibility to be accurate with their reporting of these communities.

“Media and pop culture are often the primary introduction to the very concept of ‘transness,’ and oftentimes the information is presented irresponsibly,” smith says.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Chelsea Manning — a woman recently convicted of committing crimes against the United State s— presents a problematic standard bearer for the transgender community. Sarah McBride, special assistant for LGBT progress at the Center for American Progress and a transgender woman, cautions against making judgment calls against these two different parts of Manning’s identity.

“I think this gives us an opportunity to show that trans people are just as complicated as non-transgender people,” McBride says. “The moment that we allow a person’s actions to warrant disrespectful treatment and the removal of their identity, we acknowledge that everyone’s identity is therefore entirely contingent on their actions, and you remove that person’s agency and the agency of the entire trans community.”

Angie Chuang is a former race and ethnicity reporter at the Oregonian and a journalism professor at American University. She says the current confusion over how to term the transgender community is not unlike older debates on terminology for ethnic communities.

“In general, mainstream journalism does not adapt well to things that are new and unfamiliar,” Chuang says. “Unfortunately national news media has not had a lot of experience writing about transgender people. This is a very new thing—especially compared with other groups that the news media has struggled with representing.”

Indeed, evidence exists that transgender people have been around for as long as cisgender people (those whose gender identity corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth). Use of preferred gender pronouns grew more widespread in the 1990s when writers like Judith Butler in her book _Gender Trouble_ and Kate Bornstein in her book _Gender Outlaw_ problematized the assumption of universal or inherent genders.

Regardless, many journalists seem to agree that the media is not ready to embrace nontraditional gender pronouns yet. It may be some time before s.e. smith’s preferred “ou” and Ascher Thomas’s “they” find their way into journalism. smith says it has to do with a sort of trauma cisgender people feel when asked to confirm their gender.

“They’re offended at the idea that someone doesn’t want to make assumptions based on gender,” smith says. “Many cisgender people are made uncomfortable with the fact that trans people exist, and they want to live in a world where gender is uncomplicated. Obviously in a world where gender is multi-faceted, on a spectrum, that’s not going to be the case. So the result is people tend to lash out.”

Ensuring accuracy and respect in reporting about transgender people and those who identify outside the gender binary shouldn’t be such a difficult hurdle to clear; it simply requires the journalist to remain attentive during the interview process. A journalist’s craft is dedicated to details—to disregard gender identity is to neglect the facts of the story.

“Ideally, every journalist would check by directly asking a subject’s correct gender pronouns,” smith says. “Especially when preparing any kind of story on a subject that relates to trans activism, journalists have a particular obligation to be careful, because they’re more likely to be working in a community where nontraditional pronouns are much more common.”

Sensitive reporting about transgender people and those who identify outside the gender binary is the first step toward removing the stigma associated with these groups. Chuang says the second step is bringing these communities into the newsroom.

“I think having some more ‘out’ transgender journalists will help,” Chuang says. “It would also be nice if there was somebody who had firsthand knowledge, [so] when you’re faced with these kind of questions so you could say, ‘I’m struggling with this whole pronoun thing, can you help me out?’”

Thomas admits that fluid gender identity is a hard concept for some people to comprehend. They grow quiet, gesturing with their hands as though literally trying to grasp their thoughts.

“There’s not always a way to convey what [gender] you want other people to perceive, because what you convey might not match up with what they see,” Thomas says finally. “But the most important thing is that no one but me gets to decide if I’m taking the appropriate steps in my gender expression.” •