Thanks to several recent legal rulings about protections for transgender students, nondiscrimination and anti-bullying measures for LGBT students are more visible than ever. As kids head back to school, journalists have the opportunity to break from the sensationalist, fearmongering coverage that often accompanies these stories and instead follow journalistic best practices in reporting on LGBT student equality.
In the past few weeks, there have been two high-profile legal rulings directly affecting transgender students. On August 22, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the Obama administration’s recent guidance directing all public schools to provide transgender students with access to sex-segregated facilities that are consistent with a student’s gender identity. On August 3, the Supreme Court granted an emergency appeal from a Virginia school board to prevent a transgender boy from using the boys bathroom at his high school. The two August decisions come on the heels of this spring’s high-profile national debate over transgender equality, which centered largely around access to restrooms and other public accommodations.
As both of these cases continue to make their way through the legal system, the discussion about LGBT student equality isn’t going away. In the past, journalists have often stumbled when reporting on measures geared toward making schools more accepting for LGBT students, particularly transgender students. Right-wing media have a long history of sensationalizing and fearmongering over basic anti-bullying measures and nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students. As students head back to school, here are a few reminders for media outlets that want to avoid making some of the most common mistakes when covering stories about LGBT students:
DO Accurately Identify Anti-LGBT Commentators
Mainstream media outlets often fail to give their audiences relevant information about guests they ask to comment on LGBT equality, particularly when the topic is transgender equality. If a guest represents an organization that has been designated as an anti-LGBT hate group for its history of spreading known falsehoods about LGBT people, then properly identifying the person as such is essential to providing audiences the context they need to assess that guest's point of view. Journalists should be especially wary of hate groups, like the American College of Pediatricians, that use legitimate-sounding names to peddle harmful, debunked lies.
Outlets should also be careful of using hate groups as reliable sources for stories about LGBT students. Fox has twice been caught uncritically repeating made-up stories meant to oppose LGBT student equality, peddled to the network by one of California’s most notorious anti-LGBT hate groups.
DON’T Fearmonger Over Access To Bathrooms And Locker Rooms
Conservative media have a long history of fearmongering over nondiscrimination protections for transgender kids. In 2014, when California passed a new law allowing transgender public school students to use the restroom facilities that correspond to their gender identity, right-wing media figures issued apoplectic predictions of bathroom harassment and inappropriate behavior, warning that students would pretend to be transgender in order to sneak into opposite-sex bathrooms.
While mainstream media might not offer the same doomsday type predictions, outlets often uncritically repeat the right-wing myth that nondiscrimination protections will cause students to pretend to be transgender to sneak into bathrooms and locker rooms.
DO Rely On Empirical Data
When discussing the potential impact of providing nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students, journalists should cite empirical data from schools that have protected LGBT students for years.
Nationwide, school administrators from 23 school districts and four universities across the country, serving an estimated 1.5 million students, have reported that they allowed transgender students to use school facilities that correspond with their gender identity without incident.
Additionally, reporters should be sure to provide meaningful context about anti-bullying initiatives for LGBT students by highlighting the high rates of violence and discrimination against LGBT kids. Recently, the first nationally representative study asking high school students about their sexuality confirmed what smaller studies have suggested for years -- that LGB teens are at far greater risk for depression, bullying and many types of violence than their straight peers, with nearly 40 percent having seriously considered suicide. Similar studies of transgender students have found that nearly 80 percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming kids have experienced harassment in schools, with over 30 percent experiencing harassment by teachers or staff.
Journalists should also point out that efforts by school staff to create welcoming and accommodating environments for transgender youth can dramatically improve the conditions experienced by these students. Given the empirical evidence available, it’s no surprise that national organizations like the National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, and the American Federation of Teachers all support nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students.
DON’T Sensationalize Training Materials Out Of Context
Conservative outlets like Fox News have a long history of seizing on small details of LGBT-inclusion trainings -- like a suggestion to use the classroom nickname “purple penguins” instead of gendered terms -- to gin up controversy and trivialize the importance of diversity trainings. Recently, both conservative and local media reported on a cartoon “gender unicorn” illustration being used in a diversity training in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which a local parent called “friendly looking and deceitful” because the unicorn “represents the religion of sex.”
This type of sensationalist reporting can have a chilling effect on schools considering adopting similar inclusion measures. Joel Baum, director of education at Gender Spectrum, has criticized the sensational media coverage surrounding the organization’s gender-inclusive trainings for creating “a tremendous amount of work for school leaders who are overburdened and do not have time, quite honestly, to be responding to misinformation about what's happening in their schools."
DO Be Familiar With And Follow Journalistic Best Practices When Reporting On Transgender People
With much of the media attention surrounding LGBT student equality focused on transgender youth, reporters should be sure to educate themselves on journalistic best practices in reporting on transgender people. GLAAD’s media reference guide has clear guidelines for reporters covering the transgender community, key points of which are:
- Use accurate terminology, including the correct pronouns, and avoid offensive terms (see GLAAD’s list).
- Avoid focusing on medical issues, and remember that it is inappropriate to ask transgender people (including children) about their genitals or surgeries they have had.
- Transgender people “are the experts to talk about transgender people.” Reporters should prioritize transgender voices in stories about the transgender community.