An editorial writer for The Dallas Morning News offered an embarrassing defense for not bothering to correctly identify transgender people, arguing that widely accepted journalistic guidelines for talking about the transgender community are “confusing” and “misinform[s] the public.”
In a May 4 column in The Dallas Morning News, editorial writer Tod Robberson criticized The New York Times and Associated Press for recognizing “the gender preference of transgenders in news copy.” According to Robberson, identifying trans people using the pronouns they prefer “distort[s] the truth” in order to embrace “the politically correct transgender language of the day” :
The New York Times and Associated Press, among other news organizations, have decided that they will recognize the gender preference of transgenders in news copy. Which is to say, when a male who has yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery nevertheless calls himself a female and is the subject of a news story, he will be identified as a female in all references.
See how confusing that gets? What is the actual, at-birth gender of the person we're talking about? And what gender will the person be identified as, once reassignment surgery is completed? Who knows?
There is a serious ethical discussion in this issue that we in journalism never really had. The orders came down from on high one day, and everyone just sort of jumped on board without questioning the implications. The first ethical issue is whether we journalists distort the truth by embracing the politically correct transgender language of the day.
Like it or not, the use of he/she, her/him, his/hers in print is a grammatical and journalistic necessity. We can't avoid it. But in doing so, choosing the correct word shouldn't be an option selected out of a sense of inclusion or demonstration of open mindedness about sexual identity. Our only choice must be to use the correct words to accurately and truthfully report the news.
Groups like GLAAD and The Association of LGBT Journalists (NLGJA) have published guidelines for journalists to help them avoid making embarrassing mistakes -- like Robbersons' reference to “transgenders.”
Getting it right is pretty simple:
- If a person was labeled as male at birth but identifies as female, she is a “transgender woman.” Someone labeled female at birth who identifies as male is a “transgender man.”
- When using a name for a transgender person that the public might not recognize, qualify it with something like, "...who was previously known as..."
- It's irrelevant whether a transgender person has undergone gender reassignment surgery; only mention it if it is directly relevant to the story.
National news networks have been responsibly reporting on transgender people for years. It's now broadly accepted journalistic practice to make a point of respecting how transgender people wish to be identified -- a small adjustment that confers dignity and self-determination on a group of marginalized people.