Reporting from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and The Detroit News on the May 12 death of Aimee Stephens needlessly published her deadname, or former name, which goes against journalistic standards -- including ones set by the Times and the AP. The Times has since apologized.
Stephens was the transgender woman at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case that will decide whether it’s legal to fire someone for being trans. Her case concerns a Michigan funeral home’s decision to fire her after she came out to her employer as transgender.
As NPR explained, the case is limited to questioning “whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their status as transgender or (2) sex stereotyping.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on several characteristics, including sex. Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing the funeral home that fired Stephens.
Initial reporting from NY Times, AP, and Detroit News deadnamed Stephens
Despite journalistic standards set by the New York Times’ Manual of Style and Usage and The Associated Press Stylebook, among others, reports from those two outlets and The Detroit News published Stephens’ deadname.
Deadnaming is the act of referring to a trans person by “the name they used before they transitioned” rather than their affirming name. Like misgendering, which is labeling someone “as a gender other than one that a person identifies with,” it is a form of harassment that can feel invalidating to a trans person’s identity.
It can also be “completely draining to a trans person’s mental health and can trigger anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria,” and referring to trans people by their correct name can lower their risk of suicide and depression. In 2018, Twitter banned the practice as part of its "hateful conduct” policy in order to protect users from harassment.
Right-wing media and anti-LGBTQ groups regularly deadname trans people in an effort to demean and delegitimize their identity. Fox News’ Shannon Bream and ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner previously misgendered Stephens throughout a segment on the case.
NY Times corrected reporting after facing widespread criticism
Hours after publishing its initial reporting, The New York Times removed Stephens’ deadname and issued an editors’ note, stating, “An earlier version of this obituary included the name Ms. Stephens was given at birth, which she no longer used. That reference has been removed.”
On May 13, New York Times editor Patrick LaForge tweeted an apology, adding that “the standards desk is reviewing the guidance to make it clearer for editors on deadline.” This was not the first time the Times had deadnamed Stephens. The report received widespread criticism from LGBTQ advocates.
The Detroit News reportedly apologized for publishing Stephens’ dead name after Equality Federation’s Viv Topping emailed the outlet, but it has yet to issue a correction. The AP has also not issued a correction.
Major outlets have made this error in the past
Major print news outlets, including the AP and the Times, have a history of needlessly deadnaming trans people in their reporting. Notably, after former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning survived a suicide attempt in jail in March, New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal deadnamed Manning in their reporting. Other major print news outlets including the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune have also deadnamed Manning in past reports.
Media outlets regularly report on people who go by names other than the ones they were assigned at birth. The New York Times’ and Associated Press’ reporting on New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (Warren Wilhelm Jr.) and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (Nimrata Haley) shows that the outlet routinely refers to cisgender people by their chosen names but doesn’t always extend this baseline courtesy to trans people.
As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy previously wrote, “The best way to refer to a trans person -- even when discussing their past -- is to use whatever name and pronouns that individual currently uses.” News outlets should follow their own standards and never print a trans person’s birth name without their explicit consent. These errors demonstrate the importance of intentional, thoughtful reporting and editing when covering the trans community.