Trans People Are Experts in Our Own Experience
Journalism should represent trans, nonbinary, and agender people's humanity, expertise, suffering, and triumphs. As a nonbinary writer, I asked what's lacking in journalism and how we can improve.
Journalists frequently assume a person’s gender based on voice, name, and appearance, and may unintentionally refer to their sources and those they write about incorrectly. Despite a lack of harmful intent, we cannot ignore the damaging effect this can have, or the emotional labor that can be required for trans people to share their experiences with the media.
Denarii Grace, writer, singer-songwriter, and activist, states in their email signature and website that they use both she/her and they/them pronouns and she prefers people “mix it up regularly.” When a media outlet gets it wrong, the process of asking for a correction is a burden. “It can be dehumanizing,” Grace says. “They say, ‘We can’t do this.’”
Editorial decisions and newsroom standards affect how journalists are able to refer to individuals in their work. Remy Green, civil rights lawyer and writer, has run into resistance when they inform journalists of their pronouns, a routine at the end of every interview. Green says other facts are treated differently from pronouns or gender identity: “If I told a reporter I graduated from U. Chicago Law, they wouldn’t tell me, ‘Oh, I’ll have to consult with my editor whether I’m allowed to mention that.’”
To update a story once it’s been published, writers often need to work with an editor or other potential gatekeepers. All these people may have the power to deny a correction request.
Evan Greer knows about gatekeepers. Greer speaks regularly to the press as a musician and director of Fight for the Future, a non-profit advocacy group focusing on digital rights and privacy, advocating for net neutrality and banning facial recognition technology for surveillance. She considers before each interview whether to emphasize her pronouns (which are already in her email signature, website, and Twitter bio), weighing the possibility of getting misgendered live on the air with the risk of being cut from a spot if the producer or journalist turns out to be transphobic. Greer said she was misgendered in a syndicated piece and reached out to around 100 outlets for corrections, a grueling process. Being misgendered on live TV is easier for Greer to correct, as the mistake can be corrected on the spot and that correction cannot be cut. Mistakes in print, especially in a book, cannot be corrected.
“If I’m on TV talking about encryption,” Greer says, “I want to be treated as an expert ... I don’t want it to become a separate conversation about my gender.” Greer created a petition requesting journalists confirm every source’s pronouns, similar to confirming the spelling of a name or a title. As a result of the petition, cis people reached out to Greer, explaining they also get misgendered regularly by the press, with a first name not familiar in American popular culture, or a gender-neutral name (i.e. Taylor or Jesse). We should use people’s pronouns correctly as a baseline, but remain aware that people’s identities are affirmed in other ways also.
Using the same nuanced language people use to describe their own identity is key. Charlie Arrowood, attorney and Name Change Project counsel at the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), worked for years to help get the Gender Recognition Act passed in New York. When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law, Arrowood was featured on a local TV spot with a recorded intro saying Arrowood “identifies as they/them,” even though Arrowood had provided the phrase “identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.”
“I was so taken aback,” Arrowood says, concerned and frustrated that the public would hear this phrase stated as a fact. “Identifies as” can be used to vilify trans people, implying our identities are not real. Someone can “be nonbinary,” but someone cannot be a pair of pronouns.
“I’m in this world professionally,” Arrowood says, noting they always introduce themself to journalists with their pronouns, which “does not even compute. They just ignore it because they haven’t encountered it much.”
Gender is just one aspect of a person’s identity. Trans people’s experience may vary widely by socioeconomic status, disability, or race. Gabrielle Bellot, staff writer at Literary Hub and head instructor at Catapult, writes in an email: “Trans-ness is not related to race in any explicit way ... gender, like race, is the product of social constructs about people.” She notes how marginalized gender intersects with marginalized race: “Black and brown trans women, in particular, are more likely to face discrimination when applying for jobs or simply walking through the world in America.”
Some people’s gender, internal or external, is inseparable from racial or cultural identity. “Throughout my life, my gender has been perceived not only because of my Blackness but because of my [dark] skin color … and my size,” Grace says. Travis Alabanza, writer, performer, and theater maker, wrote in the Huffington Post about how nonbinary people have always existed, and how discussing nonbinary gender identities as though they are new is “erasing the complex, nuanced and rich histories of Black and brown people.” Consider the term Two Spirit, which is specific to the Indigenous community (someone who is not Indigenous cannot be Two Spirit) and describes a range of gender and sexuality, acknowledging traditions of diversity. It is important to report people’s whole identity correctly, including but not limited to gender identity.
When a media outlet reports someone’s identity incorrectly, it can feel like an attack. Lydia X. Z. Brown, advocate, organizer, attorney, and writer, was horrified by an Argentinian newspaper article claiming they, an East Asian nonbinary person, identified as a white man. The piece said, in Spanish, that Brown was “born in China, now lives as a white man in the U.S.,” comparing Brown to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who claims to identify as a Black woman. Brown had written about the word “transracial” being co-opted by Dolezal and others from its decades-long usage for transracial adoption, most often used to describe a white family adopting a person of color. Even though Brown contacted the outlet (in Spanish), they refused to change or take down the untrue sentence.
Misrepresentation is often concerning not only because it may hurt the person in question, but also for what it can attempt to say about an entire community. Portraying Black women as masculine, for example, is a racist tactic. “At least anecdotally, Black trans women in particular [compared to white trans women] are misgendered in death in news reports,” Bellot says, “as if there is a need in the media to link Blackness and masculinity together.”
“When white men, like Michael Phelps, are extraordinary athletes, no one thinks twice about it,” says Imara Jones, journalist, producer, and creator of TransLash Media, on her podcast. “But when Black women — cis or trans — succeed, their very existence is interrogated.”
Despite a culture of discrimination, we do have stories of trans and nonbinary athletes thriving. Frankie de la Cretaz, a nonbinary freelance writer, wrote a Sports Illustrated digital daily cover story about how nonbinary athletes fit into the largely binary world of sports, featuring athletes including Layshia Clarendon, WNBA player. De la Cretaz referred to Clarendon as “they” initially, ending the first paragraph with a parenthetical note, “Clarendon alternately uses she, he and they pronouns,” and alternating between these three pronouns for the rest of the piece, sometimes changing pronouns within the same sentence. De la Cretaz’s writing was clear, straightforward, and they represented Clarendon correctly.
For this story, de la Cretaz interviewed Clarendon multiple times over a few months. After the piece ran, Clarendon responded on Twitter: “To have my story told with such eloquence and nuance is a privilege that should be afforded to all.” For de la Cretaz to share Clarendon’s private experiences, such as top surgery and coming out publicly, and for them to praise the finished result, demonstrates mutual trust and nuance in reporting. The editor for this piece, Julie Kliegman, SI copy chief and a nonbinary person, supported telling Clarendon’s story accurately.
As a meta note, I struggled with whether to specify de la Cretaz’s and Kliegman’s gender identities in this piece. I felt this information was public (in written work and social media bios and posts) and relevant to the point I am making: journalists and editors within the trans community will bring more lived experience and nuance to a story on trans issues. However, I have not specified any other person’s gender identity in the same way in this piece (other than my own).
When Kliegman shared the story about Clarendon on Twitter, she noted that de la Cretaz “is doing work on this issue that no other journalists are,” and linked to the Trans Journalists Association style guide. The TJA style guide is an excellent reference for best practices when reporting on trans people. I’ve also compiled recommendations from people I spoke with in my own reporting.
A Guide to Writing About Trans People Respectfully
→ Refer to trans people the same way as cis people in your stories. You wouldn’t say, “Freddie Mercury, born as a man named [previous name] and who uses he/him pronouns, was a cis male singer.” It only takes a minute to check if a source has pronouns listed on their website, email signature, or social media bio, and another minute to review your piece to confirm the pronouns are correct. If you specify one person’s pronouns (i.e., “Rey Katz, who uses they/them pronouns”) do the same for your other sources also. Best practices may change rapidly, but my judgment call is to not explain pronouns for people who use “they,” “she,” or “he.” Just use the pronoun naturally. For people who use multiple pronouns (i.e., both “he” and “she”) or neopronouns (i.e., “ze/zir”) you may wish to provide a very brief explanation when introducing the person.
→ Use a person’s current name, pronouns, and description of gender identity when referring to them in the past, unless the person you are reporting on specifies otherwise. If you or a source knew the person under a different name or presentation, memories may need to be paraphrased to use the newer identifiers. “It’s too common for reporters to switch pronouns when discussing trans people before they transitioned; unless you’ve received explicit confirmation from the person you’re reporting on, you should ask for their pronouns and then use those pronouns exclusively,” says Gabrielle Bellot, head instructor at Catapult.
→ People are generally familiar with using “they” for an unknown person: “Someone forgot their keys — do you know who?” The Associated Press Stylebook has included “they” as a singular pronoun since 2017, and singular “they” has been present in English at least since 1375. If you don’t know anyone who goes by “they/them” in your everyday life, you may need to practice — I did when I first met someone who used “they/them.” Talk about celebrities. Give your pet “they/them” pronouns, at least temporarily. Say “they” out loud, often. I was bemused when a classmate apologized for referring to me as “you” (“they” does not replace “I” or “you”). A coworker asked me if verbs should be plural when used with my name. (No. It’s “Rey is here,” not “Rey are here,” even though “They are here,” is correct.)
→ Opinions differ on journalists using no pronouns, or using the person’s name instead of a pronoun every time. Some people consider it to be fairly harmless, don’t notice, or even offer no pronouns as an option. Remy Green, a civil rights lawyer and writer, finds it offensive, however, when they ask for their pronouns to be corrected in a piece, and the outlet deletes the pronouns altogether instead of making the correction.
→ Gendered language extends beyond pronouns. Be careful with words for occupations (i.e., “congressman”), relations (i.e., “husband,” “granddaughter,” “mom,” “son”) and groups of people (i.e., “women” or “guys”). Gender-neutral versions of these words exist, if needed: congressperson, spouse, relative, parent, child, grandparent, folks. “Person” or “people” is always a good option, especially in health-care contexts (i.e., “pregnant people,” “people who menstruate,” “people with a risk of prostate cancer”). “Reproductive health care” is a correct and inclusive alternative to “women’s health care.”
→ Readers also make assumptions based on a person’s voice, name, and appearance. Written descriptions are an important part of representing a source’s identity correctly. Don’t emphasize physical characteristics that may lead to misgendering.
→ It can be invasive and damaging to reveal information about someone’s personal medical history — that’s why medical professionals follow HIPAA privacy laws. Some trans people are on hormone replacement therapy and/or have various surgeries, and some do neither. In general, don’t ask about someone’s genitals, whether they take medication or have had surgery, what sex they were assigned at birth, or whether they are intersex. If medical details are essential to your piece, be prepared to explain why and how you intend to use this personal information.
→ Don’t condemn transitioning — or detransitioning. “Media perpetuates this idea that no one would choose to be queer,” says Heron Greenesmith, an attorney and writer. The majority of people who detransition do so due to stigma, family pressure, employment, or the threat of violence, not transition regret. Some folks remain part of the trans community after detransitioning.
→ It’s important to source background information from the trans community when reporting on issues affecting us. If you Google topics such as medical transition or sports performance on hormone replacement therapy, you will find intentionally misleading content. Find a resource by a trans person as your baseline. Interrogate your own knowledge — many myths about trans people have infected the public consciousness.
→ “What is most lacking in mainstream media coverage of trans issues is acknowledgement that trans people can be experts on our own lives,” Cooper Lee Bombardier, writer, visual artist, and MFA instructor, writes in an email. “Letting trans people speak as experts on their own issues, hiring trans writers and journalists, and speaking to a wide range of trans voices are all simple steps that can support more nuanced and in-depth representation.”
→ Articles published on trans issues too often do not cite any trans sources, even in cases when they reached out to the anti-trans opposition. Especially for health care, sports, and legal battles affecting trans people, it seems obvious but too often omitted to reach out to a trans person as an expert.
→ In the journalism community, we can advocate for trans people not only by asking for sources, but by reading and working for publications that hire trans people. “It is important that trans, nonbinary, and agender writers are in the room and are being hired, not just at the lower levels,” says writer and activist Denarii Grace. We should support publications with trans journalists, editors, and leadership.
→ The organizer and attorney Lydia X. Z. Brown asks: “Are you writing about our lives with humanity, empathy, and complexity, or are you writing about our lives in ways that simply uphold stereotypes and a very reductive narrative of what it means to be trans?” We have an opportunity to share true stories about trans people with our audience, and a responsibility to do it well.
The Postscript’s feature stories, profiles and how-to guides, which aim to help those working in and on journalism to better understand the industry and improve their craft, and to make smarter news consumers of the rest of us, come from editorial partnerships or are directly funded by our subscribers.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Read: Stories That Got It Right
These stories about transgender rights and health care give me hope, help me feel represented, and provide examples to learn from in my own reporting.
The TransLash Podcast With Imara Jones: In her incredible podcast, especially the Anti-Trans Hate Machine series of four episodes, Imara Jones reports on trans rights and political hate groups, featuring the voices of Black and brown journalists and activists.
What About the Trans Athletes Who Compete — and Win — in Men’s Sports?: If you appreciated Frankie de la Cretaz’s piece on nonbinary athletes, check out their fantastic article sharing the voices of young transmasculine athletes.
A Guide to Navigating Birth Control: This exceptional reproductive health guide is not written specifically for trans people, but the journalist, Mara Gordon, uses trans-inclusive language throughout. For example, the words “woman,” “female,” “man,” or “male” do not appear at all in the piece.
Learn: Resources for Trans-Inclusive Journalism
These are some of my favorite resources discussing how to write about trans people with respect.
Trans Journalists Association Style Guide: A practical, comprehensive resource on how to describe trans people and communities.
Making Your Writing and Reporting Transgender-Inclusive: A guide focused on science journalism from The Open Notebook.
Trans Journalists: It’s ‘a Privilege’ to Tell the Stories of the Trans Community: NPR’s All Things Considered interviews three trans journalists.
Meet: About the Author
Rey Katz is a nonbinary, queer writer. They earned a bachelor of science in physics at MIT and a black belt in aikido. You can find them at reywrites.com.