Reporting About Transgender People? Read This.

by HRC Staff

HRC’s Brief Guide to Getting It Right

WASHINGTON - Covering transgender people, including those making the very personal decision to transition, can be challenging for reporters unfamiliar with the LGBT community, and, in particular, the increasingly visible transgender community.

This guide from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, the educational arm of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, is intended to serve as a primer, a starting point for reporters committed to telling the stories of transgender people accurately and humanely, from appropriate word usage to context that reflects the reality of their lived experience.

Here’s our list of the Top Eight things reporters covering transgender people should know:

Number One:

Understand what “transgender” means.

A transgender person, not “transgendered,” is someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside. It includes people who have medically transitioned to align their internal knowledge of gender with their physical presentation. But it also includes those who have not transitioned, and genderqueer or gender expansive people who do not fit in the distinct and opposite binary of male and female. Preferred usage is “transgender people,” “transgender person,” “transgender woman,” “transgender man,” “trans people,” “trans person,” “trans woman,” and “trans man.”

Number Two:

Know the difference between “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

Gender Identity is one’s internal concept of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither. It is how individuals perceive themselves, and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their own sense of gender identity do not match.

Sexual Orientation refers to emotional, romantic, sexual, and relational attraction to someone else, whether you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Refrain from using “sexual preference,” “homosexuality,” or “heterosexuality.” In other words, someone can be transgender and straight, or transgender and gay.

Number Three:

Understand what “transition” means.

Transition isa process that some transgender people undergo when they decide to live as the gender with which they identify, rather than the one they were assigned at birth. A transgender person transitioning is not “becoming” a man or a woman; they are starting to live openly as their true gender. Transitioning can include medical components such as hormone therapy and surgery. However, not every transition involves medical interventions. And many people can’t pursue them because of cost. Recognize that, while public, transitioning is a very personal process and everyone has a right to privacy.

Number Four:

Know that the full process of transitioning isn’t always or just about surgery.

The process of transitioning frequently involves affirming one’s gender identity in ways other than or beyond medical components. It involves affirming one’s gender identity through social means -- by changing the pronouns one uses, for example; as well as through legal means including changing one’s name on legal documents like a driver’s license and Social Security card.  Changing one’s identity documents is often a complex and time-consuming process, and some states do not allow transgender people to receive appropriate identity documents that reflect the way they live their lives.

Number Five:

Respect transgender people by using their preferred names and pronouns.

Proper names and pronouns preferred by the transgender person should be used, regardless of their legal name or gender marker on identification documents. If you’re not sure, the AP Stylebook advises that you should “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” Also note that some transgender people prefer the pronoun “them” to “her” or “him.”  

Number Six:

Be aware of the reality of many transgender people in the United States, and how that can inform the context of your story.

The reality of many transgender people involves high levels of discrimination, harassment and violence, as well as major hurdles accessing employment, housing and healthcare. Many transgender people live in poverty, rejected by family and society. Transgender people are far more likely to be the target of hate violence than lesbian, gay or bisexual people, and police are far more likely to emphasize transgender victims’ arrest records to diminish and miscast the lives of those killed. In 2014, 13 transgender people were murdered; already this year, three transgender people have been murdered. All but one of the victims were Black or Latina. When reporting on issues concerning transgender people, it is important to avoid associating them with deception or irrelevant criminal activity so as not to play on stereotypes.

Number Seven:

Refrain from contrasting transgender men and women with“real” or “biological” men and women.

Contrasting transgender people with “real” or “biological” men and women is a  false comparison. They are real men and women, and doing so contributes to the inaccurate perception that transgender people are being deceptive when, in fact, they are being authentic and courageous.

Number Eight:

Focus on the whole person.

Focusing solely on a person’s transition can make them feel like a specimen, which nobody likes. Put the person at the center of your story, in the context of family, friends, and daily life. While celebrities are helping increase awareness, there have been transgender people living openly for a very long time, along with advocates and everyday people working to change hearts and minds in their communities, in the law, and in workplaces.

This guide can be found online here, and can be used as a companion to other helpful guides.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. HRC envisions a world where LGBT people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.

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