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Transmissions: Being transgender, with style

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Transgender people have had a long-standing feud with news reporting. We often face news stories that play up the most salacious details of trans people, dredging up the names on our birth certificates - known within the community as "deadnaming" - and using pronouns not consistent with our lived experiences and our preferences.

One of the tools that transgender activists have reached for in trying to educate the news media over the years has been the widely used Associated Press Stylebook. Every media outlet, of course, does not use it, but it nevertheless serves as a useful tool for how reporters really should present stories to an informed public.

While one might think a stylebook would be more conservative in its outlook, the AP Stylebook has for many years provided a largely transgender-friendly directive in how to more accurately report our stories.

For more than two decades, transgender people have been able to turn to the "S" section - mine is tabbed for easy access - and look up the entry called "sex changes." It reads as follows:

"Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

"If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

This is a far cry from the way transgender stories have long been covered. Heck, it's even a change from how many get covered today: pull up the average story on Caitlyn Jenner, as an obvious example, and just count the number of times the above rules are violated.

What's more, don't even start me on the reporting on anti-transgender murders, which is further muddied by the wishes of family members who may have been at odds with a transgender sibling or child's life, and police reports that focus on specifics of anatomy over names and identities of victims.

Each time, transgender activists again pull an AP Stylebook off their bookshelf and explain, in an increasingly exasperated tone, how these cases should be covered. In some instances, some transgender people have opted to buy copies of the AP Stylebook for local news outlets, just to try and shame them into more accurate coverage.

All this is changing, however - and like so few other things in the era of the Trump Administration, this is a change for the better.

The Associated Press recently held an event on Twitter, hashtagged as an #APStyleChat. Its focus was on gender and LGBT style issues. Of particular relevance were the following quotations:

"Gender refers to a person's social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. ... Use transgender for people whose gender identity doesn't match the sex or gender they were identified as having at birth.

"They/them/there (sic) is OK in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun; do not use other neutral pronouns like ze.

"Call people transgender only if relevant; give the name they use publicly; avoid references to being born a boy or girl. ... Avoid transgendered or transsexual; don't call someone a transgender; trans is OK on second reference and in headlines.

"Transition is the process by which people match their physical characteristics to their gender identity. ... For medical procedures often but not always used for a transition, say sex reassignment or gender confirmation. ... This usage of gender confirmation is new to the gender entry on Stylebook Online today."

Each of these is a step forward from the "sex change" entry, a title, I should add, would not be consistent with the AP Stylebook as of this new guidance. These are changes that go a lot further in accurately representing trans expression in the media.

That said, I think AP can go a bit further. I'm concerned that the first quote, above, will give some outlets the wiggle room to say, for example, refer to someone's sex rather than their gender identity, or to somehow put more emphasis on a person's biology over their identity.

On the second, I find myself concerned that if a person actually does use a pronoun such as "ze" or "hir," will that be lost in favor of "they/them/their," or even stripping a gender-neutral pronoun entirely from someone who identifies with it because the stylebook is unclear on "limited cases."

I think there is a lot that can be addressed, which may require more work on the part of both activists and AP. For example, finally quashing phrases like "lives as a ___" or even "thinks they are a _____" as a way to delegitimize one's identity.

I think it would be valuable to see guidelines put in place, too, that cover the proper name and pronoun use for a transgender person when the media is discussing that person prior to their transition. If one is writing about a transgender woman, for example, is it appropriate to say, "When they were growing up a boy?" I would say no, or at least not without explaining that they may have been socialized and presented as such, but they were presumably always a transgender woman, regardless. This could not only present a clearer picture of a specific person, but also provide a more accurate image of trans people overall.

Now I'm aware that this was just the discussions of one informal chat, but I look forward to seeing the AP Stylebook's next update, and how these issues end up being addressed. I hope it will continue to be the vital resource it has been in the war on fair, accurate reporting on transgender people and our issues.

Gwen Smith has bought many copies of the AP Stylebook over the years. You'll find her at http://www.gwensmith.com .

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