Use ‘Accurate, Sensitive, Unbiased Language’ To Cover Trans People

The Associated Press issued new guidance to its subscribers on Friday, what it called a “Topical Guide,” with spelling and style related to the coverage of transgender people and the issues surrounding them. It also changed its guidance from May, on how journalists cover pregnant women, which has stirred debate since the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade last month.

The A.P. editors recommend choosing “unbiased language” and to “avoid false balance [by] giving a platform to unqualified claims or sources in the guise of balancing a story by including all views.”

Already, anti-trans news outlets like the National Review have attacked the guidance, claiming it “appears to explicitly embrace the language and claims of transgender activists, a move likely to steer newsrooms away from objectively framing the issue.” It says something about that news site that it assigned such a hot topic to a college undergrad.

Here are the facts:

What is the A.P. telling journalists?

The guide addresses terminology and what it calls “red flags,” then proceeds to explain several topics, each followed with “do’s” and “don’ts.”

Those topics are:

  • Gender dysphoria and gender transitions
  • Pronouns
  • Deadnaming
  • Legislation
  • Covering trans people in sports

Following those topics, the guidance offers more detailed explanations of terms and how to best use them and what words or phrases to avoid, from “biological sex” to “grooming” to “transgendered.” Some of them are included below.

Who is this organization, anyway?

Since 1846, the Associated Press has been a guiding light for journalists around the world, providing not only news, but setting the standard for fair, unbiased and informative reporting. Starting in 1953, the nonprofit, independent news gathering service has been sharing its guidance in what the A.P. calls “stylebooks,” and revising them with a caveat, contained in the foreword of the first edition: “The English language is fluid and changes incessantly. What last year may have been very formal, next year may be loosely informal.”

What are the Do’s And Don’ts for covering trans people?

“Do not equate a gender transition with becoming a man, becoming a woman or the outdated terminology ‘sex change.’”

Last month, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health lowered its recommended minimum age for starting gender transition treatment, including sex hormones and surgeries, as Metro Weekly reported. The WPATH says hormones can be started at age 14 and some surgeries at 15 or 17. Of course, surgeries on minors require parental consent unless the teenager has been emancipated through the legal system or otherwise free to choose surgery because they have reached the age of consent in their state.

“Treatments can improve psychological well-being and reduce suicidal behavior,” the editors tell journalists. “Starting treatment earlier can allow transgender teens to experience puberty around the same time as other teens. But other factors must be weighed, including emotional maturity, parents’ consent and a psychological evaluation. But even ahead of contemplating medical treatment, experts agree that allowing children to express their gender in a way that matches their identity is beneficial, such as letting children assigned male at birth wear clothing or hairstyles usually associated with girls, if that is their wish.”

Note the line the A.P. attributes this to: “experts,” such as The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association. Not the The American College of Pediatricians, which is a socially conservative advocacy group that opposes gender-affirming healthcare and has earned the label “extremist hate group” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

So what does “transgender” mean, exactly?

“At its most basic, transgender is an adjective describing a person whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth,” the editors wrote. “For example, a person may be declared a boy at birth based on physical observation but may grow up feeling intrinsically like a girl, and later exhibit gender expressions such as preferring clothing or hairstyles typically associated with girls. Some nonbinary people consider themselves transgender because while they may not identify as strictly male or female, their identity does not correspond to their assigned sex.”

Some observations on this: The A.P. is making it clear journalists should recognize “transgender” and “trans” are adjectives, not nouns. So it would be wrong to refer to someone as “a transgender.” Secondly, to write that a trans woman was born a man is ill-advised; she was either “assigned,” “declared” or “presumed” to be a boy. Also, the word “nonbinary” is one word, no hyphen required, and not every nonbinary person consider themselves trans, but some do, and nonbinary people do not consider themselves “strictly male or female.”

“Biological Sex”

Apparently the Associated Press believes what ACLU attorney Chase Strangio has been saying for years:

“Avoid terms like biological male, which opponents of transgender rights sometimes use to oversimplify sex and gender, is often misleading shorthand for assigned male at birth, and is redundant because sex is inherently biological,” say the editors.

“Grooming”

“Some people use the word ‘groom’ or variants of it to falsely liken LGBTQ people’s interactions with children, or education about LGBTQ issues, to the actions of child molesters,” the A.P. notes, and issues this advice: “Do not quote people using the term in this context without clearly stating it is untrue.”

“Transgendered”

“Do not use the term ‘transgendered’ or use transgender/s as a noun.” Again, “trans” is an adjective.

“Normal”

“Do not use terms like ‘normal’ to describe people who are not transgender.” What does it say about the state of transgender rights in 2022 that the Associated Press needs to advise reporters to avoid calling people who not trans “normal”?

Pronouns

“Don’t refer in interviews or stories to ‘preferred’ or ‘chosen’ pronouns. Instead, [write] ‘the pronouns they use,’ ‘whose pronouns are,’ ‘who uses the pronouns,’ etc. While many transgender people use ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’ pronouns, others — including nonbinary, agender or gender-fluid people — use ‘they/them’ as a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun. As much as possible, A.P. also uses ‘they/them/their’ as a way of accurately describing and representing a person who uses those pronouns for themself.”

Nonbinary journalist Frankie de la Cretaz penned a must-read piece for Sports Illustrated about nonbinary athletes, like Layshia Clarendon, who wish their team reps and media folks would just ask, “What are your pronouns?” and then use them without extra fanfare.

Deadnaming

The A.P. advises journalists to be very selective when using a transgender person’s previous name, sometimes called their “birth name” and commonly referred to as their “deadname.”

The guidance is to do this “very rarely and only if required to understand the news or if requested by the person. Deadnaming someone can be akin to using a slur and can cause feelings of gender dysphoria to resurface.”

What about public figures like Elliot Page, Caitlyn Jenner or Chelsea Manning? The A.P. says journalists should “generally use the deadname only once and not in the opening paragraph, with future coverage using only the new name.”

Unfortunately, it’s far more common that reporters will encounter the trans community in reporting on crime. So far in 2022, at least 21 trans people have been murdered because of who they are, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Reporters should “be cognizant that authorities or family members may be ignorant of or disregarding the person’s identity; the person, their friends or others may have better information about how the person lived and identified,” says the A.P.

Anti-trans legislation

“Starting in 2020, conservative-leaning U.S. state legislatures began considering a wave of bills aimed at transgender youth,” the editors wrote. “Many political observers assert that the legislation is being used to motivate voters by falsely framing children as under threat.”

The A.P. cited advocates who opposed the legislation as saying that, “the measures unfairly target an already marginalized community, and that rules and monitoring in individual leagues and conferences render such legislation unnecessary.” That’s all true, and yet 18 states have enacted bans against trans student-athletes.

“Several states have also taken steps to criminalize gender-affirming health care for transgender youths,” notes the A.P. “Backers of such bans say minors are too young to make gender-transition decisions, while doctors and parents raise alarms that such restrictions to medical care put youths at serious risk.”

“The only thing inaccurate about these new standards is the claim that states only started passing anti-trans bills in 2020,” noted Zack Ford, former LGBTQ editor at ThinkProgress.org. “Not only had we seen anti-trans bills for many years prior, but discrimination against trans people has existed for all of our lifetimes. The most recent bills are merely attempts to codify forms of discrimination that were commonplace before we had the visibility, acceptance, and legal protections we’ve managed to achieve thus far. The A.P. is right to hold reporters to a higher standard to make sure they aren’t assisting conservatives in their attempts to demonize trans people and reverse the progress they’ve made.”

Covering transgender people in sports

The photograph snapped by Justin Casterline at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in March is sadly the most famous and memorable image in the category of transgender sports. The national champion, Lia Thomas, stands alone in the spot designated for her, so photographers like Casterline can snap their pictures, while the second-place finisher Emma Weyant, third-place swimmer Erica Sullivan and fourth-place competitor Brooke Forde stand together, celebrating a few feet away from Thomas.

Both social media users and reporters called this a protest against Thomas, including the anti-trans British tabloid, The Telegraph.

But as Reuters reported, it was no such thing. Not a protest at all, said Sullivan, who competed with Weyant and Forde for the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics last year.

“I was taking a picture with my closest friends from the Olympics,” Sullivan wrote in a comment on an Instagram post, “It was after the group photo was taken. News Sites have used that photo and taken it out of context.” All three swimmers supported Thomas’s right to compete at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

Here’s what the A.P. is telling journalists about covering trans athletes:

“Recent moves by athletic associations, legislatures and school districts seek to restrict the ability of transgender athletes, and in particular transgender women, to compete in a way that aligns with their gender. When covering such proposals or restrictions, check your assumptions and facts,” say the editors.

“Proponents of such restrictions assert that transgender women have an athletic advantage over cisgender women. Transgender athletes’ backers argue, among other things, that individuals are different, that sweeping restrictions overblow the prevalence of the issue, and that it’s not possible to know with certainty what gives any particular athlete, transgender or cisgender, a competitive edge.” That perspective is more often than not missing from most every report about trans women “dominating” or “ending” women’s sports, as inclusion opponents like Martina Navratilova and Nancy Hogshead-Makar would have people believe. They each weighed in recently on Thomas’s nomination by the University of Pennsylvania for NCAA Woman of the Year.

Just FYI: Hogshead-Makar, Navratilova and other anti-trans inclusion activists and organizations are a part of the Independent Council on Women’s Sports which is condemning the nomination of Thomas for this award, as well as Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s proposed Transgender Bill of Rights.

More guidance:

  • “Don’t refer to male or female hormones. All people have the same hormones; only their levels vary. If discussion of hormones is needed, name the specific hormone(s).
  • “Don’t use phrasing that misgenders people or implies doubt, such as ‘former men’s swimmer’ or ‘currently competes as a woman’. Instead, ‘formerly competed with men,’ ‘current member of the women’s team,’ etc.
  • “Be clear on the intent of proposals or restrictions. Avoid constructions like ‘transgender bans’ that imply trans people, not their participation in an activity, are the thing being banned. If transgender women are banned from playing on women’s teams, say that.
  • “Be aware that laws affecting trans athletes may not only affect trans women, so be sure reporting reflects the specific legislative language used.

“The latest update to the A.P. style guide is very much in the spirit and tradition of the journalistic tenets it is meant to uphold,” said Cathy Renna, communications director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. “I remember meeting with A.P. style guide editors over the years, as they considered more accurate and fair ways to describe LGBTQ people and issues. I saw how these changes had an impact on news coverage when implemented in newsrooms—from the removal of inaccurate, offensive and outdated terms, to the inclusion of evolving terminology, to ways to most accurately describe the lived experiences of LGBTQ communities. These additions, changes and clarifications move us forward at a critical time, as the trans and non-binary members of the LGBTQ community are not simply the focus of more media visibility and cultural representation, but under attack in every way. Better, more nuanced coverage will help us fight back. And I am extraordinarily grateful that the A.P. had strong criticism for the use of the phrase ‘groom” which is now in common usage by anti-LGBTQ activists and politicians to inaccurately offend and defame LGBTQ people.”

There are several other online resources providing journalists with guidance on covering the transgender community:

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