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It’s time to learn how to write about transgender people

Let's do better in 2015.


Samantha Allen

Internet Culture

Posted on Dec 16, 2014   Updated on May 29, 2021, 11:33 pm CDT

Jeffrey Tambor is a male actor who should be referred to as a “he.” Maura Pfefferman, the character Tambor plays on Amazon’s much buzzed about dramedy Transparent, is a transgender woman who should be referred to as a “she.” In fact, Maura’s insistence that people use the proper pronouns is a key plot point in the first season’s overarching narrative.

So why are so many articles about Tambor’s Golden Globe nod and Emmy prospects using the wrong pronouns for Maura? Andrew Wallenstein of Variety refers to Maura as “a sixty-something father who decides to go public with the secret he’s harbored his whole life: his desire to live as a woman.” The New York Times awards season blog clunkily describes her “a retiree who comes out to his family as identifying as a woman.” On CNN, Maura is known as “a father named Mort who comes out as a woman…to his children.”

Maura is a “she.” It’s one of the central points of the show.

But this confusion around Maura’s pronouns is a bitterly fitting end to a year full of bad writing and reporting on transgender issues. 2014 was the year when writers could no longer avoid writing about transgender people because they started showing up in every sphere and medium worthy of commentary. Laverne Cox is on a hit Netflix show, Janet Mock’s memoir is a bestseller, Laura Jane Grace is shaking up the music world, and Carmen Carrera is on the cover of magazines. Whatever you write about, you have to be able to write about trans issues by now and if you can’t, it’s time to learn how.

Both GLAAD and the Associated Press Stylebook have offered clear guidelines for writing about transgender issues in a sensitive, respectful, and accurate way. But even though these resources have been around for years, obvious mistakes are continuing to pile up. When Michael Phelps‘ alleged girlfriend came out as intersex this month, for example, outlets were quick to declare that she was transgender—she isn’t—and that she was “born a man”—she wasn’t. 

And when model Andreja Pejic came out as transgender this summer after undergoing sex reassignment surgery, several outlets referred to her procedure as a “sex change,” a phrase that needs to be sent back to the 1980s where it belongs. With appropriate language on these topics readily available at the click of a button, there’s no excuse for sloppiness of this sort beyond the payoff of a salaciously worded headline.

It’s not just TV stars and supermodels who are affected by bad writing on transgender people, either. Transgender people regularly appear in headlines because they have been brutally murdered, a circumstance that should give writers pause before they venture to comment. Too often, it simply doesn’t. Just yesterday, for example, a U.S. Marine was charged with the murder of a transgender woman named Jennifer Laude. Jim Gomez, writing for the Associated Press, unnecessarily included her birth name and referred to her as “a transgender,” which is just as unacceptable as calling someone “a gay.” 

Earlier this month, when a transgender woman was murdered in Compton while pounding on the door of a home for help, one conservative outlet dared to repeat the old “born a man” refrain in their report. And earlier this year, when an Australian chef killed and cooked his transgender wife, one tabloid ran the headline: “Monster Chef and the She Male.” Writers and journalists are continually failing to respect transgender subjects, even in death.

In this light, learning how to write about transgender issues isn’t just a matter of accuracy or so-called “political correctness”—it’s an ethical imperative. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should strive to “minimize harm” to their subjects. This means treating transgender people as “human beings deserving of respect,” instead of half-human oddities that almost deserve to die. It means avoiding “undue intrusiveness” like commenting on someone’s genitals. It means showing “heightened sensitivity” for “victims of sex crimes,” a category that often includes transgender women. It means not “pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do” and, when it comes to transgender people, they almost certainly will. Writing about transgender issues means constantly reminding yourself that real people are on the other end of your keystrokes and choosing your words accordingly.

It’s especially important to avoid a sensationalistic race to the bottom when writing about transgender people—because they’re already at the bottom of the social ladder. Anti-transgender violence takes hundreds of lives each year, disproportionately affecting transgender women of color. Transgender people experience double the rate of unemployment and disturbingly high rates of homelessness compared to the general population. And, sadly, over 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide not because being transgender is a “mental illness” but because of the compounding effects of discrimination. As Mark Joseph Stern writes for Slate, “Trans people don’t commit suicide because they’re trans; they commit suicide because the rest of us don’t treat them like people.” Writers more than anyone need to respect transgender people because too many people don’t.

At the start of this year, too, we were tragically reminded of what can happen when writers fail to treat their transgender subjects with dignity. In January, a writer named Caleb Hannan wrote a piece for Grantland describing his dogged pursuit of the history behind a golf club inventor named Dr. Vanderbilt. Partway through his research for the piece, Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman and, in the finished article, he breaks nearly every GLAAD guideline. He refers to her as “a troubled man,” says that she was “born a boy,” and repeatedly uses her birth name. 

It gets worse from there. When Hannan—knowing full well that his subject had a suicide attempt in her past—took steps toward publishing his exposé of her transition, Dr. Vanderbilt committed suicide. In a final, heinous insult, Hannan dubbed his Grantland article a “eulogy.” Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons published it and issued a half-apology after the fact. Caleb Hannan kept writing. Dr. Vanderbilt is dead.

Granted, misgendering a fictional character in a TV show is a far cry from hounding a woman on the brink of suicide. But Hannan’s missteps in January are an extreme case of a general principle: if you’re not actively trying to respect transgender subjects in your work, you’re probably doing more harm than good. All mistakes in writing on transgender issues—whether big or small, intentional or unintentional—help to perpetuate a reality in which transgender people are seen as something other than fully human. Writers don’t just comment on culture—they create it, too. By refusing to consult easily accessible resources and using defamatory language instead, writers make themselves complicit in a culture that devalues transgender lives. At this point, there’s no excuse for continuing to make rookie mistakes when the stakes are so high.

So let’s do better in 2015. We need to do better for Laverne Cox and for Janet Mock as they continue their work in the public eye. We need to do better for the transgender murder victims who appear in the news with alarming frequency. And, yes, we even need to do better for Maura.

Photo via Amazon/YouTube

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2014, 12:00 pm CST