Why the news media need to get it right in covering transgender people

June 5
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Actress Laverne Cox attends the
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 15: Actress Laverne Cox attends the “Orange Is The New Black” season two premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on May 15, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Transgender people have been in the news a lot lately. Last week Time Magazine made history by putting Laverne Cox, the transgender actress in the hit Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” on its cover. A seven minute YouTube video about raising a transgender child just went viral with more than 5 million views. And this week The Chicago Sun-Times came under fire for publishing, and then removing, an anti-transgender column that originally ran in The National Review.

The Sun-Times op-ed threatened to undo what little progress Time had achieved by putting an elegant trans woman on its cover — and one who is black, which is significant because historically, when it comes to LGBT movements, the public faces have been white. That’s why Women, Action & the Media and LGBT activists acted so swiftly in demanding the Sun-Times apologize to Cox and set standards in covering transgender people. It’s also why it is important to note how quickly the newspaper took corrective action.

Although it is the news media’s  job to present an array of views, even unpopular ones, it is also the media’s responsibility to report fairly and factually, even in the space of an opinion piece. That’s where the Sun-Times fell short. The column, written by Kevin D. Williamson, claims that Cox is not a woman despite how she identifies herself and stated that transgender people are delusional. Williamson also dismisses findings by the American Psychological Association recognizing the benefits and efficacy of gender transition treatments.

The essay remains on The National Review’s Web site, the Sun-Times took it down from its site Tuesday afternoon.

“… [T]he essay did not include some key facts and its overall tone was not consistent with what we seek to publish,” wrote Sun-Times editorial page editor Tom McNamee in explaining why the op-ed was removed. “The column failed to acknowledge that the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have deemed transgender-related care medically necessary for transgender people. It failed as well to acknowledge the real and undeniable pain and discrimination felt by transgender people, who suffer from notably higher rates of depression and suicide.”

Does the news media, in addition to its obligation to report fairly and accurately, also have a responsibility to educate the public about transgender identity?

Despite all of the recent press, the public still understands very little about transgender people; for the most part journalists are clueless, too, as evidenced by Katie Couric’s and Piers Morgan’s struggles with the topic. Perhaps journalists ought not be in the business of educating the public about transgender identity, a task best left up to transgender people who can and should speak for themselves. But the news media also shouldn’t be in the business of perpetuating stereotypes the way National Review and the Sun-Times did.

Transgender identity is a provocative topic, and like race, it tends to generate lots of clicks and reader comments. In the end it is important that journalists keep one central guiding principle in mind when covering trans people, particularly women, said Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality: “We’re human. It’s shocking that not everybody gets that. And if they don’t get it, then they don’t want to,” she continued. “If people can just accept that, then they wouldn’t write nonsense like this except to score political or career points. And if they do it for that reason, then shame on them.”

Just as the media has been fairly criticized for being lazy in relying on stereotype to portray people of color, the same holds true for how it portrays LGBT people. 

According to a 2013 report by Essence Magazine, black women are still portrayed poorly in the media: They are often projected as promiscuous, angry and/or overweight. When it comes to trans women who are black, like Cox, the images are just as bad if not worse. Law & Order’s “sassy, tranny hooker” comes to mind.

The media play a critical role in the way the public perceives trans people. So when journalists talk about transgender issues, it’s imperative that they get it right.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation offers a style guide and glossary of terms that journalists should and should not use in covering trans people. The overriding theme journalists should keep in mind is that transgender can be confusing for many people, and they will be looking to the media for images and narratives to help them understand what it means. The overarching idea, writes Katy Steinmetz for Time, is that “the basic concept is that sex is something determined by biology, while gender is entirely separate, a set of behaviors and expectations developed through human interaction. For many trans people, their gender identity — the way they feel they should fit into society — does not align with the sex that the doctor proclaimed in the delivery room.”

With an an estimated 1.5 million transgender people living in America who are coming out of the margins to assert their civil rights, becoming more vocal and more visible and fighting for systemic and structural social change, journalists will be writing more and more about this group. The media may not be responsible for educating the rest of America about transgender people, but it will definitely play a role in helping one group get to know the other.

Tracie Powell writes regularly about the media for several publications. She is the founder of allDigitocracy.org, a blog that focuses on the intersection of technology, media and policy.

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