Please see Glossary of Terms: Transgender for more tips on how to create stories about transgender people. If you are seeking information about how to create transgender and nonbinary characters for film, TV, theater, video games, etc., please read GLAAD’s TRANSform Hollywood guide. More resources for content creators may be found at glaad.org/transgender.
It is difficult to estimate the number of transgender people in the United States, as most surveys are not constructed in a way that can accurately capture that information. UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates there are 1.4 million transgender people in the United States. Certain surveys suggest that the Williams Institute estimate is far too low. However, if that number is accurate, and all transgender people in the US lived together in one place, that city would be America’s eighth largest city. But according to a 2021 Gallup poll, only 31% of Americans say they have friends or relatives or coworkers who have told them personally that they are transgender, compared to a 2013 Pew poll showing that 87% of Americans say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian. If a stereotypical or defamatory image of a gay or lesbian person appears in the media, viewers can compare it to real people they know. But when a stereotypical or defamatory image of a transgender person appears in the media, the vast majority of viewers have no real-life comparison and may assume it is accurate. Therefore it is critical that media create stories about transgender people that are fair, accurate, and current.
Social issues facing transgender people
Transgender people face high levels of violence, discrimination, and poverty. According to the U.S. Trans Survey, the largest national survey of transgender people to date, the trans community experiences unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with rates for trans people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate. Transgender people are also four times more likely to live in poverty. Ninety percent of trans people report experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. The American Medical Association has stated that transgender people face an “epidemic of violence.” Transgender people face barriers in accessing healthcare, including anti-trans bias and laws allowing providers to deny care to trans patients. All of these realities result in transgender people, especially trans women and trans people of color, experiencing extremely high levels of minority stress that results in poor mental and physical health. According to the U.S. Trans Survey, 40% of transgender respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 4.6% of the population as a whole. You can find more statistics from the U.S. Trans Survey here. A new U.S. Trans Survey is being launched in February 2022 and the results are expected by the end of 2022.
Transgender people face growing backlash. The growing visibility of transgender people and more authentic media portrayals have led to a greater awareness of what it means to be a transgender person. This has led to significant policy changes which have brought greater equality for people who are trans, including the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock. That landmark decision — in a case brought by, among others, transgender plaintiff Aimee Stephens — found that Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision extending full marriage equality to same-sex couples in 2015, anti-LGBTQ activists began to aggressively shift toward targeting transgender people, and especially transgender youth, as a wedge issue to advance their agenda. In February, 2021, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, in coalition with other anti-trans activist groups, released their so-called “Promise to America’s Children.” This document is the blueprint for anti-trans bills introduced in legislatures across the country. In 2021, more than 140 bills were proposed in over 30 state legislatures targeting transgender youth and their access to healthcare and education. This concerted political tactic, combined with increasing anti-trans activism from some white cisgender women in the U.K., (given a significant platform by British author J.K. Rowling), is creating an even more hostile and toxic culture in the U.S. and worldwide for people who are transgender. This makes fair and accurate reporting even more important. For more information about the backlash facing trans people, see Nondiscrimination, Healthcare, Hate Crimes, Youth, and Sports.
Names and Pronouns
Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Some transgender people are able to obtain a legal name change from a court. However, many transgender people cannot afford a legal name change or are not yet old enough to legally change their name. They should be afforded the same respect for their chosen name as anyone else who uses a name other than their birth name (e.g., Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, Cardi B). When writing about a transgender person’s chosen name, do not say “she wants to be called,” “she calls herself,” “she goes by Marisol,” or other phrases that cast doubt on a transgender person’s gender. Do not put quotation marks around either a transgender person’s chosen name (or the pronoun) that reflects that person’s gender identity.
Disclosing birth names. When a transgender person’s birth name is used in a story, the implication is almost always that it is the person’s “real name.” But in fact, a transgender person’s chosen name is their real name, whether or not they are able to obtain a court-ordered name change, which can be expensive and involves complex bureaucratic obstacles. Some transgender people call it “deadnaming” when a trans person’s birth name is revealed without their permission, but the term is not universally accepted as it implies a trans person “dies” when they transition. If the person is not able to answer questions about their birth name, err on the side of caution and do not report it.
Ask for the pronoun a person uses, and use it. We all use pronouns, and pronouns convey gender information. If you say “He went to the store” and “She went to work,” your audience understands you to say that a man went to the store and a woman went to work. Cisgender people rarely think about pronouns because the gendered pronoun people use for them is aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth. However, for transgender people, social transition may involve asking others to refer to them with new and different pronouns in order to better reflect their true gender identity. Simply respect the pronouns people ask you to use and use them as requested, just as you would strive to pronounce someone’s name correctly. If you are not certain which pronoun to use, you might say to a person, “My pronouns are she/her. What pronouns do you use?” Or it is also acceptable to use the singular they to describe someone when you don’t wish to assign a gender. For example: “I haven’t met your friend Miguel. What pronouns do they use?” Please note that the trans community no longer uses the phrase “preferred pronouns” as it implies that trans people’s pronouns are a preference, not a fact. Accurate pronouns are important for transgender and nonbinary youth. Research from the Trevor Project shows that youth who reported having their correct pronouns used by the people they lived with had half the rate of attempted suicide compared to those who did not have their pronouns respected.
Many nonbinary people use the singular they pronoun. It is increasingly common for people who have a nonbinary gender identity and/or gender expression to use they/them as their pronoun. The singular they/them pronoun does not have gendered connotations. For example: “Devin writes eloquently about their non-binary identity. They have also appeared frequently in the media to talk about their gender expression and the way people react to the way they dress.” The singular they has been adopted in all leading style guides, including AP, APA, MLA, and Chicago, and now appears in many dictionaries as well.
Some people may use both a gendered pronoun and they/them. For example, “My name is Jose and I use he/they pronouns.” People who use multiple pronouns may wish you to choose one of those pronouns and use it consistently, or they may wish you to use both pronouns interchangeably when referring to them. For example, “Jose is an excellent co-worker. He always turns in projects on deadline, and they also volunteer to organize the office holiday party every year.” (For more about what it means to be nonbinary, please see “In Focus: Nonbinary People.”)
Neopronouns and honorifics
Other pronouns like ze/zim and xe/xir exist and some nonbinary people use them. Sometimes they will use them together with they/them, depending on the situation and who they are talking to. Sometimes they will use neopronouns online or in written documents, but not when speaking. The honorifics Mr., Mrs., and Ms. are all gendered. Nonbinary people may ask for the gender-neutral honorific Mx. or ask that no honorific be used.
If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun they use, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s gender expression. Unfortunately, transgender people are subjected to extreme levels of violence and they may not be alive to tell you what pronouns they used. Transgender women are routinely misgendered in death by police and reporters. If a trans person used the name Kiara and her gender expression was feminine, then use she/her pronouns to refer to her. See GLAAD’s guide Doubly Victimized: Reporting on Transgender Victims of Crime for tips on how to report respectfully about a trans person who is no longer able to speak for themselves.
Basics of writing a transgender story
Respectful and accurate language is important. Using accurate terminology is the first step toward creating a respectful story about transgender people. The Glossary of Terms: Transgender section of this guide offers definitions of basic terms and a list of defamatory and offensive terms to avoid. If possible, you should always ask for and use the name, pronouns and language that your interview subject uses to describe themselves.
How to describe the fact that someone is transgender. Transgender should always be used as an adjective. For example, “Marisol is a transgender woman.” If your audience needs clarification about what that phrase means, you can explain that “Marisol was designated male at birth, and began her transition 15 years ago.” Avoid “Marisol was born a man.” People are born babies and a doctor assigns a sex to an infant based on a quick look at the baby’s external anatomy. A transgender person’s gender identity is not determined by the sex they were assigned at birth. An oversimplification like “born a man” invalidates the current, authentic gender of the person you’re speaking about and is considered disrespectful.
Avoid “identifies as” language. Language within the trans community is evolving rapidly. Even a few years ago, trans people might have said “Marisol identifies as a woman.” However, the trans community is moving away from this language and some now even consider it offensive. You wouldn’t say that a man who used to date women and now dates men “identifies as” gay. You’d simply say that he is gay. Like sexual orientation, gender identity is an innate trait that cannot be changed. When a trans person reveals their true, authentic gender identity, it’s not a question of “identifying as” a woman or a man or as nonbinary — they simply are a woman or a man or a nonbinary person.
Move beyond the transition narrative. People who have just disclosed publicly that they are transgender are considered newsworthy, but they are often not ready for media attention nor are they ready to speak about larger issues facing a diverse transgender community. Furthermore, constantly focusing on transition is reductive because it conveys the impression that transition is the only interesting thing about transgender people. Finally, the “coming out” or “transition narrative” has been covered thoroughly since trans woman Christine Jorgensen made worldwide headlines in 1952. Just as coverage of the LGB community now focuses on many different aspects of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the media is encouraged to look for stories about transgender people that go beyond “When did you know?” and “What surgeries have you had?”
Avoid focusing on medical transition. It is inappropriate to ask a transgender person questions about their genitals or other surgeries they may or may not have had. Typically, those questions are only asked out of prurient curiosity. They also distract the journalist and the audience from seeing the whole person, and from focusing on important issues that affect transgender people like discrimination, poverty, and violence.
Avoid sensationalized images or headlines. In almost every instance it is unnecessary to show “before and after” transition pictures of the person being profiled. Often these images are included simply to satisfy the invasive curiosity of readers or viewers. In most cases, they add nothing substantive to the story and only sensationalize the trans person’s life. Similarly, avoid clichéd images of transgender women putting on make-up, wigs, or panty hose, and shots of transgender men shaving. These type of photos imply that being transgender is simply a superficial, external performance of gender. Being transgender is not about physical appearance. Headlines and other promo copy should never resort to clichés or offensive language, simply in the interest of brevity or potential search engine optimization (SEO).. It is easy to ruin a well-written, nuanced story with a sensationalistic headline. Avoid phrases like “sex change” or “born a man” in headlines, subheads, promo copy, and stories.
Bring in expert opinion. Be cautious of inviting non-transgender guests to talk about transgender people, rather than talking to transgender people themselves. Journalists should seek transgender voices for stories about transgender lives and issues, especially when reporting on legislation affecting them, and ask lawmakers proposing these bills if they have consulted transgender constituents and medical professionals (every major medical association supports gender affirming care as effective, safe and lifesaving). Transgender people are the experts to talk about their own personal experiences. However, not every transgender person is an expert on every issue facing the trans community. When there is a policy issue or a campaign that affects transgender people, consider interviewing trans people who have leadership roles in the community and who are fully prepared to discuss the issue in depth. You do not always need a medical or psychological “expert” to speak about transgender people, but if you’d like a medical or psychological perspective, there are many transgender doctors and psychologists who can speak with experience and credible authority.
Integrate transgender people into all stories. While it is true that there are many social issues that must be addressed before transgender people are treated equally, it is also true that transgender people live day-to-day lives just like everyone else. Transgender people can be booked to talk about issues that are not about being trans and/or nonbinary. If you are doing a story about women in tech or Mother’s Day, consider including a transgender woman with children in those stories. If you are doing a story about pet adoption or Father’s Day, considering including a transgender man in those stories. If you are doing a story about entrepreneurs or Grandparent’s Day, consider including a nonbinary transgender person. When being transgender is just one of the many traits that make someone unique, we will move closer to full acceptance.
Please reach out to the below organizations —or GLAAD (firstname.lastname@example.org) — to learn more and connect with spokespeople.
For a longer list of transgender advocacy and support organizations, please click here.