UCLA's Williams Institute estimates there are 1.4 million transgender people in the United States. But according to a GLAAD/Harris Interactive poll, only 16% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. A recent Pew poll shows that 87% of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. If a stereotypical or defamatory LGB image appears in the media, viewers can compare it to real people they know. But when a stereotypical or defamatory transgender image appears in the media, the viewer may assume that all transgender people are actually like that; most have no real-life experience with which to compare it.
Transgender issues can be complicated, and it is important to provide accurate information regarding the transgender community:
Transgender people, and particularly transgender women of color, are disproportionately affected by hate violence. Sadly, the tragedy of these incidents is often compounded by reporting that does not respect (or, sometimes, even exploits) the victim's gender identity.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 55% of all reported LGBT homicide victims were transgender women, and 50% were transgender women of color. Furthermore, in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78% transgender/gender non-conforming students in grades K-12 experienced harassment, while 35% experienced physical assault and 12% experienced sexual violence.
Nondiscrimination and workplace protections
Another major problem for the transgender community is discrimination in a myriad of situations. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, respondents experienced unemployment at double the rate of the general population, while 26% lost a job due to being transgender. Beyond the workplace, transgender people also experience housing discrimination, with 20% of respondents reporting that they were evicted or denied housing simply for being transgender.
Explicit nondiscrimination laws and workplace protections are important because they protect the transgender community from these injustices when they happen and even before they occur. However, passing these laws is a challenge. In November 2015, residents of Houston, Texas, repealed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which had previously afforded Houstonians protections on the basis of 15 characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Without laws such as this one, the transgender community will continue to face high rates of discrimination.
Transgender healthcare isn’t special healthcare. It's regular healthcare that non-trans people receive every day when they need it. Transgender health treatments are safe, effective and medically necessary for many transgender people; however, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 19% of respondents said that someone denied them medical services because of their gender identity.
Beyond discrimination, many transgender people experience problems with finding someone who understands transgender health issues. In fact, half of the people polled in the survey had to explain health issues to their own doctors. This could be a significant deterring factor for the transgender community from getting the care they need.
Best practices for reporters
Use accurate terminology. Using accurate terminology is the first step toward creating a respectful story about transgender people. The Transgender Terminology section of GLAAD's Media Reference Guide offers definitions of basic terms, along with guidelines on name and pronoun usage and a list of defamatory and offensive terms to avoid.
Use transgender to describe a person. Transgender should always be used as an adjective, never a noun. For example, "Susan is a transgender woman." If your audience needs clarification about what that phrase means, you can explain that "Susan was designated male at birth, and began her transition 15 years ago." Avoid "Susan was born a man." People are born babies and a doctor decides the sex based on a quick look at the external anatomy. But a transgender person's gender is much more complicated than a simple glance at external anatomy can capture. One's biology does not "trump" one's gender identity, and oversimplifications like "born a man" can serve to invalidate the current, authentic gender of the person you're speaking about.
Integrate transgender people into non-trans 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. When being transgender is just one of the many traits that make someone unique, we will move closer to acceptance. If you are doing a story about women in tech or Mother's Day, consider including a transgender woman in those stories.
Pitfalls to avoid
Avoid focusing on medical issues. It is inappropriate to ask a transgender person questions about their genitals or other surgeries they may have had. Typically those questions are only asked out of prurient curiosity. They also distract the journalist and the viewer from seeing the whole person – and from discussing larger issues that affect transgender people, such as disproportionate rates of discrimination, poverty, and violence. Do not characterize being transgender as a mental disorder. Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association consider being transgender a "mental disorder."
Only focusing on the coming out narrative. People who have just come out publicly as transgender are considered newsworthy, but they are often not ready for media attention, nor are they ready to speak about larger issues facing the diverse trans community. Consider interviewing people who have chosen to take leadership roles in the community – with all the responsibility that entails. Furthermore, the "coming out narrative" has been covered thoroughly since 1952, when trans woman Christine Jorgensen first received widespread attention in the United States. 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."
Disclosing birth names. When a transgender person's birth name is used in a story, the implication is almost always that this is the person's "real name." In fact, a transgender person's chosen name is their real name – whether they are able to obtain a court-ordered name change or not. Many people use names they've chosen for themselves, and the media does not mention their birth name when writing about them, (e.g., Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg). Transgender people should be accorded the same respect. When writing about a transgender person's chosen name, do not say "she wants to be called…," "she calls herself…," "she goes by…," or other phrases that cast doubt on the transgender person's identity.
In almost every instance it is unnecessary to show before-and-after pictures of the person being profiled. Often these images are simply included to satisfy the curiosity of readers or viewers, and in most cases they add nothing to the story. Similarly, avoid clichéd images of transgender women putting on make-up, wigs, and panty hose, and shots of transgender men shaving. These type of photos connote that being transgender is simply a superficial, external matter. Being transgender is not about clothing, make-up, and shaving.
With headlines, it is often necessary to save space and simplify. However, it's very easy to ruin a well-written, nuanced story with a headline that resorts to clichés and offensive language. Try to avoid phrases like "sex change" or "born a man" in headlines.
Talking about transgender people instead of talking to them. Be cautious inviting non-transgender guests to talk about transgender people – instead of talking to transgender people. Transgender people are the experts to talk about transgender people. You don't 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 authority.
Resources for journalists
- GLAAD's Transgender Media Page
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project
- National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs
- National Transgender Discrimination Survey
- Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund
- National Center for Transgender Equality