Update: On March 12 the Department of Defense approved a new policy that will largely bar transgender troops and military recruits from transitioning while serving in the military.
NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists encourages journalists writing about the change in policy on transgender service members to be fair and accurate in their coverage.
If you or someone in your newsroom has questions about language use, NLGJA is available to provide peer-to-peer guidance.
Here are a few tips, as well as some information from our stylebook that may be helpful in covering transgender individuals:
- Referring to “transgender woman” or “transgender man” is acceptable on first reference. Subsequent references should refer to a transgender woman as a “woman” or a transgender man as a “man.”
- When quoting sources, use the name and pronoun(s) that an individual uses. It’s not about a driver’s license, birth certificate or military ID.
- Unless it’s germane to the story, birth names and gender aren’t relevant when covering individuals without prior name recognition.
- Medical history is personal. If a person wants to talk about private medical history, hormones or surgery, it is OK to report it — provided it’s germane to the story. But gender identity doesn’t depend on surgery or hormones, nor are these necessarily public topics.
- Avoid playing into stereotypes. Not all trans people are seeking to become the archetype of the gender to which they are transitioning. At the same time, lots of people who don’t change gender aren’t necessarily the physical epitome of what one thinks of as a man or woman. Avoid subjective assessments of how someone presents him- or herself.
- Sex assigned at birth, gender and sexual orientation are three different, but related aspects of every individual. The military segregates by gender (male and female), therefore someone’s sex assigned at birth and surgery history is not relevant to the standards they must adhere to according to their gender identity.
One source for information on LGBTQ military service, including the impact of open transgender service, is The Palm Center, an independent research institute (palmcenter.org).
Please consider that words matter. Research has shown that LGBTQ teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of all suicide attempts. Transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed — and four times as likely if they’re a trans woman of color. Lesbians and gays outnumber trans people six to one, yet transgender people are 50 percent more likely to be murdered. Bullying of LGBTQ youth has been shown to be a contributing factor in many suicides, even if not all of the attacks have been specifically addressing sexual orientation or gender.
NLGJA members in print, broadcast, online, international and national newsrooms will be covering this story as well. NLGJA is not an advocacy group, but a group of working journalism professionals dedicated to ensuring fair and accurate coverage of the LGBTQ community.
You can find more in NLGJA’s stylebook (nlgja.org/stylebook). We also offer tipsheets on issues that affect our communities at nlgja.org/resources. NLGJA also has professional development available through our Newsroom Outreach Program. The project was designed to help newsrooms better understand the complexities of covering our diverse communities, while remaining unbiased. Please feel free to contact us if we can be of assistance. We have members in local, national and international newsrooms who are experienced covering these types of issues.
Thank you for your time and attention.
NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists
Originally published June 30, 2016
Updated January 22, 2019
Here are some things from the NLGJA Stylebook that you might find particularly useful going forward:
If a source shares transgender or gender-nonconforming identity, it is best practice to ask for preferred pronouns. Be cautious that a person’s pronouns may not correspond with the gender that may be associated with one’s name or appearance. Also, do not assume transgender status or include it if it is not germane to the story.
When writing about events prior to when the person began living publicly as a different gender, NLGJA recommends avoiding a mix of different pronouns within a story by using the person’s first name at the time, using the last name as appropriate, or using a structure is clear about the timeline but avoids the need to reference the name.
The process by which transgender people change their physical, sexual characteristics from those associated with their sex at birth. This process occurs over time and may include adopting the aesthetic markers of the new gender; telling one’s family, friends and/or co-workers; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and sometimes, but not always, surgery or other body modification procedures. Not synonymous with sexual reassignment. Avoid the outdated term “sex change.”
The medical and surgical process by which transgender people change their physical, sexual characteristics to reflect their gender identity. May include surgery and/or hormone therapy. Sexual reassignment surgery can be a part of gender transition but is not necessary. Not all transgender people choose to or can afford to have such surgery. Avoid overemphasizing the role of surgery in the transition process. Avoid the outdated term “sex change.”
Refers to individuals whose gender identity and/or expression may not match their physical, sexual characteristics or sex assigned at birth. Some female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators and intersex individuals may also identify as transgender. Use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with how the individual lives publicly. When possible, ask which term the source prefers. Do not use “transgendered.” Offensive when used as a noun; use “transgender people,” “transgender man” or “transgender woman.” In cases where space is an issue, such as headlines, using “trans” as a shorthand adjectival form is acceptable.
Transgender people may use a number of terms to describe themselves. For more guidance on transgender terminology and coverage, visit the NLGJA Journalists Toolkit.
A person who was assigned female at birth but identifies and/or lives as a man. In statistics, the abbreviation FTM, or female-to-male, may be used. Usually shortened colloquially to trans man, it should be used only when the subject prefers it and when transgender status is germane; otherwise, identify a news subject as a man.
A person who was assigned male at birth but identifies and/or lives as a woman. In statistics, the abbreviation MTF, or male-to-female, may be used. Usually shortened colloquially to trans woman, it should be used only when the subject prefers it and when transgender status is germane; otherwise, identify a news subject as a woman.
Fear, hatred or dislike of transgender people, and/or prejudice and discrimination against them by individuals or institutions. May be harbored by gays, lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals and transgender people themselves.
Avoid this outdated term in favor of “transgender” and “transgender people” unless a person or community prefers the term; it can carry misleading medical connotations.
Avoid this outdated term.