Generally, transgender describes people whose gender identity and/or expression may not match their physical, sexual characteristics or sex assigned at birth.
But the word can mean different things to different people. Journalists covering transgender people must ensure they correctly understand and communicate the parameters of the community or communities about which they are reporting.
In a strict sense, the term transgender includes people who were assigned as male or female at birth and later identified as the other. But it sometimes is understood as an umbrella term covering other people with nontraditional gender identities, possibly including but not limited to genderqueer and agender people.
Some cross-dressers, drag queens and kings, female or male impersonators, and intersex people may also identify as transgender.
In news coverage, identify people as transgender only when relevant to the subject matter and only if they are widely known or describe themselves as such. Otherwise, describe trans men as men and trans women as women.
Using it as a noun — as in a transgender or a conference of transgenders — is inaccurate and offensive. Do not use transgendered, which is offensive and implies something must have happened to make a person transgender. People can be transgender regardless of age, but journalists should take the usual legal and ethical precautions when reporting on children.
Terminology is constantly evolving and new terms emerging.
Here are a few additional tips 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.
Be especially sensitive when covering transgender individuals who have been victims of crime, as to not re-victimize them. When covering violence against transgender individuals, be careful of sensationalizing the crime; avoid describing the victim’s clothing, manner or genital characteristics. Avoid giving the impression that the victim is being deceptive about his or her identity. If police suspect the crime was motivated by anti-transgender bias, state that.
Be particularly sensitive when covering transgender women of color, who are disproportionately affected by anti-transgender hate crimes. If police characterize a victim as “a man in a dress,” make an effort to determine if the victim identified as transgender. If it cannot be determined, be sure to cite who provided information about the victim in your story. If possible, provide context for the reader, who may be unfamiliar with issues faced by transgender people, such as those surrounding legal name changes and lack of anti-discrimination protections.
Details on some terms commonly used, or misused, in news coverage of transgender people follow:
gender confirmation, gender confirmation surgery
gender nonconforming (adj.), gender nonconformity (n.)
gender transition, transition
Updated December 2020