My Plea to the Media to Learn how to Properly Report Transgender News Stories

Just ten miles from my home lives a transgender teenager in Florence, Colorado. Her life was turned completely upside-down this week due to a false media story that was first published on October 10th by a conservative legal defense group, Pacific Justice Institute. The headline screams “sensationalism”:

“Nightmare: Teen Boy Harasses Girls in Their Bathroom,

Colo. School Tells Girls They Have No Rights”

Nonetheless, the story made it’s way around the globe. Within a few days it became clear that the facts of the story had gone un-checked – that it was literally created out of thin air. I encourage you to read for yourself on the Transadvocate website what the investigations of Cristan Williams revealed in regards to this story, including an interview with the teen herself (I’ll refer to her as Jane to protect her privacy) and her mother.

I hope that she’ll be able to go back to having a normal life, being a normal kid, to be the person she’s trying to be. I just want her to feel like she’s not different than everyone else and that she’s a beautiful person inside and out. She deserves to be happy and lead a normal life. She doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.  — “Jane’s” mom

The lies being spread through the ‘news’ are just horrible. I want to be able to let people know I haven’t done anything to harm any being and I am a human with feelings too. I just really hope from all of this comes good and allows more minds to become accepting and open.  — “Jane”

Quotes from “Family of Colorado trans kid targeted by harassment hoax speaks up” by Transadvocate

Although there were retractions and even apologies made by media outlets who pre-maturely reported this story, the damage was already done. Threats of violence towards Jane, including those of death, streamed in, such as the ones written in the online comments section of the article when it appeared on the Fox News website.

My first plea to the media regarding transgender news coverage is this.

When you come across a story regarding a transgender issue, and especially if it has to do with a child or a teenager, please keep in mind that 1) you are writing about a living, breathing, human being who is a citizen of the United States of America, 2) that your words have the power to either educate or breed fear in your readers, and 3) your words will either help create a safer world for that youth, or a more violent world for that youth.

As much as I wish this was an exaggeration, it is not. Jane had been doing just fine in her small Colorado town, having already been open about her transition for two years, and encountering very little friction during that time. Imagine if someone had written a false story about you when you were her age, and suddenly strangers from around the globe are having judgments and an opinions about you? Or what if this had been your own kid?

Jane is simply trying to live her life as the kind, fun, creative teenager she is. And now she’s been bullied, and severely so. And not by the students in her school, but by “grown-ups” who claim to be professionals in their field (i.e. Pacific Justice Institute and those who continue to insist this story is based in truth).

My next plea to the media regarding transgender news coverage.

This is directed towards those media folks who are well-intentioned when it comes to reporting transgender news stories. You may be unaware as to what the correct terminology is to use in these stories, as well as not having enough understanding as to what it means when someone is transgender, especially those who suffer from Gender Dysphoria.

There was an article that appeared this past Thursday in my local paper, the Daily Record, about the Florence teenager. My first reaction was to be surprised to see that the story was even mentioned, being that my community tends to lean towards the conservative. My next reaction was to feel concerned that the article was indeed published, since the original accusation had been proven false by that time. However, as I read through the article, I noticed that most of it discussed the legal rights that transgender people in Colorado are protected under.

I decided to write to the reporter. An exert from my email is below.

Hello (Name of Reporter),

Allow me to introduce myself, I am a licensed professional counselor who works extensively with the transgender population through my private practice in Colorado Springs.

I wanted to, firstly, commend you for providing such a detailed description of the laws which are in place in Colorado to protect the transgender population.

I also wanted to bring to your attention that the news story has since been retracted from most media outlets, due to the story’s facts being unfounded.

Lastly, I wanted to mention that I would be happy to be of assistance in the future if the Daily Record is to publish stories regarding transgender issues. There are a few instances in the article where incorrect terminology was used…

I would enjoy hearing back from you so we could continue this conversation.

Well, much to my delight she wrote me back, expressing her concern for Jane and wanting to learn more about how to accurately report on transgender news stories. So much so that she met with me yesterday, right here in our town, just ten miles from where Jane goes to school.

Over lattes we spent two hours discussing how difficult it was for her to write that story, because she was given minimal information on how to write about transgender issues. I gave her my “Trans 101″ handouts and answered whatever questions came to mind about what I’ve learned from working with transgender clients in my private practice. Her next step is she is going to take it upon herself to get to know people who are transgender, so as to broaden her compassion and understanding for this population.

My encounter with this local reporter led me to recognize that, as someone who has been working with the transgender population for as long as I have, it’s important for me to remember this is not the case for most everyone else in America. I need to show patience and understanding towards those who don’t fully comprehend yet what it means to be transgender, but are open and willing to learn.

So, to those in the media who fall into this category, my plea to you is to take the time to educate yourself on transgender issues before you write or record a story about this population.

3 Tips to the Media in Regards to Reporting Transgender News Stories

Over the past year “transgender news” has become a far more frequent topic in the media. This is potentially a good thing, because more education needs to be put out there to clear up any confusion, concerns, and fears about what it means to be transgender.

However, the errors that reporters are making in these stories, even if they are unintentional, have the potential of misleading and confusing viewers and readers.

As the local reporter pointed out to me, she was given little direction when it came to writing a story involving a transgender person. So, here are things to keep in mind, and I’ll use the aforementioned news story as an example to learn from.

1. Keep in mind your sources when reporting on transgender issues. 

The statement that this was a “male who claims to be transgender” was mentioned in the local paper version of the story, as well as on at least one local news station. The reporter I met with said this is because she (and my guess is the other reporter as well) got that phrase from the The Christian Broadcasting Network‘s version of the story.

There are sources that are based on medical and mental health research you can use instead (see below).

2. Use the preferred pronoun of the person you are reporting on.

The Associated Press Stylebook provides guidelines for journalists reporting on transgender people and issues. According to the AP Stylebook, reporters should “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. When describing transgender people, please use the correct term or terms to describe their gender identity. For example, a person who is born male and transitions to become female is a transgender woman, whereas a person who is born female and transitions to become male is a transgender man.

The correct way to phrase the sentence in Tip #1 would be to say that Jane is “a transgender female.” Even if the reporters weren’t able to talk to the teen directly, this information could have been attained from the superintendent of her school if there was any doubt as to her gender identity (i.e. “Does the teen in question identify as male or female?” “Female.” “Gotcha.”).

3. Become educated on what it means for someone to have the condition of Gender Dysphoria

“The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition” (from the Gender Dysphoria Fact Sheet from the American Psychiatric Association).

Follow me here for a second.

The Colorado Civil Rights Division defines being transgender as “a gender identity or gender expression that differs from societal expectations based on gender assigned at birth.”

The condition of Gender Dysphoria is a subcategory of the transgender umbrella. You’ll hear some people refer to themselves as “transsexual” if this is the case, as this is the clinical definition of someone who experiences gender dysphoria. The incongruence between the gender the person was assigned and birth and the gender they identify with is so intense that it needs to be treated by being able to transition to their rightful gender identity, both medically and socially.

Jane fits into this category.

How do you know? If someone is identifying as a female (i.e. is using the girls restroom at their high school), even though they were born in a male body, go ahead and assume it is because they have Gender Dysphoria and have transitioned to their true gender identity.

So, the sentence in Tip #1 would need to be revised because Jane does not “claim” to be transgender – it’s a fact and there’s no reason she should have to prove it to anyone.

People who have Gender Dysphoria do not chose this – it is something they are born with. To not transition means having to life with a condition that is, in the end, oftentimes deadly because of the severe mental and emotions effects that not being able to live as their true gender identity has on them.

Homework Assignment

For the media: These three tips are good places to start. But take the time to read the section in the GLADD Media Guide will provide you with additional information, such as a glossary of terms, transgender terms to avoid, and transgender pronoun usage and descriptions. Please download this guide and pass it onto your colleagues!

For transgender persons and allies: Share this blog post with your local media on their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or main email address that you find on their websites. Although the response will differ from outlet to outlet, those who do want to learn more will be responsive and grateful for the information. So, be sure to always start off with a polite and positive approach.

If you see a news story in which improper terminology is used when transgender issues or people are being discussed, first try to contact the reporter directly. If this doesn’t produces any results, post informational responses in the comments section of the story, as well as encouraging those in your social media circles to do so as well.

For example, I have noticed that the Fox News article (which still is available and has not been retracted) now contains dozens of comments from people saying “This story isn’t true, why do you still have it up?”

You do have a voice, so make it count!