Transgender People: A Guide for Reporters

Tips and guidelines for covering transgender people with accuracy and sensitivity.

PHOTO: Two transgender people supporting print media.

We do not need reporters to be activists; we merely need you to be right.

According to a 2016 estimate by The Williams Institute, there are 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States. According to a 2019 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in fifty American teenagers are transgender, bringing the total count of transgender people in the US to a little over 2 million. (While there are a range of estimates for the number of transgender children under the age of 13, none are greatly comprehensive).

Transgender people — loosely defined as any person who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth — have existed throughout history and exist today in every culture on the planet. The concept of gender identity — loosely defined as one’s internal sense of their relationship to masculinity, femininity, or neither— is well-documented, heavily researched, and the focus of medical providers, research bodies, and public health organizations across the globe. We are not a trend, lifestyle, contagion, or political movement. Simply put, a transgender person is a kind of person.

Thanks to newfound visibility in entertainment and politics, many Americans are finally getting to meet transgender people through television, movies, and news reporting, but most polls still find the majority of Americans have never met a transgender person. As reporters and editors, how you choose to portray transgender people will have a tremendous impact on how your readers perceive transgender people.

Employers, educators, law enforcement, and lawmakers are basing their decisions about us upon your work — decisions like laughing us out of job interviews, harassing us in public bathrooms, profiling us as criminals, and proposing legislation that would erase our existence from the law. The stories you tell, the sources you cite, the events you deem newsworthy, and the opinions you highlight are all choices you make that will shape how trans people are viewed by others with immense sway over our lives.

Terminology

  • Gender Identity: An individual’s internal sense of their relationship with masculinity, femininity, or neither. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others and is not contingent upon physical anatomy, appearance, or medical treatment.
  • Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. “Trans” is also acceptable after first use of “transgender” (Note: In American English, transgender is an adjective, not a noun or verb)
  • Transgender Man: A term for a transgender person who currently identifies as a man.
  • Transgender Woman: A term for a transgender person who currently identifies as a woman.
  • Non-Binary: One of the most common terms for people who do not identify as exclusively male or female. Other terms include genderqueer, agender, bigender, and more. These terms are not interchangeable but all reflect an experience with gender that is not best summarized as “man/male” or “woman/female”. For more on people with non-binary gender identities, click here.
  • Transition: The social, legal, and/or medical process of aligning one's life with their gender identity. This can (but does not always) include changing of names and pronouns, alterations in dress, speech, and mannerisms, updating identity documents and legal registries, and seeking medical treatment to change physical characteristics.
  • Transition-Related Care: A broad term for a range of health care options transgender people may pursue, including counseling, hormone replacement therapy, and surgical treatments. Not all transgender people pursue every form of medical treatment available, and many may never receive medical care of any kind due to cost, access, or personal choice. Avoid terms such as “sex change” or “sex reassignment.” For more, see Transgender People and Health Care: A Guide for Reporters.

Pronouns

When referring to a transgender person, use the pronouns indicated by that person. This is the recommendation and practice of the Associated Press, The American Copyeditor Society, the Poynter Institute, and in practice by most legacy media outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and most other resources for editors and reporters.

As the Standards & Practices Editor at NPR recently put it:

A pronoun is a biographical detail that has to be correct. Getting it wrong not only means we’ve made a mistake, it means we may have hurt the person we interviewed. That has happened. The right pronoun is the one that person uses. (Do not say someone “prefers” a pronoun.)

If someone is referred to using the wrong pronouns in a quote, consider amending the quote with a [sic] to indicate this is an error made on the part of the original speaker (intentional or not).

Some people will use the pronoun “they/them” instead of “he” or “she”. Use these pronouns when referring to them in your work.

An example from Billboard Magazine (emphasis mine):

As pop superstar Sam Smith has continued to release new singles, fans have been left wondering — when is the singer’s third album coming? While the star didn’t offer many specifics, they did give fans a look into their exhaustive process this week.

In an Instagram post published on Wednesday (Oct. 2), Smith shared a hilarious snap of themselves sprawled out on the floor, in a complete starfish position, staring up at the ceiling. Fittingly, Smith captioned this photo simply by saying, “Writing my third album like…”

The Associated Press Stylebook currently allows for use of the singular “they” but recommends reporters “explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.” Decide whether such an explanation is necessary; it may very well be overly cumbersome in the text.

References to a transgender person at a point in time before they came out or began their transition should use the pronouns that person currently uses.

More on the grammatical use of the singular “they”:

Associated Press: Making a case for the singular ‘they’
Oxford English Dictionary: A brief history of the singular ‘they’
The Washington Post: A guide to how gender-neutral language is developing around the world

Names

Most transgender people will use a name other than the one given to them at birth. When referring to a transgender person, use the name they provide to you.

I’ve had many conversations with reporters and editors about the inclusion of prior names used by transgender people, and the answer is always the same: Always avoid using a transgender person’s prior name. Doing otherwise confuses your readers, offends your subject, distracts from your story, and violates your subject’s privacy.

No, the publication of their prior name in a public document (such as a court brief or police report) does not change this. Do not ask yourself whether you may publish their prior name; ask yourself whether you must publish their prior name.

If their prior name is included in a quote, consider using [brackets] to replace it with their current name.

References to a transgender person at a point in time before they came out or began their transition should use the name that person currently uses.

If you really believe you must include someone’s prior name, ask yourself whether you have done the same to someone whose name change was the result of a marriage, divorce, or adoption. Ask yourself whether you would do the same to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), or Willard Romney (Mitt Romney).

Remember: Do not ask yourself whether you may; ask yourself whether you must.

Key Sources

Other Resources

The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Stylebook

GLAAD Media Reference Guide

GLAAD: More Than A Number: Shifting the Media Narrative on Transgender Homicides

Reporting on Suicide

A Brief Note on Representation and Diversity

Diversifying your sources should be a key goal for any reporter, and reporting on transgender people is no different. Doing so broadens your story with different contexts and experiences.

Transgender people are a kind of person and, as such, our experiences and identities are not monolithic. Much of the media focus in the last decade, however, has been given to white, able-bodied transgender women like myself.

With this in mind — and in the tradition of the famed Bechdel Test — I propose you ask yourself the following questions about your story:

  1. Have you quoted more than one transgender person?
  2. Is at least one of those transgender people an expert in their field?
  3. Is at least one of those transgender people not a white transgender woman?

Much like the Bechdel Test, I do not intend this to be the ultimate arbiter of diversity in your story. And — because more fields than just journalism struggle to diversify their leadership — meeting each goal may not always be possible. Consider this a practice meant to help bring more context and experiences to your work.

Who Am I?

My name is Gillian Branstetter — I am a writer and media strategist based in Washington, D.C. Formerly, I was a freelance writer and reporter featured in The Atlantic, Newsweek, Rewire, and Out Magazine as well as a regular contributor to The Daily Dot. While based in Central Pennsylvania, I also covered the health care landscape including health care access, medical marijuana, and the opioid use crisis.

The guidelines here are an effort to synthesize countless conversations I’ve had with people across the media landscape about trans issues. I’ve worked with local reporters, national reporters, industry reporters, political reporters, policy reporters, data journalists, investigative teams, columnists, opinion page editors, copyeditors, podcast producers, booking producers, cable news anchors, fact-checkers, and freelancers from across the country.

I’ve provided sources ranging from policy experts and data focused on trans people as well as served as an on-the-record source for countless reporters (I appeared in over 200 individual reports in 2019 alone including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters, the Associated Press, TIME, Newsweek, CNN, NBC, and many more).

I’m available for in-person newsroom trainings that cover what is included in this guide and much more. I can be reached by email here — no question is too small and confidentiality can be guaranteed upon request.

Writer | Media Strategist | Press @NWLC | Co-Founder @TransJournalist | Bylines: The Atlantic, Newsweek, Out, Openly, Rewire, The Daily Dot | She/Her