What Editors Need to Know about the Transgender Community

by Sarah Grey

Originally published in The Freelancer (May 2014).

Language change can be slow, but in times of great social change, it often gets a little help. In the past fifty years, a variety of oppressed groups have advocated for linguistic changes that affect their communities, and editors have responded by adapting our standards. Words like Negro, colored, Oriental, authoress, retarded, and homosexual have given way to more humanizing, inclusive terms like African American, people of color, Asian, author, developmentally delayed, and LGBTQ because people stood up and demanded respect.

Today another group, the transgender community, is asking to be treated with respect and dignity. Transgender people make up an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the population, but face horrific rates of violence and widespread prejudice. Language usage in the media plays a key role in shaping how people think about and react to transgender people, so it’s crucial that editors get up to speed on how to handle the special linguistic considerations this community presents. This article presents a few simple basics to get you started.

A quick clarification: Sex refers to the way people are classified as male or female at birth based on their physical characteristics. Gender refers to how people feel inside and how they present themselves. Neither sex nor gender has anything to do with determining people’s sexual orientation, that is, their preferences regarding romantic partners.

The English language relies on a binary system of sex and gender: your body and your identity are either male or female, with no wiggle room in between. But human beings are much more complicated than that. Some transgender people see themselves as part of a binary and identify as entirely male or entirely female (this is called gender identification), regardless of the body they were born with. The intersex community includes people whose bodies don’t fit easily into one sex or the other. Others reject binaries altogether and may use a variety of terms. If you’re not sure, query. For detailed glossaries, see the resource list below.

Note that transgender and trans are the accepted terms (not transgendered or the dated transsexual). They should be used as adjectives only, never as nouns: a transgender person or a trans woman, not a transgender or a transwoman. The derogatory terms tranny, transvestite, he-she, it, and shemale should be avoided, as should any language that implies deception.

And then there are pronouns. When the language only offers he and she, what’s an editor to do? There is widespread debate: some advocate creative new pronouns like xe, ze, and hir, while others swim with the tide of language change and adopt the already popular, if not yet formally accepted, singular they.

But here’s the most basic rule of thumb: Ask, don’t assume. Query the author to confirm that they (see what I did there?) have asked about a transgender subject’s preferences. If someone tells you he is a transgender man, respect his identity and use he—never she. Also, note that a transgender man is someone whose transition was (or is) from female to male; likewise, a male-to-female transgender person is a transgender woman—or simply a woman.

Use the person’s chosen name. GLAAD also suggests that writers “avoid pronoun confusion when examining the stories and backgrounds of transgender people prior to their transition. It is usually best to report on transgender people’s stories from the present day instead of narrating them from some point or multiple points in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.” Also see the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association stylebook for more useful tips.

It is also worth asking whether gender identity is relevant at all—some writers include lurid or sensational descriptions of transgender people just to “add color” to a piece, without considering the effect on that person’s privacy or safety. In January, the sports blog Grantland published an article about golf clubs that outed a transgender woman publicly without her consent. The consequences were tragic: Essay Anne Vanderbilt committed suicide. The essay in which Grantland’s editor thoughtfully responded to the situation should be required reading for editors.

Our editorial choices have real consequences that can affect people’s lives in very serious ways. By handling transgender issues in the texts we edit as thoughtfully as we handle, say, the great serial-comma debate, we can help make the world less dangerous and more accepting for a significant portion of the population.