We’re currently experiencing an exciting period of heightened representation of trans people in the media. More and more, trans voices (and faces!) are being brought to the foreground in television, film, social media and interviews.
Are you covering an event with trans organizers? Doing a write-up about current events and wanting to get some input from the trans community? If you have some questions about how best to represent trans voices in your show, publication, blog, etc., here are 5 quick tips to take into account:
1) Use Correct Names and Pronouns
This one seems obvious but it bears mentioning. Unless you are writing a detailed and specific biographical piece about someone, it is not necessary to mention their old name (commonly referred to in trans communities as their “dead name”) or the fact that they were “[x gender] at birth”. Oftentimes this information can be used to delegitimize people’s identities, or to create danger in their personal lives. As a general rule, unless someone brings it up themself, it is impolite (at best) to ask someone what their “old” name was. This extends to discussing events in their past as well – unless given explicit permission, do not refer to a time when someone was “living as” a different gender, even as a child. Before making reference to a trans interviewee’s past (and yes, this includes past and current genital status), ask yourself if you would find it necessary to do so if they were cis.
And remember, in the same way you wouldn’t guess what someone’s name might be, it’s best not to guess what someone’s pronouns are. Try incorporating asking about pronouns before your next interview, segment, or show so that your referring to the person in the way that feels best for them.
2) Ask Yourself: Is Their Gender Actually Relevant To The Topic?
An organizing principle of Ambit is to challenge people to know why they are asking certain questions, and what they will do with the answers. If you are covering a trans-centric event and interviewing panelists or keynotes, it may add some depth to your coverage to incorporate their identity – if done so respectfully and with consent. If you’re getting someone’s thoughts about Ribfest or dog-walking, it is likely that their entire gender history doesn’t need to be brought up. A simple guiding principle: If you are publicly identifying someone as trans, you should have a clear and easily articulated understanding as to why. Unless you have explicitly asked and explained why it is pertinent to your piece, do not assume that you can or should reveal someone’s history with gender identity simply because they are trans.
3) Check In About Identities and Terminology
Just like with name and pronouns, make sure you and your interviewee are on the same page regarding their identity. While knowing that someone uses them/they pronouns gives you cues about how to write about them, it does not necessarily reflect a specific identity. Them/they pronouns can be used by people who are non-binary, genderfluid or agender (and more!) and each of these identities come with their own experiences. It is important to know as well that, for many of us, gender is not a static experience and our identities can change from day to day or year to year. Trust people to be experts on their own identity and create space (but not obligation) for them to share that with you!
4) Be Real About Your Intent
We can acknowledge that trans identities are a “hot button” issue in certain spaces right now. There are lots of reasons why journalists seek out trans voices to speak on a topic: to create a platform for marginalized people to give their opinions on social matters, to create discussion by representing a diversity of viewpoints or perhaps, on some level, to capitalize on the fact that portraying trans people in media draws support and controversy – usually both – in large quantities.
When you get the idea to engage with a member of the trans community about a topic, be willing to be real about why you are reaching out to them. It is fairly easy for members of the community to pick out when a media source has reached out to a token trans person to “check off” a diversity box, or to have a controversial feature of the week. If you are reaching out to members of the community for feedback, ask yourself if you are taking time to find people whose experience might give them a unique or important perspective, or if you’re primarily seeking their involvement because “being trans is so hip right now”. The trans community offers a huge diversity of opinion and knowledge that your piece can greatly benefit from if you are honest and conscientious about who you choose to reach out to.
5) Be Open To Critique
Trans people being given a platform on such a large scale is a new development for most people and, as such, we are all learning together how best to do it! As communities become more connected, our language is evolving to become more inclusive and more accurate. How we discuss our identities is constantly changing, and what fits for one person or community may not for another.
If you misstep with language, always be accountable and realistic about fixing the problem and ensuring it will not happen again. If you are working on a piece and have some concerns about the accuracy of your language, there are many community members and organizations that are a great resource to make sure the discussion is happening in the most inclusive way possible. Better yet, take this as an opportunity to look into bringing some trans writers onto your team – we walk among you!