Catching Up  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2008

Catching Up   

Although they have a long way to go, news organizations are beginning to report with more sophistication about transgender issues.

By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.      


In April 2007, the byline of a well-known Los Angeles Times sports columnist changed from Mike Penner to Christine Daniels. In her column announcing the transition, Daniels asked a question that reflects a significant void in media coverage: "How do you go about sharing your most important truth, one you spent a lifetime trying to keep deeply buried...to a world whose knowledge of transsexuals usually begins and ends with Jerry Springer's exploitation circus?"

It is this vacuum of knowledge about those who identify with the gender different from their sex at birth that news organizations are just beginning to fill. Discussion of transgender issues in serious media (as opposed to daytime talk shows) is relatively new--and like most fledglings, it is floundering on its way to maturity. As the topic becomes less taboo and is more frequently treated as one of social and political importance, the media struggle to evolve with the times--and don't always succeed. The result is what some social commentators believe to be the bipolar state of transgender news coverage. Stories ricochet between extremes: sensational and fair, confusing and enlightening, insipid and insightful.

In March, mainstream news organizations bombarded the public with images and headlines usually reserved for supermarket tabloids. The phrase "Pregnant Man," used by news outlets including ABC and MSNBC, was almost always accompanied by the same picture: a face bearing a square, bearded jaw, leading down to a male torso--and giving way to a pregnant belly.

The headline and image promised the reader a medical breakthrough. But despite the media attention surrounding transgender male Thomas Beatie, he is no scientific oddity. His pregnancy did not defy any laws of nature: Beatie's reproductive organs are female, which allowed him a successful pregnancy and the birth of a healthy baby girl.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says Beatie's case is an example of the media's tendency to sensationalize the trivial and ignore the significant when it comes to reporting on the transgender community. Beatie's story was repeated ad nauseam on television and in print. However, the first-ever congressional hearing on transgender issues in June and the transgender woman in Memphis who was taunted and beaten by police while in custody were barely blips on the media's radar. "I don't begrudge Mr. Beatie or anything, but for most of us it was a very puzzling story--I mean, puzzling about why it was a story," Keisling says. "Every day transgender people are being murdered and fired, and even having successful lives."

But the "vacuous" Beatie coverage, she adds, isn't as offensive as some of the more pejorative treatment transgender issues have received. The Boston Herald reported on July 8 about a detective's undercover assignment to arrest sex workers, referring to the transgender women involved as "giant naked trannies." Kevin R. Convey, the Herald's editor in chief, says the newspaper staff didn't realize the offensive nature of the story until they received several complaints. "I'm quite sure we won't make the mistake again," he says. On February 10, New York's Daily News published a story about the murder of a 25-year-old transgender Bronx woman, under the headline "Fooled john stabbed Bronx tranny"--using a derogatory term to describe the victim and implying her killer had been tricked by her. The Daily News declined to comment for this story.

June Brown, communications coordinator for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York-based organization that advocates fair treatment for low-income, transgender people of color, says the media's depiction of transgender people as "tricksters" is harmful but common. News stories will often give the impression that they live as their desired gender to deceive others, she says. The Washington Post published a story on July 1 titled "Va. Couple Nearly Sidesteps Ban on Gay Marriage." Unable to reach the couple, the story's author speculates whether the men were "trying to make a political statement or put one over on officials, or whether [one of them] is transgender." A reader's letter to the editor published on July 5 points out that this implies transgender people are "somehow practicing 'deception.'"

Cindi Creager, director of national news for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), an organization that focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, says the media's tendency to confuse "transgender" with "gay" is misleading. "I would say that because LGBT people are working together as a movement, we are often lumped together by media who are new to our issues," she says. She adds that although the media's distinction between "gay" and "transgender" is often nebulous--and sometimes nonexistent--it is an important one to make; "gay" refers to sexual orientation, "transgender" to one's sense of being male or female.

In an April 3 Washington Post story, Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2002, was described as gay. Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell says the writer considered the term transgender to be under the "gay umbrella," and a correction was never published. "There's a distinct difference between gender and sexual orientation, and that's the key point," Howell says. "I say a clarification should have run on that." The story also calls the woman "Eddie," the name she was given at birth, despite her preference for and posthumous legal name change to "Gwen."

David Steinberg, news copy desk chief and style book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, says Associated Press style guidelines have helped clarify terminology. Until 2005, there was a "sex changes" entry in the AP Stylebook, and a "transsexual" entry that read "see sex changes." In 2006, the style bible was updated with a more specific "transgender" entry that specifies its appropriate application to anyone whose gender identity differs from his or her "sex at birth," including individuals who have not had reconstructive surgery. It also instructs reporters to refer to transgender individuals using their preferred pronouns.

"I think as in a lot of other things, the more things get reported and the more [reporters] see it, the more familiar they are to protocols," Steinberg says. But while there has been progress, news outlets don't always follow AP style. A March 26 story on foxnews.com about Thomas Beatie's pregnancy ("Oregon Woman Who Said She Had Sex Change Now Claims 'He's' Pregnant"), refers to Beatie as a "woman" who "calls herself a 'man.'" Beatie, who is legally a male, is referred to as "she" throughout the story.

Regardless of the persistent missteps, the media don't always get it wrong. Stories that have been praised by transgender organizations include "Understanding Transgender Children" on ABC's "20/20" and Newsweek's "(Rethinking) Gender."

Donna Cartwright, a transgender woman who worked as a New York Times copy editor for 30 years and is now communications director for the social advocacy group Pride at Work, says she has seen significant advances in coverage of transgender people over the years. "There was a tendency to exoticize transgender people, and there was very little serious coverage," she says. "That's changed some since the late '90s."

Cartwright and others from transgender organizations believe the quality of news stories could improve with more communication between reporters and experts who could give advice on definitions and terminology. Although deadline pressure probably factors into some of the errors, Creager says, a general lack of understanding is mostly to blame. "We've seen coverage move from a clinical nature to more meaningful and rich portraits of transgender lives," Creager says. "But there's still much room for improvement."

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