‘The New York Times’ Is Learning — Publicly — How to Report on Transgender Identities

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The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, wrote two pieces last week regarding how the Times will take on transgender issues and language. Written with Sullivan’s typical measured empathy, the pieces are a fascinating look at how institutions have to learn, grow, and change in order to serve communities that are evolving past traditional ideas of language and style.

As transgender issues and identities become more common in the news, the responsibility falls on the organizations doing the reporting to write clearly and specifically about their subjects, using the correct pronoun regarding their gender. It’s an issue that transgender activists are passionate about because language is a first step in being seen and being accounted for; lazy use of language and pronouns around transgender stories spreads misinformation, which can be a matter of life or death.

I found Sullivan’s essays particularly interesting considering the looming, still-not-official potential of celebrity and reality star Bruce Jenner detailing his journey in public — media coverage of which might well result in chaos. Last year, I had the opportunity to write about Jill Soloway‘s wonderful Amazon Studios TV show Transparent, a show based on her experience when her father came out as transgender. Amazon provided a “Trans 101” guide for journalists who wrote about the show. In it, they explained how Jeffrey Tambor’s character, Maura, should be referred to as “she,” with Maura as her actual identity, and her past life as “Mort,” a man, should be discussed as if it was a costume that she had put on. This is a realistic representation of how the character felt, and how her journey should be portrayed. That 101 guide helped me figure out how to write about Transparent and Maura with the respect that the show and character deserve.

As Sullivan writes in the Times, transgender issues are being figured out as they come up in the newspaper, in real time. For a New York Times Magazine story about a young genderqueer person, Sasha, who used the pronoun “xe” in daily life, the paper bumped up against its own rules — that they don’t use gender-neutral pronouns. “The Times certainly wants to be sensitive and respectful of gender identity but that it also wants to avoid confusing readers,” writes Sullivan.

In that case, the writer of the piece made sure to not use any pronouns in referring to Sasha. What the Times was up against, in this case, is that the pronoun “xe” may have also been confusing for the average reader. Yet Sullivan imagines that “[d]uring the transitional period, as usage is becoming more settled, a very brief editor’s note at the beginning of an article could clue readers in.” She’s correct — readers are willing to travel with writers and stories and characters. It seems like using someone’s preferred pronoun in a piece is the start of writing the most accurate and respectful story. Sullivan calls for the Times to have more clarity, and she concludes (as it is true), that the paper’s policy is likely to change by leaps and bounds even in a year.

As mainstream culture becomes more aware of and sensitive to transgender identities — Joe Biden has called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time” — it’s imperative that publications approach writing about transgender people with accuracy. The second piece is much knottier — Sullivan takes the Times to task for its forays into tabloid speculation in two articles focusing on the fact that Bruce Jenner may be transgender, and that he may be on the verge of coming out publicly. However, he’s not there yet, and the paper has been coming from behind on the story, following speculative features in People and Us Weekly.

Even worse than the approach to the Jenner story is the Times‘ sloppiness regarding how it refers to prominent transgender people. Bestselling author, television host, and transgender woman Janet Mock is called a “transgender campaigner” (her response is priceless) and the paper has done a disservice to other prominent transgender people, referring to Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, and Chelsea Manning by their previous names and identities. Sullivan admits the paper’s mistake on that end, and she also calls their approach to Jenner “overkill,” which is absolutely correct.

Sullivan’s emphasis on the public, evolving approach a media company can take in writing about something as important as transgender issues is an important act of transparency. We’re in a time when people can speak truth to power easily, and with Sullivan’s clear eyes, it’s apparent that the Times is starting to listen.