Of the death of Leelah Alcorn, the young woman who took her life out of frustration with her parents’ refusal to acknowledge her identification as trans, I recently saw my friend Lisa Bunker (a trans woman and activist) remark, “One good thing in the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn: the mainstream media are all getting her name and pronouns right.”
The topic of getting Alcorn’s name and pronouns right—and trans and genderqueer pronouns in general—in the press, has only recently gotten the attention it deserves. It was just a few weeks back that I was contacted by Sailor Cartwright about this topic in particular.
Cartwright wrote of an experience they recently had regarding how they were identified in print:
“I wanted to send you a quick message about an issue I’m having with a local paper, The Forecaster. On Thursday they published an article in which I was mis-gendered and when I wrote to both the author and editor, I was given the run-around about AP accepted pronouns, my appearance, and a bunch of antiquated assumptions.
I am a female-assigned, masculine identified and presenting genderqueer and use the pronoun ‘they’. I was told, basically, that I looked female but they would change the pronoun to ‘he’. I agreed, but was very clear that it is not my preferred pronoun.
I realize that non-binary genders are relatively new territory in many fields and communities, but feel that this experience is a good time to start more dialogue about gender identity. As a respected local reporter and someone who seems to have a better grasp on progressive and left issues than many, I’m hoping you have insight/advice/etc.
As Cartwright can speak more eloquently and pointedly to their experience and related insights, I told them I would be happy to share their experience as a means of expanding upon the dialogue.
I think that America is getting some good exposure to the trans population right now, but folks are still stuck in that ‘you’re either a boy or a girl’ mindset. Basically, I think it’s time to start a conversation about the possibilities of identity, spectrums vs. either/or. While I hope that starting this conversation will get more people thinking and working toward a more fluid definition of gender, I also hope to really hit home about the importance of honoring a person’s identity regardless of how much ‘sense’ it makes to you. I’d also like to emphasize the social and emotional damage that can be caused specifically by media (mis)representation of trans and gender-non-conforming folks.
For reference, Cartwright also offered the unedited letter to the editor they sent in, which was published (in the Times-Record) a few days later (December 23, 2015):
My name is Sailor Cartwright, and I was quoted in the above-mentioned article written by David Harry. When the article was published, a colleague informed me that I had been mis-gendered (labeled ‘she’—a gender I do not identify as) and was in the process of trying to explain my preferred pronoun to the author. The author was willing to change the pronoun to ‘he’ in accordance with the AP Style Guide’s guidelines on pronoun use for transgender people which I opted for as a marginally better representation.
The problem is that while I don’t identify as a woman, I also don’t identify as a man. I am a female-assigned masculine queer, and use the pronoun ‘they.’ While I understand that non-binary genders and identities are new territory for many outside of the queer community, I feel that this is an important opportunity to address media representation and respect to the very real identities of a marginalized community. Contrary to Mr. Harris’ claim that the AP Style Guide does not recognize ‘they’ as an appropriate pronoun, their own words suggest that this particular rule is not engraved in stone. From the AP blog dated 8/22/13, it specifically states their intention to use gender neutral pronouns until Manning’s preference was attained from Manning. “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” The night I was approached by Mr. Harris, I was wearing a tie and was read as female. He was not sure of my gender, and thought it was ok to guess. Please know that it is not. As people who share the words and stories of various communities and cultures, it is your responsibility to do that work and represent people according to their truths.
Finally, Cartwright also offered the following resources:
“While it is critical that we better understand the role gender non-conformity plays in society, it is important that we understand what this concept means. As many sociologists, like myself, emphasize, we must understand that this concept is not naturally occurring, rather, it is defined (and redefined) by society. And, as something that is socially constructed or defined, its meaning and significance varies across. time, space, and even groups.”
— Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman (see more at What is Gender ‘Non-Conformity‘?)
Coverage of LGBTQ issues often stems as a response to the violence or discrimination that is frequently experienced by LGBTQ people in the press, in their schools, their jobs, their own community, and even at home. Though well-intentioned, there are ways in which your writing may propagate the hurt. It’s important to be aware of the nuances regarding genderqueer identities; there is a fine line between an educational story and a sensationalizing exposé. As a journalist, you are responsible for shaping the public’s perception and opinion on what you are reporting on. Adhering to these guidelines will ensure integrity and communicate supportiveness, both to the LGBTQ community and the public at large.
Stories involving transgender people are often sensationalised and contribute to negative stereotypes about the trans community. You can help make positive change by using language that is respectful and that protects the privacy and dignity of trans people. The aim of these guidelines is to encourage respectful – not sensational – reporting on trans people and communities. Another aim is to help journalists feel comfortable when reporting on stories involving trans people.
— Transgender Equality Network Ireland (find those guidelines here)
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project offers this fact sheet on transgender & gender nonconforming youth in school.
GLAAD’s media reference guide for transgender issues can be found here.
I am appreciative to Cartwright for bringing these resources to my attention, and for contributing to the conversation in this way! To echo their sentiments above, I am happy to know this from a technical perspective, but I think it is especially important to be familiar with on a human level.