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4 things the media should do better while reporting transgender issues

Hong Kong-based non-binary transgender activist and singer-songwriter Vincy Chan shares tips on how the media can better support the trans community.

From the acclaimed American TV series POSE to the homegrown, trans-produced feature film A Woman is A Woman, trans representation in popular culture has led to a surge in journalistic interests about trans people over the past decade. However, reporting on trans issues can be a challenge for writers who are not familiar with the group and the gender-diverse identities that exist within it.

Here are some tips for how to tell trans stories authentically and ethically. This is by no means an exhaustive list and it isn’t meant to speak for the entire trans and gender-diverse community. Like most communities, trans people are not a monolith.

1. Hire trans writers, and respect them

Media organisations often make it a moral imperative to give voice to the voiceless. However, the reality is those we think of as “voiceless” often already have a voice, but society chooses to ignore, or even actively suppress them. 

What media platforms can do instead, is amplify these voices. Or as the author of Muslim Cool Su’ad Abdul Khabeer says in her viral tweet: You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.

In a world dominated by cisgender people, trans writers often don’t have access to media platforms to tell their stories the way they want them to be told. This is partly due to the institutionalised disenfranchisement (see point 4) faced by trans people, and partly because cis-majority media habitually frame trans narratives around a limited and often biased understanding of trans experiences (see point 2.)  

One’s access to resources is often limited by language. Trans-affirming media content, resources and public discourse for and by trans people are gaining more exposure in the Anglosphere, but for native Chinese speakers who are trans, positive trans media representation and content in their mother tongue are few and far between.

You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

Trans writers have a lot to share from their personal experiences and are likely more knowledgable about their community than their cis counterparts. However, hiring a trans writer doesn’t automatically give you ally brownie points, especially if you’re bringing them into a triggering and hostile editorial procedure where they have to experience transphobic behaviours. These include but are not limited to misgendering them and their peers, questioning and invalidating their experiences, and using dated terminology (more on that in point 3.)

Vincy Chan. Credit Elvis Chan
Vincy Chan. Credit: Elvis Chan

2. Move beyond ‘coming out’ stories and transitions

Coming out stories and “the surgery” (gender affirmation surgery) are often important chapters in a trans person’s life, and an easy sell to a cisgender audience that isn’t educated about trans issues. But such stories divert attention away from systematic barriers trans people face, such as unemployment, violence, and difficulties accessing healthcare and housing. They also keep readers from seeing trans people beyond these narratives.

Being transgender is only one facet of trans people’s multidimensional identities. We are also creators, social movers, healthcare providers, people’s friends and family members.

Vincy Chan

Trans narratives are as diverse as the community itself. Reporters should understand that transitioning is a gender-affirming process that can, but doesn’t always involve medical procedures. Gender affirmation and transitioning can include things like changing one’s name, pronoun, wardrobe, hairstyle or legal documents. Some trans people choose not to undergo medical intervention, sometimes out of choice, other times due to health-related reasons, finances or safety.

Being transgender is only one facet of trans people’s multidimensional identities. We are also creators, social movers, healthcare providers, people’s friends and family members. Integrate us into stories about non-trans issues, invite us to speak on issues that aren’t trans-specific. We have more to offer than a sensational spectacle on trans lives.

3. Use respectful language

First and foremost, “transgender” is an adjective. Please never refer to a trans person as “a transgender” or “transgendered.” While terms such as transsexual (which reinforces the idea that all trans people undergo surgery), transvestite (historically associated with being a medical disorder), MtF (Male to Female) and FtM (Female to Male) are still terms used by some community members and in government documents, they are deemed dated or even derogatory, especially in the English-speaking world. 

Labels are deeply personal. Ask trans people what labels they use if you’re not sure.

Names and pronouns used by trans people in their daily lives aren’t “preferred,” regardless of what their names and gender markers might be on legal documents. Phrases like “prefers to go by [chosen name],” “prefers to use [chosen pronouns]” and “identifies as [gender]” imply their names, pronouns and gender identities are optional.

Labels are deeply personal. Ask trans people what labels they use if you’re not sure.

Vincy Chan

When referring to a trans person’s identity, avoid clichés like “Jane was born a man,” “John is becoming a real man,” or someone was “born in the wrong body.” While some trans people choose to medically alter their bodies so they can experience a stronger alignment between their bodies and their gender identity, not all trans people do. Describing a trans person’s body as “wrong” implies there is something to be fixed. 

If you must spell it out for the audience, you may mention a trans person’s assigned sex at birth, but only with their explicit consent. Revealing a trans person’s assigned sex at birth or birth name (also known as “deadnaming”) without their consent could “out” them against their will and put them in positions that might jeopardise their employment or even personal safety.

Language is fluid, malleable and changes over time. Becoming a better trans ally means listening to trans people before arguing with them about whether or not “they” can be used as a singular pronoun – Shakespeare had been doing it since the 1600s. Get with the times.

4. Talk to trans people before calling an expert

Trans issues like accessing healthcare, bathroom bills, and gender recognition legislation are hot-button issues in public discourse around the world. Some media organisations are keen to report “both sides” of a “controversial” topic and position themselves as an unbiased observer as history unfolds.

It might seem like a good idea to consult an expert – be it a government official, representative of an institution, trans issues researcher or trans healthcare medical provider – for a voice of authority on trans issues. 

However, voices on trans issues don’t exist in a vacuum. And these by and large cisgender voices of authority are often given more weight than those of a marginalised community whose humanity and rights remain a subject of public debate. Not to mention these voices are often the same ones that are upholding the status quo or holding back the advancement of trans rights.

Regardless of how much professional insight and data about the trans community these cisgender experts have, or how sympathetic they might be towards the trans community, they lack the lived experiences of trans people. 

Trans people face a lifetime of hostility and institutional disenfranchisement cis people cannot even begin to fathom. Being bullied and abused by our peers, teachers and family mean we develop mental health issues and attempt suicide at an alarming rate.

We are experts in telling our own stories; you just have to listen.

Vincy Chan

Transphobia and discrimination at school and at the workplace mean that, as adults, we are less likely to have access to higher education, employment and housing. Not to mention the barriers to accessing gender-affirming healthcare, the lack of anti-discrimination laws to protect us, and how issues of race, class and disabilities intersect with trans identities.

Institutional disenfranchisement of trans people has made it difficult for us to find ourselves in positions of authority, but we are seeing more and more trans people excelling in fields such as public policy, journalism, research and medicine. Reach out to them before consulting cis people.

We are experts in telling our own stories; you just have to listen.