When will journalism stop failing the trans community?

This article is part two of a three-part series by Master of Journalism student Mike Ott on LGBTQ issues on campus and in the city. Read the first one here.

“Transgender is usually regarded as a general term under which more specific descriptions, such as cross dresser, transvestite, drag queen, shemale and transsexual, fall.”

You may think this is just an offensive and uninformed comment from a preteen on a YouTube video, but it’s not. This is how the Canadian Press Style Guide, which is used by many newsrooms in Canada, tells journalists to write about trans people.

The Ryerson School of Journalism teaches its students to use the CP Style Guide. How is it that the school can stand behind something like this?

For the most part, the CP Style Guide is progressive, accurate, and fair. It’s as objective as possible and rarely contains the type of sensitive material that can rile up controversy. The former sentence is followed by instructions to use the term preferred by the subject in question. 

However, it still says that “transgender” is just an umbrella term for shemales and drag queens. The guide also misses a lot of important factors that go into talking about trans people accurately. That said, Ryerson may need to look elsewhere for guidance when reporting on trans people.

GLAAD, an organization dedicated to fairness and equality for the LGBT community, has published its own media guide in response to the outdated standards of both the CP Style Guide and the Associated Press Stylebook, the style guide for most American journalists. GLAAD’s guide explicitly forbids referring to trans people as shemales, drag queens, cross dressers, or transvestites, and gives specific instructions on punctuation, names, pronouns, and many other important factors.

Ashante Infantry, a reporter with the Toronto Star, teaches journalism at Ryerson. She has made it an important part of her class to teach students how to refer to trans people, as well as other sensitive subjects that the media often get wrong.

“I know what it’s like to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV and feel like I’m being misrepresented,” she says. As the only black female reporter at the Star, she understands how marginalized groups feel when their stories are left untold. She says it’s all a matter of taking the time to learn: “I go to that community when I don’t know.”

However, despite the attempts of numerous people and organizations to inform journalists on this issue, it appears that some reporters still aren’t getting the message.

When Katie Couric interviewed Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera, two trans women, she focused heavily on questions regarding their genitalia and medical history. In another instance, Kayden Clark, a trans man who committed suicide, was repeatedly referred to as “she” and “her” in the local media. And dozens of trans women of colour who have been murdered or attacked have been misgendered as well, including (but not limited to) Lamia Beard, Tamara Dominguez, and Monica Loera.

These types of incidents are not just irritating and offensive, they have real world effects that work to harm trans people every day.

Trans Media Watch has conducted studies that show trans people feel overwhelmingly misrepresented, with 78 per cent stating that media reporting on them was inaccurate or wrong. Another 20 per cent said they have experienced abuse at work they could trace back to media representation of trans people, and 36 per cent said they’ve experienced media-linked abuse from family and friends.

When trans people face consistent economic, social, and employment issues because of transphobia in society, the last thing they need is reporters misgendering them or referring to them as shemales/cross dressers/drag queens/transvestites.

Both the CP Style Guide and the Ryerson School of Journalism need to take the time to reconsider how we report on trans people and the types of harmful and misinformed lessons we are teaching young journalists in this country.

Ashante Infantry says it comes down to being proactive.

“You have to educate yourself. You have to care and be willing to learn; it’s really not that hard,” she says, “it just requires you to use some effort, but we can do it.”

Featured image by Augustine Ng