Media Critic: Louisville News Media Mostly Got It Right In Coverage of Transgender Student

Although transgender women have never been more visible in the United States—Chelsea Manning, Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, Fallon Fox, Laverne Cox—some journalists are still not quite sure how to write about them.

For example, the sports journalism website Grantland spectacularly botched their story about a transgender woman and quite possibly drove her to suicide. That tragedy highlights exactly why it is very important for journalists to handle transgender issues sensitively: because over 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. Nearly one-fifth have experienced domestic violence. In schools, 78 percent have experienced harassment and 35 percent have been physically assaulted due to their gender identity or expression. (The facts about discrimination against transgender people are utterly horrifying.) Dehumanizing transgender people through irresponsible or ignorant news media coverage makes a terrible situation even worse.

As a whole, Louisville news organizations did an above average job of covering Atherton High School’s move to add gender identity to its non-discrimination policy and the circumstances that led to that decision. But as any teacher can tell you, “above average” is not synonymous with “excellent.” Unlike the Daily Caller, whose coverage of this story was deliberately malicious, the mistakes of Louisville reporters are probably attributable to ignorance, not hostility. 

There were a few problematic tweets from local reporters and news organizations leading up to the School-Based Decision-Making Council meeting at Atherton on May 15, and several of the full news stories also had problems.

WHAS 11 published a story that conflated “sex” with “gender” and described the transgender female student as wishing to use the bathroom of the “opposite sex.” According to GLAAD, the American Psychological Association, and the World Health Organization, sex refers to biological characteristics such as chromosomes, internal organs, and external genitalia, whereas gender refers to roles, behaviors, and feelings that are socially assigned to men and women. In short, sex is biology and gender is behavioral attributes essential to personal identity, according to philosopher Judith Butler.

WLKY and WDRB both described the student’s gender incorrectly. The student is a transgender female, not a male who “identifies as a female” or wants to be “treated as a woman.”

All of the local news outlets would have been better off describing the Atherton student as “a transgender female, born male, who wished to use the girls’ restroom.” WAVE came the closest to getting it correct: “a freshman student who was born male but identifies as a female received permission to use the girls restrooms and locker room.” WFPL and the Courier-Journal used similar language: “a male-bodied transgender student … who identifies as female” and “born male, but identifies as female.”

The distinction between a “male student” and a “student born male” is an important one, according to Harper Jean Tobin, the Director of Policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality (Full disclosure: I have known Tobin for years and consider her a friend.) Tobin said that gender identity is “an innate aspect of psychological identity, which individuals are aware of at a very early age, and cannot willingly change.” To deny that gender identity is, according to Tobin, to deny “the basic human dignity of transgender people.” Just as a non-transgender (or cisgender) female might find the suppression or degradation of her female identity intolerable, so does a transgender female experience dehumanization and disrespect when her own identity is denied or disparaged.

Louisville reporters are to be commended for not identifying the transgender student against her will, obsessing over anatomical details, or characterizing her as a deceiver pretending to be female for sinister reasons. (Yes: journalists, columnists, and commentators actually do this sometimes.) But, because they still have to work on their terminology, they should check out the Associated Press Style Guide, the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s “Transgender Terminology” guide, and the American Psychological Association’s list of relevant terms. Here’s hoping that when this issue comes up again, Louisville media coverage will be excellent, rather than merely above average.

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