Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

The Religion Guy examined aspects of transgender coverage last fall, but this delicate topic continues to pose media quandaries.

We sidestep here the substantive discussion among religious groups, which is well worth attention. All of these issues will show up in coverage of debates inside and among religious groups.

For starters, should journalists apply “nonbinary” pronouns preferred by persons they cover?

The New York Times, long an arbiter of copy desk standards, has experimented with allowing the “mx” identifier. Other proposed neologisms include e.g. thon, hir, ze, zie, zir, xe, xir, xyr, xem, xer, xeir, xis, hirself and zirself. Problem is, even media that want to sidestep old male-female lingo lack substitutes that won’t perplex readers.


The purpose of copy style is to avoid confusion. We see this problem in a paywalled Times item July 5 to conclude the WorldPride celebration, under the hed “’Gay’ - ‘Femme’ - ‘Nonbinary’: How Identity Shaped These 10 New Yorkers.”

One of the spread’s three pages covered a New Yorker born male who now identifies as “nonbinary trans-femme,” but avoids female hormone therapy due to hopes of having children with the female spouse. The Times followed the subject’s insistence on using ambiguous plural pronouns (they, them, their). As a result, head-scratching readers had trouble figuring whether pronouns referred to the individual or the couple.

Given the traditions and structure of the English language, there are no easy solutions here, and copy editors can expect years of debate, agitation and flux.

Th at earlier Guy Memo noted that Facebook recognizes 50-some identities and writers need to know at least key labels beyond the older LGBT as defined by Yale Divinity School: “androgenous” (with aspects of both genders), “asexual” (without sexual attraction), “gender nonconforming” (various identities beyond male/female), “queer” (militantly L, G, B, T, or ‘fluid”), “genderqueer” (with elements of two or multiple genders), “pansexual” (attracted to those of varied identities), “intersex” (ambiguous gender at birth), and “cisgender” (trans labeling for people whose “gender identity” matches the birth gender).

Other developing nomenclature in Times coverage: A “deadname” is the discarded name a trans person received at birth. A “polyamorist” (wanting multiple sexual partners) called herself “femme” to more powerfully spurn masculinity and “dyke” to underscore lesbian fervor, but said nowadays “queer has become lacking in punch. It feels safe.”

Another person was described as “genderfluid” (may express multiple genders simultaneously or fluctuate between gender identities). The last example indicates reporters need to continually update nonbinary sources’ identities. The point is reinforced by a June 30 Times article on “The Fluidity of Gender, Language and the ‘Human Experience’.” It reported that some “choose different pronouns depending on the gender they most identify with on any given day.”

That article added further linguistic pointers. A “biromantic” person can fall in love with more than one gender. “Demisexual” as opposed to “asexual” means there’s no sexual attraction unless a strong emotional bond has occurred first. A Times staffer’s first-person account over two pages on the gay party scene said those outside “majoritarian” culture are all about “road-testing new looks, identity expressions, desires, and orientations,” so anticipate further evolution.

Confused? If it’s any consolation, the Times reports that L, G, B, T and nonbinary spokespeople disagree among themselves on what terms should be embraced, or discarded as offensive or out of date, or are misused by fellow activists.

Along with explaining a difference between one’s birth gender and current gender identity, the movement wants the media to add a word to specify that gender was "assigned” at birth. However, journalism is fact-based. Birth gender is not assigned by, for instance, parents, hospitals or the culture, but fixed biologically by chromosomes and genitalia (with very rare exceptions). Also, by traditional journalistic canons, use of “assigned” is problematic by putting the media in the uncomfortable position of taking sides in a dispute.

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