As a non-binary journalist, I sometimes feel like language is against me. Whether I’m being misgendered by an editor or reading a health story that assumes someone with my body is a woman, I’m constantly reminded that many science writers don’t respect transgender people in their work. Even those who are well-meaning often perpetuate myths that harm the trans community, such as by conflating gender with anatomy.
Training yourself out of anti-trans ways of thinking, writing, and reporting isn’t easy. I had never heard the word “non-binary” until five years ago. Even as I began to understand that this word describes me, I was unlearning myths about the gender binary and what it means to be a woman or a man. But becoming trans-inclusive is not only possible—it’s necessary to create a profession and a world that respects all people, serves all people, and reflects the realities of all people.
Being a trans-inclusive science writer does not merely mean using the pronouns a trans source requests or searching a draft for all instances of “pregnant women” and replacing the term with “pregnant people.” It means, for example, asking questions during reporting about how the drug or disease you’re covering affects trans folks. It means writing in a way that reflects human diversity instead of using inaccurate shortcuts about women and men. It means interviewing transgender sources in a way that brings them dignity—and not just for stories about transgender issues. Becoming trans-inclusive doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why it’s critical to get started now.
Reporting on Transgender Issues and People
Interviewing transgender people is not all that different from interviewing cisgender people. “Treat [trans] people as you would treat anyone else,” says Tuck Woodstock, a non-binary journalist, media consultant, and creator of the Gender Reveal podcast.
However, there are some questions you should be sensitive to. If you’re interviewing a transgender person about a sensitive topic such as transitioning or harassment, seek consent before asking an intrusive question, Woodstock says. Reassure the source that “you do not have to answer this. Feel free to tell me if you are uncomfortable,” they add.
Some transgender people use alternative words to describe their body parts. For example, a trans man who had not had top surgery might use the term “chest” instead of “breasts.” Ask what language a person uses to describe relevant body parts at the start of the interview, says Jules Sherred, a trans man and freelance writer who has worked with the Canadian government to make healthcare guidelines and regulations trans-inclusive. “Say at the beginning, ‘If I say a term that makes you uncomfortable, please let me know. And let me know which term you would like to be used so that you feel safe,” he says.
When writing about a trans person, it’s almost never okay to deadname them, or use the name from before they transitioned. The only time it’s acceptable is if you quote, with permission, a trans source who used their former name in an interview, or if you’re writing about a celebrity in the immediate period after they changed their name, Woodstock says. If the latter, try to avoid deadnaming the celebrity by describing them, such as by referring to Caitlyn Jenner as an Olympic decathlete and Kris Jenner’s former spouse. If the celebrity’s identity is still unclear, then it is acceptable to mention their old name once, Woodstock says. If using a quote with the source’s deadname, replace it in brackets with their correct name.
For writers covering the science of gender identity and transitioning, be careful not to give false balance. “So often, journalists will go out of their way to find the one person who is anti-trans,” says Alex Kapitan, a non-binary freelance editor and creator of the site Radical Copyeditor. Avoid legitimizing ideas that are based in anti-trans sentiments and lack a scientific foothold. For example, don’t emphasize stories of detransitioning, which is rare among the trans community and sensationalized by reporters.
One way to avoid false balance is by interviewing trans sources as much as possible, especially because they are underrepresented in the media and can lend a fresh perspective. “It would be great if trans people were seen as authorities and experts on transness and on gender. Because we are,” Kapitan says. If you need an expert to comment on a trans health matter, look for one who is trans. If you’re reporting on puberty-blockers or other topics that affect trans kids, interview trans kids and trans adults, not just cisgender parents.
Some trans people feel that cis journalists shouldn’t report on trans issues. “It’s not really at this point appropriate for cis people to be tackling stories about trans people’s bodies—because they will get it wrong,” Woodstock says. “There are literally hundreds of underemployed trans journalists who can get that story more accurate and more nuanced.” Trans reporters also have greater access to and rapport with sources in the trans community. If you are a cisgender journalist and an editor asks you to cover a story focused on the trans community, think about recommending a trans journalist to take the assignment instead.
How to Be Trans-Inclusive When Reporting Science Stories
Science and health stories that aren’t about gender often have space and opportunity for trans-inclusivity. If you’re reporting a story about HIV risk, for example, asking experts how the disease relates to trans women, who are at high HIV risk, is critical. Without reporters publishing that information, trans women may not know what their risk is or how to lower it.
If there is no research available on trans people in a relevant topic, say so. Writing about gaps in research can put pressure on scientists to study marginalized trans people, says Alexander Charles Adams, a non-binary person and freelance public health reporter. “If journalists take issue with where they see these gaps, that can push where research goes,” Adams says.
Anna Nowogrodzki, a cisgender woman and freelance science journalist, called out one of these gaps in her 2015 story for PBS’s NOVA about drugs marketed as “female Viagra.” In her reporting, Nowogrodzki looked into sexual dysfunction in trans people but couldn’t find much on the topic. She noted this in a parenthetical: “There’s a reason for the gender-binary language: there has been virtually no research on sexual dysfunction in people who identify as non-binary or trans.”
Adams also says to consider how researchers treat sex and gender in their studies. If an HIV study lumps together men who have sex with men and transgender women who have sex with men, for example, the researchers may be muddying their data. Your reporting will be stronger if you dig into these complications, Adams says.
Respecting Trans Identities in Writing and Language
There are few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to using trans-inclusive language to discuss the sciences. Let your guiding light be a thorough consideration of who is affected by the topic you’re covering.
To start, eliminate language that excludes non-binary people, such as referring to an unspecified person as “he or she.” Use the singular “they” instead. Avoid gendering a group of people, such as by saying “men and women,” unless you know they all identify as such. “There are very few situations where sex or gender actually has to be specified,” says Sam Barclay, a non-binary freelance science journalist.
Get in the habit of asking your sources for their names and pronouns at the start of your interviews. But don’t use the term “preferred pronouns,” because it implies that using the correct pronouns for a trans person is optional. Always use the pronouns a person requests, even if you have never heard of those pronouns before, Kapitan says. Examples of less conventional pronouns, called neopronouns, include ze/hir/hirs and ey/em/eirs.
There is not a consensus in the trans community about how to introduce a source’s neopronouns in a story. Kapitan, who dislikes the term neopronouns because it suggests the terms are new when actually many have been around for decades, suggests adding an explanation to make the writing more accessible. “We do, as writers and editors, have a responsibility to help everyone understand,” Kapitan says. However, other trans people find these asides alienating or feel that they validate the audience’s lack of knowledge on trans-related topics. The Trans Journalists Association’s style guide says it’s okay to add a quick phrase mentioning a source’s neopronouns. One example the guide offers is “Taylor, who uses ze/hir pronouns, attended the event.”
Be mindful about when you call out a trans source’s gender in your work. In stories about trans-related matters, identifying sources who are out as trans and/or non-binary lets the reader know that they have personal insight and authority. “If you’re not writing a trans-related story, it’s probably less relevant to bring up their gender,” Kapitan says. In these stories, it’s usually only appropriate to reference a source’s trans identity if doing so is needed for context—for example, to explain a comment they made about being underrepresented in the sciences. When in doubt, consult with a sensitivity reader.
If describing a trans person’s gender, avoid the language “identifies as,” as in: “Tuck identifies as non-binary,” Woodstock adds. “It is implying that our genders are not as valid as other people’s genders.”
When writing about health and bodies, don’t equate anatomy with gender. Not only is this harmful, but it’s also inaccurate. “The important thing is to be specific about what you mean,” Woodstock says. If you’re writing about menstruation, for example, referring to “women” doesn’t capture the full picture. Many cisgender and transgender women don’t menstruate, and some trans men, non-binary people, and intersex people do.
But saying “people who menstruate” over and over can become tedious and jargon-esque, Barclay adds. To make your copy more readable, think about shortcuts that don’t undermine respect and accuracy. Once you establish you’re referring to people who menstruate, you can just say “people.” Alternatively, you can focus on the body part or process itself, Barclay says. If you’re writing a service story, you can write in second person to avoid gender altogether.
Retraining Your Brain for Trans-Inclusivity
The best way to educate yourself on trans-inclusive language and practices is by reading the work of trans writers and following them on Twitter. “People need to actively seek out trans writers in their field,” Adams says. If there aren’t any in your niche, find trans writers who work in a similar or overlapping area.
Even with the best intentions and effort, cisgender journalists make mistakes when reporting on trans people. If you’re cis and working on a trans-related story, hire a sensitivity reader or consultant, Woodstock says. If you’re unsure how to navigate trans-inclusive language, you may also consider this option when writing science stories that could be exclusionary. The Race and Gender Hotline, a free consultation service for reporters on a deadline, can help with questions about sensitivities to race and gender.
If you have specific questions about how to be trans-inclusive in a story, be careful about bombarding trans peers with them. “We want the conversation to change, but we also can’t answer everybody’s questions all the time,” Black says. This work is often unpaid, and paying trans writers for their time can ease the burden. Still, answering these questions can wear down trans folks. “Don’t demand emotional labor from people who aren’t willing to share it,” Barclay says. “Ask politely and be willing to take no for an answer.”
Once you know the trans-inclusive language to use, you may not always be able to convince an editor to support it. If you work in a newsroom, a consulting workshop on gender and media can help. Look to trans-led consulting companies, such as Speaking of Transgender and Woodstock’s co-founded Sylveon Consulting.
To up your odds of approval, Barclay says, make your language tight. Saying “people with prostates,” for example, is more efficient than listing out every type of person who may have a prostate. If you’re a freelancer, pushing back against an editor can be difficult because of the power imbalance. But trans freelancers have even less power than cis freelancers, which is why it’s crucial for allies to speak up on our behalf.
Tyler Santora is a freelance science journalist based out of Aurora, Colorado. They have written about transgender health, science, and the environment for Undark, Scientific American, Audubon Magazine, Business Insider, and many more. Follow them on Twitter @Tara_Santora.