Opinion: Transphobia in the Media - Theme Week


By Dane Feldman

Laverne Cox at PRIDE Lecture. Photo courtesy of UMKC.

In light of recent insensitive headlines regarding R. Kelly’s transgender son, it has become apparent that it is a necessity for journalists across all platforms to better understand the topics on which they are reporting.

For those who are currently uninformed: A few weeks ago, R. Kelly’s 14-year-old son, Jay, stated on his Facebook page that he is transgender. What followed Jay’s personal announcement was a slew of impersonal and thoughtless articles with headlines like “R. Kelly Refuses To Accept His Daughter is Now His Son,” “More facts about R. Kelly’s transgender daughter Jaya revealed,” and “R. Kelly’s daughter is now a boy.”

What is most remarkably confusing about some of these articles is that, although the headlines are insensitive to Jay’s gender identity, the articles themselves often use the proper pronouns. Clickbait is not an acceptable reason for transphobia.

Of course, editors who approved such headlines should not be let off the hook simply because the content of their articles was more understanding, but it stands to reason that the bigger picture issue lands on the desks of editors and journalists who refused to do the proper research before writing insensitive articles. Journalists have access to the internet, which provides all of the information needed. Ignorance is inexcusable in 2014.

GLAAD offers a media reference guide containing all that writers and editors need in order to properly address the LGBTQ community at large, but it is also imperative that reporters ask their subjects what pronouns are preferred if that information is not provided upfront.

The US is making progress in civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens, but, in a world where transgender men and women are finally seeing some visibility in the media, the respect needed is still not following suit. Laverne Cox is on the cover of TIME for commandeering a tremendous effort heading the transgender movement, but the buck ought not stop with Cox.

When Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) announced that she is transgender, even the best news outlets were tangled in a twisted web of pronouns. Writing “Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman” is one way to completely avoid using improper pronouns, but changing said headline to “Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman” does not a remedy make.

Other media reporters have also fumbled on the topic of transwomen. Stephen Colbert touched upon this issue on The Colbert Report in February of this year. Colbert mentioned Katie Couric and Piers Morgan who are both big names in television news. Couric inquired about Carmen Carrera’s physical changes and Morgan fumbled altogether when interviewing a transgender author.

But Couric isn’t the only one to ask insensitive questions. When Chaz Bono first sat down to talk to TIME in 2011 about his transition from female to male, reporter Andrea Sachs may have pushed the envelope just a bit too far. Using the proper pronouns does not excuse reporters from repeatedly asking about physical changes or whether or not the subject in question has regrets transitioning. Asking about potential doubt or regret may suggest that transitioning is an extreme choice, when in reality it may have been a natural choice–though not all transgender men and women choose to have surgery. Transgender people reserve the same right as cisgender people to keep their bodies private.

One of the first steps in ensuring that the media will move forward to more respectful reporting on transgender individuals is to rid society of offensive slurs. Removing the “passable transvestites” card from Cards Against Humanity is a start. But ridding our vocabularies of the term “transvestite” is far more important. Without the word in our vocabularies, the transgender community can feel safer knowing a card like “passable transvestites” may never again be manufactured.

Journalists have an extra responsibility than the average Twitter user since their work is considerably more public–and often held to higher standards–but in regards to Jay Kelly, Chelsea Manning, and Laverne Cox, they have often allowed bias into their reporting. Editors have dropped the ball in allowing incorrect pronouns be published in headlines for the sake of clickbait.

People in the LGBTQ community and allies deserve respect; it’s time journalists start living up to a basic code of conduct and start showing everyone the same kind of consideration.

For more on transphobia in the media, listen to The Hash with Dane Feldman and co-host, Molly Freeman.