Chaz Bono and covering gender transitions

The news this week that Chastity Bono is transitioning to be Chaz Bono offers the world another chance to hear about a topic that many still know little about.

People often ask me how gender transitions should be covered, what with being a journalist and having transitioned myself and all. Here are a few things I often suggest. (That said, not all transpeople or all journalists or all trans journalists will necessarily agree with these.)

1. Things that are simple in most stories get tricky when writing about transgender subjects, particularly names and pronouns. As per AP style, one should use the name and pronouns that someone prefers. It’s not about drivers’ licenses or birth certificates.

This is often hard for some folks. Here’s how I like to think of it as a courtesy title. We call Prince, Prince (or whatever he is going by these days). We don’t ask him for ID. When in doubt, ask the person (I’ll deal with what to do when that’s not possible in a separate post).

So what does that mean? Are we writing about Chastity or Chaz? The story yesterday was clearly that Chastity Bono is transitioning to be Chaz. In covering the first-day story, some folks used female pronouns, while others used male pronouns. While I can see a case for using female pronouns in the first-day story, there are also other examples (see the CNN example below). That said, there should be no question how to handle the story tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that. From here on out, the story is about Chaz and how *he* recently announced he was living as male.

In referring to the past, I like to embrace the complexity. I.e., when he was still identifying as female, Bono made headlines by coming out as a lesbian. When he was a girl, he chopped the heads off his Barbies, etc. This makes it clear that he is a he but he is the kind of he that was also a girl at one time in his life.

2. It’s not about surgeries and hormones. If a subject wants to talk about these very personal topics, fine, but one’s gender identity and right to be respected aren’t dependent on taking such actions, nor are these necessarily public topics.

One should not assume that because someone is coming out as transgender that he or she is necessarily going to take hormones or have some type of surgery (there are actually a number of different procedures that some trans people choose to undergo). Whether someone takes hormones or has surgery depends on a number of factors, including their personal preference, ability to afford such treatments, employment issues, and much more.

It’s OK to gently ask, but don’t assume these are topics that a subject is interested in sharing.

3. Avoid playing into stereotypes. Not all trans people are seeking to become the archetype of the gender to which they are transitioning. And, at the same time, lots of people who don’t change gender aren’t necessarily the physical epitome of what one thinks of as a man or woman. Avoid subjective assessments of how some one passes.

While the basics on gender transitions are covered in the AP Stylebook, you can find far more in NLGJA’s stylebook addendum as well as in the transgender section of our Journalist’s Toolbox.

I also wanted to point out one example of first-day coverage that I thought did a particularly good job of covering the story by embracing the complexity.

CNN: Sonny and Cher’s child transitioning from female to male

CNN chose to use child in both the lead and headline and reflect the complexity. They also helped educate folks on the distinction between gender transition (the social act of changing the gender in which one identifies) and any sort of surgery or medical transition.


9 Responses

  1. Terrific article, Ina. These are guidelines that have been so desperately needed for so long. I’m glad that someone knowledgeable finally wrote them. Some of the things that seem tricky to people have such simple solutions and a lot of folks just need a few tips to get on the right track. Thanks again for this.

  2. Thanks, Ina. As always, you provide excellent perspective and suggestions. Great to have you joining the blog!

  3. CNN did a very good job at the coverage last night. I was kind of conflicted on how to refer to Chaz last night with first day coverage when I was tweeting the story. (This is coming from someone with a few transgendered friends, too.)

    We shall see how it plays out, but I’m glad that there is at least some AP guidance on this, not that it seems everyone follows the AP style book. (See some of the recent articles on violence against trans persons where they’re completely mis-gendered.)

    And I like the idea of embracing the complexity when refering to the past.

    “It’s OK to gently ask, but don’t assume these are topics that a subject is interested in sharing.”

    I actually shocked one of my friends because I basically refused to ask any questions related to her transition. I figured that if she wanted me to know something, she’d tell me on her own terms. She’s not used to people not asking. To me, it’s a non-issue that someone would not want to talk about it, and I should respect that.

    As to point #3… I’ve kind of seen this. And a good friend of mine, and LGBT advocate, puts it in a very good light: “Gender is not binary.”

    I’ll have to check out the style book addendums.


  4. Ina,

    Is it proper and accurate to refer to Chaz as a straight man, now?

    Ignorant and curious

    • Thanks for asking…

      It’s tough to say. As much as the two are related, gender and sexuality aren’t exactly tied. Some people who change gender find their sexuality shifts over time, while others remain attracted to the same gender.

      Also, some people who identify as transgender identify as straight, while others use other terms to identify their sexuality including gay, bisexual, queer, etc.

      I know this isn’t a straightforward answer, but their just isn’t a simple answer. And without knowing Chaz, I can’t tell you how he identifies. Hope that helps some.

  5. Thanks for an excellent airing of this topic.

    I have one concern, relating to your Barbie example: “This makes it clear that he is a he but he is the kind of he that was also a girl at one time in his life.”

    Some find it objectionable for people to treat them as if they changed their genders when, in fact, they have merely accepted — affirmed — who they believe they have always been but denied for years. Their gender expression may have changed, but their gender identity might not have changed.

    Shouldn’t you ask the subjects of the these story what the their preference is with respect to whether they went through a transition or an affirmation? If you accept the principle that you should use the pronouns the subjects prefers, should you not also accept their definition of their reality?

    Writing that a person transitioned from male to female places the emphasis on the genitalia. I submit that the focus should be on the brain, the person’s sense of self, and that may well not have changed at all.

    So in Chaz’ situation, using the male pronouns and gender throughout would be quite appropriate. Perhaps you could have said “he lived as a girl for a period of time”.

    Then we have the issue relating to those people who don’t define themselves as male of female. In that situation, I try to simply use the person’s name over and over and over again.


  6. Thanks, Ina, for the education. In the early 1990s, while working on a piece about HIV/AIDS in the Deaf culture, I interviewed a Deaf activist who happened to be transgender. I am horrified now because I didn’t quite understand what Ina wrote here, that gender is about self-perception and lifestyle more than anatomy and that we have the right to be what we say we are. I’m horrified to say it now but I pressed this activist to describe her anatomy to the point of offending her and having her halt the interview. I didn’t understand at the time the terrible thing I had done; I remember thinking I was standing up for some journalistic notion even though I no longer have any idea what notion that was supposed to have been. Every time I think about this topic, I think of this incident and feel badly at how ignorant I was. If I could figure out who it was, I’d go back and apologize.

  7. Ina got it just right, from my perspective as a trans woman. I’m disappointed when a trans person calls themselves “pre-op” or “post-op”, as if anyone needs or has a right to know, and as if that’s somehow a decisive fact of a person’s existence. On one occasion, I actually had someone ask me, “So are you an *it* now?”

    On Christine’s questions about a person’s past: many use the words ‘male’ or ‘female’ to refer to biological sex, while ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘girl’, and ‘boy’ refer to gender, that is, to personal identities and social roles. Because I was living the role of ‘boy’ when I was young, I wouldn’t mind someone saying “when you were a boy….”, but using “girl” to refer me in my childhood would feel at least equally appropriate to me. Likewise, I’d prefer that people use “she” and “her” when referring to my past.

    I’m sure that Steve’s heart is in the right place. Some people, though, use the word “lifestyle” in a way that seems intended to reduce the significance of one’s gender identity, as if it were a hobby or simply a preference. Most people would not consider their own identity as a man or as a woman to be a mere “lifestyle” choice.

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