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.

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