Scout Schultz used they/them pronouns. They were bisexual, non-binary, and intersex. These are straightforward facts, easily verified on the website for Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, the student group Schultz led, after they were fatally shot by campus police. Even so, journalists—even ones that strive to be sensitive on trans issues—have been struggling to write about Schultz and their gender in a respectful manner.
The most egregious cases involve media outlets—mostly local news and conservative sites—using their “dead name,” or the name a trans person was given at birth, and incorrect pronouns.
But even reputable publications like The Washington Post unnecessarily mentioned Schultz’s dead name, attributing it to law enforcement officials. And numerous other outlets, including the Associated Press, initially used the wrong pronoun before updating their stories. The Post and many other media outlets avoided using pronouns altogether.
A spokesperson for the AP told us the misgendering was an “oversight in a fast-moving major story.” Kris Coratti, the vice president of communications at The Post, said that the paper opted not to use pronouns in their story “for clarity” and that Post “reporters and editors handled this story sensitively and accurately.”
Journalists like those at The Post who ignore Schultz’s pronouns are “actively erasing and attempting to diminish” their identity, said MJ Okma, a transmasculine spokesperson for the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD.
“When reporters disregard a person’s gender identity, especially when there is a loss of life, it compounds the tragedy by invalidating the identity of the person who died while pushing the false and damaging narrative that trans and non-binary identities are somehow not legitimate,” he wrote in an email.
The problem is not limited to Schultz. So far this year, at least 21 transgender people have been killed. All but two were people of color. That’s up from 17 known cases in all of 2016 (and experts believe that the number of victims is underreported). None of those stories have seen the same kind of coverage as Schultz’s killing, and as Okma points out, the degree to which those victims were misgendered was even worse—when their stories were covered at all.
“Efforts to correct those stories is often met with pushback from journalists who quote police and sometimes family members as authoritative sources, rather than consulting friends who actually knew and accepted their real identity,” he wrote.
Misgendering a trans person violates the most basic journalistic standards. For years, the Associated Press—which creates and maintains the most widely accepted style guide for newsrooms around the world—directed journalists to use proper pronouns while staying silent on what to do about “they.”
The AP finally added the use of singular “they” to its style guide this year. Unfortunately, the AP still encourages journalists to avoid singular “they” pronouns as much as possible, instructing them to “use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible.” The singular they pronoun, the AP says, is unfamiliar to most readers. (Never mind that we use it in everyday speech all the time.)
Writing around pronouns and trying not to use them is a form of erasure, Okma explains, and “creates very awkward sentences and clearly conveys a journalist’s discomfort about [a trans person’s] identity.” Even so, many media outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have published articles doing just this.
(The Post added “they/them” pronouns to its style guide in 2015, and the Times handles pronouns on a case-by-case basis. Splinter’s style guide allows for the use of the singular “they.”)
Non-binary YouTuber Riley Dennis, who makes videos about intersectional feminism and politics, says that this discomfort is communicated to publications’ readers.
“It’s so awkward when media organizations try to dance around pronouns and just repeat [someone’s name] over and over again,” she says. “People pick up on how odd that is.”
It sends the message that “these people are different and somehow weird or lesser” and “other-izes” trans people, she said. The language we use in media gets reflected in the rest of society, she continued, and if people read and hear singular pronouns more often, they’ll be more comfortable using them. In other words, if we keep writing about non-binary people in a disrespectful way that invalidates their gender, readers will follow our lead.
Dennis recently tweeted about how Vox—an outlet that clearly makes an effort to be sensitive on trans issues and even asks for pronouns in job applications—did not live up to her expectations in its coverage of Schultz. Vox’s is an instructive case, because many people who consider themselves supportive of transgender people might not see the problems in the sentence below:
Schultz, a 21-year-old who identified as nonbinary and intersex and preferred “they” and “them” pronouns, was not wielding a knife, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), but a multipurpose tool.
Dennis flagged two issues: One, using the term “preferred” to describe someone’s pronouns is inaccurate—those pronouns are the only acceptable ones to use. Second, the framing that Schultz “identified as non-binary and intersex”—one that numerous media outlets used—is language that implicitly questions whether Schultz’s gender is real.
No media outlet would ever write that a cisgender woman “identified as a woman.” It would just say she’s a woman. By writing about Schultz and non-binary people differently, even well-meaning journalists can promote cissexism, which trans activist and writer Julia Serano defines as “the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people.”
Michelle Garcia, the senior editor at Vox who oversees the site’s race and identities coverage and worked on the Schultz piece, explained over email, “As a queer journalist myself, I think it’s crucial to note that internally, we regularly evaluate and openly talk about how to appropriately use language to identify and address marginalized people.”
Dennis says she’s used to the disrespect she’s seen in the media, but worries about younger trans and non-binary people like Nova Cory, an 18-year-old genderqueer student in Iowa who describes the misgendering and insensitive coverage of Schultz as “extremely triggering.”
“It’s sickening to know that if something were to happen to me, the voices that are the loudest are going to be those that misgender me and invalidate my existence,” they wrote in an instant message.
Kyle LaBonte, a 29-year-old, non-binary person living in Philadelphia, says they’ve become desensitized to the offensive coverage. “Whenever I see anything like this, it’s just another drop in a huge bucket just telling me it’s not OK to be out like that yet,” they said. “ It hurts.”
GLAAD’s Okma points out that disrespectful media reports have a big impact. “Every time the media misgenders trans women, it feeds the toxic stereotype that trans women are not women,” he said, adding that this is not only insulting and degrading, but “ultimately deadly” and contributes to the high rates of anti-trans violence.
Journalists must stop misgendering and writing about trans people in a way that delegitimatizes their genders and identities. Our coverage can impact the wellbeing of trans and non-binary people both directly and by influencing how our readers think and talk about them—a massive responsibility that we are not taking seriously enough.
As the final arbiters of what gets published, editors especially must educate themselves. There’s no excuse for anyone writing about a trans person or covering trans issues not to quickly read one of the many style guides online addressing common mistakes.
One of my personal favorites is by Alex Kapitan, a genderqueer copyeditor who uses “ze” and “per” pronouns. The about page for “The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing About Transgender People” offers a some insight into just how vital the language we use is.
“As a genderqueer person, I have had to quite literally write myself into existence—forcing language to make room for me within a culture that does not want to admit that there are people who are neither male nor female,” ze writes. Trans people shouldn’t have to fight for respect in the stories we write, though. As Kapitan perceptively explains, “those of us who are working to manifest a better, more just world have a responsibility to use language in ways that describe the world we are working to create, rather than unconsciously perpetuating bias and prejudice.”
Ashley Dejean is a reporter and editor covering social justice in Washington, D.C.