Careful language important when reporting on transgender health issues

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: Immanuel Brändemo via Flickr

Using appropriate terminology when reporting on medical studies is important not only for the sake of accuracy and clarity, but also to avoid causing harm to populations by using specialized but often misused terms.

This can be especially true when reporting on transgender people, a population now battling a proposal by the Trump administration proposal that in effect would define them “out of existence” as far as government programs, regulations and funding are concerned, as the New York Times recently reported. It’s more important than ever for journalists to avoid inappropriate terminology when reporting on this population.

That can sometime mean avoiding even subtle differences in the grammatical construction of a term. I was particularly reminded of this recently when a conference presenter — a physician who has worked with transgender patients on their behalf — used the term “transgendered.”

Although the distinction may seem subtle, adding “ed” to the end of transgender is not an appropriate term and can even cause offense in the transgender community, according to GLAAD, nonprofit advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and non-binary gender individuals.

“An ‘-ed’ suffix adds unnecessary length to the word and cause word tense confusion and grammatical errors,” according to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide on transgender terms. “It also brings transgender into alignment with lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer. You would not say that Elton John is ‘gayed’ or Ellen DeGeneres is ‘lesbianed;’ therefore you would not say Chaz Bono is ‘transgendered.’ ”

It was in looking up “transgendered” — I wanted to be sure I was correct about its inappropriateness before mentioning it to the presenter afterward — that I discovered the GLAAD guide. After defining the most common basic terms a journalist may come across or need to use, the guide discusses problematic terms and appropriate alternatives.

It notes other problematic usage, such as using “transgender” as a noun (“a transgender”) instead of an adjective, “transgenderism,” and “sex change” (instead of “sex reassignment surgery”).

The guide also discusses defamatory terms, including ones that journalists may not immediately think of as offensive, such as “bathroom bill,” and the importance of using appropriate pronouns (always ask if you’re not sure).

In this new tip sheet are some of most basic terms to know when reporting on transgender populations or issues, pulled from a study I reported about on the emergency care experiences of transgender patients.

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