Student guest post: Word choice and sexual orientation

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Rachel Coleman is a senior from Greenville, N.C. She is pursuing her degree in the reporting track at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Compared with generations of the past, I’m happy to say that adults in the current generation are experiencing much more freedom in regard to sexual orientation. The world has made significant progress in its acceptance of all people, whether they identify as gay, straight, bisexual or transgender.

But while the general public may recognize and accept your sexual orientation, are the media doing enough to stay unbiased when reporting about people who identify as LGBTQ?

The Associated Press Stylebook says to mention sexual orientation only when necessary, and it makes a point of saying reporters should identify transgender people according to the gender they identify with.

But a story picked up by The Associated Press in 2010 got in trouble for its headline, “Transgender Men Go Topless at Delaware Beach.” The story went on to say, “Police say passers-by complained after the men removed their tops and revealed their surgically enhanced breasts.”

People wondered how a man could get in trouble for being topless—shouldn’t it have said “transgender women?” Many news outlets recognized the mistake and corrected it.

I found a column from Feministing about the same issue. Some reporters seem to have no clue about how to identify someone like Chaz Bono, who is transgender and was in the news recently for his run on Dancing with the Stars. Many had no idea whether he should be referred to as “he” or “she.”

Luckily, GLADD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) provides a Media Reference Guide for journalists who have this problem. They say Chaz Bono should be described as either a man or a transgender man.

After doing a little research, I found a writer who had another great point — that using the term “transgendered” is more biased than “transgender.” In Joanne Herman’s blog on The Huffington Post, she said the extra “–ed” in the word makes the same difference as saying “colored people” versus “people of color.”

I once interviewed a drag queen who said she liked being referred to as “she” more than “he” because being a drag queen was her full-time job. While it always depends on the individual, the media and law enforcers who write reports that identify someone’s gender should take care to ask before they assume what someone wants to be called. If the media make small steps to ensure consistency in their writing, the public will accept these people for who they are, too.