If you saw the word “transgenderism” trending on social media last weekend and felt a sinking feeling in your stomach, you’re not alone. The word was used at CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, by the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles, who said during his March 4 speech that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
After his words at the conference were characterized as sounding genocidal, Knowles attempted to claim that he was not calling for an eradication of transgender people when he said “transgenderism must be eradicated.” But turning an experience intrinsic to the lives of trans people into a noun doesn’t separate it from those people, whose rights and safety are currently under mounting attack.
“‘Transgenderism’ is a phony term made up by anti-transgender activists and used to dehumanize transgender people and target them, their lifesaving healthcare, and access to society,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, told Rolling Stone. “Similar hate speech about ‘eradicating’ human beings has been used by extremists throughout history.”
The term “transgenderism” was actually used by trans activists in the 1990s and early 2000s, but as language evolves, words are both reclaimed by communities and coopted by oppositional forces. The latter happened in the 2010s, when so-called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, employed “transgenderism,” as writer Julia Serano described in a 2015 blog post, “in a way that confuses the state of being transgender with a potentially dangerous political ideology” — a usage that Knowles echoed at CPAC.
This incident reinforces that journalists must examine the language being used by people who promote the stripping away of basic human rights. Several states have already banned gender-affirming healthcare for people under 18 — care that can be lifesaving. And it’s not just children being targeted. In January alone, South Carolina and Oklahoma introduced bills to block people younger than 26 from getting gender-affirming healthcare — which seems to contradict the conservative talking points of “parental rights” and characterizing healthcare for trans kids as “child abuse.”
Facts vs. fearmongering
Language is intertwined with disinformation campaigns launched by anti-trans advocates. Whether it’s promoting terms like “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” which is not recognized by any medical organization and was coined based on studies with methodological problems, or overinflating detransitioning statistics (and ignoring the environmental factors that overwhelmingly contribute to detransitioning), inaccurate information plagues reporting on trans issues. Getting the facts right is vital, especially when such journalism is being cited in legal proceedings related to anti-trans legislation and one fearmongering first-person narrative has sparked a multiagency state investigation.
Research methodologies with more credibility are randomized, controlled, double-blind, or cohort. Studies that are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals are also generally more reliable than informal surveys or data published by laypeople, and the larger the sample size, the more precise the results will typically be. (Sample sizes in the double digits tend to be difficult to generalize to an entire population regardless of how small that population may be.) Unfortunately, these types of studies are also much more expensive to perform, making them less common.
In terms of evaluating the scientific conclusions made about trans people, journalists should also be careful to identify the funding source of the research, the expertise — including publication history — of the lead researchers, and any conflicts of interest that are disclosed in the research’s pages. Reporters should always ask who benefits from the conclusions a study draws, especially if that benefit is financial or political in nature; they should also ask whether the data conflicts or agrees with prior research. Because scientific consensus is a cumulative process — if, for example, 15 peer-reviewed studies suggest that gender-affirming care is beneficial for trans people’s mental health and one “bombshell” study out of nowhere disputes that — it will always be worthwhile to dig deeper.
Biases creep into research in both conscious and subconscious ways. If a study asks participants, “How old were you when you realized you were confused about your gender?” the results will likely be very different than if participants had been asked, “How old were you when you realized you were trans?” Studies can also be “p-hacked” — that is, when researchers force interpretations that are not actually backed up by the data presented — to ensure that the conclusion lines up with their original hypothesis. Make sure that you view the original research data instead of relying on secondary sources, as it will allow you to analyze the methodology in more detail and determine whether the data has been reported on accurately.
The style and reporting guidelines we follow
For the recent news coverage on anti-trans legislation, we’ve been turning to some of these particularly pertinent reminders in our style guide:
- Use transition or gender-affirming care, not outdated, cis-gazey terms like sex reassignment or sex change.
- No need to hyphenate nonbinary.
- When mentioning someone’s pronouns, use the more specific phrases he/him pronouns and she/her pronouns instead of saying male pronouns or female pronouns, which conflate sex with identity. Likewise, cut out “preferred” or “identifies as”; we can use more neutral, straightforward language: X person is nonbinary; they use they/them pronouns.
- Sidestep the phrase opposite sex/gender; the mention of opposite sneakily suggests there are only two. Likewise, the phrase both genders. Use different sex/gender and all genders when you need to.
Lastly, here are some of the resources we use. Bookmark these! The Trans Journalists Association style guide is invaluable and exhaustive. On top of its glossary and rock-solid style guidance, it includes information on how to avoid harmful clichés, cover anti-trans discrimination, and diversify your newsroom and sources. GLAAD has an excellent media reference guide as well. Language, Please, from Vox, has so many entries that are relevant to this newsletter. Here are just a few, about transition/transitioning, gender, and sex assigned at birth. The Radical Copyeditor has been updating its nuanced, inclusive trans language style guide since 2017, in addition to putting out tons of style guidance about gender more generally over the years.