GLAAD responds to the World-Herald on Brandon Teena

GLADD contacted the Omaha World-Herald after the publication of the article that referred to Brandon Teena as a woman, the local response I participated in, and the subsequent “compromise.” Like me, and like various others, GLADD didn’t think the World-Herald’s changes to the article helped as much as they could have. From GLAAD:

The reporter and his editors heard from local transgender advocates as well as GLAAD, and determined that they should “compromise” on the article. The paper updated the online version to remove all pronouns, refusing to replace female pronouns with male. Instead, the paper replaced “she” with “Brandon” used as a surname.

At GLAAD, we feel this is insufficient. It isn’t a “compromise” to neuter the story from any reference of gender. The editor argued that using male pronouns would be “confusing” for a reader. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold – because many responsible journalists use appropriate pronouns and names for transgender people, in an effort to accurately represent the person, and their readers/viewers/listeners aren’t confused.

Two responses, including one from GLAAD’s Adam Bass (senior media field strategist), were  published in the World-Herald’s Public Pulse section saying much the same. As far as I know, while the online edition was edited to reflect the “compromise” relatively quickly, the World-Herald didn’t see fit to make a notice of correction in the print edition, nor otherwise publicly comment.

I received a response from Mike Reilly, the executive editor, who I had e-mailed before the online corrections were made. His response seems to have been about identical to what he sent to a few others in the community, so I feel I can print it in its entirety here:

Dear Jon,

Thanks for writing and calling this to our attention.

As a result of the concern you and other have expressed, we changed our handling of references to Teena Brandon’s gender in later editions of this story, including the online edition. We also will will be mindful of your concerns in future stories.

Our goal is to be clear and honest with all of our readers as well as being sensitive to and respectful of transgendered people.

So we have specified that she was a woman in a “biological” sense and avoided using the female pronoun.

We will not change her name to her alias, as some have asked us to do today. Use of an alias is a separate matter and using it again and again years after her death would, in my opinion, only serve to confuse readers.

Same goes for use of the male pronoun in this particular case. I think it would be confusing, given that Brandon’s rape and murder stemmed from a heinous reaction to the discovery of Brandon’s biological gender.

Thanks again for writing.

Sincerely,

Mike Reilly

It’s also my understanding, despite this particular article and the awkward editing that followed, that the World-Herald’s policy on referencing transgender people is the same as Associated Press style:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

So I’m hopeful that future World-Herald articles involving transgender subjects will be handled better.  Still…even Mike Reilly’s response seems to indicate some confusion about trans issues; the phrase “biological gender” in particular sticks out.

Thus I replied back; although I didn’t receive a response, I’m hopeful it at least got read, and I’m sure he had other people flooding his inbox, too. I’m by no means an expert, but I think I adequately addressed the most important issues at hand:

Mr. Reilly,

I was pretty surprised (and pleased) that the you and your staff responded to our concerns so quickly. I understand that aliases can be tricky to navigate, and appreciate the quick revision of the article to reflect Brandon’s biological status, and to address the pronoun issue.

That being said, I think the use of pronouns still needs to be addressed — I can say personally that the importance of it is hard to grasp until one becomes involved with transgender issues. That you used the phrase “biological gender” is what prompts me to focus on this, because “biological gender” is self-contradictory. Sex is biological: male or female, based on chromosomes and other physical traits. Gender is essentially psychological: how people feel and act in relation to what are considered masculine and feminine feelings and roles. (In a nutshell, sex is the body, gender is the mind.) It’s a distinction I don’t see most people realizing outside the medical field, and I and others notice it when writers say “gender” when they mean “sex.”

But returning to pronouns: Transpeople, regardless of their biological sexes, face a continuing conflict between their actual gender identities, and the genders attributed to them by others. This is why pronouns are important — they show either the perception or acceptance of one’s gender. While my transgender friends generally shrug off a stranger referring to them by an improper pronoun — the person is just making a judgment based on apperance, not acquaintance — they’re deeply hurt when someone who knows how they identify insists on the wrong pronouns. Yes, Brandon’s rape and murder centered on his (biological) sex, but his female sex is important because his gender identity didn’t correspond to it in the way it usually does; and it was exactly the denial that this can happen that enabled Lotter, and others before and after him, to excuse their actions toward their transgender victims.

When we use pronouns, we’re not referring to a person’s biological sex, but to that person, and his/her personal identity as s/he choses to express it. So while it’s entirely accurate to use terms like “biological female” or “female-bodied” to refer to Brandon’s physical body, because he presented himself as a man, it’s more accurate to refer to Brandon the person as a man, and with male pronouns. (The phrase used in the revised article, “biological woman,” was a good attempt, but again, it’s the distinction of male or female sex, versus gender identity as man or woman.) While using pronouns like this may be “confusing” to the general public, obviously the journalistic concern should be accuracy; I hope you’ll take this opportunity to demonstrate to the public the PROPER use of pronouns instead of simply defaulting to the most familiar, misconceived use.

In talking to a couple others about the article, I was asked to pass on that if you do correct the article in that way, and people call or write in and say they were confused by the pronouns, it’s really an opportunity to share that learning experience with your readers. And if not as an editorial unto itself, a note in the revised article online stating how and why it was revised would be appreciated by a lot of us, at least to indicate that it WAS changed from the originally-published version. (The original article URL seems to have become invalid since the revised one came online.)

Once again, thanks for responding; I’m glad that the OWH and the readership have a dialogue on this issue. Since referencing transgender people is (obviously) complicated or at least counter-intuitive, I’m more than happy to keep answering questions or addressing misconceptions.

Jon

*shrug* We’ll see if anything more comes of it.

(Once again, thanks to Aarron Schurevich for bringing this issue up.)

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