It's 2021 and Queer Reportage Is Still Dangerously Superficial
Media coverage is in need of more sensitivity since such coverage of LGBTQIA+ people often perpetuates stereotypes.
Trigger warning: This article talks about transphobia (and violence), misgendering, deadnaming, etc. and might be disturbing to some readers.
Identity, in itself, is a crucial aspect of individuality; something every person strives for to simultaneously stand out and assimilate. As a queer person, the solidification of one's identity can often be a drawn-out process. As a result, language often becomes a deeply ingrained aspect of queer identity and recognition, especially since it's often used against the community in the form of microaggressions and slurs.
Language can be weaponised against the community which can lead to a dismissal of their identity which can be dehumanising. However, there are certain aspects of language that can be used to promote acceptance. Media acts as a spokesperson, a responsibility they bear towards every citizen of the country.
Since many office spaces are dominated by cisgender heterosexual perspectives, it can often be difficult to navigate the nuances of queer reportage. While it isn't the aim, missteps in such reportage can be triggering to many, especially since representation of the community is still at its nascent stages.
Media shapes public perspective. Whether that is a boon or a bane is a different debate but the images they choose to portray might shape the "normal".
Understanding gender and queer theory with all its intricacies is reserved to a fraction of the population and can often be attributed to a lack of resources. This isn't often discussed in mainstream media and that could be one of the main reasons for the superficiality in reportage. This article isn't primarily for those who feign ignorance; it's for those who want to do better. It's a start.
Pronouns: How to Use Them?
Let's start with the very basics: gender and sexuality do not exist in a binary. Instead, they exist across a spectrum which means that it's problematic to assume that every person fits into the binary of he/him and she/her.
Often, these are used as default pronouns and the thought of asking someone for their pronouns doesn’t cross the mind. That’s where the issue lies. When this binary becomes normalised, it isolates and alienates all those who do not fall into the binary.
In the first step towards inclusion, ask everyone for their pronouns, regardless of their gender and sexual identity. Often people who are masculine or feminine presenting might not identify the same way. A safe alternative is to use they/them as default pronouns, and it's grammatically sound!
While interviewing people, for example, it wouldn't harm to enquire about their pronouns if they aren't explicitly clear. Do not assume somebody's gender identity based on societal norms, regardless of whether they belong to the community or not.
Don't write: Assume pronouns based on physical appearance.
Do write: Ask these simple questions: "Are you comfortable sharing the pronouns you use?" (and/or) "Which pronouns would you like us to use for you?" Share your pronouns with the person too, if you feel comfortable.
Here's a resource to better understand pronouns and how to respect those who use multiple sets of pronouns.
Why is misgendering an issue? Misgendering is the act of not using the proper pronouns for someone and being dismissive of their gender identity. While it might seem inconsequential to a cisgender heterosexual person, misgendering a trans or non-binary person can be ignorant at best and dehumanizing at worst.
Coming to terms with your gender identity while grappling with societal expectations and conditioning, combined with the fear of prejudice is a mammoth task. The least they can expect is for allies to be respectful of that identity.
There are identities that fall within the trans spectrum as well, such as demigender and non-binary identities across the scale and each must be treated with respect. And the easiest way to do that, yet again, is to ask. In 2021, misgendering can no longer be considered a slight, especially since it's often used as a weapon to harm and endanger non-cis lives.
If you do, however, make an honest mistake, apologise. It's not a matter of penalization; it's a matter of mutual respect.
When Elliot Page revealed their identity as a trans man, many news portals across the world continued to misgender them despite the fact that they clearly stated that their pronouns are he/they.
Even those that respected the pronouns used phrases like "earlier a woman" or "is now a man". These phrases, while they seem normal, are transphobic. They portray gender identity as a choice, or as a shift that a person makes. A trans woman is not a 'man that becomes a woman' or vice versa.
There are instances of cis people being misgendered purely based on the way they express themselves. Women with short hair are frequently called 'sir' and men who act even slightly feminine are labeled 'not manly enough'.
It's even harder to digest when your gender identity is coupled with a large struggle for acceptance. It isn't a phenomenon exclusive to the community but the connotations attached to misgendering a trans person make it a matter of urgency.
A ProPublica article in 2018 reported the murder of three trans women in Jacksonville with a focus on the police's mishandling of the case. The police refused to use the women's names and continued to deadname them. They also frequently referred to the victims as 'men'.
"The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office repeatedly called the victims men and refused to use the names the women were known by, a practice known as 'deadnaming'," the article reported.
To note: Referring to a transgender person by the name assigned to them at birth despite their chosen name being clarified is 'deadnaming'. The name assigned at birth is referred to as their 'deadname'. The practice is considered to be harmful to trans identities. Independent magazine better explains why deadnaming can be harmful.
A large number of Indian media publications used Elliot's deadname in the headlines and throughout the article. For the uninitiated, it is not necessary to use Elliot's deadname to identify them, especially since most articles attached pictures of the actor. The actor has multiple roles to their name which can, just as easily, help in identification.
How it was reported:
Hollywood actor (deadname) Elliot Page has come out as a transgender
(Deadname) comes out as transgender, will be called Elliot Page.
Then how do you report it?
'Juno' Actor Elliot Page identifies as a trans man and uses he/them pronouns.
Here are two (of the very few) examples of publications reporting it right:
"Earlier this week, Oscar-nominated actor Elliot Page — best known for films such as Juno and Inception, as well as the Netflix series Umbrella Academy — shared that he is transgender": CBC Kids News
"It is the first interview Page, 34, has given since disclosing in December that he is transgender, in a heartfelt letter posted to Instagram…": Elliot Page's interview with Time magazine.
Let's talk about they/them pronouns
One argument, often used by language purists is that 'they' is a plural pronoun and can't be used as a singular pronoun. We could get into a debate about the validity of a language that, in itself, in entirely made up but all of these arguments were put to rest after the Marriam-Webster dictionary added the singular 'they' to their repository.
"We will note that they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular they mirrors the development of the singular you from the plural you, yet we don’t complain that singular you is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing."Marriam-Webster
What you can do: 'They' can, and must, be used as the default pronoun since it's more inclusive. Of course, every person reading a piece or article might not be aware of its usage. All that takes is a simple default disclaimer at the end of an article highlighting that the word is being used as a default where the pronouns of the person are unknown or have been so specified.
Writers who choose to use they/them pronouns as the default could add a similar disclaimer for clarity at the end of their piece or link the audience to better resources like the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
Don't write: If someone wants a tour, he/she can approach a guide.
DO write: If someone wants a tour, they can approach a guide.
The words we use
Something that is staggeringly common across reportage is the usage of terms like 'transgenders' or 'homosexuals'. This is where conventional language comes in: terms like 'transgender' or 'homosexual' (widely considered offensive now; queer or LGBTQIA+ people are welcome alternatives) are not nouns, they're adjectives.
As recently as 13 June 2021, some of the headlines in Indian publications read along the lines of:
Odisha allows recruitment of transgenders…
Odisha police to now recruit transgenders…
Some examples of headlines written right:
Odisha Police Invites Applications from Transgender Community: The Quint
Odisha Police invites applications from transgender community for posts of constables, sub-inspectors: India Today
Don't write: Reforms were introduced for transgenders.
DO write: Reforms were introduced for transgender people.
During his public appearances, President Donald Trump had a curious habit. He'd always use the terms: the women, the Muslims, the Blacks, the gays. This was widely criticised on social media, and otherwise, for being demeaning.
"There's this distancing effect, like they're over there. They're signaling they're not part of it, they're distancing themseves from it."Eastern Michigan University linguist Eric Acton to Business Insider
Defining a community as 'transgenders' strips them off their individuality and denies them their humanity. The term, along with "homosexuals", also has a pejorative connotation since it's used by anti-LGBTQIA+ bigots to demean people from the community.
There is precedent for better queer reportage in media. The Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times all updated their editorial guidelines to make them more LGBTQIA+ inclusive. Some editors also instituted rules against the use of some terms that the community deems offensive.
There is precedent, there is hope, and there is a need of the hour because it's 2021 and queer reportage is still dangerously superficial.
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