Consistent Respect: Reporting On Transgender Crime Suspects

Transgender people are sometimes suspected and/or convicted of crimes. The media has a responsibility to represent all transgender people accurately, with their correct names and pronouns, and without relying on dehumanizing stereotypes. This responsibility does not change with the circumstances of a story, including instances where transgender people are suspected of crimes.

Transgender people are sometimes suspected and/or convicted of crimes. The media has a responsibility to represent all transgender people accurately, with their correct names and pronouns, and without relying on dehumanizing stereotypes. This responsibility does not change with the circumstances of a story, including instances where transgender people are suspected of crimes.

Remember that by disrespecting the gender identity of one person for any reason, no matter who they are, you are disrespecting the gender identities of your entire audience.

It is not a matter of “politeness” to the individual transgender person being accused of a crime to represent them accurately – it is a matter of respect to the entire transgender community. The gender identity of a crime suspect should not be scrutinized or dismissed due the nature of a story. When journalists only respect a person’s gender identity based on certain conditions, this amounts to a public rejection of transgender identity.

The following guidelines will help you ensure that transgender and allied members of your audience feel they will be treated respectfully and fairly. These guidelines apply to all stories that involve the transgender community, but special care must be taken when the person has been accused of a crime, as instinct might lead some to disregard these rules.

PLEASE NOTE:

All of the following illustrations are based on a fictional example of a person who was named John Smith and was classified as male at birth, but who lives as a woman named Justine Smith at the present time.

If a transgender person's transgender status is irrelevant to the crime, do not make special note of it. Transgender status, like any other minority status, is only relevant to a crime story if it played a role in the crime itself. 

It can be tempting for an outlet to emphasize a suspect’s gender identity, especially in a headline, in order to make a story seem more sensational.

This is extremely disrespectful to the entire transgender community.

Incorrect: Man in women’s clothes arrested for robbing Brooklyn gas station
Incorrect: Transgender woman arrested for robbing Brooklyn gas station
Correct: Woman arrested for robbing Brooklyn gas station

It is just as inappropriate to emphasize a suspect’s gender identity in a crime story as it would be to emphasize any other characteristic, such as their race or religion, if those characteristics had nothing to do with the crime being reported on.

 

The word transgender is an umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.

A person's medical history does not dictate whether they are transgender or not. The only thing that matters is how a person lives.

For more information and terminology, check out our resources for covering transgender people in the media.

 

A person classified as male at birth but living as a woman is a transgender woman. A person classified as female at birth but living as a man is a transgender man.

Incorrect: Justine Smith, a transgender man, is 27 years old.
Correct: Justine Smith, a transgender woman, is 27 years old.

The word transgender is an adjective, and should never be used as a noun or turned into an adverb.

Incorrect: Justine Smith, a transgendered woman, is 27 years old.
Incorrect: Justine Smith, a transgender, is 27 years old.
Correct: Justine Smith, a transgender woman, is 27 years old.
 

The only important piece of information in identifying a person's gender is how they currently identify.  Always use the gender and pronoun that corresponds with the way the victim identifies. If how the person identifies is not known, ask the person, or use the pronoun consistent with how the individual lives publicly within the community, rather than the gender and pronoun that might be on law enforcement reports.

Incorrect: A man was arrested on Friday morning in his Brooklyn neighborhood while dressed as a woman.
Correct: A transgender woman was arrested on Friday morning in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

This holds true even if you have only been given the accused person's birth name, and even if the only name you have for the accused person does not match their self-identified gender. (also see NAMES section below)

Incorrect: The suspect, John Smith, was arrested on Friday morning in his Brooklyn neighborhood while dressed as a woman.
Correct: The suspect, Justine Smith, was arrested on Friday morning in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
Correct (if you do not have the name the suspect lives by): The suspect, a transgender woman identified by police as John Smith, was arrested on Friday morning in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

 

The short answer is no.

It is possible to write a piece without using pronouns, instead referring to a subject only by last name, or with plural pronouns like "they" or "them." This is marginally preferable to using incorrect pronouns. But it creates very awkward sentences, and conveys a high level of uncomfortablity with referring to the victim as being the gender that he or she lived as. This is seen as disrespectful to the entire transgender community.

Incorrect: Smith was found Friday morning in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived in.
Still Incorrect: Smith was found Friday morning in the Brooklyn neighborhood that Smith lived in.
Correct: Smith was found Friday morning in the Brooklyn neighborhood she lived in.

 

A transgender person's chosen name should be considered by reporters to be their real name, whether it has been legally changed or not. Often transgender people cannot afford a legal name change, or they live in a community where obtaining correct identification is difficult. All transgender people should be treated as though they have changed their name legally to their chosen name.

Incorrect: John Smith, who goes by the name Justine, is 27 years old.
Correct: Justine Smith is 27 years old.

 

Never put a person's chosen name in quotes or parentheses. Treat their name the same way you would treat any other person's name.

Incorrect: "Justine" Smith is 27 years old.
Incorrect: John (Justine) Smith is 27 years old.
Correct: Justine Smith is 27 years old.

 

If you do not know a transgender person's chosen name, make the source for the name you are using clear.

Incorrect: The suspect, John Smith, was arrested on Friday morning.
Correct: The suspect, identified by police as John Smith, was arrested on Friday morning.

 

Many transgender people are only able to live as their authentic gender some of the time. Some have only disclosed the fact that they are transgender to certain people. Often a suspect's co-workers, neighbors, or even friends and family won't know that the person is transgender. In these cases, you should still default to the way a suspect identifies at the present time.
 

Often, police or witnesses will use the wrong name or gender for the suspect. When possible, paraphrase rather than quote directly, or quote elements of the statement that do not include this incorrect information.  It is imperative that you, as the journalist, use the correct information.

Incorrect: "Smith was arrested at his home in Brooklyn," said Officer Jones.
Correct: Officer Jones said Smith was arrested at her home in Brooklyn.
Correct: "Smith was arrested (at) home in Brooklyn," said Officer Jones.
 

Do not use language that implies the suspect's identity is not "real," or that it is a costume, a disguise, or a false identity.

Incorrect: Justine Smith, whose real name is John Smith, was arrested on Friday morning.
Correct: Justine Smith, who was named John Smith at birth, was arrested on Friday morning.

Incorrect: The suspect, John Smith, was dressed like a woman at the time of the arrest.
Correct: The suspect, identified by police as John Smith, is a transgender woman.

Incorrect: Police say that Smith is actually a man.
Correct: Police say that Smith is transgender.

 

Do not mention or even hint at the suspect's genitalia or history of surgical procedures under any circumstances.

Incorrect: Police say the suspect, Smith, has a penis.
Incorrect: Police say the suspect, Smith, is anatomically male.
Correct: Police say the suspect, Smith, is transgender.

 

Do not overemphasize or exploit the suspect's transgender status. Treat the suspect the way you would treat any other suspect, and treat their transgender status the way you would treat any other identifying characteristic.

Incorrect: Justine Smith was dressed in high heels, a skirt and a wig at the time of the arrest. Her purse contained makeup.
Correct: (There is no "correct" version of this sentence. These details are insignificant to the story and disrespectful to the transgender community, and should be skipped entirely.)

 

The transgender community is one of the most marginalized and discriminated against communities in our society. Without excusing the criminal allegations being brought against a suspect, you can provide your audience with some context about the barriers many transgender people face. It's also important to note that some criminal charges, such as prostitution, are disproportionately brought against transgender women of color.

Example: Police say Justine Smith was working as a prostitute and suspect the victim was one of her clients. According to transgender advocates, many transgender people, especially transgender women of color, face extreme discrimination in the workplace and might turn to illegal forms of employment as a last resort.

Example: The suspect was identified as Justine Smith by neighbors, but was identified as John Smith by police. Advocates say many transgender people are unable to legally change their names or obtain corrected identification documents.
 

Carefully consider the law that the suspect is accused of breaking in the story you are reporting on. If the law is one that might disproportionately affect transgender people, then that should be part of the stoy.  If a transgender person is ticketed or arrested for allegedly using a bathroom that does not correspond with the gender marker on their legal identification, it should be reported in your story that local advocates consider this a discriminatory law and are working to overturn it.

Example: Justine Smith, a transgender woman, was ticketed by a police officer for using the women’s bathroom. LGBT advocates have criticized actions like this by law enforcement, saying that all people should be allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
 

If a conviction ends up with a transgender person being jailed or imprisoned, it is never acceptable to make any reference whatsoever, even indirectly or as a ‘joke,’ to the idea of sexual intercourse while the suspect is in jail or prison.

If a transgender person is jailed or imprisoned, this provides journalists an opportunity to speak with a local LGBT rights organization about the specific challenges and often dire circumstances that transgender people face while in police custody or in the prison system.

Contact GLAAD, and we’ll be happy to connect you with an organization or individual who can speak to these specific issues.  

 

 

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