In Defense of Clarity and Dignity

Co-authored by Thomas Page McBee

At the end of last month, the Times published a story about a gender non-conforming person named Sasha Fleischman who was asleep on a bus in Oakland in 2013 when two teenage boys set their skirt on fire, resulting in second-and third-degree burns all over their legs.

You may notice our use of "they" here. "They" is the pronoun that Sasha uses and, as the writer noted in parentheticals several paragraphs into the story, the Times does not recognize this use of a plural pronoun. "Telling Sasha's story also poses a linguistic challenge," she admits, before going on to contort language for over five thousand words, so as to avoid pronouns all together. Because, as she explains, "Sasha prefers 'they,' 'it' or the invented gender-neutral pronoun 'xe.' The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals."

GLAAD, citing a recent Pew poll that only 8 percent of Americans say they know a transgender person, noted recently that the rest of Americans learn about trans people through the media. "So when the media talks about transgender issues," they noted, "it is imperative they get it right."

Language matters. In a follow up op-ed, Margaret Sullivan quotes the writer of the story, Dashka Slater (who referred us to her comments here when we reached out to her), who notes that though her first choice was to use Sasha's preferred pronoun (xe), she eventually came to feel that "the lack of pronouns had the virtue of inviting people into a gender-neutral space without triggering the resistance or hostility that unfamiliar language often arouses in people."

We are two trans people, and we disagree with that approach. Though neither of us uses gender-neutral pronouns, one of us is non-binary, and we have both been the uncomfortable subjects of media narratives -- including within the New York Times itself.

As lovers of language, we appreciate that the New York Times has a style guide, like every media outlet. A style guide, much like the law itself, is meant to guide its subjects toward action that benefits the collective over the individual. In the case of pronouns, trans identities -- which are only now beginning to receive respectful representation in media, despite existing since the beginning of time -- are particularly vulnerable to outright negative treatment or its cousin, insidious undermining. To not allow a person control of his, her, or their own story is to deny that person their humanity. Who we are to the world -- especially when our bodies are different -- is all that exists. If you don't believe our reality, and you have the power to represent it to others, you take away the mirror that allows us to see ourselves.

And this isn't just true for trans people -- it's true for anyone with a name, a body, and a history of marginalization. Native people in the United States endured many indignities, but one of the most cutting was forced assimilation, which often included stripping a person of their birth name. In media and until the recent Chelsea Manning story, reporters regularly chose to ignore trans pronouns until the trans person in question could "prove" that they'd "undergone their transition" which could mean anything from surgery to legal name changes -- all markers of the state, with nothing to do with our bodies or our hearts.

After the story about Sasha went live, the response was swift and harsh -- especially on Twitter, where trans people and our allies pointed, sometimes humorously, to some basic truths about language. Ivy Jane (@burgeroise) tweeted: "'Invented gender neutral pronoun' as opposed to the organic and pure binary pronouns harvested from the soil by kindhearted farmers." It was retweeted hundreds of times.

We hope that non-binary subjects are not always going to be people like Sasha Fleischman --subjects whose stories are told through the lens of violence they experience for being themselves. But the truth is, gender non-conforming trans people, and those among us who don't "pass" are at greater risk than anyone else in our community. According to a recent study by UCLA and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, people who report that others "can tell" that they're trans or gender non-conforming are at an elevated risk for suicide (42 percent for those who say people can "always" tell; 45 percent who say people can tell "most of the time"). The violence of erasing their identity shouldn't be yet another indignity they have to face.

We're in a fragile time for stories about trans and gender nonconforming bodies. On one hand, we're represented with more nuance and sensitivity in media than any other time in history. On the other, we are in the age of Bruce Jenner, where gossip and speculation still turn stories about alleged trans identities into spectacles. The Guardian recently published an op-ed suggesting "they" might be a way to talk about Jenner, who has not publicly identified as trans. This is a good start to a broader conversation where the most decent act would be to not publish Jenner's narrative at all without input from the source. Basic journalism, yes, but also human decency.

Not too long ago, stories about trans people fit into one of three narratives: "A man in a dress was murdered," "This person was born in the wrong body, isn't that strange and alien?" and, if the outlet was especially liberal, "Meet this trans man or woman who has finally become him or herself, what an inspiration!" Thankfully, more voices and more stories and taking control of our own stories has highlighted a truth that should be obvious: we are one slice of a kaleidoscopic human experience, our differences not more or less than any human within the diversity of the human condition. To hiccup on them is to deny yourself your own humanity, just as you deny us ours.

We believe that, just as the tide turned with the three trans narratives, history will catch up with us here, too. It can start today, with the New York Times, which is the paper of record in the United States. As such, it has a great responsibility to report on this America, the one we all live in, side by side. To hide behind a style guide as if it's not a living document, as if "clarity" justifies prejudice, is not just offensive -- it's false. The clearest answer is the true one. Every journalist knows that. Report ours.

Thomas Page McBee is the author of "Man Alive" (City Lights) and has written about gender for the New York Times, the Atlantic, Vice and BuzzFeed.