Tips for navigating uncertain gender identity during breaking news

The Trans Journalists Association won’t tell you whether someone is (or isn’t) trans. Here's why identifying gender during breaking news is more complicated than you think. 

Some reporters on a deadline to cover big breaking news this year have found themselves wondering, “Is the person I’m reporting on trans?” 

They probably didn’t teach you how to answer that in J-school. But it’s not always that complicated.

Can you ask that person? Great. Your job’s easy.

If the subject of a breaking news event publicly shares their identity, that works too. Maybe they have a trans flag and a “trans” self-descriptor on a Twitter/X profile that is super-verifiably run by them or someone who represents them online with permission. Maybe they talked to another publication a few weeks back and said, “I’ve been openly trans for eight years!”

There you go.

But often, breaking news situations aren’t that straightforward. Maybe this person was the victim of a crime and their lawyers aren’t letting them say anything, or maybe they’re dead, or maybe they’re just private…

Plus, the editorial decision to identify someone as trans or nonbinary has become increasingly high-stakes, between the spread of false claims that mass shooting perpetrators are unrelated trans people and police departments that often provide contradictory or outright incorrect descriptions of people’s gender identities. 

The Trans Journalists Association has gotten a lot of questions on what to do about this, and even some inquiries asking us to determine whether specific people are trans. But it’s important to understand that there’s no foolproof way for third parties to identify someone else’s gender identity. If you’re a reporter, and you can’t clearly determine how someone self-described from the available information, we probably can’t, either. 

There’s no magic trick that transgender reporters know and cisgender reporters don’t. 

As journalists, it’s our job to stick to the facts. Gender identity is a matter of self-identification. Don’t take the police’s word for it, don’t take a social media profile’s word for it, and don’t take our word for it. You wouldn’t publish that someone is a QAnon believer or a devout Pastafarian just because one person said so — so don’t do it with gender identity, either. 

So how can we address this, as reporters and editors on a deadline to get news out to the public? 

Big picture: Just describe what you know. Don't try to come to a conclusion about what someone’s name, pronouns, or clothing mean for their gender identity.

The TJA's 3 tips for navigating uncertain gender identity during a breaking news situation

One: Report the facts. Don’t make conjectures based on facts.

Let’s try a thought exercise.

Someone who’s in the news has a driver’s license that says F but uses he/him pronouns on social media.

What could that mean?

Well, they could be:

  • a transgender woman who has changed her legal documents but isn’t out on social media
  • a transgender man who hasn’t changed his legal documents but is out on social media
  • a nonbinary person who either has or hasn’t changed their legal documents and either doesn’t use gender-neutral pronouns or isn’t out as nonbinary on social
  • a cisgender person who’s making a joke or accidentally clicked the wrong pronoun button on the web interface

That’s a lot of possibilities. And each one of them has different implications for even the basic grammar of a news story. If you try to pick one of those without additional information, you have a high chance of publishing an error that may later require correction.

Instead, you could just stick to the facts.

For example, “whose driver’s license says F and social media lists he/him pronouns.” Like you would with any other piece of information, either explain the ambiguity or opt to not run information on gender identity until you have verified it through other avenues. 

Two: Are you able to identify reliable sources regarding someone’s gender identity?

  • Are these sources created by that person (i.e., blogs or social media profiles that are provably not run by random people unrelated to the person)? 
  • If not, do these sources have a good reason to know about this person’s gender identity? 
    • Personal friends, LGBTQ+ community groups, and even smaller online communities often have more up-to-date insight into transgender individuals’ identities than workplaces, biological families, or old high school acquaintances.
  • Do these sources have a history of reliably talking about gender identity in the person’s broader community?  

And, most importantly...

Three: Ask yourself, is gender identity relevant to this story? Does it matter? Or is it a distraction from the actual news?

Bigger-picture, what news value does gender identity hold for the public?

Sometimes — like in an obituary — it’s central, and having an unclear idea of someone’s gender identity could be a non-starter for publishing a story.

Sometimes, it’s totally irrelevant. And other times, it might be initially unclear, and require some prudence and further verification.

(If you’re ever not sure which, or want to talk through that decision with some expert trans journalists, please reach out to us.)

What's the deal with self-identification?

As we’ve written in past guidance, “Don’t assume someone is cisgender or transgender based on their appearance, gender presentation, pronouns, or name.” Instead, “the best way to determine a person's gender, name, and pronouns is to ask them directly.”

At the end of the day, being trans, nonbinary, or gender-expansive is complex and personal. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There’s no list of combined pronouns, gender presentation, assigned sex at birth, or actions that makes someone definitionally any of those things. 

A lot of experiences often thought of as “a trans thing” are also plain old cisgender experiences, too, especially within queer communities. And journalists frequently get this info wrong! It’s impossible for anyone, journalists included, to look at a list of information about someone and determine what it means for that person and their gender identity.

A few lighthearted examples: 

  • Star Wars actor Billy Dee Williams told Esquire, “I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine. I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.” A number of publications ran stories stating that Williams had come out as genderfluid based on this statement. Williams’ response? “What the hell is gender fluid?” Cue some embarrassing corrections.
  • “The Haunting of Bly Manor” actor Rahul Kohli added “he/they” to his Twitter bio, resulting in a number of blog posts announcing his pronoun change or describing him as nonbinary. He then tweeted that he is a “cis man” who uses they/them pronouns to normalize them and “feel[s] bad when folks assume I’m non binary.” 
  • An anecdote from a TJA member: UC Berkeley’s college paper, the Daily Californian, at one point had warnings posted in its newsroom reading, “LAURIE CAPITELLI IS A MAN.” Laurie was a cisgender city councilman who had a habit of replying to everything only by email. Before the warnings, nearly every freshman reporter misgendered him in their first stories by calling him a woman. (Some still got it wrong despite the sign.)

That’s why it’s best practice to ask most sources for their pronouns and how they’d describe their gender — especially when there’s any reason to think your reporting may involve LGBTQ+ people.

For a handy reference, check out our stylebook entries on identifying transgender people during breaking news, why not to guess anyone’s gender identity or pronouns, what to do if you can’t obtain self-identification, and what to do if you can’t determine someone’s pronouns.

And lastly: Many people who use they/them pronouns are nonbinary. But many trans people who exclusively use she/her or he/him pronouns are also nonbinary. Some lesbians use he/him pronouns and consider themselves cisgender — or at least not trans. Some people use gender-neutral pronouns for political reasons (rather than identity-related reasons) and also actively oppose transgender rights. Some people spend significant amounts of time dressing as another gender, but consider themselves cis and straight.

So as always, stick to the basics: report and verify.

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