Guest Blogging: LGBTQ coverage and how to deal with “the fear of offending.”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Pat Garvin a visual journalist at The Boston Globe to discuss the importance of LGBTQ identity and how journalists can work to understand it during reporting. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

A friend and former coworker recently reached out to me to ask my opinion. One of her colleagues had interviewed a business owner for a story, and in doing research for the story, this colleague discovered that the business owner was transgender. It had not come up in the interview, as it was not important to the story. But the reporter now wanted to make sure she used the the right pronouns, because she wanted to get it right. But she didn’t want to offend the source.

My friend asked if there was an overarching rule of thumb for how to ask which pronouns a source uses, particularly when the story has nothing to do with gender. In the end, the fear of getting it wrong overrode this reporter’s fear of offending, so she asked the source which pronouns to use. The source, not bothered at all, responded that she used she/her pronouns. The reporter then proceeded with the story. And that was the end of it.

When you work in journalism, you feel the need and pressure to get things right. That pressure to get it “right” informs a sports reporter’s need to get a score right, whether she’s reporting on the Super Bowl or a high school football game in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin That need for precision dictates why a reporter will use the term Kleenex only when he is absolutely certain that the tissue in question was a Kleenex brand product. That need for accuracy is why a reporter will ask how you spell your name, whether that name is a common name like “Smith” or less common one, like “Filak.”

But when the detail you’re not sure about pertains to marginalized community you’re not part of, that fear of getting it wrong comes with a fear of offending the group you’re covering. It could be a reporter not sure of which pronouns to use for a source. Or it could be when a copy editor sees that there’s a same-sex couple in a story, but it’s not clear whether they use the term “partners,” “spouses,” or something else. Or perhaps a designer had a package using the term “gay marriage,” but didn’t know if both people in the couple identified as “gay.” In these situations, journalists who want to get the information accurate can feel a fear of offending someone if they ask, but they also know that they don’t know what they don’t know.

As the anecdote from my friend’s newsroom points out, the fear of offending the source ended up being a moot point, because the source was not only not offended, but she appreciated the question.

I asked some friends who aren’t cisgender and straight what they thought cisgender, straight journalists should know about covering these issues. And the recurring theme was that journalists should ask which pronouns to use, rather than assume. My friends reaffirmed what I have often thought: When it comes to writing about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people, there is only one rule, and that’s that there are no agreed-upon rules.

It’s best to ask the individual, as everyone is different, and we can’t assume that the terms that one person uses will be what someone else uses. Some use the term LGBT, others use LGBTQ, others use LGBTQ+, and others will use a longer set of letters. Different people will have different perspectives on what you should use, and why. Some will just use the overarching word “queer,” and others will resent that because of previous connotations.

Some will use the term “partner,” whereas others will use the term “wife” or “husband.” Some will use the term “partner” even when legally married, and others will use “wife” or “husband” even if they are not legally married. Some will use the pronouns “they” and “them,” even if they do not identify as transgender. But some people who are transgender will not use “they”/”them,” and will instead use “he” or “she,” or maybe different pronouns altogether. Everyone is different, and thus, if you’re ever not sure, the only way to know is to ask.

For those who like to have ordered rules and distinctions, this can be maddening and feel like a game of whack-a-mole. But that misses the point: the expanded arsenal of pronouns and terms helps people who don’t feel like they fit into the preexisting rules and distinctions.

In a recent piece in Teen Vogue, partners Raechel Anne Jolie and Logan Casey talked about Casey’s experience as a transgender man. In the piece, Casey addressed the topic of pronouns:

“Sometimes people try out different pronouns to see what feels right to them, and more and more people are also going by gender neutral pronouns, like they or ze. Some folks think these don’t sound right grammatically, or they’re just totally unfamiliar words. But no matter how you feel about someone else’s pronouns, that person is more important than your feelings about weirdness or grammar. If you do feel uncomfortable – try imagining how uncomfortable it must be for your trans or gender nonconforming (GNC) friend to wonder if a friend might care more about grammar than them as a person.”

It’s important for us to get over our fears of making a mistake when it comes to these issues, because we can’t afford to not cover these issues. As we continue to have news stories about same-sex adoption, bathroom bills, and transgender service in the military, it behooves journalists to not avoid these topics out of a fear of getting it wrong. And it’s not just those topics that will require straight, cisgender journalists to consider what they don’t know. As my friend’s story points out, LGBTQ issues can (and will) surface in the reporting in any kind of story, be it about business, sports, the arts, government, or beyond.

For journalists who want to get a better sense of the issues, I suggest expanding the media you follow. In addition to the aforementioned piece by Jolie and Casey, I suggest following all sorts of people on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re looking for trans and gender-non-conforming journalists to follow, Janet Mock’s Twitter feed is a great place to start. Autostraddle, JoeMyGod, and The Advocate are other good places to check out. Both GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and The Association of LGBTQ Journalists have style guides on terminology.

When you’re reading up on topics, look up “deadnaming,” which is referring to a trans person by the name given at birth. There are many pieces about it, including The Advocate’s “10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say).” As you find other terms you don’t know, Google those as well.

As you go down this rabbit-hole, you’ll quickly see that not every person or outlet lines up 100 percent on terms. Again, this gets us back to my previous point: When it comes to writing about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people, there is only one rule, and that’s that there are no agreed-upon rules.

You’ll find that even among your sources, not everyone will agree on terms. And that’s OK. Again, the whole point is that people pick the terms that make the most sense for them. When you don’t know something and you think it’s vital to your story, just ask. In any other story, that is the guiding principle. You wouldn’t hesitate to ask a person named Jonathon which spelling to use. That person would rather you ask than publish the wrong thing.

That same principle applies to LGBTQ issues.

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