The Sexist

How the AP Stylebook Fails Transgender Subjects

The Associated Press Stylebook sets a fairly helpful standard for media coverage of transgender subjects. According to the AP "sex changes" entry, reporters are to:

Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

So why does Jessie L. Bonner's recent AP profile of transgender mayoral candidate Melissa Sue Robinson keep zig-zagging between male and female pronouns? Robinson has acquired female physical characteristics, and prefers the female pronoun. And yet, Bonner's story refers to Robinson with female signifiers (she, her) 17 times, and male signifiers (he, him, his) six times.

Perhaps the AP standard isn't so helpful after all. In the piece, Bonner applies the rules differently to Robinson before and after her gender transition. Each current reference to Robinson refers to the candidate as female; each reference to Robinson before she "legally changed his name and underwent surgery in 1998" employs the male pronoun. There's some AP style hidden beneath the awkward usage: technically, Bonner refers to both Robinson and her former legal identity, Charles Staelens Jr., in a manner that's "consistent with the way the individuals live publicly." Staelens lived publicly as a man, so gets a "he"; Robinson lives publicly as a woman, and earns a "she."

Bonner's usage may be technically correct, but it also borders on the offensive. (First, let's overlook the fact that nine-tenths of the story is entirely fixated on the fact that a female mayoral candidate "previously lived as a man.") As Bonner switches between "his" and "hers" in order to hew to AP style, Robinson comes off looking confused:

The 58-year-old was born male and still carries the slightly larger-than-an-average-woman build of Charles Staelens Jr., who legally changed his name and underwent surgery in 1998 to become a woman.

She also kept his voice.

He was married for 17 years, owned a construction company, and was a Republican when he ran for city council in Lansing, Mich., where he was raised with his identical twin brother until their parents divorced in the 1960s.

Now she says she is celibate, a telecommunications worker who is "just another cog in the machine," and a Democrat who in 2004 became the first transgender to run for the state legislature in Michigan.

Later in the story, another component of the AP "sex changes" rule comes into play—the part that instructs reporters to use the pronoun "preferred by the individuals" in question. According to Bonner's story, Robinson has never personally identified as male. Sure, that preference wasn't publicly known before 1998, but it's now been out in the open for 11 years. And yet, Bonner still churns out phrases like this one:

"as an adult, [Robinson] always thought of himself as a woman but waited until his late 40s before undergoing the gender reassignment surgery."

Actually, Robinson has always thought of herself as a woman. And yet, to the Associated Press, Robinson's forever gender remains male. Why? Because to the AP, you only get to be referred to as female after you undergo intensive surgery—and even then, your gender only applies to the years you've spent since going under the knife. That sucks. No person should be forced to invest in a legal name change and live up to a set physical standard—according to AP style, "hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery"—to be identified by their true gender identity.

No matter what the AP treatment suggests, Robinson didn't become female when she changed her name and underwent surgery. That's just the point at which the Associated Press learned that Robinson was female. With any other developing story, the AP will update its outdated, incorrect narrative when new information comes to light. Why should a transgender person's story be any different?

  • recursiveparadox

    Just to let you know, in America, the diagnosis is no longer MPD, but Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). So referring to it as MPD in an American context is actually a bit inaccurate.

  • Amanda Hess

    thanks for checking up on me, recursive, and I'm sorry for the mistake. I've corrected the post.

  • Skipper

    So she was a he until she was a she, and although she was born with he parts, he was never a he, but was always a she.

    And the reporter should have known all this, even though it would be confusing as all hell to anyone reading the story.

  • sadie ryanne

    Thanks for this article, Amanda. Very good point!

  • Victor

    What happens if the transgender changes their mind? I mean, what if the individual is physically male, but identifies as a female from 1980-2005, gets a sex change in 2005 to become physically female, but then changes their mind and identifies as a male from 2010-2015?

    You have a physical "he" by "theoretical" she from 1980-2005
    You have a physical "she" from 2005-2010
    And from 2010-2015 you have a physical "she" but theoretical "he".

    Articles written at different years would refer to the individual by different genders, and refer to past physical incarnations as different genders. It would essentially be illegible.

    I thought the author did a decent job of identifying the individual in an understandable manner.

  • Caoimhe Ora Snow

    Even with the update to DID, I think you're reinforcing bad stereotypes of multiple/plural people by your ableist language here. Any chance you could just remove the backhanded slap at "multiple personality" folks and write a straightforward story?

    Also, I don't think the story was actually written correctly according to AP style.

  • Amanda Hess

    Victor: You're worried that if a transgender person changes his or her gender expression again, that reporters will be forced to refer to "past physical incarnations as different genders." Um, isn't that what Bonner's story does now? Bonner refers to Robinson as a she post-1998 and a he pre-1998. I'm the one arguing for fewer pronoun switcheroos here. Also: The scenario you present is both extremely unlikely and quite complicated. Even so, you've managed to package the history of this practically nonexistent event into a 100-word (legible!) blog comment. Perhaps you can write the story?

    Caoimhe, I think it could be argued both ways. Bonner bases the pronouns based on whether his subject has "acquired the physical characteristics" of the opposite sex, but in doing so, ignores the "preference" part. Which is why I think AP Style is probably too vague to adequately inform reporters on how to refer to transgender subjects at the moment.

  • Amanda Hess

    Oh, and Caoimhe: The reference wasn't meant as a slight, but rather a recognition of the fact that it's not uncommon for transgender people to be misdiagnosed as having DID when it's not actually the case. But you're right---it's not necessary here.

  • Nancy Nangeroni

    Amanda, thanks for this thoughtful piece,you bring up some interesting points. I agree that the AP's requirement of body modification in order to be referred to with your preferred gender is problematic. To require body modification in order to recognized lived gender experience is simply wrong. Fortunately, lived gender is usually respected (though body mod may be wrongly assumed).
    But I don't find Bonner's use of pronouns problematic. I understand how it might cause discomfort for any post-transition person to hear their prior life described with the pronoun that they formerly inhabited. But that usage is true to the way they presented themselves to the world then. As such it seems quite reasonably defensible.
    In my case, although I now live as a woman, I grew up as a boy. Hence, it is appropriate to refer to my boyhood (I was never a girl), and to use male pronouns in referring to my life prior to transition. I can't say it feels good to me to hear my pre-transition self referred to as "he" or male, but that's the truth of the life I lived then, however uncomfortably. To whitewash that prior life with female pronouns, though, would make me even more uncomfortable. It would erase an important fact about my life, and feels dishonest to me.
    I understand that not everybody feels as I do - that's the essence of our community, that there is such great diversity of experience and preference - but we have to be reasonable in our expectations of those who write about us. W've made tremendous progress in getting people to refer to us by the pronoun we inhabit in our daily lives. To ask them to reverse cours, and apply the pronoun we ::didn't:: live to a past lifetime seems onerous to me, and generally increasing, rather than clearing up, confusion.

    I think it'd be a serious stretch to call Bonner's usage offensive. Rather, it seems the most sensible. Otherwise, we're asking for some pretty serious gender gymnastics from writers in order to avoid ruffling our feathers. At some point, we all have to stop trying to chase away discomfort and get on with our lives. Meanwhile, there's some serious hate crimes and employment issues that need our attention!

  • Victor

    I'm with Nancy.
    Amanda, I think you misunderstood the point of my post slightly. The temporal issue becomes critical because you are suggesting that writers refer to a past in a manner which would not be consistent with historical works. For example, under your demands, an article written about Nancy now, would refer to her childhood in the "feminine" while an article written about Nancy prior to her transition, would refer to the exact same time period in the "masculine".

    At minimum, writing has to follow the gender the individual is publicly representing themselves as (don't think anyone cares what the bits and bobs may be)at the time period in which the individual is being described so that there is historical continuity with past works. This could become particularly confusing if there were multiple changes/representations of an individuals gender.

  • eleanargh

    I'm confused by the use of "a transgender"! Both in the original AP profile and in the comments here. Is this common/acceptable in the U.S. (I'm U.K.) when talking about transgendered people? It seems offensive, and reduces people just to their trans status. "Transgender person" or "a transgender man"/"transgender woman" works fine!

  • Evelyn S.

    I disagree. The "historical record" is hardly in any danger simply because someone uses language considered appropriate by the subject in question. Perhaps Robinson has no problem with the pronoun usage--perhaps she feels she really did have a "boyhood", etc. But in general that isn't the case, in my experience. Obviously I can only speak for the people who have given me testimony (and as a trans woman, I have spent a lot of time talking with other trans women in a variety of circumstances) but as far as I'm aware, most of us experience our lives as a person of our identified sex who simply has a statistically unlikely body. I, for example, experienced my childhood as a girlhood in which the subject (me) was typically taken for a boy. I was a girl, to put it simply, no matter what the people around me THOUGHT or "PERCEIVED", and the uniqueness of my body did not undermine that status. When someone talks about my "boyhood" or refers to an old picture as containing a "he", I DO find that insulting: it is not my fault, after all, that nobody thought to ask me who I was at the time.

    So I understand what you're saying: if someone were reading a biography of my life and then went back to look, say, for a newspaper article about me in the library of the town where I grew up, it would be strange to see the secondary source source referring to me as "she" while the primary source newspaper article said "he". But the fact is, the secondary source is more correct--the presumption that I was a boy (rather than a unusually-embodied girl) that was made by whoever wrote the article, was a false assumption, and it is appropriate to gender me according to the more accurate knowledge that is obviously currently possessed.

    I understand that most perceive my life story as a transformative narrative, but that's not how I've experienced it, and it IS disrespectful for someone else to presume to describe my life in terms that, were I asked about, I would soundly reject.

    No, it's not appropriate or acceptable, anywhere, but I can understand why people find that confusing. I mean, for example, it's NOT generally offensive to refer to someone as "a lesbian", but saying someone is "a gay" is offensive.

    So teaching moment: calling some "a transgender" or "a trans" or the like is pretty generally offensive, and you shouldn't do it unless someone specifically says they don't mind it (and even then, use it only regarding them and preferably in their company only)


    Being a life long trans-sexual and fully transgendered for more than thirty-five years I can understand the comments, in that we all seem to have a need to compartmentalize, or "label" the person one gender or another. We are all humans, same DNA, chromosomes, etc. My bio, THE EXCEPTIONAL IMPOSSIBLE WOMAN INDEED covers this without the confusion the reporter brought forth with their "he, she and it" misplacements.