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A Guide to the Guides: What to Know About LGBTQ Style Guides for Journalists

There are numerous LGBTQ style guides for journalists, so here’s a primer. 

Iowa students protest anti-trans law. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

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There are numerous LGBTQ style guides for journalists. Most include similar advice for what is and isn’t appropriate to ask gay and trans sources as well as how to steer clear of some oft-repeated misinformation. Offering your pronouns — e.g. she/her/hers, they/them/theirs — at the start of a conversation invites your interviewee to reply with the information they want you to have about their identity.

Young people don’t always make good decisions about sharing information. If possible, have a parent present. If that’s inadvisable, perhaps a school’s gay-straight alliance adviser or another trusted adult can be tapped. It’s painful to acknowledge, says Francisco Vara-Orta, a former Education Week staff writer and EWA board member who is now director of diversity and inclusion for Investigative Reporters and Editors. But as a gay man in an era where elected officials feel free to say LGBTQ adults are pedophiles, he tries not to talk to children alone.

It’s almost never appropriate to ask about a person’s anatomy or the medical details of their transition. Because an evolving base of scientific knowledge has identified sex and gender as complicated and not necessarily fixed, it’s also inappropriate — and politically charged — to refer to a person’s biology, e.g. “biologically male.”

Contrary to heated rhetoric, gender-confirmation surgery is generally not performed on minors. Puberty-suppressing drugs are fully reversible and temporarily stop the development of permanent secondary sex characteristics, such as Adam’s apples and breasts.

Do not “deadname,” or use the pre-transition name, of a transgender person unless they invite you to.

NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists offers a style guide and a “toolbox” with guidance on journalistic issues, such as ensuring balance while avoiding sensational but discredited storylines.

Newer but more authoritative is the Trans Journalists Association’s style guide, which includes terminology, suggestions for improving representation of gender-nonconforming people in coverage, cautions about supposed experts most trans people consider “fringe” sources and other easily mishandled items.

The GLAAD Media Reference Guide has helpful information for covering LGBTQ people’s participation in a variety of civic and social arenas.