opinion
3 min

How journalism can lead to trans injustices

For trans stories to be fairly told, a different standard is needed

If your editorial policy means you have to out trans people, then it’s time to readdress your editorial policies.

Credit: Creatas Images/Thinkstock

Not everyone is able to be out and proud. Even now in 2015, for a significant portion of the trans population, being outed could mean being fired or disowned, made homeless, beaten or even killed as a result. Or for some, just embarrassment and shame — but it’s not our place to judge strangers in their own circumstances. Each person should be able to decide when and how they come out. And just because a person isn’t ready to come out doesn’t mean their story shouldn’t be told.

In journalism, attributing a person’s quote with a traceable name conveys a higher degree of accountability. So when a publication enforces a strict policy against pseudonyms, it creates an extra cushion of safety for the editorial staff, who are responsible (and ultimately liable) for that publication’s integrity.

Yet, an interesting problem arises when a story is about an incident of discrimination against a marginalized person or group.

Every week or two, I’m contacted by someone who’s been victim to some form of discrimination, either by a company or by the government. As an independent journalist, having access to media outlets like Daily Xtra is fantastic; it attracts greater public attention to serious issues. But that’s only when I’m able to report on those issues. A policy requiring traceable names complicates matters immensely, because some people only feel safe giving quotes anonymously.

“Carter Estevez” is a real person, but that’s not his real name (although his identity is known to me and my editors). Last year, I interviewed Estevez for a story about transgender discrimination — he had an experience with a service provider that was similar to one I had heard about earlier. “I’d really rather they not use my name,” he said. “I just don’t want it coming up when someone Googles me, it might interfere with my work.” Estevez may or may not be trans, but just having his name mentioned in a transgender news story could imply to some people that he is, thus opening him up to invidious gossip and discrimination.

I fought an uphill battle with my editor over Estevez. “We have to use a real name” as a matter of policy, I was told, or be forced to drop his quotes from the piece. But his experience was highly relevant to the story. It was challenging and time-consuming to negotiate a compromise to satisfy everyone.

Editorial standards are evolved and refined over time. It wasn’t so long ago that Xtra, citing editorial standards, refused to respect non-binary gender pronouns of genderqueer interview subjects. Grassroots elements of the trans community joined together with Xtra and created a learning experience for everyone involved, and that editorial position was appropriately refined.

So a source doesn’t want their name used. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been verified: it’s the job of a responsible journalist and her editors to fact-check. If they perform due diligence, confirm the identity and veracity of the subject to a reasonable degree (which was done in this case), then why should publishing a traceable name be necessary?

For trans stories to be properly and fairly told, a different standard is needed — perhaps one that harkens back to the past. Through the ’70s and ’80s, in the early days of Xtra and The Body Politic before it, there were many stories in which gay men and boys (and some lesbians) were quoted by pseudonym. After all, it was a very different time for the LGB community: so many lived in fear that being outed could mean being fired or disowned, made homeless, beaten or even killed as a result. Or for some, just embarrassment and shame.

It’s great that those editorial standards have been free to evolve over time, but perhaps it’s time for refinement: take a note from the past to help lead to the future, in support of the queer siblings who have yet to advance as far.