Some of the language around the transgender issue is confusing – especially how to cover it in the media and what you are allowed to say. Our guide is designed to help you navigate this sensitive area of reporting.
It is natural to want to avoid harm or offence. However, a desire to avoid offence to transgender people may mean causing harm or offence to others, such as women, homosexual people and transsexual people. The sensitive nature of this topic is due to the fact we have an unavoidable conflict of wishes, priorities and rights across multiple protected groups. Some rights are sex-based whilst others are gender-based and these do not always overlap. For example, the sex-based needs of women and girls to have female-only spaces for privacy and safety conflicts with the wishes of male-born transwomen to use these female-only spaces based on their gender identity. There is a legitimate social debate to be had and the media plays an important role in portraying all sides fairly and accurately.
Journalists should be guided by the principle of accuracy, and seek to minimise offence to all groups based on this.
What is the difference between transsexual and transgender and what is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is a medical diagnosis, made when someone is experiencing discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between the sex they were born and their own sense of their “gender identity”. Many transgender people don’t have gender dysphoria, and very few want or need any treatment to alter their body.
Transsexual people have severe gender dysphoria and have what we used to call “sex change surgery” on their genitals. They are a very small group in the UK, estimated to be a few thousand people, for whom the original Gender Recognition Act was designed. ‘Transsexual’ is a word which many transsexual people use to describe themselves. It is not old-fashioned and can be used, particularly when people use it to describe themselves. It’s always a good idea to check with the person concerned.
Transgender is a broad umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity doesn’t
sit comfortably with their biological sex, including cross-dressers. Most transgender people only undertake a social transition, with some also taking cross-sex hormones to change the appearance of their body. Some transgender people also have cosmetic surgery, such as breast implants, but almost always retain their birth genitals. This is a very large group of people, currently estimated to be up to 1% of the UK population and growing. Many transgender people do not have gender dysphoria and are currently not eligible for a legal transition.
What does it mean if someone is ‘transitioning’?
It is impossible to ‘change sex’ but people who identify as transgender often ‘transition’ to a new gender identity. Transition is a broad term that can be divided into three types; social, medical and legal.
What is a medical transition? This is where someone changes the appearance of their body to resemble more closely the sex they feel themselves to be. This is normally done by taking cross-sex hormones and sometimes by having surgery. Someone must be diagnosed with gender dysphoria before they can get a medical transition on the NHS. Some treatments are only available privately. The most common surgical changes are breast implants, cosmetic facial surgery and hair removal for people who were born male to look more like women, and breast removal for people who were born female to look more like men. Surgery to change the appearance of the genitals is extremely rare.
What is a social transition? The vast majority of transgender people change their appearance only through clothes, hair styles and name changes. Everyone is free to make these changes, including children. There is no requirement for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or even to see a doctor or have any treatment. A social transition like this is all that’s needed to be seen as transgender in the eyes of the law, and to be protected from discrimination by UK equality law and hate crime legislation. However, a social transition does not mean someone is seen as the opposite sex by law.
What is a legal transition? A legal transition is where someone changes their birth certificate to say they were born the opposite sex. Currently, someone must have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before they are allowed to make this legal change but they don’t need to have any medical treatment or surgery. The Government has suggested it may scrap the requirement for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and transgender lobby groups want parliament to legalise an on demand process known as sex self-ID as part of GRA reform. This process would allow any man, transgender or not, to get a new birth certificate saying he was born female, with no checks and balances. It would make it easier for transgender people to change legal sex, but it would be bad law and open to abuse and is opposed by gender critical women’s groups.
What does ‘gender critical’ mean?
It does NOT mean ‘critical of transgender people’! Gender critical people understand ‘gender’ to be the sets of attributes or restrictive stereotypes that are attached to each sex by society. For example, masculine gender stereotypes might be more competitive, likes sport, wears traditionally ‘male’ clothes, while feminine gender stereotypes might be more caring, more submissive, likes high heels and make up. Gender critical people would like to see gender done away with, so that boys and girls, men and women, can break down the often very sexist barriers which can prevent people from fulfilling their potential.
Gender is different to sex, which is your reproductive role. The female sex (across animals and plants) is the class which produces large gametes (ova, in humans) and the male sex is the class which produces small gametes (sperm, in humans). Chromosomes and genitalia are markers for the sexes. It’s important to know that there are only two sexes, where as gender identities are self-reported and changeable. Those people sometimes described as ‘intersex’, who have disorders or differences of sexual development, are not ‘in between’. Like everyone else, they have a sex, and it is male or female. There is no relationship between having a DSD, and being trans.
It is also impossible to change your sex or for anyone to ‘become’ the other sex, despite medical treatment or legal status. Whilst it is possible to change the appearance of secondary sex characteristics it’s not possible to change one’s biological sex, hence the fact the transmen will still be required to attend cervical smear appointments and may become pregnant and give birth.
A woman is an adult female human. A man is an adult male human.
A female-born person who identifies as a man may sometimes be called a transman. A male-born person who identifies as a woman may sometimes be called a transwoman. For clarity and to avoid confusion, it’s best not to put a space in ‘transman’ and ‘transwoman’ because it implies that transwomen are a sub-group of biological women in the same way as black women, disabled women and working-class women. Describing a male as ‘a woman’ simply with a qualifying adjective ‘trans’ is fundamentally inaccurate and misleading. All transwomen are a sub group of biological males because only people born male can identify as transwomen.
Some people feel they have a distinct ‘gender identity’. Innate (or congenital) gender identity is not a phenomenon which has been detected other than by self-reporting. It is also not possible to have an ‘opposite sex’ brain in your body. There is no such thing as a ‘male’ brain’ unless it is in a male-sexed body, and no such thing as a ‘female’ brain, unless it is in a female-sexed body. However some people do suffer gender dysphoria, involving extreme psychological distress and discomfort about their sex. Having gender dysphoria doesn’t change your sex.
Avoid the use of the term ‘TERF’ (said to mean trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and do not assume that all gender critical people are feminists or women. Gender critical people do not exclude trans people from any group, but simply acknowledge the facts described above. Many gender critical people are in fact transsexual themselves, who acknowledge the reality of sex. ‘Terf’ is generally used as a term of abuse and has been attached to violent threats.
Avoid the use of ‘CIS’. ‘Cis’ is a word which assumes that everyone has an innate gender identity, and that it ‘matches’ your sex. However not everyone believes they have a ‘gender identity’, and many believe it is a way of saying that someone identifies with the stereotypes that typically attach to your sex. It also reduces women to a subset of their own sex class with indefinable boundaries which can only be described in terms of ‘senses’ and sexist stereotypes. It is considered a sexist term.
Avoid the use of ‘assigned at birth’. This is a phrase taken from diagnosis of DSDs, a medical condition unrelated to being trans. Sex is determined at conception, observed at birth and does not change throughout life.
Avoid ridiculing the views of gender critical people, or portraying them as prejudiced.
Avoid the phrase ‘anti-trans’: it rarely if ever applies to gender critical people. Most have sympathy with those who are unhappy with their sex.
Be sensitive to homosexual people who are clear that their orientation is same-sex, not same gender. Many lesbians and some gay men have come under pressure to ‘date’ trans people of the opposite sex, and are called prejudiced if they say they remain same-sex oriented.
Be careful with the word ‘transphobia’. It is often used to describe anyone who does not believe for example that all people have an innate ‘gender identity’, that people can change sex, or that the penis is a female sex organ. As a blanket term it inhibits understanding of people’s concerns.
‘Detransitioner’ refers to a person who has previously identified as trans, and has usually undergone some medical treatment, but no longer does so and has accepted their biological sex. ‘Desistance’ is when someone has stopped identifying as trans.
Take care when reporting on suicide statistics, particularly the claim that half of trans young people attempt suicide. There is no robust, independent evidence of suicide ideation rates in trans people – instead all that exists is self-reported survey results conducted by trans lobby groups. Research shows links between media coverage of suicide and increases in suicidal behaviour. Be aware of the Samaritans warning about suicide ideation contagion.
What’s the legal position?
‘Gender’ and ‘Gender Identity’ are not protected characteristics in law. The Equality Act 2010 protects the characteristics ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender Reassignment.’ It also protects single-sex spaces for women.
The law which allows someone to change their legal sex marker is the Gender Recognition Act 2004. A person who has gone through the legal process of ‘gender reassignment’ will have a Gender Recognition Certificate. They should be treated under the law as if they are the opposite sex, and they have sex discrimination protections under the EA under their new sex marker. However institutions and service providers can still exclude them from single-sex spaces when objectively justified.
The test of whether it is legal to maintain a single-sex space (such as changing room) is whether it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. It applies on a case-by-case basis per service and facility, rather than for each individual trans person.
e.g. A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful. (Example taken directly from Equality Act 2010 explanatory notes).
If a person does not have a GRC, they are protected from discrimination under the ‘gender reassignment’ characteristic of the EA. However they are legally treated as their biological sex.
Under the Act, the protection from gender reassignment discrimination applies to all trans people who are proposing to go, are undergoing or have undergone (part of) a process of gender reassignment. At the same time, a trans person is protected from sex discrimination on the basis of their legal sex. This means that a trans woman who does not hold a GRC and is therefore legally male would be treated as male for the purposes of the sex discrimination provisions, and a trans woman with a GRC would be treated as female. The sex discrimination exceptions in the Equality Act therefore apply differently to a trans person with a GRC or without a GRC. (Extract taken from guidance published by EHRC in 2018).
It is estimated that 1% of the UK population identifies as transgender. However, less than 5000 Gender Recognition Certificates have been issued to date. This means the overwhelming majority (>99%) of transgender people remain legally the sex they were born. Genital reassignment surgery is also very rare, most male-born transgender people will retain their penis and testicles.
Take care when reporting on ‘trans children’. Under the law, children cannot change their legal sex marker. Children’s privacy should be of paramount concern, even if parents are willing to forgo their anonymity.
What can be reported?
It is not illegal to reveal that a person is trans, unless you know someone has legally changed their sex category via a GRC and that information has been acquired in a professional capacity. However news organisations may take a judgement to respect a person’s privacy, whilst bearing in mind the need for accuracy.
In court, prosecutors now have new official guidance to use the ‘preferred pronouns’ of a trans defendant. This guidance does not cover victims or witnesses, who may use biological sex pronouns. It may therefore be possible in a court report to avoid misleading the public about the sex of an offender. Misreporting the sex of an offender is not only a serious inaccuracy, it can have a profound impact on victims and family members.
There is no law compelling the media to use preferred pronouns, and no law against using biological sex pronouns in general for trans people. Nor is there a law against using a trans person’s previous name. Reporters may feel they have no need or desire to do so, but it is important to know there is no specific law against it. In many circumstances a person’s biological sex is irrelevant to the story (e.g. Woman wins lottery). However, biological sex is highly relevant when reporting sexual or violent crimes because these are typical of male-pattern criminality, and statistically almost never perpetrated by female people. (In England and Wales there are currently over 14,000 people in prison convicted of sexual offences, but only approx 100 are female. The overwhelming majority are males). When journalists refer to a male person carrying out a typically male act of sexual offending as if it were perpetrated by a female person, it distorts the wider ongoing conversation around male sexual offending which has wider consequences and is not in the public interest.
For example, this headline breaches the IPSO Editors code 1 (i) Accuracy “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported text”.
European Convention on Human Rights
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has held that obliging a person to manifest a belief which he does not hold is a limitation on a person’s rights under Article 9(1) of the Human Rights Convention concerning freedom of expression. The freedom not to express beliefs one does not hold is also protected by Article 10. Editors may wish to consider this when seeking to compel a person to manifest the belief that a person is the opposite sex in their reporting.