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Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story about two shoplifting suspects who were shot over the weekend by a Prince George’s County police officer. The suspects were shot after they attempted to drive away with the officer’s arm lodged in the door of their getaway car. But the Post story was not concerned with the facts of this botched escape—-thenewspaper had already covered the particulars of the incident a day earlier. The follow-up amounted to a lengthy correction of one fact: the gender of the wounded suspects.

In its first story on the suspects, the Post wrote that “an off-duty county officer shot and wounded two women.” In the second story, the Post corrected the record: the suspects “turned out to be men rather than women,” Staff Writer Martin Weil wrote. Weil explains:

It was believed at first that the two who were shot were women. But they “turned out to be males dressed in female clothing,” Officer Henry Tippett, a county police spokesman, said early Sunday.

That finding was apparently made when medical personnel began treating the two for gunshot wounds, Tippett said.

The headline of the story reads “Two Men Shot by Pr. George’s Officer Were Dressed as Women.” A link to the story goes further to label the pair: “Cross-Dressing Men Shot By Police.”

There are two possibilities here:

(a) The suspects were cross-dressing men who had disguised themselves in dresses, wigs, and make-up in order to lift merchandise from a store. Any man can be a cross-dresser—-all you gotta do is put on a dress. Or:

(b) The suspects were transgender women who were born with male sex characteristics, but live their lives as women. Transgender women are not guys in dresses——they’re women whose gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. They should be identified as women, not men.

For the Post, the distinction between “cross-dressing men” and “transgender women” is an important one. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, transgender subjects are to be identified by their gender identity, not their sex at birth. Media outlets are to employ “the pronoun preferred by the individuals who . . . present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth,” the guide reads. “If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”

Additionally, the GLAA media guide cautions against using the term “cross-dresser” to describe a transgender person. Cross-dressers, the guide notes, are people who “occasionally wear clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex.” The term should be employed to describe someone who is “comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it,” not “someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex, or who intends to do so in the future.”

It’s not possible, at this point, for the Post to definitively identify the subjects as either “cross-dressers” or “transgender women.” One sure-fire way to confirm a person’s gender identity is simply to ask them, but the names of the suspects, both 23, have not yet been released by police.

Still, a couple of facts in the story suggest that the suspects in question presented consistently as female, and didn’t just dress up “in female clothing” for their little crime spree. Initially, everyone—-from the police officer who chased and shot them to the police spokespeople who announced the incident—-had no doubt that the suspects were women. The suspects were only identified as biologically male following a medical examination. In short, the Post modified the gender of the suspects solely on the basis of a genital check.

If you’re under the impression that a person’s genitals should determine the gender used to describe them in print, consider this: Under what other circumstances would the Washington Post force its subjects to drop their pants in order to prove their gender? Let’s run that test on some other stories which appeared in yesterday’s Metro section. Was Noah Robbins, a 19-year-old local actor headed for Broadway, forced to display his genitals in order to be referred to throughout the piece as “he” and “him”? How about Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell—-did the Post ensure that the candidates have penises before calling them “men”? Was Debra Rowe, former HIV/AIDS housing chief, only granted a “she” following a medical examination?

In every other instance, a Post subject is considered a woman if she presents as a woman and says she’s a woman. A couple of shoplifting suspects, however, appear to have been denied that courtesy. There are several reasons for the Post not to write this story. The suspects’ identities are still unknown. The gender identification in the story is contrary to style guidelines. The Post has reason to believe that the gender terminology employed by the police requires fact-checking. Further information in the case could require yet another gender correction here.

There’s one reason why the Post would go ahead with this story: “cross-dressing” shoplifters make for more sensational crime suspects than do a couple of women. The story has already generated such helpful online comments as “Was dey pretty? Does dey gets to wear the dresses in prison? Big dummies,” and “One can only hope that their shoes matched their dresses.” Perhaps the Post received positive feedback for its previous dubious “cross-dressing shoplifter” work, published back in August. The Post is clearly capitalizing upon a “man in a dress” punchline to this modest little crime story. But obviously, the potential for some sophomoric joking is no reason to sacrifice accuracy in reporting. The true gender identities of the suspects in the case are still unclear. When you’re writing a story that is exclusively centered on the gender of your suspects, shouldn’t you wait until you can get it right?

Illustration by Bonnie Kennedy