We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The Associated Press Stylebook setsa 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?