September 11, 2023 - 5:30pm

Last week, the Trans Journalists Association rolled out a “refreshed” style guide sharing “editorial best practices” for covering transgender issues. As the debate over paediatric gender clinics, detransitioners, women’s rights, sports, prisons, and schools heats up, this guide provides a way for ideologically compliant reporters to cover these issues without saying much of anything at all. 

Let’s start with the basics and then look at a few of the touchiest subjects. 

First off, reporters shouldn’t refer to anyone as “male-bodied” or “female-bodied”, or “trans-identified”, “male-identified”, or “female-identified”. These terms, according to the style guide, are “confusing and inaccurate phrasing, which can conflate gender identity and sex assigned at birth”. Specifically, this language risks “confusing” readers in the wrong way: by drawing a distinction between sex and gender identity when the style guide wants no such distinctions to be made. Reporters should “avoid using biological in reference to people”. 

Instead, the guide pushes the use of “assigned sex” or “assigned gender”, terms appropriated from rare disorders of sexual development and applied to people with no such disorders whose sex was accurately observed at birth. The note that “[a]ssigned sex and gender are concepts specific to humans […] in discussions of nonhuman animals, sex is sufficient” has strong “Does a chicken cry?” vibes but also cuts against frequent activist references to the gender-bending animal kingdom, and is thus unlikely to survive the style guide’s next round of edits. 

In any case, there is a much more succinct way to write all this up: just don’t refer to sex. The roles males and females evolved to play in human reproduction — and any social and political fallout from reproductive difference — is strictly off-limits, even though none of us would be here to argue about this nonsense if not for these most basic facts of human existence. 

The guide then moves on to the thorny subject of trans healthcare, where — readers will be relieved to hear — there’s nothing to worry about. “Gender-affirming care” is “a very broad term” that “may also be used to refer to cosmetic or medical procedures pursued for gender affirmation regardless of whether the patient is transgender”, like when a woman with breast cancer seeks reconstructive surgery after undergoing a mastectomy. 

Evidently, the goal here is to make “gender-affirming care” so diffuse and meaningless as to permit the widest possible dishonesty on the part of activists and clinicians who advocate for controversial interventions like puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries under that heading. 

There’s also sleight of hand here that the guide’s authors hope readers won’t notice: cross-sex hormones don’t “guarantee” infertility, but when a child’s pubertal development is blocked early enough — sorry, I think I’m supposed to say “when a child has their gender affirmed at the right time”— and that child goes onto cross-sex hormones, he or she will be rendered sterile, as will patients who undergo a number of other “gender-affirming” interventions, like oophorectomies and orchiectomies. “Mutilation” is a judgement, but “sterilisation” isn’t: for too many of these patients, it’s a fact they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives. 

The most important euphemism of all, is, of course, the “transgender child” herself. After all, if kids are simply “trans” — whatever that means — and experimental interventions are just another form of “gender-affirming care”, no more controversial than going to a salon to freshen up one’s roots, there’s nothing to talk about. 

But hand over the language and activists can define all opposition as mere prurience. Further, phrases like “transgenderism, gender ideology, trans ideology, trans agenda” and “trans activists” are merely, as the guide suggests, “loaded terms that anti-trans activists use to describe transgender people”.

And what if one wants to report on this bold new social movement, with its strange sway over our institutions and will to bend language to its cause? The message behind this style guide is clear: don’t think of it as a movement, even as it shakes the ground under one’s feet.

Eliza Mondegreen is a graduate student in psychiatry and the author of Writing Behavior on Substack.