As state laws take aim at trans youth, use these tips and insights to bolster your reporting



By Kellie Schmitt

slew of state legislative efforts aimed at transgender youth put a target on young people’s backs, bullying them and singling them out, said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, a transgender advocate and policy expert.  

“These bills target them in a way that has a deep emotional consequence even beyond the nuts and bolts of what the law would do,” Heng-Lehtinen said in a Center for Health Journalism webinar last week. The anti-trans bills range from bans on trans girls competing on girls’ sports teams to bans on gender-affirming health care.

Heng-Lehtinen joined Princeton University psychology professor Kristina Olson and LGBTQ+ reporter Kate Sosin to discuss the legislation and impacts on the health and wellbeing of transgender children. Speakers also offered an overview of the most accurate terminology and ideas for coverage that go beyond the most recent legislative battles.

Getting the terms right

Referring to media reports that sometimes confuse or misuse the appropriate language, Olson provided an overview of accurate definitions for sex, gender, sexual orientation and transition terminology.

One’s sex is assigned at birth and is determined by sex chromosomes and genitalia, and is most commonly male or female. Gender is the social side of the coin, relating to social roles, customs and one’s sense of self. Gender can include man, woman, non-binary, and gender fluid. Sexual orientation refers to whom one is romantically and/or sexually attracted, and includes heterosexual/straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and pansexual.

When someone’s sex assigned at birth matches their gender identity, the accurate term is cisgender. When it doesn’t, the word is transgender. Avoid errors such as “transgendered,” she added. Olson said she still sees media reports that confuse transgender as referring to one’s sexual orientation.

“Importantly, you can be transgender and have any of the sexual orientations I just highlighted,” she said.

Another importance nuance: transgender isn’t synonymous with someone who has had a social or medical intervention since not everyone wants them, Olson said. And it’s essential to differentiate between social and medical transitions.  

Social transitions occur when someone changes an external marker of gender such as hair style, clothing or personal pronouns. There are three main medical interventions that can begin once a child arrives at the earliest stage of puberty. Medication can be given to pause puberty in a reversible way. The second intervention is gender-affirming hormones which are largely irreversible. Finally, there are surgical options.

Olson and her colleagues are working on a 20-year research project following transgender kids who socially transition in early childhood with supportive families. So far, the kids in this study are doing well with normative rates of depression and only slightly elevated anxiety. Still, Olson cautioned that this sample is unique in many ways since they socially transitioned early, noting “this is not the experience of every transgender person.”

Understanding legislative attacks

The past year has seen an onslaught of legislation attempting to limit the rights of transgender youth, notably banning transition-related medical care and prohibiting transgender students from playing on teams that match their gender identity. The timing of so many efforts across the country is intentional and represents a coordinated effort, said Heng-Lehtinen, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The legislative campaigns feature misinformation and “outright lying,” he said, citing the claim that eight-year-olds are having medical surgery. For prepubescent youth, transition medical care involves therapy and reversible medications that pause puberty.

It’s already difficult enough for transgender youth to access health care since there are limited numbers of fully informed doctors, he said. Laws that create even more obstacles are “very, very devastating.”

Heng-Lehtinen, a transgender Cuban American, also described the unique barriers facing Latino transgender people. For instance, resources are not as widely available in Spanish.

“Folks in our community are unfortunately, tragically more likely than white transgender youth to be rejected by family,” he said. “Our families literally can’t even access the things supposed to make this safer for us.”

‘There aren’t two sides’

Articles that set up two opposing sides aren’t always the most accurate and responsible approach, said Sosin, a reporter for The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom covering the intersection of gender, politics and policy. There is so much science that backs up supporting transgender kids, they said.

“There aren’t necessarily two sides to every debate,” they said.

Sosin also pointed out the importance of covering one’s own community – something that hasn’t always been supported in traditional newsrooms, where editors historically worried about a potential loss of “objectivity.”

Sosin advised reporters to go beyond coverage of the recent legislative efforts. For example, Sosin reported on the soaring number of transgender homicides fueled by the growing stigma and hatred, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of the bills and the cultural moment they reflect.

Exploring coverage ideas

Professor Olson encouraged reporters to expand their coverage to transgender seniors, which have not received much attention. She personally has heard of more and more people in their 70s and 80s are coming out as transgender.

Heng-Lehtinen encouraged reporters to examine how transgender youth are faring in educational settings, such as struggles with gendered dress codes. These can be used punitively against transgender students, who may face discipline if they wear a uniform style that doesn’t correspond to their assigned gender.   

Kellie Schmitt

Reporters can also check out the National Center for Transgender Equality, which highlights states facing the most egregious attacks. The U.S. Transgender Survey is a valuable resource for examining discrimination by state and race, he said. And advocacy organization GLAAD is a good resource with robust Spanish language support.

Sosin urged reporters to look at what the recent legislative efforts mean more broadly for all transgender folks beyond the specific communities passing the new laws. 

“What kind of reporting can we do and challenge ourselves to do around that?” they said. “I think there are endless stories.”

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