By Orie Givens
He or She? Gay or Queer? None of the above? The war of words involved in reporting on LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender, Queer/Questioning) issues was the topic of conversation at a panel hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists 2013 National Convention.
Since NBA athlete and former Boston Celtics player Jason Collins announced his sexuality last April, the Supreme Court invalidated parts of DOMA, and LGBTQ people have increased their visibility worldwide, many reporters are reaching out to LGBTQ individuals for information. But, just like reporting in other marginalized communities, journalists need to know what words to use, and how to engage LGBTQ communities respectfully.
“Just because someone is trans or a trans athlete does not give the reporter the right to ask me 101 personal questions about my life,” explained Kye Allums, former college basketball player and transgender man. “Don’t ask me about whether I’m going to get surgery, don’t ask me about hormones, don’t ask me about those things.”
Allums, 23, explained that some transgender people could be uncomfortable with conversations about transition, the process of changing one’s assigned sex and gender identity.
“A good reporter is someone who doesn’t get too personal without an athlete wanting to get that personal,” said Allums.
GLAAD, one of the sponsors of the panel, says on their website that whenever possible, transgender people should be referred to by their desired name, instead of pronouns which can be offensive if misused.
The word “queer”, used as a term of self-identification by some LGBTQ people, also has mixed acceptance within the community. Some individuals and groups identify with this term, while others reject it. Wade Davis, a former NFL player and LGBTQ activist, says that he identifies as queer often.
“For me, ‘queering’ is pushing back against heteronormativity,” said Davis, 36. “If I want to wear some blue pants I’m gonna do it, If I want to put on a dress I can do it, I don’t have to abide by gender norms.”
Allums says that the term ‘queer’ helps to dispel assumptions about a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression. Terms like gay and lesbian not only define a person’s sexual identity but their gender identity, but also promote assumptions about behavior, according to Allums.
“I’m not giving you the privilege of seeing who I am attracted to or give you the privilege of putting my body and my identity in a box,” said Allums. “Queer can be whatever the hell I want it to be.”
Ideas of masculinity and femininity are also points of contention within the LGBTQ community. Some people, like Davis, feel these terms reflect ideals promoting heterosexuality as default and further marginalize LGBTQ people.
“If you are a writer, be very intentional to make sure that you are not ‘othering’ people, or making the idea that being masculine is the pinnacle of what people should or shouldn’t be.”
The main point panelists made was that good reporting within the LGBTQ community means looking deeper than what is on the surface and avoiding assumptions. The panelists noted that resource organizations like GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition provide guides for media professionals about reporting in the LGBT community.
“We all just need to be more aware of the power of words,” said Davis. “And to make sure if you don’t identify with something, ask.”