Tina K. Russell

November 25, 2009

Pronouns and the brutal power of language

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:05 pm

ROME (Reuters) – A Brazilian transsexual caught up in a scandal which prompted the resignation of a senior Italian politician — the center-left governor of Lazio region, which includes Rome — was found burned to death in his home Friday. Police found a body following a fire in a basement flat in a neighborhood frequented by transsexual prostitutes and court sources said magistrates were treating the death as murder.

Forensic tests were expected to identify the remains as those of a transsexual known only as Brenda, police said.

Brenda and another Brazilian transsexual were at the center of a case involving the blackmail of former Lazio Governor Piero Marrazzo by four police officers who secretly filmed him having sex and taking drugs with one of the transsexuals.

via Transsexual in Italian political scandal murdered | International | Reuters.

Here’s what I wrote to Reuters:

I’m upset that you referred to Brenda, the murdered Brazilian transsexual at the center of an Italian political scandal, using male pronouns (“he” and “his”) rather than the correct female pronouns. It was even more shocking to see such direct insult in an article about how she burned to death in a firebombing.

It’s rather terrifying to the transgender community, worldwide, to imagine that our identities will not be respected even after our deaths. I can only hope that tragedies like this, the sadly regular occurrence of transgender people murdered for being honest about who they are, will serve as a wakeup call about the brutal power of language. Organizations like Reuters set the tone for society with their use of language, and differences like “he” and “she” mean the difference between “normal” and “abnormal” (whether or not someone’s gender is “legitimate”), which can mean the difference between life and death.

The Reuters stylebook (thank you for putting it online!) does not directly address transgender pronouns, but here is the advice of the AP stylebook: “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or 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.” I hope you will use this wise advice in the future. Thank you!

2 Comments »

  1. There is also the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, at http://www.glaad.org/referenceguide. It is nice in that it is produced by a GLBT advocacy group rather than a news company. GLAAD’s guide quotes from not only the AP’s stylebook, but also that of the NY Times and Washington Post.

    Comment by Sonia — November 25, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    • Thank you!

      Comment by Tina Russell — November 25, 2009 @ 6:47 pm


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