If George Orwell Wrote a Style Guide
It would be the AP’s “Transgender Coverage Topical Guide”
Two years before he wrote 1984, George Orwell penned an essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He observed that “political language is designed to makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The Associated Press Stylebook editors seemingly embraced that as their assignment, at least judging by their June 2 tweaks to their “Transgender Coverage Topical Guide.”
The 70-year-old AP Stylebook is the leading style and usage guide for many newspapers, magazines, newsrooms, and public relations offices. Journalists and editors largely abide by its grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules and specific styles for everything from numbers to acronyms. AP editors are supposed to regularly update the Stylebook in order to keep up with changes in language and societal norms.
The revised Transgender entry runs 3,000 words, setting forth what it says is the acceptable standard for journalists when “writ[ing] about and interview[ing] transgender people.” It starts with what seems like a good rule, that reporters must use “accurate, sensitive and unbiased language.”
The editors then proceed to trash the concepts of accuracy and “no bias.” The guide dictates the use of language that in some cases is factually incorrect. Or, as Orwell might have said, the AP editors did their best “to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Language matters. Unfortunately, those in charge of setting the rules for the use of it are titling the standards to affect the coverage.
Sometimes, the AP Stylebook contradicts established science, other times ignore inconvenient evidence to the contrary, and repeatedly adopts rules that endorse only one side of what is a vigorous ongoing controversy.
“Use the term sex assigned at birth instead of biological sex, birth gender, was identified at birth as, born a girl and the like…. Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female.”
On the issue of biology being so passé, the AP is insistent. A dozen times the style guide reinforces that a person’s gender is “assigned” at birth. Richard Ostling, a former AP national reporter (now a GetReligion contributor), notes that, “That’s central to LGBTQ+ insistence that each infant’s gender is arbitrarily imposed from outside and subject to change, so this word allies the news media with one outlook in an intense societal debate.”
If children meet guidelines and are showing signs of puberty, they can begin taking puberty blockers — fully reversible prescription medication that pauses sexual maturation, typically given in injections or skin implants.
The AP editors — without any supporting citation or caveat — set the rule that journalists writing transgender stories must remember that puberty blockers are “fully reversible.” Mixing some incorrect science into the style guide might be simple enough but has serious consequences. That is especially true when the science shows there is a litany of serious, long term adverse effects to children who have been on those drugs. I highlighted some of those side effects in my recent WJS piece, “The Truth About Puberty Blockers.”
At least the style guide admits that “the evidence is mixed” about whether hormone treatments and surgery resolve the “stress, depression and suicidal thoughts” to which “transgender youth and adults are prone.”
“[E]xperts agree, allowing children to express their gender in a way that matches their identity is beneficial, such as letting children assigned male at birth wearing clothing or hairstyles usually associated with girls, if that is their wish.”
The AP editors give a green light to so-called social transitioning by an uncited lead in with “experts agree.”
That is not true, or at the very least, it is incomplete because it does not mention the experts who contend that social transitioning makes it difficult to identify those children for whom gender dysphoria might be a fleeting stage of adolescence. The Dutch clinicians who introduced puberty blockers for minors in 1998, discouraged even using the child’s preferred pronouns and names. They worried that otherwise there could be false positives, i.e. children whose “social transitioning” made it far more likely they would go on to medical interventions.
The AP editors go a step further. The rule they set is, “Don't refer in interviews or stories to preferred or chosen pronouns. Instead, the pronouns they use, whose pronouns are, who uses the pronouns, etc.”
“[In reporting on transgender people in sports] Don't refer to male or female hormones. All people have the same hormones; only their levels vary. If discussion of hormones is needed, name the specific hormone(s)…. If transgender players of any gender are banned from playing on teams in line with their gender, say that.”
This is embarrassingly disingenuous. Men and women do indeed produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone but the ways their bodies manufacture those hormones means they have completely different blood concentrations and interactions with organs and muscles.
By ignoring the differences between male and female hormones is to ignore the differences that are key to why biological males have a physical advantage over biological females in athletics. Bone size and strength, greater muscle mass, and higher rates of metabolizing and releasing energy cannot be fully reversed after puberty. Males are, among with biological advantages, are more powerful at kicking and hitting; jumping higher; extra endurance; faster swimming and running speeds.
The results of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 showed that different hormones between transmen and transwomen made a significant difference in “body composition and athletic performance.”
The natural advantage that biological males had over biological females narrowed significantly after two years of estrogen supplementation. Meanwhile, the large gap in performance and endurance that biological women had when first compared to men, also largely closed after a year of taking testosterone.
Male and female hormones matter.
For journalists who are not well versed in covering transgender issues, the AP sets definitions for words that are likely to pop up during their reporting. Below are some examples where I highlight portions the AP editors present still contested concepts as settled. Often, just a phrase makes something seem as though it is established. And it all reinforces the progressive concept that gender is a matter of ever-changing choices, based on how someone feels, and is divorced entirely from biology.
Gender: “A person's sex and gender are usually assigned at birth by parents or attendants and can turn out to be inaccurate. Experts say gender is a spectrum, not a binary structure consisting of only men and women, that can vary among societies and can change over time.”
Gender Identity: “A person's sense of feeling male, female, neither or some combination of both…. Examples of gender identities include man or boy; woman or girl; nonbinary; bigender; agender; gender-fluid; genderqueer; and combinations of identities, such as nonbinary woman.”
Is it pregnant women or pregnant people? “Pregnant women or women seeking abortions is acceptable phrasing [however] Phrasing like pregnant people or people seeking abortions is increasingly used in medical contexts and is also acceptable to include people who have those experiences but do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people.”
Sex: “A person's sex is usually assigned at birth by parents or attendants, sometimes inaccurately. Sex often corresponds with but is not synonymous with gender, which is a social construct.” [emphasis added]
What about writing about someone who identifies as another gender? It “can be useful when writing about issues of identity. But often phrasing like is a woman is more to the point than identifies as a woman.”
What about using a transgender person’s previous name (their so-called deadname)? “In the AP, use of a transgender person's previous name must be approved by managers.”
Of course, these rules are often more about following an ideology than acting as the premier style guide. If anyone doubts that, “Do not use the term transgenderism, which frames transgender identity as an ideology.”