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Op-Ed: A trans athlete’s guide to writing about trans athletes

Rook Campbell (he/him, they/them) is a swimmer and a trans guy. He wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about what the media get wrong when covering transgender athletes in the news.

At age 44, I achieved an athletic feat I’d never thought possible: I was on the cover of a sports magazine.

The photo was fabulous. (I was wearing a Speedo!) But my joy quickly turned to dread when I read how I, a trans athlete, was described.

Here’s what happened: Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when swimming pools were locked down, I took to the ocean. Not long after, the U.S. Masters Swimming championships were canceled and then reoffered as a virtual event. I became intrigued. I entered the men’s one-mile, two-mile and 10K events in my age category. I followed up with a social media post: “Today, I raced the #usmsvirtualchamps one mile open race. The thought was ‘I have a men’s racing license, I might as well use it.’ Swimming for myself, as myself and in a body that feels just right is a blissful race day doing #transgender #transathlete.”

The magazine Swimming contacted me for an interview. Why not? I wanted to tell a story about allyship, about how those outside the trans community can be supportive.

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I did have concerns, however. Trans athletes are routinely subjected to uninformed, often invasive questioning by the news media. So when the reporter called, I had resources — terminology, definitions, etc. — at the ready.

Even so, when the story landed, a pair of phrases were seared into my brain: “Campbell made the decision to transition and started taking male hormones.” And: “In July 2019, he had surgery to transition from a woman to a man.”

The article was well intentioned, and the choice of putting me on the cover required some editorial courage. There has been so much progress in how our society thinks and talks about trans people. But those two lines show an all-too-common myopic understanding of transgender identity. A fixation with hormones and transitions reduces trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people to anatomy and physiology.

It just so happens that I am a professor who studies sport and society. If I were ever searching for a teachable moment, this was it.

In particular, the descriptor “male hormones” felt like a gut punch.

To frame testosterone, or T, as a “male” hormone implies that it doesn’t belong in or exist in female bodies. Cultural anthropologist Katrina Karkazis calls this “T talk,” which perpetuates the myths of testosterone. As Karkazis explains: “The root of all T talk is the sex hormone concept, whereby testosterone and estrogen are elevated as the primary hormones for males and females, respectively.”

To be clear, both male and female bodies produce both testosterone and estrogen. To dwell on ratios is a rather bizarre way of thinking about an individual’s gender.

The article also described me as having “had surgery to transition from a woman to a man.” This misgenders me. At one time I was, of course, identified and perceived as a woman, but that was not my self-sensing or naming. The fixation on a moment or process of “transition” flattens understanding of transgender and nonbinary people. We don’t become our genders when and if we choose to bring our bodies into alignment to affirm our genders. Language marking my transition as from Point A (woman) to Point B (man) rings hollow.

Not all trans and nonbinary people require therapeutic hormones or surgeries to lead happy and healthy lives, though some do. Nor do all trans people enjoy equal access to this kind of medical care. Medical transition is not the hinge of gender identity. Neither are hormones.

Covering trans and nonbinary athletes, admittedly, can be rocky territory. Even well-meaning approaches can get lost in the complexity. That’s all the more reason for sports journalists to develop a more nuanced understanding and get beyond just properly assigning pronouns. If we speak differently, we will open up possibilities of change.

The current Associated Press stylebook offers guidance — a pretty good start — on how to think and talk about transitions. It describes transition as processes that “transgender [and nonbinary] people go through to match their gender identity, which may include sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures, but not necessarily.”

AP has a critical opportunity to go further, as the public’s understanding of gender evolves.

For example, why not point out that transition may encompass not only medical, but also legal and social processes? The stylebook entry is silent on hormones, but it should inform the press of some of the ethical, scientific and human rights controversies wound up in the way we speak about hormones.

Style guidance about gender transitions should also caution against reifying a person’s gender identity on the presence, or not, of any particular transition processes. Tangible markers are a distraction. The only way to know people’s gender is to let them tell you.

My pronouns are he/him, they/them. I’m a trans dude. I’m a trans guy.

As social norms evolve and we better come to see ourselves and others, the ideals for affirming language will shift. Perhaps I will one day rethink describing myself as a “trans athlete” or a “trans guy,” because at a different cultural moment, those terms may overemphasize transition. Maybe future generations of trans athletes will be able to identify as just athletes.

For now, I hope the news media continues to write about trans athletes. Basic interviewing technique will serve the profession well: Let these individuals communicate how they think about themselves. They’ll tell you what’s important. If medical transition has been a part of their experience, and an important part, and one they want to share as a factor in their identity, they’ll tell you all of that.

The result will be far more nuance in representations of trans and nonbinary people’s lives. We’ll all end up with a better understanding of the world.

Rook Campbell is a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


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