Transgender athletes and language used: Tips for PR and social media

As the sporting landscape evolves, the discourse around competing transgender athletes has become complex.

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This article gives PR and social media teams the inclusive language insight they need to successfully navigate the transgender athlete topic and support the conversation – rather than adding to any volatility.

While the numbers of transgender athletes competing at elite levels are minimal; PR and social media teams can face a variety of challenges in this space as they navigate changing policies, communication with athletes and members, and negativity on social media.

Sport from grassroots to the elite is encountering questions regarding fairness in the participation of transgender women in women’s divisions.

While there is still a lack of scientific research about the possible biological advantages retained after transitioning, existing research shows a variety of conclusions.

For instance, a rare performance study on eight trans athletes in 2015 found their race times slowed after transitioning from male to female, while their performance relative to sex-matched runners stayed the same.

Evidence like this is making it difficult for sporting organisations to shape an unquestionable policy that won’t be challenged by those for – or against – inclusion.

Since the “right” answer for the inclusion or exclusion of transgender women in sports is not universally agreed upon, this article does not exist to advise on policies.

It does, however, steer the important decision-making process when choosing the inclusive language that should be used across PR and social media.

The perception of transgender people in our world is greatly affected by the narratives and language used in the media.

Generally speaking, in most communities there is little discussion about whether it is fair for transgender people to exist.

However, in sports, it has become evident that there is room for some debate about fairness.

Because of this ongoing debate, transgender women are frequently most visible in the sports media as the conversation has gone global.

This means the language we use can have a big impact on their everyday lives. If a story is consistently using language that is exclusionary to transgender people, it is likely that those words could get picked up and used in society.

This can create a waterfall effect where those words continue to get used solely because people don’t know they are incorrect or derogatory.

There are usually no harmful intentions with this, but using the incorrect language is damaging to transgender people and affects their perception of themselves in our world.

Tokyo 2020 marked the first time transgender athletes competed in the Olympic Games, which led to a variety of reporting on the topic.

It also highlighted the need for guidance on the correct inclusive language to use in articles, policies, press releases and on social media – regardless of whether the story focuses on including or excluding trans athletes from sports.

No matter what a piece of copy says, it is important to remember that transgender people are just that – people. Language is crucial to avoid dehumanising trans people.

The debate should be based on facts, fairness and any possible advantages a trans person may retain after transition, not inflame any conversations about their validity as people.

It is clear that navigating this space can be difficult, especially if you do not share the lived experience of transgender people. So, ask questions, read, research, and remember that it is okay to make mistakes – as long as we keep an open mind.

Transgender athletes are some of the most visible trans people in the world and are often at the forefront of public conversations.

Small changes in the language we use can have a significant impact on narratives and inclusion in society.

It’s important to remember that it’s okay to write something about excluding transgender athletes, but using the right, inclusive language is imperative as we look to improve and support the interactions of trans people in everyday life.

The following tips identify best practices when selecting inclusive language to use across a variety of outputs, including internal documents, press releases, editorial features and social media posts.

Don’t deadname

Arguably the most important rule: never deadname.

This means to call a transgender person by their birth name when they have changed their name as part of their gender transition.

For example: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was born as Jack Stevens in London in 1994.

The correction would be to simply remove the previous name as it is not relevant.

If there is a concern about misrepresenting facts, there are plenty of ways to describe someone who is transgender without this.

The examples below will help explain this process.

Correction: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was born in London in 1994.

Assigned at birth
When mentioning the sex someone was assigned at birth, never say that someone was “born male”, “was male at birth” or is “biologically male.”

For the transgender community, they were always born with the gender they feel represents them. This is why when discussing sex, the best term to use is “assigned at birth.”

For example: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was born male in London in 1994.

Or: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, is biologically male.

Correction: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth in London in 1994.

Or: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth.

Transition

Something that comes up frequently in statements, press releases and news articles, is the need to include factual information about an athlete’s transition.

As this information is a fact of any case, it’s important to write about it correctly.

For example: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was born male in London in 1994 and had a sex change in her mid-20s.

Or: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was born male in London in 1994 and changed from male to female in her mid 20s.

Correction: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth in London in 1994 and transitioned in her mid-20s.

Pronouns

Using the correct pronouns is a small but easy way to be more inclusive and normalise discussions surrounding gender, while also avoiding misgendering.

If there is any doubt about someone’s pronouns, the best thing to do is ask.

If that is not possible, it is safest to default to using they/them pronouns to avoid making assumptions about gender.

For example: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth in London in 1994 and transitioned in his mid-20s.

Correction: Julie Stevens, who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth in London in 1994 and transitioned in her mid-20s.

Gender, not sex

The final tip is an easy way to remain inclusive: always refer to gender when writing about trans people generally, and the cisgender athletes they are competing against.

The only time biological sex terms should be used is when saying what sex someone was assigned at birth as mentioned above.

For example: Julie Stevens, a transgender female who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth and transitioned in her mid-20s.

Julie was set to compete in the women’s division at the meet but after a review, we have determined that she has not met the requirements to compete.

We welcome further conversations with Julie and will review any appeals or new applications to compete in the future.

Correction: Julie Stevens, a transgender woman who was registered to compete in the long jump, was assigned male at birth and transitioned in her mid-20s.

Julie was set to compete in the women’s division at the meet but after a review, we have determined that she has not met the requirements to be eligible.

We welcome further conversations with Julie and will review any appeals or new applications to compete in the future.

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