Respecting trans lives on Wikipedia

Lex Adsit, Mia “Tu Mutch” Satya, Shawn Demmons, and Nya emcee the 2016 Trans Day of Visibility celebration in San Francisco, March 31, 2016. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Continuing in my efforts to improve the coverage of marginalized people on Wikipedia, I started two new biographies of trans women this week. I also have a few tips on how to write about trans people accurately and respectfully, on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

Ivory Aquino

Ivory Aquino is a Filipina-American actress. She is known for portraying trans activist Cecilia Chung in the 2017 miniseries When We Rise. Ivory is also a singer, and has performed in numerous plays.

I saw Ivory and Cecilia at this year’s San Francisco Trans March. They spoke in the Tenderloin district at the end of the march, following an announcement that the area we were occupying— near the site of the historic Compton’s Cafeteria Riot — had been designated by the city as a Transgender Cultural District.

Aquino with Cecilia Chung and fellow When We Rise actress Emily Skeggs at the 2017 San Francisco Trans March

Mia “Tu Mutch” Satya

Mia “Tu Mutch” Satya is a San Francisco-based community organizer and activist for social justice, youth, LGBT and transgender rights. (I mention transgender separately from LGBT because the “T” is frequently overlooked by organizations claiming to be LGBT-friendly.) I’ve seen Mia speak at several events, including the Trans Day of Visibility and the Trans March.

Mia was a community grand marshal for last year’s San Francisco Pride Parade, and has held a bazillion other positions of responsibility and influence. She is featured in two documentaries: What’s the T? (which follows the lives of five trans women) and A Prosecutor’s Stand (about responding to hate crime).

I contributed both of the above articles to the Women in Red WikiProject for the ongoing #1day1woman global initiative. Women in Red is hosting a world contest starting on November 1; sign up for a chance to win prizes while helping to reduce Wikipedia’s content gender gap.

And now, some tips on writing biographies of trans folks for Wikipedia:

Use the current gender throughout the article. While there is no universal trans story or experience, many of us knew our correct genders from a very young age. Even if a trans person does not undergo a social or physical transition until much later in life—and not all trans people undergo hormone therapy or surgery — they should be referred to by the pronouns and titles corresponding with their current stated identity for all phases of their life. This guideline is in the Wikipedia Manual of Style, and there are corresponding templates which I add to the talk pages of all articles about trans folks that I write or edit.

The language in the Manual of Style and templates is not, in my opinion, optimal currently. I dislike terms like “self-identified” because all people, not only trans folks, identify; cisgender people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, trans people do not. The instructions on how to refer to trans people in non-biographical articles are also vague. I discussed these and other issues in my 2016 presentation for WikiConference North America, The Transgender Gap.

Use the current name throughout the article. Deadnaming is a form of misgendering, and can be very harmful to trans people, as I explained in my story about being harassed by a determined stalker. Unless a trans person was well-known under their previous name before their transition, like Caitlyn Jenner or Chelsea Manning, there is no good reason for that name to be in the article at all. For cases like Jenner and Manning, the prior name can be mentioned once at the outset to establish that the article is about that same person.

Current Wikipedia guidelines only state that the deadname should not be in the lead sentence unless the person was notable prior to coming out; there is no stated restriction on including that name elsewhere in the article. As I mentioned in my Transgender Gap presentation, I feel the current guidelines are insufficient for respecting the privacy and dignity of trans people. Even if an individual trans person doesn’t mind being referred to by their previous name, deadnaming harms the community as a whole. Drawing unnecessary attention to our birth-assigned names or sexes takes the focus away from our own stories and experiences.

Avoid referring to “biological sex”. There is no current Wikipedia guideline on this to my knowledge, but I avoid referring to people — trans, cis, or non-binary—as “biologically”, “anatomically”, or “genetically” fe/male, or fe/male “bodied”. If it is necessary and relevant to the article or discussion, I use the term “assigned sex”. Trans women were assigned male at birth, trans men were assigned female at birth. Non-binary and intersex people are nearly always assigned to one of these two sexes. As I’ve written previously on the subject, if a trans person wishes to refer to themsevlves as biologically male or female, I will not police their language, but I do not use these terms when referring to others.

“Singular they” is A-OK. There is no consensus for or against using “singular they” as a gender-neutral pronoun on Wikipedia at this time. I use it when referring to non-binary and other people who have stated publicly that they go by those pronouns. (Binary or non-binary, a person’s pronouns are mandatory, not “preferred”, unless otherwise stated.) I encounter vandalism and disruptive editing on the biographies of non-binary people constantly, which is distressing. If an editor disagrees with the use of “singular they” they can rewrite the article to avoid pronouns entirely, which is awkward, but using gendered pronouns against a person’s wishes is misgendering and unacceptable.

“Singular they” has been in use for hundreds of years. It is no more ungrammatical than the use of “you” to refer to both an individual and a group (replacing the archaic “thee” and “thou”). Its use as a personal pronoun has been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Regardless, as an agender person who goes by “singular they” pronouns myself, I usually don’t have the energy to argue with grammar pundits who are disrespecting my gender identity.

Monitor for vandalism. If you are a Wikipedia editor, even if you don’t write articles about trans people or transgender issues yourself, please help watch for vandalism and disruptive editing by adding such articles to your “Watchlist”. On the English Wikipedia, you can edit your preferences under “Revision scoring” to highlight likely problematic edits, many of which come from anonymous or new editors. When I revert vandalism, I nearly always leave a notice or warning on the talk page of the offending editor, and if they persist, I report them to the appropriate administrative noticeboard.

For more tips on writing about trans folks in general, not just on Wikipedia, please see the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out my other recent articles on writing for Wikipedia: