On Feb. 7, Allegheny County rescuers saved 27-year-old Rebecca Hare from the flooding waters of the Allegheny River.
Some reporters who covered the incident, however, were apparently still at sea.
Hare was born a man but is transitioning to a woman. And while reporters thrive on rescue stories, they were clearly unsure how to handle a transgender victim.
WTAE's Janelle Hall, for example, repeatedly referred to Hare as "the person" or "the victim" in her report about the rescue, which took place in a tunnel connected to the David Lawrence Convention Center. (Hare had, apparently, sought shelter from the cold in a conduit that had a riverside outlet.) Hall did once identify Hare as a "27-year-old transgender woman," but the rest of her report consisted of tortured phrasing like:
"Police think it all happened when a homeless person was trying to find a place to stay warm. Investigators say that person somehow broke into this room to stay warm."
"[T]here will be no charges filed against this person, because the convention center says they're just happy that person is OK."
The Post-Gazette, meanwhile, identified Hare as a "he" -- as in "the victim [said] he was in the process of undergoing a sex change." (The Tribune-Review's coverage, meanwhile, referred to Hare as a woman throughout, and in fact didn't even mention the sex-change angle.) The PG -- whose stories typically use "courtesy titles" like Mr. and Ms. -- refrained from using them to refer to Hare. In fact, the story referred to Hare by name only once.
The county's emergency management district chief, James Holman, was quoted in the P-G as follows: "It took a little while to figure out where [the trapped person] was because there was no contact with him."
But tape from Hall's story suggests that Holman was comfortable referring to Hare as a woman: "I think she was at the end of where she could have gone, and it was her fear that the water was going to come up ... and eventually drown her," he told reporters at one point. "I think the young lady is very, very lucky."
So who's right? According to a media guide published by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Holman is. "A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not they have taken hormones or had surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender," GLAAD advises. (It also says that "referring to a sex change operation, or using terms such as pre- or post-operative, inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to truly change one’s sex.")
The Associated Press stylebook -- a standard reference in the trade -- similarly recommends that reporters "[u]se 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."
Some activists are calling on the community to write letters to the editor and get in touch with local stations about their careless language … and to suggest they dig deeper next time. One blast e-mail received by City Paper urged that members of the public "write letters to the editor and point out the missing aspect to this story -- how she is probably homeless because she's trans, how trans people face employment discrimination and disproportionately face poverty and homelessness. ... And of course you can correct the news organizations that referred to her as a man."
(Melissa Meinzer contributed to this post.)