How should Christian media refer to people who identify as transgender? Should we refer to someone who’s biologically female, but identifies as male, as a man? And which pronouns should we use when referring to a trans man or woman? He? She? They?
This issue recently surfaced when multiple Christian news outlets and I reported a story about John Ortberg, which included a reference to one of his children, Daniel M. Lavery.
The Christian Post wrote that Lavery is “a trans-identified man who is Ortberg’s estranged daughter.” CP didn’t use any pronouns to refer to Lavery, but instead used Lavery’s last name for subsequent references.
The fact that Lavery was born female, but now identifies as male, was relevant to the story. Lavery had reported that Ortberg had dismissed Lavery’s input about a volunteer who was attracted to children because of Lavery and Lavery’s partner’s “transitions.” Without context, this statement would not make sense.
In my story, I referred to Lavery as the “daughter of John Ortberg—who was born Mallory Ortberg, but now identifies as a man called Daniel M. Lavery.” On subsequent references, I referred to Lavery with masculine pronouns to avoid confusion.
This offended people on both sides of the LGBT issue.
People who are LGBTQ affirming confronted me for “deadnaming” Lavery, a term for using the birth name of someone who has changed their name. They also said I was discourteous and even cruel for referring to Lavery as Ortberg’s daughter, instead of son.
Wow Julie, for someone who spends her life exposing church abuse, you sure didn’t hesitate to swiftly and knowingly inflict pain with your language here.
— Amanda (@furmanda) February 3, 2020
Yet non-affirming people confronted me for using masculine pronouns for Lavery. They said doing so simply affirms a “dangerous fiction.”
I didn’t mean to hurt anyone with my use of pronouns or nouns. I was simply trying to truthfully tell a story. But the entire situation has made me realize that I need a well thought-out policy on reporting on people who identify as transgender–one that’s loving, yet consistent with reality as described in Scripture.
Believing that there’s wisdom in many counselors (Prov. 15:22), I reached out to the editors of several Christian publications.
When I asked the editors of Christian Post (CP) about their policy, they responded:
The Christian Post’s policy is to be respectful of the individual as we adhere to biblical truths and biological realities. In doing so, we use an individual’s last name and state their biological sex while noting that an individual self-identifies as transgender. We also use the term trans-identifying.
In cases where we can’t avoid the usage of pronouns, we use the pronoun that matches their biological sex to be consistent with biological realities.
Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of WORLD Magazine, said about his publication’s policy: “We refer to (transgender individuals) by name, not pronoun. If unavoidable, we’d go by DNA, but that would require some extra verbiage.”
However, Christianity Today CEO Tim Dalrymple said CT generally follows the AP stylebook, while “leaving room for discernment in particular cases.”
The AP stylebook instructs reporters to “call people transgender only if relevant; give the name they use publicly; avoid references to being born a boy or girl.” In other words, treat the person who identifies as a transgender man as you would any other man, regardless of the person’s biological sex. The same goes for those who identify as women.
I asked Dalrymple how the magazine could embrace AP style, which affirms trans-identity as a fact, while also embracing historic Christian views on human sexuality, which do not affirm trans-identity. He responded that CT is still wrestling with the issue with other thoughtful Christians while trying to bring the “fullness of grace and truth” into the conversation.
I can appreciate the delicate balance CT is trying to strike. Certainly, this topic is so polarized and emotionally charged that no matter what stand a publication takes, it’s likely to provoke backlash.
Yet the more I’ve thought about this topic, I don’t see that taking a middle ground is theologically consistent or helpful. It may temporarily pacify both sides. But that’s not what we’re called to do as Christians. We’re called to speak the truth in love.
So, after prayerful consideration, and consultation with my board, I’ve crafted a transgender policy that reflects my theological convictions, along with an explanation for that policy. (I’ve also edited my piece on Ortberg to reflect this policy.) Rather than quietly implementing this policy, I’m publishing it here because I value transparency.
*CORRECTION: My original post reported that the article by CT/RNS did not mention that Lavery was transgender. That was incorrect and I have corrected the copy accordingly.