Tag Archives: trans

What’s In a Headline? That Which We Call a Scientist …

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Laurie and Debbie say:

We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December.  Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.

We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.

Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:

While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.

In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.

And he was a remarkable human being:

“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”

Beyond direct mentorship, Barres repeatedly spoke up for groups who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, including women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. He would repeatedly talk about the biases and systemic barriers that keep such groups from succeeding in their careers, often raising the topic in the middle of keynote talks about glia. “Since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain … I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science,” he once told neuroscientists at a conference in Lake Arrowhead.

 

His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.

An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.

“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”

The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.

Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:

By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.

The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central  gender history.

Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article,  his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.

So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.

And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.

Transgender Language Confusions Resolved!

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Debbie says:

I could certainly style myself as a radical copyeditor, but somehow until recently I had missed the existence of The Radical Copyeditor, Alex Kapitan, a genderqueer copyeditor who blogs in the intersection between copyediting and politics, and also sells copyediting services. Believe me, I’ll be taking a deep dive soon. Kapitan says:

I believe that language matters, and that those of us who are working to manifest a better, more just world have a responsibility to use language in ways that describe the world we are working to create, rather than unconsciously perpetuating bias and prejudice.

Meanwhile, however, I wanted to introduce our readers to the very comprehensive The Radical Copyeditor’s Style Guide for Writing about Transgender People. You get a hint in the illustration above. Like all good manifestos, it comes with appropriate disclaimers:

A style guide for writing about transgender people is practically an oxymoron. Style guides are designed to create absolutes—bringing rules and order to a meandering and contradictory patchwork quilt of a language. Yet there are no absolutes when it comes to gender. …

There are profound reasons for why the language that trans people use to describe ourselves and our communities changes and evolves so quickly. In Western culture, non-trans people have for centuries created the language that describes us, and this language has long labeled us as deviant, criminal, pathological, unwell, and/or unreal.

… Just as there is no monolithic transgender community, there is also no one “correct” way to speak or write about trans people.

Then there’s How to use this guide and (perhaps more important) How not to use this guide. The how not to section includes links to some fine articles:

words don’t kill people, people kill words”and the glossary introduction “there is no perfect word,” both by Julia Serano. The second link also takes you to Serano’s glossary of trans, gender, sexuality, and activism terminology

I Was Recently Informed I’m Not a Transsexual,” by Riki Wilchins.

Then we get into the main course of the style guide, which is broken into three sections. I’m limiting myself to one example of each.

Correct/current usage:

1.3. Transition is the correct word for the social and/or medical process of publicly living into one’s true gender.

Use: Chris transitioned at age 32; the transition process

Avoid: Chris is transgendering; Chris had a sex change; Chris had “the surgery”; Chris became a woman

Bias-free and respectful language:

2.4.3. Pronouns are simply pronouns. They aren’t “preferred” and they aren’t inherently tied to gender identity or biology.

Use: pronouns; personal pronouns; she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/theirs; ze/zir/zirs; Sam/Sam/Sam (and any other pronoun or combination)

Avoid: preferred pronouns; masculine pronouns; feminine pronouns; male pronouns; female pronouns

As J. Mase III once succinctly put it, “my pronouns aren’t preferred; they’re required.” A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, or female: for example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers pronouns and a female person could use they/them/theirs pronouns.

Sensitive and inclusive broader language:

3.2. Do not use LGBTQ or its many variants (LGBT, LGBTQIA+, etc.) as a synonym for gay.

Use: LGBTQ people versus non-LGBTQ people

Avoid: LGBTQ people versus straight people

If you’re using an acronym that includes transgender people, it’s important to actually include trans people in the context of what you are writing about. For example, if you’re only writing about people in same-sex relationships, or if you’re trying to refer to everyone with a marginalized sexuality, don’t use LGBTQ. Some transgender people (15%) identify as straight.* LGBTQ and straight/heterosexual are not, therefore, opposites, and should never be treated as such.

As you can imagine from these tidbits, there is much more. The guide is thoughtful, careful, respectful, comprehensive, informative and — if you’re a copyediting nerd like me — well-written and entertaining.

If you write anything at all relating to these topics, bookmark it and refer to it regularly. I will.