Multiple news outlets misgendered and misidentified Patricio Manuel after he made history this weekend by becoming the first trans boxer to win a pro match.
Following the 33-year-old’s groundbreaking win on Saturday, a story from The Daily Caller called Manuel a “biological female.” Published the day after the match, the article also referred to him by female pronouns (i.e., “she” and “her”) on five different occasions—six, if you count the caption.
“A biologically female boxer who identifies as transgender beat her male opponent Saturday night, marking a first in U.S. professional boxing,” it reads.
“Transgender boxer Patricio Manuel…. beat her biologically male opponent Hugo Aguilar Saturday night in a match at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California, according to Voice of America,” the Dec. 9 story continues.
The Daily Caller is a conservative news outlet co-founded by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson in 2010. When INTO reached out to Grace Carr, the reporter behind the piece, she confirmed in an email that the decision to misgender Manuel reflects a wider “editorial policy rather than an individual choice.”
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“The Daily Caller News Foundation uses biological pronouns to refer to persons,” Carr said, pointing to the nonprofit arm which is responsible for creating a majority of the website’s content.
Using female pronouns to identify a trans man is against GLAAD’s guide for journalists covering the LGBTQ community.
“A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or undergone surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender,” the watchdog group’s media reference guide states. “If you are not certain which pronoun to use, ask the person, ‘What pronouns do you use?’”
Manuel transitioned in 2013 after competing in the Olympic trials in the women’s category the year prior. Because the super-featherweight boxer identifies as a man, male pronouns would, thus, be appropriate in news reporting.
But Christopher Bedford, editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller News Foundation, said GLAAD’s advice was not taken into consideration.
“I’m not for letting activist groups dictate what we have for lunch, forget about our editorial policy,” he told INTO in an email, while clarifying that the Foundation’s subsidiary website’s standards may be different on the subject of trans lives.
Bedford also linked to a 2008 story from The Guardian which he called a “helpful layman’s guide to DNA and its impact on sex.”
That report does not specifically mention transgender people.
“The simplest thing DNA can tell you is whether someone is male or female,” the article claims. “Apart from some very rare cases, that doesn’t even involve looking at their DNA sequence—all you need to know is whether they have X and Y chromosomes (making them male) or a pair of Xs (which makes them female).”
Although that description may lead a casual reader to believe that gender is strictly binary, the scientific understanding on how an individual’s gender identity is determined has evolved in the decade since that story was released.
A good example of those changing tides is the medical community’s response to an October report claiming the Trump administration plans to erase trans people in federal policy. According to a proposed memo from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), limiting the government’s definition of gender to “biological sex” is “clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
More than 2,600 scientists—including biologists, researchers, and eight Nobel laureates—disagreed.
“This proposal is fundamentally inconsistent not only with science, but also with ethical practices, human rights, and basic dignity,” they claim in an open letter. “Though scientists are just beginning to understand the biological basis of gender identity, it is clear that many factors, known and unknown, mediate the complex links between identity, genes, and anatomy.”
Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, says the issue is not merely about science but dignity. As she explains, misgendering trans people subconsciously encourages readers to see them as less worthy of respect.
“The trans community needs journalists to understand the power of their pen in reinforcing misconceptions, stereotypes, and personal prejudices,” McBride claims in an email to INTO. “Stories focusing heavily on trans people’s bodies or utilizing outdated tropes can, however unintentional, dehumanize trans people.”
Although The Daily Caller was among the most obvious examples of mainstream news outlets mishandling Manuel’s story, several others relied on the same tropes.
Reports published in the Desert Sun, Sky News, and Newsweek refer to the fighter as having been “once a woman.” The phrase first appeared in the Sun on Saturday evening and trickled into other outlets which aggregated the award-winning Palm Springs newspaper’s reporting.
In GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, the advocacy group urges reporters to avoid using phrases like “born a man,” which may undermine a trans individual’s sense of self.
“A transgender person’s gender is much more complicated than a simple glance at external anatomy can capture,” it explains. “A person’s biology does not ‘trump’ their gender identity, and oversimplifications like ‘born a man’ can invalidate the current, authentic gender of the person you’re speaking about.”
If journalists fear readers may be confused about, for example, a trans woman’s gender history, GLAAD suggests “designated male at birth” as a non-stigmatizing alternative.
While A.C. Dumlao of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) applauded publications like the Desert Sun for taking interest in Manuel’s record-breaking achievements, the organization’s name change coordinator says the trans community “deserves better.”
Dumlao (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) specifically notes the Sun’s opening paragraph, which calls attention to Manuel’s gender-confirmation surgery before any other information is shared about him.
“The two scars between his chest and abdomen remain visible,” read the very first words in the story.
Dumlao says that lede is inappropriate.
“The Desert Sun should have avoided focusing on Manuel’s physical transition and instead stayed focused on his boxing success,” they note. “While we appreciate this outlet amplifying Manuel’s personal and professional victory, they must use the most contemporary reporting standards for LGBTQ coverage moving forward.”
Although the GLAAD guide doesn’t specifically outline standard journalistic practice when discussing trans bodies, the National Center for Transgender Equality argues this framing reduces trans people to “what operations they’ve had.”
“Media outlets often gratuitously and sensationally focus on a transgender person’s body, surgery, and other medical treatment, or their changing appearance,” the organization advises. “Please consider instead telling the deeper stories of courage, struggle, and other experiences that make up a transgender person’s full human experience.”
When INTO reached out to the Desert Sun for comment, the publication claimed it’s listening to the critiques. Andrew John, who reported the original story, confirmed he “will discuss them with [his] editors.”
“My aim is to get this story right,” John claims.
The newspaper has already updated its reporting on Manuel at least once. The initial version of the Desert Sun story referred to MMA fighter Fallon Fox and Thai boxer Parinya Charoenphol as “trans men.” Fox and Charoenphol are women.
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The outlets that covered Manuel’s story will have three months to continue to improve their reporting on trans lives. After winning a unanimous decision, the boxer plans to take the next three months off before getting back into the ring. He does not currently have any additional fights scheduled after being sidelined for five years by transphobia.
But as society catches up to the lived identities of trans people, sporting associations are slowly working to do the same. In 2016, the International Olympic Committee claimed trans athletes would be able to compete “without restriction.”
As transgender athletes continue to make history, media outlets must keep pace. Advocates say that begins with education.
“When reporters choose to educate themselves on the complexities of trans lives, they not only enhance their reporting but produce fuller, more accurate stories,” McBride explains.
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