I fumbled a few things this week and upset people. I want to clear the air on what happened, what I learned, and how you can help me get things right in the future.
Here’s what happened: On Day 364, Notable #8, I wrote: “The Trump administration will protect health workers who oppose abortions or sex-change operations based on religious…”
I used the phrase “sex-change operations” because the original New York Times article initially used the term, but it was later changed to “gender reassignment surgery.”
Here’s the Internet Archive snap of the original article, with the phrasing “…religious or moral objections to performing abortions or sex-change operations…”, which was later changed to “object to performing procedures like abortion and gender reassignment surgery”.
When writing the WTF blurb, I chose to use what the NYT had used, because it was presumed that the New York Fucking Times would have it correct. To be clear: When I wrote the blurb, the copy said “sex-change operations.”
In retrospect, that was a mistake.
What Happened Next.
I sent out the daily email and then received a lot of reader feedback about this misused term. I didn’t handle the first dozen or so emails responding to my use of the term very well – I pushed back, because, again, the NYT had used the term.
I try to make myself available and transparent, because I think that’s important for building trust with an audience. But, honestly, sometimes the news + exhaustion + stress + negative feedback can lead to a toxic headspace, despite generally trying to handle reader complaints and criticism with as much humility and opened-mindedness as possible. I’m not an expert – I’m not even a professional! Like, I’m also just a guy trying to do a thing to the best of my ability.
So in the moment of feeling tired and burnt out with WTFJHT, I responded defensively to a few readers because I felt attacked for not knowing the correct usage of a term I was unfamiliar with. Could I have done better? Yes, absolutely.
Here’s a few reader emails I received about the phrase I used (emphasis mine):
I was shocked to read your update today, in which you use the phrase “sex-change operations” in #8 of Notables. The New York Times article you cite does not use that phrase once, and I’m not sure why you chose this language over the phrase they used – gender affirming surgery. The phrase “sex change” is outdated and considered offensive.
I do hope this error was a matter of ignorance rather than transphobia. Giving you this benefit of the doubt, I’m providing a link to an Advocate article that I hope you will take a moment to read: 10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say).
The phrase “sex-change operation” is highly transphobic. The correct terminology is either sex reassignment surgery (SRS) or gender confirmation surgery. “Sex-change operation” isn’t even used in the linked article.
I love the newsletter and appreciate the work you do, but please refrain from using transphobic language in the future.
You should consider using the phrase “gender affirmation surgery” or “gender confirmation surgery” instead of “sex change operation,” as that is outdated and transphobic language. It infers that the person is “changing” their gender, and they’re not. They’ve always been the gender they identify with. They are just changing their outward appearance to reflect it. Thanks!
Love and support your work so much! One thing I noticed today in #8: the phrase “sex change operation” is out of date (and has negative connotations). It has been replaced by the more appropriate and neutral terms “gender confirmation surgery” and sometimes “gender reassignment surgery.” Since you’re obviously a progressive dude, I thought you’d like to be aware of the language used in reference trans communities.
Getting To The Bottom Of It.
I turned to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, which pulls together the relevant AP, Reuters, and New York Times style guides, for insight on what the appropriate usage is. Here’s what I learned:
Avoid. Use “transition” to describe the process of transitioning from male to female or female to male. Use the terms “gender confirmation surgery” or “sex reassignment surgery” to describe medical procedures that are part of the transition process. Avoid using the terms “post-op” and “pre-op.” One can transition from one sex to the other without having such surgery.
And, here’s what the Advocate link a reader provided says:
Gender doesn’t really change when someone undergoes an operation that for decades was commonly called a “sex change,” or more recently, “sexual reassignment surgery.” […] the term “gender reassignment” came about, to better explain that a person assigned male at birth was given a treatment or surgery to live as a female. But that, too, raised heckles, and that is where we get the terms “gender-confirmation surgery” and “gender-affirming surgery,” two more accepted terms that emphasize the treatment and surgery…
So after thinking on it, the next day (Day 365) I issued a correction in the newsletter, updating my usage from “sex-change operation” to “sex reassignment surgery”:
Correction: Yesterday I used the term “sex-change operation.” The phrase I was looking for was “sex reassignment surgery.” Apologies if the outdated term was offensive – obviously not my intention.
Well, it turns out I fucked it up a second time. The correct term is “gender-confirmation surgery” or “gender-affirming surgery.” I straight up failed to think critically about what I had learned in the previous 24-hours from readers and at least two other articles.
Here’s the reader feedback I received in response to my correction (emphasis mine):
I appreciate you addressing your correction of “sex reassignment surgery” today. A friendly suggestion that “gender confirmation surgery” is now often considered more sensitive/politic than “sex reassignment surgery,” that is unless the participant in said surgery described it in those specific words. That may have been the case in this scenario, but I just wanted to put it out there as an FYI.
Your apology could use some work. The question is not “if the outdated term was offensive;” it is. Let me fix that for you: “I apologize for using an outdated, offensive term.” Full stop.
Actually I think you mean gender affirming surgery. It’s not reassignment because the persons gender does not change - the surgery it to align the body with the gender. Thanks for working to get it.
Dude, it’s not sex reassignment surgery,
it’s gender-affirmation surgery.
You can also say “gender confirmation surgery” if you’d like to be über-correct.
Thank you for being open to correction. “sex reassignment surgery” is also very out of date and not used. The appropriate terms are either “gender confirming surgery” or “gender affirming surgery,” to indicate understanding that the surgery is only working what is already true about a person’s gender.
Actually the term you’re looking for is gender confirmation surgery. Thanks for being open to change!
Thanks for making the correction today. I would like to offer another term that is being used instead of sex reassignment surgery here in the Bay Area, California: gender affirming surgery.
as a therapist who treats, among others, the LGBTQ population, I’ve been taught that the correct way to refer to “sex change operations” is “gender reassignment surgery.”
You almost had it with “sex reassignment surgery” so good for you! But unless the vocabulary has changed since I began treating this population about 13 years ago (and it’s quite possible it has), the most correct description of this surgical procedure is what I mentioned above.
So, obviously I fucked it up not once, but twice (arguably three times for pushing back against some of the feedback). I had more than one opportunity to get it right and I failed do that. There’s no excuse and I should have been more diligent about getting to the bottom of it.
In an effort to avoid these situations in the future, here’s how you can help:
- Email me and let me know
- Use the chat tool on the site (lower right-hand corner) and we can talk it out in real time
- Make the edit on GitHub. Every post has a “Help improve this article” link on it. Click that and you can make a request to edit – just like a Wikipedia article.