Vocabulary guidelines are subject to change

So there’s a case on the Charley Project where I talk some about the missing person’s brother (what particular case it is, isn’t important), and what he saw and heard on the day of the disappearance and in the days prior. He was a child at the time. I talk enough in the casefile about the brother that I had to refer to him by name. Let’s say I called him “Mark.”

Now, close to 20 years have passed since the MP vanished and someone is on trial for his murder. When I write about the trial in the casefile (I will update the case when the trial’s finished) I will have to talk about Mark and what Mark said, because Mark is a major witness at the trial. But Mark is now “Mary”, the MP’s transgender sister.

I really was not sure how to address this in the casefile so that I would not cause offense to anybody. Obviously, it will need to be pointed out in the casefile that Mark and Mary are the same person, and when accounts from years ago talk about the MP’s brother Mark, they mean the person who testified at the trial as his sister Mary.

But society is still learning how to talk about transgender people and I do not want to put the information out in the wrong way, with language that causes offense. I don’t want to unnecessarily upset anyone in what is already a very upsetting case.

(To give you an example of what I’m talking about: once I was on Reddit talking about some black people who had moved from another country to the US to live, and I called them “African-American”. By which I meant ”black”. I thought I was being polite to use this term, but my comment was downvoted to oblivion and I was yelled at by several other commenters and couldn’t figure out why. I asked a friend who is black what I did wrong, and she said black immigrants to the United States usually don’t want to be called African-Americans. I had not known this and thus, had caused offense. I grew up in Wonderbread-white land surrounded by Wonderbread-white people and believe I am very ignorant as to racial issues, though I am trying to learn.)

I wound up consulting a friend of mine, who is the mother of a transgender child. She, in turn, consulted her child, who said this: the first time I mention the MP’s sibling in the case summary, I should identify the person as the MP’s sister Mary, and include a note saying Mary is transgender and accounts from the time period her brother disappeared refer to her as the MP’s brother Mark. The trans position, my informant said, is that Mary was ALWAYS a girl, it’s just she happened to be mistaken for a boy.

Anyway, I decided to write this entry to (A) show people what I sometimes consider when writing casefiles and (B) educate people about how to talk about transgender individuals.

14 thoughts on “Vocabulary guidelines are subject to change

  1. Shari June 30, 2022 / 8:09 pm

    Thank you for always being so thoughtful

  2. Dawn Marie July 1, 2022 / 10:14 am

    Keep in mind that not even all “trans” people have the same opinion on how something like this, and that you are not going to be able to please/satisfy everyone. I think you should refer to Mark as Mark when you talk about the time before Mark became mary. That’s the name of the person who gave the info at that earlier time; later when you talk about the trial and need to mention Mark/Mary again, you can briefly note that Mark has since become Mary, and leave it at that. Imagine for a minute that the missing person’s brother was Mark, and went by Mark as a child, but when he grew up he decided he preferred to be called by his middle name, let’s say it’s Anthony, or by Tony. Info available from the time of the disappearance will call him Mark, but during the trial and its coverage he’ll be Tony. Same principle, just different circumstances.
    I want to add also that Black immigrants to the US may also object to the term African-Americans because so often, white people think of Africa as a monolith when it is of course made up of many different countries and even more different cultures and ethnic groups. Again, opinions will vary but it might possibly have worked out better for you to have said “Nigerian-American” or “Kenyan-American” if you happened to know their background.

    • Vincent July 1, 2022 / 6:00 pm

      Things get interesting when a person refers to a white immigrant from South Africa as an African American.

      • Meaghan July 1, 2022 / 6:00 pm

        The immigrants I were talking about were actually from the Caribbean. I was saying “African-American” in the sense of “black.”

  3. Alice July 1, 2022 / 2:44 pm

    As he is of English and Irish heritage, my father calls himself ‘of mixed heritage’. I love pointing out to finger-wagglers that being of ‘mixed heritage’ and ‘mixed race’ does not necessarily mean having parents of different skin colours.

    Case in point: I also know an Egyptian who is as pale as can be. You wouldn’t know that he was Egyptian by looking at him. i honestly thought he was East Asian when I first met him. He looks more like an Ancient Egyptian than a modern one.

    • Vincent July 1, 2022 / 5:58 pm

      Well, you can always identify a real Egyptian from the way that they walk. LOL.

      • Meaghan July 1, 2022 / 6:50 pm

        Cleopatra, the first person whom people often think of when they hear “ancient Egyptian”, was actually almost entirely of Greek descent, and was said to be fair.

      • Alice July 1, 2022 / 8:21 pm

        What i am trying to say is that he does not look Arab (and I do not know if he is).

  4. Cid July 4, 2022 / 5:53 am

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness and thoroughness. I agree that it’s not possible to have a solution that fits everyone’s situation, I am grateful that you have consulted and feel like the solution you’ve settled on is brilliant. Continually deadnaming the witness would be disrespectful, and your solution avoids that as much as possible.
    Hoping everyone involved is doing ok.

  5. Misha Fraser July 5, 2022 / 11:43 pm

    One thing to keep in mind is a person’s privacy in addition to their identity. We never want to out anyone. We only know Mary’s deadname and the fact she is trans because this traumatic thing happened when she was a child. Many people are open about being trans but many also don’t like it to be the first thing someone knows about them.

    • Meaghan July 6, 2022 / 1:33 am

      Unfortunately for Mary, her trans status is discussed in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper — that’s how I know about it — so even if she wanted to keep it private, that ship has already sailed.

  6. Kay Ryan July 6, 2022 / 4:45 pm

    I, personally, always appreciate how sensitive you are about language. Another option, in any case where there is a name change is to write Mary Brown (nee Mark Brown). There is a accent mark over the first e in nee but I don’t know how to do that. Nee is a French term that has been adopted and accepted as an English term. In French, nee is the feminine and and ne is the masculine, but “nee” is the word that has been adopted into English.

  7. Dawn Marie July 6, 2022 / 5:32 pm

    I actually like that better than my own suggestion. Nee is very common and most people know what it is and those who don’t can usually figure it out. Mary Brown, nee mark Brown, clears up the confusion and people will draw their own conclusion, the correct one, without you having to “out” it.

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