Column: Transphobia must not be tolerated within sports media

G Ryan was repeatedly misgendered by announcers during the Big Ten Championships.

Image By: Courtesy of Amelia Cacchione | The Michigan Daily

The 500-yard freestyle and the mile are two of the most exciting races in collegiate swimming. The length is long enough where there are constant lead changes, and when multiple swimmers are going stroke-for-stroke near the end and one breaks away, the energy around the pool is electric.

When I was watching these races on Big Ten Network during the Big Ten Championships last week, they sure didn’t feel electric. In fact, they just made me extremely uncomfortable because of the announcers’ consistent misgendering of the winner.

Gender is a complicated issue to navigate, even more so in the hyper-binary world of collegiate athletics. Michigan swimmer G Ryan, who identifies as genderqueer, has successfully navigated that world and blazed a trail, all while they are tearing up the NCAA women’s scene with some of the fastest times in the country.

Although Ryan has been a trailblazer, their path has been anything but easy, and the adjustment factor for those watching on the sidelines has been enormous. As it’s only been about a year since steps were taken to change Ryan’s name and pronouns in regards to athletics, it is still common to see Ryan’s birth name on psych sheets, and the pronouns “she” and “her” rather than “they” and “them” when referring to Ryan in media coverage.

This past weekend, BTN announcers actively decided to ignore the name on the scoreboard and use the name on the psych sheet, as well as incorrect pronouns, for Ryan, who won two individual conference titles. While this may seem like a small issue to many, it’s extremely problematic and a symptom of the widespread transphobia that plagues both sports and the general community.

Transphobia is defined as “a range of negative attitudes against transgender or gender nonconforming individuals,” and is a type of prejudice similar to racism and sexism. Misgendering is an inherent issue of prejudice, so rhetorically it can be considered blatant transphobia. Although athletes like Ryan and transgender runner Chris Mosier have brought this issue to the forefront in recent months through telling their stories, there is still much work to do.

Sports journalism impacts a lot of our day-to-day lives, whether producers and consumers realize it or not. If something is broadcast on TV or put in print, an assumption can be made that it’s usually socially acceptable. The casual fan turning on BTN during the meet wouldn’t know about Ryan and their gender identity unless they follow the University of Michigan or are heavily embedded in the swimming world—so the fact that Ryan was misgendered not only provides a dilemma of transphobia, it also provides a dilemma of journalistic integrity and accuracy.

With trans rights becoming a hot-button issue in today’s politics, it is even more important for the media to take responsibility and be sensitive to issues regarding gender identity. If these issues are not taken seriously when they reach people through mediated means, many people won’t know how important they are because they don’t know someone directly affected by them.

If BTN and other outlets can’t be counted on to be accurate and ethical when reporting on the gender identity of an athlete—or anyone for that matter—what’s to say that the general public will be accurate and ethical?

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