When a clip from comedian Jon Stewart’s recent interview with Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge about her state’s decision to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth went viral, it felt like a breath of fresh air for much of the trans community. In the interview, Stewart grounded his questions in fact, asking Rutledge what basis she had to overrule all of the major medical associations that have designed standards of care for trans minors over the last several decades.
In the face of Stewart’s gentle pushback, Rutledge dissembled, remarking that she “wasn’t prepared to have a Supreme Court argument” with Stewart at that particular time.
The interview was notable because Stewart called out the attorney general’s arguments in real time, such as when she tried to claim that 98% of all youth with gender dysphoria eventually grow out of it.
“That is an incredibly made-up figure,” Stewart replied, as Rutledge failed to name a single source for her claims. Rutledge on more than one occasion stated she wasn’t primed with specific citations for the interview, although we should be asking why someone with her power and media experience would underestimate Stewart.
At the same time, the interview didn’t break any new ground. But what it did do was give liberals a high profile, simple template for pushing back against relentless right-wing attacks on trans medicine.
As a trans reporter who has covered the entirety of the yearslong conservative campaign against trans lives in this country, it made me hopeful to see a white, cisgender man in the media who wasn’t afraid to call out anti-trans claims he knew to be untrue. I’ve felt that my own writing on these issues has become more and more uninspired over time. After all, how many ways is it possible to say “mistreating people like me is maybe bad?”
In simply stating the fact that gender-affirming care for trans minors is the standard of care created by every major medical association and firmly pushing back on Rutledge’s claims, Stuart was able to expose her lack of evidence.
It’s an odd feeling, but one of hope. Stewart’s interview showed me that it is still possible to have an impact in the media on behalf of trans lives, something I haven’t felt since the Obama administration opened the door slightly wider for the trans community when he enacted Section 1557, which protects trans people from health care discrimination under the Affordable Care Act.
In simply stating the fact that gender-affirming care for trans minors is the standard of care created by every major medical association and firmly pushing back on Rutledge’s claims, Stuart was able to expose her lack of evidence for the new law to a wide audience.
Stewart isn’t a trans person like me, or even a reporter. But he’s a familiar face who has spent decades on Americans’ television screens. He also has his own controversial history of jokes at the expense of the trans community.
In 2003, he made a joke after former presidential candidate Dennis Kusinich said he would appoint a gay or trans Supreme Court Justice. “All hail the honorable Justice Chick with Dick,” was his punchline, still seared into my brain decades later. To his credit, Stewart called himself out for the joke during the season premiere of his show “The Problem with Jon Stewart” on AppleTV+, which featured the Rutledge interview. He also invited on as guests two parents of trans kids, ACLU attorney Chase Strangio and endocrinologist Dr. Joshua Safer, who wrote the Endocrine Society’s guidelines on treating trans youth.
In my own coverage of trans issues, I’ve either personally met or at least interviewed most of the panelists featured during that segment, and raised similar points as Stewart; but his status as an establishment media figure lends gravitas to his content in a way that similar work often can’t.
The interview was also a departure from the common style of panicked both-sides reporting the mainstream media has taken when covering trans issues. Over the last several years, mainstream media outlets, from The Atlantic to The New York Times have run distraught features on the many challenges of health care for transgender minors, in the process often helping to elevate the voices of anti-trans activist groups who oppose transgender existence altogether.
On Friday, the same day Stewart’s clip went viral, Reuters published a lengthy story questioning the efficacy of trans youth health care. The lead example in this story took two years between first visiting a clinician and actually starting hormones. The piece seems to suggest two years of continuous therapy and consultations may be rushing the process, which it points to as a considerable concern with a “growing number of gender-care professionals.”
Media coverage that helps poke holes in the already besieged infrastructure of gender-affirming health care for trans kids, even if in the name of journalism, beggars belief when you consider the potential threat to trans lives.
Stewart, instead of questioning professionals who are responsible for standards of care, trusted them, and brought in parents of trans kids to talk about their personal experiences with their kids’ transitions. The episode culminates with the Rutledge interview.
In short Stewart, a comedian, displayed basic journalism that is incredibly important — especially for trans people, who have grown increasingly despondent with the quality of mainstream coverage about our lives. Given the current political climate, this approach to politicians and lawmakers who promote dangerous right-wing rhetoric could benefit all of society. Let’s just hope enough people were listening, and will follow suit.
CORRECTION (Oct. 13, 2022, 2:54 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of a streaming service. Stewart's show airs on AppleTV+, not AppleTV.