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The New York Times' dehumanizing trans double down — and its consequences

There is a through line from how we are covered by journalists to how we are treated by lawmakers, but it doesn’t start in the media and it doesn’t end in legislatures.
The New York Times headquarters.
The New York Times headquarters. Orjan F. Ellingvag / Corbis via Getty Images

Last week, The New York Times swiftly and publicly dismissed a letter from more than 1,000 Times contributors highlighting concerns with the paper’s coverage of transgender people. Within hours of receipt of the letter, which was delivered at the same time as a letter from advocacy groups led by GLAAD, Charlie Stadtlander, director of external newsroom communications, brushed off the contributors' concerns. Inaccurately conflating their appeal with the GLAAD letter, Stadtlander appeared to dismiss both missives as non-journalistic advocacy and proclaimed that the “news stories criticized… reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and well-being for trans teens and adults.” It was a rather conclusory response to the claim that said stories were not, in fact, reported deeply or with care.

Later that day, Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn sent an internal memo admonishing staff participation in the letter: “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.” Again, neither Kahn nor Stadtlander explained how the contributors' letter was linked to an advocacy organization or what qualified as an attack on colleagues. But the message was clear — internal or external critique of coverage of trans people is advocacy; and advocacy is antithetical to journalism.

The following day, Thursday, the Times published a piece from columnist Pamela Paul entitled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.” The title and timing together created a combination so on-the-nose it almost crossed over into satire. (This is, notably, not the first time Paul has taken to her column to defend anti-trans antagonism.) Among the most comically offensive lines in the piece was Paul’s announcement that “nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic.” Apparently, Paul is the arbiter of what is transphobic, and, don’t worry, J.K. has done nothing wrong.

The message was clear — internal or external critique of coverage of trans people is advocacy; and advocacy is antithetical to journalism.

It would be truly funny if it wasn’t so incredibly harmful. Because under the rubric seemingly set forth in Stadtlander’s dismissal of the contributors' letter, the Times reporting on trans people is beyond reproach, as long as it can be claimed that it “strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society” — even if the “debate” is whether there are too many trans people or whether transgender people should have safe access to public spaces. The Times is clearly doubling down on this concept. But the simple reality is just because something can be debated doesn’t mean it should be. And when something as essential to survival as whether health care for a group of people is legitimate becomes the subject of widespread debate, those so-called debates have very significant material consequences.

Of course, there is literally nothing new about dehumanizing media coverage of trans people. In the 1980s and 1990s, the only time trans people saw ourselves on television, was in the sensationalized “gender reveal” episodes of Jerry Springer, Joan Rivers and other talk shows — think “his girlfriend is really a man.” In my first years as a lawyer, our advocacy strategy was always to keep our successes — and indeed the details of our lives — out of the media, for fear of mockery and backlash.

Even as trans visibility has grown, we are still regularly asked invasive questions about our bodies and specifically our genitals, described with a salacious anthropological lens and often left voiceless in coverage, such that we are prevented from being seen and understood as fully realized human beings.

Pamela Paul claims J.K. Rowling has never said anything transphobic. If true, she would be alone in that purity. The reality is that we have all, trans people included, internalized deeply harmful messages about what it means to be trans. And the brazen lack of self-reflection coming from the Times guarantees that the institution and those who work for it will continue to reinforce harmful tropes about trans existence and defensively dismiss calls for reflection while the cycle continues.

What concerns me, and what I have been writing about since 2016, is how the many failures to hold trans people in our full humanity — repeated over and over in media coverage — have created the conditions for the onslaught of attacks that trans people are currently experiencing at all levels of government. According to an analysis from Tom Scoca, the paper of record devoted over 15,000 words of front-page coverage over an eight-month period. Those thousands of words helped cultivate the suggestion that youth are receiving gender-affirming care recklessly and that there is a major problem — bordering on conspiracy — to be addressed and uncovered. This suggestion, in turn, creates an atmosphere of suspicion around trans people that reinforces general attitudes about transness and trans people as fraudulent.

The Times controversy resulted in a firestorm of responses. According to the reductive critique of trans advocacy offered by New York Magazine contributor Jonathan Chait, trans advocates are fixated on the wrong enemies when criticizing journalistic coverage of trans people. But he is attacking a straw man. It is not that I and other advocates singularly blame any one reporter or outlet for the fact that over 300 bills have been introduced this year that would restrict the legal rights and material survival opportunities of trans people in this country. But rather we recognize the relationship between how we are talked about and the conditions we live in are dynamically reinforcing. This is not a problem of individuals but rather of systems.

For some of us, understanding the nature of trans life, trans medicine and the legal structures that govern both is not a recently discovered stop on the “cancel culture” victim train. There are people with actual expertise in these areas. For Chait, “[t]he idea that reporting on failures and abuses in the system feeds a backlash strikes me as completely backward.” Here we see yet again how mainstream journalists distort reality. First, the “failures and abuses” he references are overblown or outright fabricated. And yet in ignorant both-sides cover they are too often taken at face value, while the medical care itself is presumed to be problematic. Second, the point isn’t that the laws are a backlash to the reporting but rather both are a symptom of the same problem — a deeply ingrained and reflexive discomfort with trans existence.

Chait goes on to write “Conservative ‘bathroom’ bills have died out because they combatted an imaginary problem with no real or sympathetic victims.” But here he is, once again, wrong. Bathroom bills have not died out; Oklahoma and Alabama have recently passed such bills and many more are moving in states this session, including a bill in Arkansas that would make it a crime for a trans adult to enter the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity when a minor might be present.

“If the Times was following a secret transphobic agenda, you would expect a wave of coverage across a wider spectrum of transgender-related topics,” Chait explains. Exactly. Because in fact, this has long been the trend at The New York Times, as I pointed out back in 2016. The very type of coverage Chait references was over-represented with charged speculation and concern about the harms that could come to pass if trans girls were permitted to use the restroom. This was followed closely by excessive handwringing about trans girls in sports. These bills have not died out: People like Chait just stopped paying attention because the attacks became so normalized.

States and individual school districts across the country ban trans youth from school restrooms.

Almost half the country bans trans girls from sports.

Care is being banned for adolescents and restricted (and possibly soon banned) for adults.

States are introducing legislation that would make it a crime for trans people to exist in public spaces in proximity to minors — forget that many trans people are minors and many are raising minor children.

When we try to point out that maybe we have a societal problem that permeates all of our institutions, including journalistic ones, we are told that our “dogmatic insistence” in defending ourselves is the cause of our harm. We are dismissed. We are debated.

When words like “ghastly” and even “mutilated” are used to speak of the bodies of trans people, it become easier to posit us as freaks and monsters.

Words matter. And The New York Times, New York Magazine and all our journalistic institutions know that. When words like “ghastly” and even “mutilated” are used to speak of the bodies of trans people, it becomes easier to posit us as freaks and monsters. Chait would have his readers believe that the only bills that pass are the ones that address “real harms.” I have been in court and in legislatures fighting these bills and it is crystal clear that they are instead designed to combat the imagined “harm” of being transgender.

There is a through line from how we are covered by journalists to how we are treated by lawmakers, but it doesn’t start in the media and it doesn’t end in legislatures. We all have the power to transform what we think and how we see each other. Being transgender is a beautiful gift — that should be held with grace and care. I wouldn’t change it for anything. And I just hope that, in time, we will be seen in all our divinity and expansiveness, instead of through the dehumanizing, patronizing lens of the people currently debating and describing us.