Above: Photo by Haxorjoe/Wikimedia Commons
Transphobia comes in many forms.
Transphobia is violence, as seen in the 2022 Club Q shooting and the recent murder of British teenager Brianna Ghey. It is legislation, evidenced by the increasing amount of bills restricting participation in school sports based on sex, banning gender-affirming language in the classroom and doctor’s offices. It is microaggressions and fear-mongering, as seen in propaganda claiming that children are being brainwashed into being transgender.
It can also come in the form of reporting — and not only in openly right-wing, conservative publications. Unexpectedly, transphobes are being given a platform in one of the most respected newspapers in the U.S. — The New York Times.
On Feb. 15, 2023, over 3,500 Times contributors and readers as well as media workers sent an open letter to Philip Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at The Times. GLAAD, an organization which advocates for the inclusion of LBGTQ stories in media, also sent in an open letter to The Times with more than 100 additional signatures from organizations and individuals. Both letters shared the same goal: to convince the Times to recant and apologize for their biased reporting on trans issues and to make adjustments to their guidelines in the future.
“Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them,” The Times said in response to the GLAAD letter. “Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.” The same day, they published a column titled, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” about the wealthiest transphobe in the world — or, as she’s also called, a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, or TERF. In the article, the author references a podcast series that will focus on the — as they perceive it — unfair attacks on Rowling’s character. The author is in agreement with the premise of the podcast, defending and justifying Rowling’s transphobic statements by claiming that she is trying to defend a marginalized group — women — by attacking another — trans women. Rowling herself has, in the several years since her views came to light, only doubled down on her public image being synonymous with anti-trans hate.
Transphobic views are not only being expressed in The Times’ opinions columns; bigotry is present in their news coverage as well. Four examples are identified in the contributors’ letter, and three of those articles are in the news section: “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” “When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know” and “Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones.” These articles repeatedly cite insidious sources, including parent groups backed by an anti-trans legal group (the “Alliance Defending Freedom”) and promoters of pseudoscience, such as Grace Lidinksy-Smith, the president of Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network. The publication also entertains transphobic views on issues the transgender community faces.
The opinions column, “How to Make Sense of the New L.G.B.T.Q. Culture War,” presents three different interpretations of a Gallup poll that describes a rise in LGTBQ+ identification among younger Americans. The latter two claims are blatantly homophobic, offering that the rise can either be attributed to identifying as queer being a “trend,” or that it is evidence of teachers and doctors encouraging kids to identify as queer. The former is a trite claim about queerness, but the latter is a more topical and common conspiracy today. The column also correlates rising mental health issues among teens with the rise in LGBTQ+ identification. However, the column cites a 2022 Atlantic article to justify this correlation — ignoring the alternative explanation that the rise in mental illness was connected to the pandemic that isolated teens from their peers.
Notably, the piece’s closing also claims that gender-affirming care is an ideological experiment with little to no scientific backing, a key argument used to back legislation that restricts gender-affirming care.
There have, however, been studies on how gender-affirming care can improve the lives of transgender kids, research the column refused to acknowledge. Endocrinologist Dr. Julia Sorbara and her colleagues conducted one such study, in which she concluded that transgender children of puberty age and older are associated with worse mental health. This, in her words, makes them “particularly vulnerable and in need of appropriate care.” Her article was published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. An observational study on the impact of gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary youths came to the same conclusion: those who had received gender-affirming care had “60% lower odds of depression and 73% lower odds of suicidality” as compared to those who had not received care.
Exploring both sides of a debate is one thing, but when one side is basing their arguments in bigotry and that fact isn’t addressed in the article, their hatred is presented as a fact-based argument. Giving validity to viewpoints rooted in bigotry is not unbiased reporting — it actually introduces bias to the article by allowing people to justify hate without challenge. This being done in news articles is especially insidious, as it presents opinions as facts.
News articles with biased sources and opinion columns presenting no factual evidence — this is the content The Times is putting out. Placing these articles under the banner of such a prestigious news organization gives them credibility and presents them as evidence to transphobic legislators.
The consequences of bans on gender-affirming care are dire. Dr. Sorbara concluded and young trans people are “particularly vulnerable” to mental illness without care. These Times authors are not writing in a vacuum — their pieces have enormous impact and serious consequences. These writers can be considered as complicit in a rise in mental illness in trans people, especially children, in every state that has used their pieces as backing for their cruel legislation. Likewise, lawmakers should be fact-checking and researching the evidence they present to back legislation, because it is completely unacceptable that decisions are being made about people’s rights based on hateful lies.
This lack of objectivity in reporting about historically marginalized groups should not be surprising coming from The Times. Historically, they have refused to publish the word ‘gay,’ as explained in David Dunlap’s 2017 article “How The Times Gave ‘Gay’ Its Own Voice (Again).” Until 1987, the paper’s style guide forbade the use of the word “gay” in their articles. The style guide read: “gay. Do not use as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter.” This was instituted after the publication of a controversial piece in 1975 titled, “The All-Gay Cruise: Pride and Prejudice,” and came at the urging of Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, then a backer for The Times. Her son Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, instated the ban to “avoid the subject of gay life.”
This rule was in place only 36 years ago. The style guide stigmatized the word while gay people were reclaiming it as an adjective rather than a derogatory term. Dunlap’s article unfolds the history behind the ban and how it was lifted, noting that he, an openly gay man, had been on staff both before and after the ban was lifted and interviewed colleagues who made the push for revoking the ban on the word “gay” — an issue that is still relevant in Florida 36 years later, thanks to Governor Ron DeSantis’ House Bill 1557, also called Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill.
Despite the ban being overturned in 1987 — a step in the right direction in regards to reporting on the queer community at large — two 1995 letters to the editor prove that one step forward was not enough. The February 2023 open letters to the editors of The Times clearly weren’t the first push for the paper to review its standards and improve its reporting regarding the transgender community, as both address articles that used language disparaging the transgender community. The article, “Transgender Community Must Cope With Bigotry,” published July 30, 1995, specifically urges The Times to write about the bigotry the trans community faced rather than solely focusing “on the squalid and degrading aspects of their lives.” Another letter titled, “For An America That Loved Freaks” was published roughly three months later in Oct. of 1995. The author, a trans woman, objected to a Times article in which a columnist called trans people “freaks.”
Transphobic reporting, which seems to have become a trademark for The Times, normalizes anti-trans discrimination. Adult legislators, who arguably should be less susceptible to bias than teens, have been duped into believing transphobic articles so deeply that they use them as the basis for laws. As a result, transgender people cannot simply exist without being scrutinized, demonized, restricted or targeted by violent criminals.
Months after the letter was sent, nothing has changed. The Times has not apologized for or unpublished the transphobic columns and articles. Trans people — and queer people at large — remain under attack in America. Their defense has not flagged either, though. Drag bans have been passed and overturned. Books have been taken from the shelves and returned. There is still a long road ahead, but there are many travelers keen on seeing the destination: equal rights for transgender people.
Katherine Collins, the writer of the October 1995 letter to the editor published in The Times, perhaps said it best:
“I happen to be a transsexual, and there are thousands of us. Within the last three or four years, a political movement has developed among transgender people. Our goal is to be treated like the responsible citizens we are.”