Why Is Reporting on Trans Issues So Fraught?
As trans issues move into the mainstream, the need for clear best practices to guide trans reporting grows acute.
By Hallie Lieberman
Journalist Katie Herzog recently came across a sticker plastered on a parking meter in downtown Seattle. It read “Katie Herzog (writer at the stranger) Is A Transphobe.” Herzog tweeted it to her followers with the wry comment, “My fan club has been stickering the neighborhood again.”
If you came upon the sticker while ambling around Capitol Hill, you might wonder what horrendous thing Herzog had done to trans people to warrant a public warning campaign. Had she violently attacked a trans person? Did she advocate for conversion therapy? Harass trans people online? Just how dangerous a transphobe was she?
What Herzog had done is write a 2017 story for Seattle’s The Stranger that included detransitioners, as adults who transition and then return to their birth sex are known. It also featured trans people who are happy with their transitions. Herzog is a member of the queer community, and her article was vetted by several trans readers. She felt the feature was “the most balanced, least opinion-based piece I’ve ever written.” So, while she expected a little pushback, she was shocked when transphobia accusations started to fly her way, among other epithets, on social media. She was called a TERF (a trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Though she’s not Jewish, she received anti-Semitic comments. Copies of The Stranger were burned in the streets. An ex-girlfriend suddenly refused to acknowledge her in public. Fliers about her appeared at coffee shops around town. She found herself newly unwelcome in queer spaces.
Her trans friends, meanwhile, did not have a problem with the piece. “The praise was private and the hate was public,” said Herzog. Neither did her editors, one of whom is the sexpert Dan Savage. The paper stood by her, rejecting calls to retract the story and fire her. Herzog’s article was fact-checked and never required any corrections.
According to prominent trans author Julia Serano, who wrote a blog post representative of the backlash to the article (and declined to comment for this one), Herzog erred in acknowledging, and thus legitimizing, the “social contagion” theory of gender dysphoria (also known as Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) in her article. This theory proposes that some teens come out as trans because it is popular among their friend groups. For many in the trans community, ROGD is more than a third rail: anybody who brings it up is assumed to be a transphobe.
To better understand the criticism against Herzog, as well as the larger, evolving debate around best practices for reporting on trans issues, I reached out to 12 trans journalists for comment. None would speak to me. But I was able to speak to human rights activist Buck Angel, one of the trans readers who vetted Herzog’s article. “I gave Katie Herzog 110 percent support,” he said. “Why would they come after [her] when she’s reporting a story that is factual and needs to be told?”
This difficult and important question becomes more urgent as reporting on trans issues grows, much of it inevitably done by non-trans reporters. Addressing it raises a raft of other questions, among them: What can journalists do to prevent blow-ups like this from happening in the future? And how did writing about trans issue become so fraught in the first place?
Despite some progress in recent years, transgender people continue to suffer from inordinately high rates of harassment, job discrimination, and violence. A study by The National Center for Transgender Equality found that 90 percent of the 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming participants had experienced harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination at work. The Trump administration is seeking to curtail transgender rights in the military and the health system, and transgender individuals face much higher risks of violence than cisgender people (those who identify with their birth sex). Suicide attempt rates among trans people are as high as 41 percent.
Given the strength and courage required to be transgender in our society, the anger and suspicion of the trans community around reporting perceived as hostile or insensitive is understandable. But it’s not just obviously hostile or insensitive reporting that angers many in the trans community. Some of those on the receiving end of their wrath are people like Herzog, reporters working in good faith who consider themselves allies of the trans community.
The biggest instances of backlash tend to happen when cisgender journalists write about hot-button issues related to scientific research and medical practice, such as detransitioning. Some trans activists argue that detransitioning should never be discussed by the media. Only a very small percentage of trans people will ever detransition, they argue, and such articles are therefore misleading and serve an anti-trans agenda. (Detransition has not been studied much, but estimates do put the rate very low). Coverage of the phenomenon may also downplay or ignore the role of discrimination in detransitioning, convincing some trans people to go back to their birth gender to protect themselves.
But do these concerns justify intimidating those who write about detransitioning and the related phenomenon of people who say they are trans as children, but not when they grow older, known as desistence? One of the goals of journalism, according to the Society of Professional Journalists, is “to give voice to the voiceless.” Detransitioners certainly fall into this category.
I decided to ask trans people what they thought about stories on detransitioning.
“There are certain subjects, like detransitioning, that this community does not want to talk about,” said Angel, the activist. “Some people are [detrainsitioning], and why wouldn’t you want to help people not transition if it’s not right for them?”
Zinnia Jones, a transgender research consultant, doesn’t think that journalists need to stop writing about these issues. “This is not a matter of should they talk about it or should they not. It’s a matter of doing it right,” she said. “I appreciate reporting on [scientific] literature. All I would like in this area is for there to be more data to refer to.”
Kinesis, the founder of the TransRational movement (who goes by a single name), agrees. “I would encourage more stories about detransitioning,” she said. “I think that people are shutting it down. But their voices are important [to trans people].”
Trans psychotherapist Morty Diamond likewise feels that detransition stories are acceptable. “If somebody who has detransitioned wants to tell their story, that doesn’t offend me as a trans person,” Diamond said. “That’s their truth and their lived experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling their story.”
Of course, as Herzog discovered, not everybody feels that way about such issues. Some of Herzog’s fiercest critics took issue with her mention of rapid-onset gender dysphoria, the theory that some kids identify as transgender due in part to social influences, like peer pressure and social media. ROGD isn’t settled science (only one peer-reviewed article exists; though there have been a few peer-reviewed critiques and analysis both in support of the theory and opposed to it) nor is it an official diagnosis. But debate over scientific research doesn’t invalidate it as a topic for journalists. It usually just means that the research should be put into context and not presented with certainty.
Though deep and still going strong two years later, the backlash to Herzog’s article pales in comparison to the uproar over another article on transgender kids, “When Children Say They’re Trans,” published in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic. The article, written by Jesse Singal, a cisgender male, profiled kids who at one time identified as trans and later changed their minds, as well as some who had thrived after fully transitioning. Singal detailed the complicated issues involved in treatment for gender non-conforming (GNC) kids, showing how the pendulum has swung from trans kids not even being acknowledged as legitimate by doctors, to now sometimes being given puberty blockers and hormones after a cursory evaluation. He was cautious to point out that denying hormones to GNC kids who needed them could put them at risk for suicide. Singal also said that giving kids hormones who didn’t need them could also cause problems down the line.
If one argument runs throughout the piece, it’s that the gender-affirming care provided by well-meaning doctors and psychotherapists occasionally caused harm. Singal was arguing for more caution and evaluation before putting GNC kids on treatments like hormones, whose effects, like the lowering of a voice in a female or the growth of breast tissue in a male, are irreversible or reversible only with surgical intervention.
Months before the piece was published, trans journalists attempted to stop its publication. In an article urging The Atlantic to spike the story, Cristan Williams wrote on The Trans Advocate that Jesse Singal is “an anti-trans concern troll…[who] has enjoyed a great deal of support from anti-trans groups including those of the political right, the alt-right, and a small faction of anti-trans self-identified feminists.” Williams and Dawn Ennis, managing editor of OutSports.com, penned an open letter to The Atlantic warning that an “incalculable amount of damage will be wrought if The Atlantic goes forward with its plans to publish a report by Jesse Singal, regarding what’s come to be known as the ‘desistance myth,’ and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’…The ‘science’ Mr. Singal has relied upon in the past has been widely debunked and used as propaganda to arm the enemies of transgender and gender nonconforming youth and adults.”
Singal’s critics weren’t successful in getting The Atlantic to drop the story. On publication, the article provoked an intense response by those inside and outside the trans community, including death threats on social media. Lena Dunham tweeted to her millions of followers that the article was “dangerous.” Roxanne Gay tweeted “this piece is a travesty; it’s done in such bad faith.” Some people accused Singal’s article of causing the deaths of trans kids. Too many to count called Singal a transphobe. Harron Walker wrote two long response pieces in Jezebel, one titled, “What’s Jesse Singal’s Fucking Deal?”, in which she called Singal “a reactionary with a deep mistrust of the informed consent model of trans health care that has allowed a lot of trans people, myself included, to get on hormones in a matter of weeks.” Walker also argued that the “women in The Atlantic piece are not trans” and that Singal focused too much on a detransition narrative “that paints transition as a mistake that a person regrets for the rest of their life,” ignoring detransition stories about people who’ve detranistioned “because no one will hire them, or because they can’t afford treatment or locate an affirming doctor.”
In an article for ThinkProgress, Zack Ford described Singal’s story as “a loud dog-whistle for anti-trans parents” and excoriated Singal for focusing on ROGD, which he wrote was “a fake diagnosis that was recently invented by groups of parents who advocate against affirming transgender youth.” (Note: later in the article he mentions the term was coined by Brown University School of Public Health professor Dr. Lisa Littman, who used parent interviews in her research). Ford and others were concerned that Singal overstated the rates of desistence and focused too much on kids who desisted rather than those who had stayed trans.
The criticisms of Singal’s article did not concern the facts of the story — no corrections or retractions were amended — but rather the belief that it’s existence hurt trans people. This, it bears repeating, is a real concern. Another longstanding core principle of journalistic ethics is “minimize harm.” It’s been nearly a year since Singal’s article was published, and I wanted to ask Singal’s biggest critics whether they thought the article had caused harm.
None of them would speak to me, a result encouraged by a warning that went out on Twitter from a trans journalist: “There’s a cis journalist whose requesting interviews with trans people around gender dysphoria. She’s also interviewed Jesse Singal and wants her piece to ‘find the middle ground.’ Don’t waste your time saying you decline.”
In lieu of gathering their opinions, I turned to other trans people and subjects quoted in Singal’s article.
Dr. Edwards-Leeper, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults, said, “[Singal’s article] was probably one of the best jobs of accurately describing the philosophical [side of my work]. I’m still getting an average of two emails a week from parents around the country who are desperate to find a more balanced provider for their kid.”
Jones, the trans research consultant who was also quoted in Singal’s article, felt differently. She said that the article could have used more context regarding the rarity of adolescence desistence and gender dysphoria. “How typical is this for trans youth?” she said. “How far divergent is [desistence]? There needs to be a bigger picture here as well. There’s nothing wrong with zooming in [on desistence] as long as you can also still zoom out.”
A healthy media doesn’t shy away from accurately presenting current scientific research just because vocal activists don’t like it. A journalist’s job is to investigate and make judgements about legitimate scientific debates and to inform the public about them. Not all “debates” are legitimate and deserve coverage, of course. Falsely claiming there is a scientific debate around the measles vaccine can have huge public health consequences. Overly indulgent coverage of climate skepticism has been a disaster for efforts to mitigate climate change. Then there is Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s notorious book, The Bell Curve, which was widely condemned as racist on its release, but also the focus of an extensive debate that resulted in its eventual debunking. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his New Yorker review, “I am delighted that The Bell Curve was written — so that its errors could be exposed.” The Bell Curve reconfirmed for Gould his judgment rendered in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, where he’d written, “Determinist arguments for ranking people according to a single scale of intelligence [have] recorded little more than social prejudice.”
But studies of desistence are not the product of an anti-trans agenda comparable to Koch Brothers-funded climate studies. They also aren’t trying to prove that trans kids are inferior to cis kids, or that trans kids don’t exist. Scholars hope their research will inform clinical practices for gender non-conforming and trans kids in a way that ensures those kids will receive the most appropriate treatments.
There are basic facts that aren’t in dispute. Transgender people have existed throughout recorded history. Not all transgender people have gender dysphoria, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify,” but gender dysphoria is a serious condition that requires treatment. Not treating gender dysphoria can cause intense psychological stress and lead to suicide.
Current scientific debates center on how best to treat transgender issues such as gender dysphoria, in particular in kids. Most clinicians and researchers seem to think that hormones and surgeries are appropriate for some adult gender dysphoric patients. And social transition, puberty blockers and hormones are appropriate for some transgender youth. Yet clinicians and researchers say that much of the science on transgender kids remains unsettled. There is debate over whether all children 12 and under should socially transition, and whether puberty blockers have long-term side effects on adolescents’ brain development. Most articles about transitioning don’t provide much information on these scientific debates.
“I got some of the top clinicians in the country on the record saying they were a little bit worried that some diagnostic criteria, some diagnostic practices, had gotten a little bit too relaxed. These are people who are very well respected,” Singal told me. “No one anywhere has claimed they’re transphobic. And what they’re saying shouldn’t be controversial, because there’s actually a little bit of an absence of solid long-term evidence here.”
Following the backlash, including public calls to have him “strung up,” Singal considered stopping his coverage of gender dysphoria. Ultimately, he decided that he didn’t want Twitter to dictate his work. He still writes about transgender issues, much of it in his newsletter.
It is unavoidable that more journalists will begin to write about trans people and trans issues. As the headline of Katy Steinmetz’s 2014 cover story in Time declared, we have reached a “Transgender Tipping Point” where transgender people are becoming more visible in media and culture. Since Steinmetz’s article was published, visibility has only grown over the course of a number of cultural milestones: the public transitioning of Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning, the premiere of three trans-positive reality shows, an increase in the percentage of transgender characters on scripted TV shows, the list goes on.
It is also unavoidable that many of the reporters covering trans issues will be cis. For some, this can only result in bad journalism. Josephine Livingstone has argued in The New Republic that an impermeable existential barrier stops non-trans people from understanding trans issues, no matter how much intellect, rigor and empathy they may bring to the story. If Livingstone is correct, this poses a major problem for the future coverage of transgender people and related issues. Only between 0.6 and three percent of the population identifies as transgender; the vast majority of reporters who write on trans issues are cisgender.
One path forward is better newsroom education and clearer standards and guidelines. According to Gillian Branstetter, media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, cis-run news organizations are getting better. “Newsrooms have begun to understand some of the basic principles of treating a transgender person with respect, as if they were any other person and, avoiding sort of needless details about their life, such as whether they’ve had surgery or not, old names, things like that.”
Shannon Keating, the LGBT editor of BuzzFeed, feels similarly about the state of journalism about trans people. “The mainstream media has started getting better at using people’s correct names and pronouns. they/them pronouns have been officially incorporated into more newsrooms’ style guides,” she notes. “But we still see a lot of deadnaming [using a trans person’s birth name], even when it’s entirely unnecessary. Fox News and Yahoo News both recently used Chelsea Manning’s ‘dead name’ in recent reports even though she has now been out as trans for many years.”
Not everyone thinks journalism has come a long way. Transexual pioneer Buck Angel feels that trans coverage still does not represent the entirety of the trans experience. Along with journalists, Angel says some trans leaders must share the blame. “The most powerful people in our community are the ones who claim the right to speak for [all trans people],” he said. “The media goes to them because they speak in the ‘agenda’ language. They don’t speak outside of that language. And the media, journalists, everybody are scared to touch anything that speaks outside of the agenda. And on some level, I don’t blame journalists. I would be freaked out, too.”
Nothing is further from the “agenda” frame than the topic of desistence. The argument against reporting on the phenomenon is straightforward: even a well-intentioned story will be used by transphobes to argue that no children are trans, and that transgender people are not real and are undeserving of human rights. Journalists must understand this is a valid concern, and they must thread the needle of validating transgender identity while also accurately reporting on debates within the scientific community. Said Branstetter, of the NCTE, “If you’re a reporter, anytime that you’re writing a story and questioning whether somebody is really transgender, you need to very, very seriously look at your reporting simply because [these assumptions are] used to deny us equal access to education, to kick us out of restaurants, to kick us out of bathrooms, to deny us healthcare, and frankly, to justify violence against us.”
Because of this reality, and the stakes, many empathetic journalists may avoid writing on trans subjects for fear of accidentally violating a rule, such as deadnaming, and then being accused of transphobia. On these basic points, the GLAAD guidelines provide a useful primer for best practices on trans reporting, such as using a person’s preferred pronouns and name, not using their birth name unless they have said it is acceptable, and not emphasizing a person’s transition. Notably, the guidelines do not include rules on writing about third-rail scientific debates.
Reporters will inevitably continue to make mistakes and anger activists. But if they do so in the context of striving to present transgender people and issues ethically, empathically and accurately, these mistakes should be forgiven, and good-faith investigations into scientific arguments tolerated.
As for journalists who feel trepidation about covering these issues, they can always reach out to members of the trans community for advice. “I am happy to walk members of the media through any questions they may have about writing ethically about transgender issues,” said Branstetter. “I think the vast majority of them want to tell important stories accurately, and respect the marginalized people they’re writing about.”
Hallie Lieberman is the author of Buzz: A History of the Sex Toy. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atavist and Deadspin. Find her on Twitter @hallielieberman
Last edited: May 3, 2019
Author: Hallie Lieberman
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by Katie Herzog / @kittypurrzog