The last week of June, which marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, has often heralded queer and trans joy, renewed calls for liberation, and powerful community-building. But at the end of this past June, amidst the threat of fascists directly targeting Pride celebrations, the New York Times published an article titled “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” by staff writer Emily Bazelon.
The piece became a public flashpoint. Several trans people criticized what they saw as Bazelon’s callousness in attempting to neutrally report on the current legal and political jeopardy of adolescent gender-affirming care. Many critics noted the recent fervor of state legislatures in passing or actively pursuing laws making said care illegal, a move often motivated by political violence.
“You can’t just cover trans issues and say ‘Well, it’s not my fault if people quote this out of context’,” said Kae Petrin, a data & graphics reporter for Chalkbeat’s data visuals team and one of the cofounders of the Transgender Journalists Association. They’ve been dismayed by mainstream cis journalists’ unwillingness to cover the passage of this legislation with more nuance. “You always have to be considering, ‘What is this work in context?’”
Bazelon wrote a lengthy Twitter thread attempting to rebut criticism of the piece, in which she characterized the critiques as a “profound disagreement over the role of journalism,” and said her conviction that “being a journalist means following the facts where they lead. It isn’t advocacy.”
Amidst a string of political and global crises, mainstream newsrooms have proclaimed a similar commitment to Bazelon’s: To remain wholly impartial by “following the facts where they lead,” or at least attempt to appear so. Gannett, the largest newspaper publishing company in the United States, Axios, and the New York Times all sent memos to employees following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Broadly, the memos insisted that public displays of political affiliation, or the expression of personal feelings about the court case, would undermine trust in journalism.
Meanwhile, the social scapegoat of the current American moment has become transgender people, who have been pushed to the frontlines of a dangerous culture war. ACLED, a data analysis organization which tracks political violence, reported a precipitous increase in political violence against LGBTQ people, which comes alongside the aforementioned mass movement in state legislatures to pass bills restricting LGBTQ rights, particularly the rights of trans youth.
Despite the rapid rollback of legal rights previously considered unassailable, the memos sent out by mainstream corporate journalistic platforms reflect a to an outdated, exclusionary idea of covering and engaging with current political discourse. Reporting by the abovementioned outlets has done little to accurately communicate the severity of this violence. Rather, their commitment to the appearance of remaining objective, even while covering the social and legal fate of trans people, may be making matters worse. Trans journalists have felt that unevenly distributed burden of “objectivity” personally placed on them, often in particular and difficult ways.
Objectivity — and political “neutrality” — is violent
South Dakota Public Broadcasting fired trans journalist Stel Kline in April, accusing them of, among other things, not being objective. Station management told Kline this was due to their reposting of a tweet from an NPR journalist about the cissexism of mainstream abortion coverage.
Lewis Wallace, the author of The View From Somewhere and host of a podcast by the same name, was also fired from American Public Media following accusations of not upholding “journalistic impartiality.” In 2017, Wallace wrote a post on their Medium account titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it”, which argued that political neutrality behaves violently towards those already marginalized by the dominant political system. They wrote that readers are “strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective, and still tell the truth.”
This post would lead APM management to fire Wallace shortly thereafter. When I reached out to them regarding their thoughts on Kline’s similarly motivated firing, they pointed out the threat of contorting coverage to give the appearance of being unbiased.
“We have ample historical and present day examples that teach us that none of us are safe when the most radical, the most authoritarian voices are given sway over how we talk and what we say,” Wallace said.
Kline’s employment at the station had been a site of internal controversy from the start. Fritz Miller, SDPB’s Director of Programming and Communication, asked for Kline’s pronouns to be pulled from their hiring announcement, ostensibly because Miller was concerned about negative audience reaction.
Wallace condemned Miller’s approach.
“I think editors are in a really special position of power to actually mediate what gets talked about and how,” they said.
Editors are choosing to upset someone by making those decisions, but, as Wallace adds, those most often upset are “the people who are already marginalized.” They also highlighted how difficult it can be for marginalized journalists in any newsroom to simply exist.
“There’s an obvious double standard at play around whose methods of conflict and resistance are perceived as not respectful,” they told me, saying they related to the stories of other marginalized journalists punished or fired simply for self-advocacy.
Objectivity is only one of many standards harming trans people in and out of newsrooms
Even in newsrooms that aren’t overtly hostile, there are still abundant challenges that can affect the most basic details of the job.
Petrin, the Chalkbeat reporter, said the lack of official newsroom recognition for trans existence extends deep into fundamental structures of journalism, like style guides.
“There’s a lot of newsrooms that just don’t have standards and practices,” they said.
Petrin has heard this similarly echoed by other trans journalists they’ve spoken with.
“You’re pulling teeth to get things covered in a way that is thoughtful and respectful and consistent stylistically,” they admit, frustrated that this newsroom-wide policy work has regularly fallen to individual journalists. While Petrin’s work is focused more on the education system, they continue to see mainstream coverage of trans people that’s deeply lacking in nuance or depth.
“When we’re talking about how trans issues are covered in general, there’s this idea that either you are trans or you think trans people are crazy and don’t want trans people to be around,” they said.
But Petrin pointed out how the framing of that debate, including what each side actually believes, is deeply misleading. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support anti-discrimination protections for trans people, but articles by mainstream journalists continue to further what Petrin calls “Mass Disinformation Campaigns,” throwing even more “fuel on a fire.”
One of the trans people who critiqued Bazelon’s article was Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Histories of the Trangender Child. On her Substack, Gill-Peterson posted a sharply concise response, titled “Three Questions for Every Paper of Record That Publishes a Story on Trans Healthcare.”
“Studying the history of journalism is a great help in understanding how centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality,” she wrote.
For example, Bazelon framed her article as neutral reporting, but platformed anti-trans individuals and organizations in order to maintain the appearance of nonpartisanship.
Because the article accommodated this “both-sides” form of neutrality, implicitly declaring a rhetorical open season on a vulnerable population, the arguments present in the piece could easily be — and were — twisted to fit the needs of those wanting to see the suppression of trans life. On July 2nd, a little more than a week after it was published, the state of Texas cited Bazelon’s article in an “expert report,” which alleged that pediatric gender healthcare constituted child abuse and pointed to the “disagreement among experts” that Bazelon platformed in her article.
Gill-Peterson is frustrated with objectivity being used again and again as a defense against what she sees as justified outrage by marginalized people.
“I don’t really care whether or not individual people are making these decisions on purpose,” she said.
“I think it’s more interesting and more important to look at the broad patterns,” she continued, “regardless of whether someone is a professional journalist or an opinion writer.”
Journalists are accountable to industry practices. But their self-positioning as unbiased relayers of fact while writing articles for influential news organizations about historically marginalized groups, makes them more prone to what Gill-Peterson calls “a form of sophisticated victim-blaming.” Though opinion writers may not be beholden to the same journalistic standards as news reporters, this enables them to write violent, exclusionary pieces about the same populations, for the same papers, and defend them as personal belief.
“A journalist like Emily Bazelon [is] walking into a scenario where there’s already been a lot of harm, a lot of silencing, a lot of objectivity wielded against people,” said Wallace. They pointed out how the reason given for their firing, the disproven “social contagion” theory, and the criteria for medical transition under WPATH, are not wielded conceptually, but “in a personal way” that’s backed by institutional power.
And while they recognized that journalists can’t hear or account for every voice in a population, “every journalist has a choice to make about ‘Why platform this voice?’.”
Gill-Peterson said historically, trans people have “been deprived” of the opportunity to be viewed as experts about their own experiences.
Frequently, she said, medical and scientific professionals would speak not only about trans people, but for trans people, and those professionals felt they reserved the right to define all information – the care they required, the pathology of their existence, and their social health in society – about them.
“For journalists not to really dig into that context of history, that struggle between trans people and medicine, is already to craft a misleading parody,” she said.
She also spoke about a similar contemporary process of establishing objectivity for baseless, politically violent claims, which she dubbed “the laundering of conspiracy” and covered in a recent article for The New Inquiry.
When outlets choose not to provide historical or political context to disprove “unverified, flagrantly biased, and flagrantly anti-trans information,” they make extremist views seem more rational. When authors like Bazelon platform anti-trans voices that end up in legal memos that then inform state policy, those perspectives go from a corner of the Internet to actively furthering political violence.
Media Matters also documented how his process takes place at a granular level, at every tier of the media landscape. In both Alabama and Idaho, bills “threatening to strip essential health care from trans youth and imprison their medical providers” were introduced earlier this year. Local news outlets in Alabama and Idaho reporting on those bills failed to contextualize or verify the authenticity of political claims concerning trans people and the safety of transgender healthcare.
“Journalists can lend a degree of credibility and a kind of credentialing force to this sort of misinformation by withholding context,” Gill-Peterson said.
Trans narratives and trans journalists should have room for joy alongside struggle
The work of breaking free from this dangerous cycle of reporting is vital but difficult.
There are individual reporters covering trans stories with care and nuance. And Petrin makes note of The 19th, saying “at the national level, in terms of contextualizing trans issues and really digging into the impact of legislation on people’s lives,” it’s doing better journalistic work than any other news organization they have seen.
But despite a push for more coverage and a greater diversity of newsroom staff in recent years, the answer is less simple than “more representation.”
The creation of the Trans Journalists Association arose out of a need to support trans journalists who had been ushered into newsrooms that often weren’t prepared to accommodate them or their expertise.
“We realized that there was really a larger need, both to advise publications on best practices, and to support trans journalists working in journalism,” said Petrin.
But introducing trans journalists into these implicitly hostile environments often sets them up to fail.
“All of a sudden you have this kind of imbalance where you’re inviting people into institutions that have been designed to exclude and harm them,” said Gill-Peterson.
She says she’s witnessed the field of journalism failing to challenge or change its fundamental views about trans existence, and that it has little to no “curiosity about who trans people are or what it means to be trans, beyond a sort of lazy fantasy of a medical condition.”
For Wallace, the present-day work of antiracist activism and the legacy of Black organizing serve as strategies for existing in a world that is often hostile toward or questions one’s humanity.
“These critiques of objectivity really originated there, in racial justice movements, and particularly by Black journalists and anti-racist advocates,” they said, noting the relative newness of white trans people in organizing with these techniques.
Gill-Peterson echoed that sentiment, pointing out how Black journalism has often functioned “as a counterpublic to mainstream or white supremacist journalism.”
Counterpublics are defined by academic Nancy Fraser as social spheres created to respond to exclusion from “dominant publics” or mainstream life. In the counterpublic, a group’s political existence and culture can circulate without being dismissed outright.
“Often what typifies a counterpublic is not just a critical stance towards the dominant class that’s in power, but also an emphasis on community, on collectivity,” Gill-Peterson said.
Trans people have been forced into a hypervisible, publicly defensive position because of the extremity and enormity of political violence targeting them, this year more than ever before.
“I think there is something a little soul-killing about finding over time that you’re giving up parts of yourself to play out a battle in those media spheres that you didn’t even consent to be pulled into in the first place,” she said.
But Gill-Peterson also emphasized the profound importance of trans people finding levity, solace, and value alongside one another.
“Figuring out a strategy for how we’re talked about in the press is one aspect,” she acknowledged. “But it should not become the centerpiece around which your existence, or your sense of community and yourself is built.”
Sloane Holzer (she/her) is a freelance writer and graduate student living on unceded Chochenyo Ohlone land, also known as Oakland, California. Her writing focuses on bodily autonomy, queer existence, and the way social histories are written. Her work has been published in Study Hall, Bitch Magazine, and Autostraddle. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys spending time near bodies of water.
This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Gabe Schneider.
Update, Sept. 1: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong former employer for Lewis Raven Wallace. That has been corrected.