In a one-two punch aimed directly at the New York Times; more than 100 contributing writers, fellow journalists, celebrities and advocacy organizations today joined GLAAD in demanding change in how the newspaper covers transgender issues and trans people.
First, GLAAD hired a billboard truck to circle the newspaper’s Manhattan headquarters this morning with signs saying, “Dear New York Times: Stop questioning trans people’s right to exist and access to medical care,” among other messages.
“I think what what’s most upsetting here is the damage this is doing,” Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD CEO and president of the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, told the Washington Blade in her first phone interview on the topic Tuesday. “Every day they’re not stopping is doing more damage. Every time a new article comes out that debates whether or not trans people should receive board-approved healthcare is damaging. And so I feel really strongly that their coverage is dangerous.”
Then, to protest what GLAAD calls the Times’ “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people,” representatives of the organization joined contributors for the Times outside the paper’s building this morning, as they delivered two open letters and issued a joint statement, calling out a “pattern of inaccurate, harmful trans coverage.”
The coalition demands the Times immediately “stop printing biased, anti-trans stories,” meet with members and leaders in the trans community within two months, and within three months hire at least four trans writers and editors as full-time members of the Times staff.
Joining GLAAD are the Human Rights Campaign, PFLAG, the Transgender Law Center, Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Women’s March, director Judd Apatow, comedian Margaret Cho, actor Wilson Cruz, actresses Tommy Dorfman, Lena Dunham, Jameela Jamil, drag superstar Peppermint, activist Ashlee Marie Preston, Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider, writer/director/actress Shakina, actress, Instagram influencer and stepmom to Zaya, Gabrielle Union-Wade, TV personality Jonathan Van Ness, activist Charlotte Clymer and more.
“This has been an effort at GLAAD for over a year now,” Ellis told the Blade. “We’ve had several off-the-record meetings with the New York Times to share with them our concerns about the coverage and the reporting that they’ve been doing on the trans community.”
But those concerns fell on deaf ears, said Ellis, and the conversations were unfruitful. “We wouldn’t be going out with a public letter in coalition if they were fruitful. You know, for us going public, it’s always the last resort.”
Times Journalists Speak Out
As GLAAD worked toward publishing its letter, the organization was contacted by Times contributors already in the process of composing their own. A core team of eight journalists collaborated to condemn what they called the newspaper’s anti-trans bias and the real-world impact of that transphobic coverage.
The authors are Times freelancers Harron Walker, Eric Thurm, who is also campaigns coordinator at the National Writers Union and a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, Sean T. Collins, who is also a member and organizer of the Freelance Solidarity Project, Cecilia Gentili, a longtime trans activist, Jo Livingstone, Muna Mire, and Chris Randle, a member of the steering committee at the Freelance Solidarity Project.
They were joined by Olivia Aylmer, a member of the steering committee at the Freelance Solidarity Project who is not a freelancer for the Times.
Not only did other contributing writers sign-on, but so did journalism colleagues, both cisgender and trans, as well as members of the Trans Journalists Association.
“A diverse group of people came together to bring you this complaint,” they wrote. ”Some of us are trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record. Some of us are cis, and we have seen those we love discover and fight for their true selves, often swimming upstream against currents of bigotry and pseudoscience fomented by the kind of coverage we here protest.”
Those signing that letter include Ashley P. Ford, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado Thomas Page McBee, Andrea Long Chu, Carmen Maria Machado, John Cameron Mitchell, Zach Stafford, Raquel Willis and Maia Monet, among others.
Their letter, addressed directly to Times Standards Editor Philip Corbett, calls out the country’s third most-read paper for executing what it says is “poor editorial judgment,” repeated lack of context in its reporting on trans issues and following “the lead of far-right hate groups in presenting gender diversity as a new controversy, warranting new, punitive legislation.”
“There is in fact an unethical bias against trans people and transnesss within its coverage of trans issues, by and large,” said Walker, one of the organizers of the contributors’ letter. “There is a pattern of bias, and it’s a violation of the standards own policy as laid out by the standards desk.”
States that have seized upon this anti-trans reporting and opinion pieces by the Times include Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. Already, those states have joined Florida, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah in enacting discriminatory legislation.
Of these, Utah and South Dakota have passed healthcare bans that journalist Erin Reed calls “exceedingly cruel.” For example, South Dakota’s ban is one of those providing specific provisions on how to medically detransition trans teenagers, a practice now state law in Alabama and Arkansas.
“The New York Times coverage is feeding into defending these laws, by virtue of the fact that it’s the so-called paper of record,” Walker told the Blade. “It has one of the largest reaches of any newspaper in the world, it is respected. Even if people on the far right may dismiss it as the ‘failing New York Times,’ it still holds a legitimacy in a process that, you know, means something.”
‘Pattern of bias’
“Plenty of reporters at the Times cover trans issues fairly,” the contributing writers’ letter states. “Their work is eclipsed, however, by what one journalist has calculated as over 15,000 words of front-page Times coverage, debating the propriety of medical care for trans children published in the last eight months alone.”
GLAAD notes that officials in Texas quoted Emily Bazelon’s June 2022 report to go after families of trans youth in court documents over their private, evidence-based healthcare decisions.
Former Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge cited three Times articles in her amicus brief supporting an Alabama law that criminalizes doctors and parents for ensuring trans youth can access necessary medical care: Bazelon’s 2022 story, Azeen Ghorayshi’s January 2022 piece, and Ross Douthat’s April 2022 op-ed.
The Times’ reporting on trans youth and its reputation as the “paper of record” was cited just last week to justify a bill in a Nebraska legislative hearing, that would criminalize healthcare for trans youth.
Scores of other bills are in the works. Missouri Republicans are once again pushing for healthcare bans. Anti-trans bills in Montana, West Virginia and Mississippi have passed an entire chamber.
But by far the worst anti-transgender legislation and existing laws against the trans community are already on the books in Texas, which Reed calls “home to the weaponization of [Department of Protective Family Services] against transgender people.”
New restrictive bathroom laws are in place in Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee. Oklahoma’s healthcare ban restricts even adults, up to the age of 26, from accessing gender-affirming care. Florida has banned Medicaid coverage for trans-related healthcare for adults and is banning gender affirming care for trans teens. And as mentioned earlier, Utah, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alabama have targeted trans teens as well.
For the most part over the last two decades, U.S. media had reliably shared a positive view of transgender people, especially youth, highlighting the stories of out trans celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jennings. But since the Obergefell decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, trans people have become the religious right’s handy-dandy political boogeyman, to scare the flocks, rally the base and get out the vote. That’s a shift that was preceded by all-out negative coverage of trans issues in the U.K., where with rare exception the mainstream media is in lockstep with what is called the “Gender Critical” movement, opposing trans rights.
Ari Drennen is the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, and has been tracking coverage of trans issues at the Times.
“I think it’s good to see people speaking up and talking about the really troubling pattern of coverage coming out of the Times, just because the Times is seen as the kind of gold standard for a lot of mainstream liberals,” Drennen told the Blade. “That pattern is especially notable at the Times. But there has been a sort of, you know, Britification, for lack of a better word, of the American media’s approach to trans people.”
Drennen cites a Reuters article from October about gender-affirming care for trans children that featured an extreme close-up photograph of a child wearing braces with a hormone pill on their tongue. “That was really just clearly intended to scare parents,” she said.
Also keeping a close watch on the Times and this Britification effect is Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, where she works to advance the civil rights of LGBTQ people in a variety of civil legal contexts such as healthcare access, immigration and family law.
“In the U.K., the far right, particularly the religious far right, is almost a non-entity. They just don’t have the kind of cultural power and political power that they do in the United States,” Caraballo told the Blade, noting that the Gender Critical movement has taken a a more secular approach to its opposition to trans people, rather than a religious angle.
“In the United States, it’s always been the religious far right, but they are now trying to launder those narratives through these kind of secular outlets, to try to make it seem that the concerns aren’t just inherently based on religious ideology,” she said. “Part of it is this concerted strategy that I think a lot of the Gender Criticals have of particularly appealing to narratives that upper middle class white women would often be more amenable to, especially this idea that women have fought for rights, and somehow the existence of trans people is undermining those rights, because it’s hard to just oppose rights for people if it doesn’t impact you, so you have to create a sense of scarcity, and that’s what they do there. They say that ‘This is erasing women,’ ‘This is erasing women’s rights.’”
Caraballo noted that the people who are writing these stories at the Times are almost universally upper middle class, middle-aged white women, which speaks to the lack of racial diversity at the newspaper.
“I think what’s interesting is the kind of subject of every panic about over-medicalization in mainstream media tend to be white, and then the subject of the panic about kids and sports tend to be Black,” said Drennen. “I don’t need to have a Ph.D to see what’s going on.”
“I think part of it speaks to the lack of racial diversity,” echoed Caraballo. “I’m not surprised that one of the first really positive, outspoken editorials in the opinion column in the New York Times was by a Black man. I think there’s a sense of solidarity and understanding of how these things work, and I think when you have no trans people in the newsroom and no trans people as opinion columnists, and you have a newsroom that’s almost entirely stocked with a demographic that is particularly being targeted by Gender Criticals for pushing their views. I think it’s not a surprise.”
Caraballo said her conversations with people who work at the Times leads her to suspect this shift toward anti-trans narratives is not the writers or reporters themselves, but the result of an agenda set by their editors.
“For some people like Katie J.M. Baker, who has written extensively about how the media actually works to push transphobic narratives, to then write an article like she did about forcibly outing trans students, it just speaks to either opportunism, not really having a deeply-held belief about this, or just being pushed by the editors. I mean, this was her first major story,” she said. “I worry that what happens is the New York Times often times gives those kinds of views credibility. And you see this with the anti-trans people celebrating every one of these articles, because they view that they’re trans eliminationist and anti-trans positions are being laundered into the mainstream.”
Anti-trans tipping point
In 2014, Time Magazine put Laverne Cox on its cover and declared that trans Americans had achieved a tipping point in acceptance. But at the Times, a shift in who writes opinion pieces has tipped the balance the other way, noted Drennen.
“The New York Times has never been perfect in their coverage, of course. But over the last year, Jennifer Finney Boylan departed from the Times’s opinion section,” she said. While Boylan is still a freelancer for the Times, the bestselling author and scholar’s byline now regularly appears in the Washington Post.
“In the interim, they’ve added two incredibly anti-trans regular columnists, Pamela Paul and David French, the former lawyer for the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, the Alliance Defending Freedom. This has a really troubling pattern of anti-trans sentiment. So, any perceived balance there was just got totally blown out the window over the last year.”
“I’m proud of the work I did for Times Opinion from 2007 to 2022, on hundreds of topics from presidential dogs to the history of the Negroni,” Boylan told the Blade. “As a freelancer, I felt lucky to have a regular slot on the page and was grateful for the trust the editors placed in me. I also wrote many essays about trans identity and trans politics, and was proud to be, for many years, the only ongoing voice on the page representing the wide range of trans identities. I am hoping all those stories put a human face to trans issues for readers of the Times, and opened some hearts.”
Boylan’s name does not appear alongside other Times freelancers in the open letter or the GLAAD letter, but ironically, the Times has been publishing her name in its Bestsellers list for 18 weeks in a row. Her novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jodi Picoult, has yet to be reviewed in the newspaper or covered in any way, despite it being the most successful book co-written by any transgender person, ever. Is that more evidence of bias, or just a coincidence?
The science ‘debate’
“I am really disappointed that it’s come to this,” said Ellis. “The science is settled on transgender health care. As far as the New York Times is concerned, it is not settled science and they want to use their pages to debate it.”
“It’s so dehumanizing,” added Caraballo, “because you have people debating your rights who have no stake in it whatsoever. They’re not the ones that are going to be denied healthcare. They’re not the ones who are going to be denied housing. They’re not the ones who are going to be kicked out of their homes when they’re forcibly outed to their parents. They have no stake in this. And that is particularly what’s so upsetting, to see all these people that literally will never feel the effects of these policies, constantly talking about how they have ‘concerns.’”
Will the Times agree to their demands?
Drennen said it’s hard to say whether these open letters will have any impact, because “so much of their decision-making is internal.”
For her part, Walker said she remains excited by the coalition that’s been assembled and optimistic, but also realistic.
“Ideally what happens is the New York Times says, ‘Okay, yeah, let’s stop debating whether trans people should be allowed,’ and they start hiring a bunch of trans people. It’s the end of the story. I’m also realistic. I think it’s important to keep some idealism and some optimism in place and also realistic at the same time, which I also think is important. And I fully expect them to do their best to ignore it.”
“We’re too loud to ignore. If you ignore our letter, we’ll find some other way. If you ignore that, we’ll find another way,” Ellis said. “We’re not going to quit until the New York Times acknowledges our demands. And our demands are not outrageous. Within the letter, we’re just talking about stopping your irresponsible reporting, meeting with the trans community and hiring trans writers and editors. These are not outrageous demands that we’re making.”
Charlie Stadtlander, the director of external communications, newsroom, for the Times responded Wednesday afternoon in an email to the Blade addressing the controversy:
“We received the open letter delivered by GLAAD and welcome their feedback. We understand how GLAAD and the co-signers of the letter see our coverage. But at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD’s advocacy mission and the Times’s journalistic mission are different.
As a news organization, we pursue independent reporting on transgender issues that include profiling groundbreakers in the movement, challenges and prejudice faced by the community, and how society is grappling with debates about care.
The very news stories criticized in their letter reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and well-being for trans teens and adults. Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”