Why I Signed the NYT Letter (And You Should, Too)
If you care about journalism, if you care about fairness, and you care about the truth, it should matter to you that "the paper of record" is constantly lying about trans people.
Fellow trans journalist Harron Walker recently reached out to ask if I had any interest in signing on to an open letter to The New York Times about the paper’s approach to covering issues related to trans people, and specifically about the paper’s obsessive and salacious string of stories about transition-related health care for minors.
Before I start, please subscribe. It’s free (pay if you want to), and it’s the best way to keep up with my work.
You can read and add your name to it as a Times contributor, supporter, or reader at NYTLetter.com. Additionally, I will reprint the full text of the letter at the bottom of this post.
Before I get to the letter (which I didn’t write, but I do wholeheartedly endorse), I want to add a few thoughts of my own.
And maybe I’ll expand this to its own post at some point in the future. We’ll see. As regular readers of this newsletter no doubt know, I’m pretty open with my criticism of mainstream news outlets when I feel they have failed in helping the public understand what’s happening in the world. I have frequently criticized the Times, the Washington Post, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, and so on1. It’s not because I think they’re somehow worse than Fox News or Breitbart or Newsmax or [insert right-wing outlet here, you get the idea] that I criticize them, but because I expect better and because, as the letter below demonstrates, the things said at these outlets and printed in their papers are frequently used to prop up hateful anti-trans laws.
Last month, I wrote about the Times decision to hire David French, a man who has repeatedly (and as recently as October) written dehumanizing pieces that deprive trans people of dignity. He is a man who calls the existence of trans people a “dangerous notion,” and has openly mused about pushing for an “ending” to “transgenderism.” Even so, in hiring him, Kathleen Kingsbury and Patrick Healy of the Times Opinion section wrote that French brings with him to the paper “a spirit of generosity toward others and humility toward oneself.”
The fact that this could be written (and, presumably, believed) by the people in charge of that section of the paper shows that, at best, they don't see trans people as people who deserve dignity and the right to take part in society as themselves. In my piece, I called on the Times to hire multiple trans people as full-time columnists. They have not done so.
After the paper published a very rare pro-trans column from Jamelle Bouie titled, “The Relentless Attack on Trans People Is an Attack on All of Us,” the paper swapped out the headline with a much more generic, “There Is No Dignity in This Kind of America.” God forbid that the paper makes it clear in its headlines that trans people are being targeted by unjust and unprovoked attacks.
There’s no dignity in the kind of newspaper that can’t even say the word “trans” in a headline without immediately backtracking and changing it to something so vague that it tells you next to nothing about the subject being discussed.
After trying to work with the Times privately to improve its coverage of trans issues (the fact that medical associations have to keep telling the Times that they’re misrepresenting this topic should say a lot), GLAAD has also weighed in, working with more than 100 organizations to call out the Times and its skewed coverage. Among the issues called out by the group in its own letter was this story about one of the heroes of the November mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub (emphasis mine):
Also in November, our community was attacked in Colorado Springs at an LGBTQ safe space, Club Q. When reporting on the heroes who saved lives that night, the Times misgendered a transgender woman who helped stop the shooter. Advocates pushed the Times to update its story to reflect that the woman was transgender and not “a drag dancer.” After pushing the Times to correct the story for an entire day, the story was only updated after advocates on the ground threatened to withhold further Club Q survivors for Times interviews until the change was made. The change should have been made immediately because the story was inaccurate and disrespectful. The fact that this change was only made because the Times wanted access to sources is shameful.
The Times made a factual error but refused to correct it. Here’s how the paragraph initially read (again, emphasis mine):
As he held the man down and slammed the pistol down on his skull, Mr. Fierro started barking orders. He yelled for another club patron, using a string of expletives, to grab the rifle then told the patron to start kicking the gunman in the face. A drag dancer was passing by, and Mr. Fierro said he ordered her to stomp the attacker with her high heels. The whole time, Mr. Fierro said, he kept pummeling the shooter with the pistol while screaming obscenities.
And here’s how the story currently reads, following a “correction”:
As he held the man down and slammed the pistol down on his skull, Mr. Fierro started barking orders. He yelled for another club patron, using a string of expletives, to grab the rifle then told the patron to start kicking the gunman in the face. A person was passing by, and Mr. Fierro said he ordered her to stomp the attacker with her high heels. The whole time, Mr. Fierro said, he kept pummeling the shooter with the pistol while screaming obscenities.
Oh, “a person was passing by”? As opposed to what? A moose? For as much as the Times likes to write article after article after article on both the news and opinion sides about how the occasional use of language inclusive of trans men and non-binary people is “erasing women” (see: articles that repeatedly say the word “women,” but also at one point also say “pregnant people”), the Times’ begrudging correction and the decision to just refer to the woman who helped subdue a mass murderer as “a person” who was “passing by” (I obviously cannot speak to what was happening during the shooting, but when I hear “passing by,” I imagine casual strolling) is telling.
The New York Times is an important institution with an out-of-control bias problem. The paper can (and will) do little things to pretend to give trans people a fair shot — occasional “guest essays,” stories about trans people in the art and culture sections, etc. — but as GLAAD points out, “While there have been a few fair stories, mostly human interest stories, those articles are not getting front-page placement or sent to app users via push notification like the irresponsible pieces are.”
I’ve obviously got much, much, much more to say on this topic. For instance, why, after anti-trans groups have openly told the Times2 that they are only pretending to be concerned about “protecting the children” while their actual goals involve making it illegal to exist as a trans person at any age, does the Times still take the anti-trans people at face value in these other stories?
Here is the full text of the letter:
For the attention of Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times.
We write to you as a collective of New York Times contributors with serious concerns about editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people.
Plenty of reporters at the Times cover trans issues fairly. 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.
The newspaper’s editorial guidelines demand that reporters “preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias” when cultivating their sources, remaining “sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance.” Yet the Times has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources.
For example, Emily Bazelon’s article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” uncritically used the term “patient zero” to refer to a trans child seeking gender-affirming care, a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared. Bazelon quoted multiple expert sources who have since expressed regret over their work’s misrepresentation. Another source, Grace Lidinksy-Smith, was identified as an individual person speaking about a personal choice to detransition, rather than the President of GCCAN, an activist organization that pushes junk science and partners with explicitly anti-trans hate groups.
In a similar case, Katie Baker’s recent feature “When Students Change Gender Identity and Parents Don’t Know” misframed the battle over children’s right to safely transition. The piece fails to make clear that court cases brought by parents who want schools to out their trans children are part of a legal strategy pursued by anti-trans hate groups. These groups have identified trans people as an “existential threat to society” and seek to replace the American public education system with Christian homeschooling, key context Baker did not provide to Times readers.
The natural destination of poor editorial judgment is the court of law. Last year, Arkansas’ attorney general filed an amicus brief in defense of Alabama’s Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, which would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, for any medical provider to administer certain gender-affirming medical care to a minor (including puberty blockers) that diverges from their sex assigned at birth. The brief cited three different New York Times articles to justify its support of the law: Bazelon’s “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” Azeen Ghorayshi’s “Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones,” and Ross Douthat’s “How to Make Sense of the New L.G.B.T.Q. Culture War.” As recently as February 8th, 2023, attorney David Begley’s invited testimony to the Nebraska state legislature in support of a similar bill approvingly cited the Times’ reporting and relied on its reputation as the “paper of record” to justify criminalizing gender-affirming care. Douthat’s piece was published in the Opinion section, which lost one of the paper’s most consistently published trans writers, Jennifer Finney Boylan, following the Times’ recent decision not to renew her contract.
As thinkers, we are disappointed to see the New York Times follow the lead of far-right hate groups in presenting gender diversity as a new controversy warranting new, punitive legislation. Puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and gender-affirming surgeries have been standard forms of care for cis and trans people alike for decades. Legal challenges to gender-nonconformity date back even further, with 34 cities in 21 states passing laws against cross-dressing between 1848 and 1900, usually enforced alongside so-called prohibitions against public indecency that disproportionately targeted immigrants, people of color, sex workers, and other marginalized groups. Such punishments are documented as far back as 1394, when police in England detained Eleanor Rykener on suspicion of the crime of sodomy, exposing her after an interrogation as “John.” This is not a cultural emergency.
You no doubt recall a time in more recent history when it was ordinary to speak of homosexuality as a disease at the American family dinner table—a norm fostered in part by the New York Times’ track record of demonizing queers through the ostensible reporting of science.
In 1963, the New York Times published a front-page story with the title “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” which stated that homosexuals saw their own sexuality as “an inborn, incurable disease”—one that scientists, the Times announced, now thought could be “cured.” The word “gay” started making its way into the paper. Then, in 1975, the Times published an article by Clifford Jahr about a queer cruise (the kind on a boat) featuring a “sadomasochistic fashion show.” On the urging of his shocked mother, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger sent down the order: Stop covering these people. The Times style guide was updated to include the following dictum, which stood until 1987: “Do not use gay as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter.”
New York Times managing editor and executive editor A. M. Rosenthal neglected to put AIDS on the front page until 1983, by which time the virus had already killed 500 New Yorkers. He withheld planned promotions from colleagues he learned on the grapevine were gay. Many of his employees feared being outed. William F. Buckley published his op-ed arguing that people with HIV/AIDS should all be forcibly tattooed in the Times. Obituaries in the Times ascribed death from HIV/AIDS to “undisclosed causes” or a “rare disorder,” and left the partners of the deceased out entirely from its record of their lives. This era of hateful rhetoric also saw the rise of the term “patient zero,” used to falsely accuse an HIV/AIDS patient of deliberately infecting others. This is the same rhetoric that transphobic policymakers recently reintroduced to the American lawmaking apparatus by quoting Emily Bazelon’s Times article.
A diverse group of people came together to bring you this complaint. Some of us are trans, non-binary, 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. All of us daresay our stance is unremarkable, perhaps even common, and certainly not deserving of the Times' intense scrutiny. A tiny percentage of the population is trans, and an even smaller percentage of those people face the type of conflict the Times is so intent on magnifying. There is no rapt reporting on the thousands of parents who simply love and support their children, or on the hardworking professionals at the New York Times enduring a workplace made hostile by bias—a period of forbearance that ends today.
We await your response.
You can sign the letter as a supporter here.
I’ve also been told on more than one occasion by people working at these companies that my willingness to criticize them has all but ensured that I’ll never work at any of these places. That’s a story for a different day, I suppose.