Several weeks ago, the New York Times ran a report on chest-binding, a practice largely used by trans men and transmasculine people. Chest binding, when done safely and correctly, can help trans and gender questioning adolescents alleviate gender dysphoria from having breasts and be able to function in society. But the framing of the Times report was faulty.
Instead of explaining that there are proven safe and unsafe methods of chest-binding, the writer of the piece, who is not trans, depicted binding as a controversial practice. While she interviewed at least one trans person and several medical sources, her piece went off the rails with a quote from someone named Jane Wheeler, purportedly from an organization called “Rethink Identity Medicine Ethics,” about the dangers of chest-binding. Wheeler told the Times that binding “feeds into a normalization of body hatred, that some forms of body hatred are O.K.”
I had never heard of Wheeler or that organization, so I did some digging. The only Google search result returned for the organization on the day the Times piece was published was the Times piece itself. It also appeared that Wheeler’s only connection with trans issues or people was that she was a commenter on the anti-medical transition website 4thWaveNow, the founder of which was also quoted in the Times piece.
When reached for comment, a Times spokesperson defended the use of the quote by explaining that Wheeler had registered “Rethink Identity Medicine Ethics” in Delaware as a non-profit corporation and had submitted written testimony to the Minnesota state legislature about medicine for gender-expansive youth. “Our story didn't describe her as a medical professional and there was no intention to portray her that way; editors thought her point of view was clear to readers from the description and from her own comments,” said the spokesperson, who also said that according to Wheeler, a website for the organization was under construction.
I was able to confirm the organization’s Delaware corporate registration, but a search for Wheeler’s written testimony returned some troubling information. Since her organization’s founding in January of this year, the only bill pertaining to medicine for gender-expansive youth in Minnesota was a ban on conversion therapy that was eventually signed into law. However, a record of Wheeler’s written testimony could not be found on the Minnesota legislature’s website on that or any other bill. This was confirmed via email by a Minnesota legislative librarian. The Times did not respond to additional requests for comment on why Wheeler’s lobbying against conversion therapy bans was not noted in the piece.
This is the kind of reporting you get when LGBTQ writers and reporters are cut out from mainstream media. It turns our everyday experiences into fodder for pundits, cranks, and transphobes. Phony or inconsequential organizations like “Rethink Identity Medicine Ethics” are elevated to legitimacy by publications who think their readers need to hear “both sides” of an issue, even when one side is composed of hatred. Many in mainstream print media have fallen into this sort of lazy both-sides-ism which ends up promoting the junk science and wild conspiracy theories of the anti-trans and larger anti-LGBTQ movements. This phenomenon was noted last year by Samantha Allen, a trans reporter and former LGBTQ news reporter for The Daily Beast.
Incidents like this happens over and over again because those largely responsible for covering the issues have no personal stake in the fallout from their reporting. Most writers and editors won’t ever have to worry about their parents kicking them out of homes for being LGBTQ.
The Times’ chest-binding piece clearly shows that the mainstream media is ill-equipped to cover more serious policy issues related to the LGBTQ community in the face of an organized right-wing press and a focused administration that has already rolled back most of the major pro-trans policy achievements of the last decade.
Two weeks ago, the Trump administration announced two proposed administrative rules related to the trans community. The first was a Housing and Urban Development rule that would allow shelters receiving federal funds to bar access to trans homeless people. The second was a Health and Human Services rule removing gender identity protections from the Affordable Care Act, essentially allowing health care providers to deny any treatment to trans patients. The attacks sent shockwaves through the trans community. Many were left wondering what place trans people have in society and what new horrors the administration may roll out next.
I can count on one hand the number of openly transgender reporters covering the administration for national-level publications
Mainstream media coverage of these rules, however, was relatively subdued. While housing reporters across the media reported on the HUD rule, and health care reporters wrote about the ACA rule, the mainstream media coverage did not truly reflect the crisis moment that many trans people were experiencing.
What’s most frightening to me as a trans reporter is that these unprecedented attacks on trans and LGBTQ rights is coming in the middle of the complete devastation in LGBTQ media. Into, an LGBTQ-focused news site owned by Grindr, shut down in January following its report detailing anti-marriage equality comments made by its own owner late last year. The LGBTQ desks at BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post have been decimated. Even ThinkProgress’ Zack Ford, one of the most reliable reporters on the queer news beat and who has a long track record of breaking anti-trans news, was reassigned by his employer to cover Trump in general (though ThinkProgress is maintaining its LGBT coverage with nonbinary writer Casey Quinlan). Allen also recently parted ways with her full-time employer, The Daily Beast. I can count on one hand the number of openly transgender reporters covering the administration for national-level publications — several of whom, myself included, have recently parted ways with full-time jobs on the beat.
These cuts have significantly compromised nuanced coverage of Trump’s anti-trans agenda. “LGBT media is still not prioritized but LGBT topics are in a way that it makes people at mainstream publications feel like they’re doing the job that they’re required to do, but I don’t know that they’re necessarily doing it correctly unless they’re actually hiring the right people to do that,” Trish Bendix, who was the managing editor at Into before it shuttered, told me.
According to Bendix, being immersed in the LGBTQ community is essential for deeper reporting on queer issues. “I do believe that if you’re from somewhere like The New York Times and you’re going to report somewhere, you might have easier access because you are a recognizable mainstream publications but you could also, for a marginalized population, not be trusted,” she said. So if you send someone that’s a reporter that’s a trustworthy resource for the community, that’s been doing this work, you’re going to get a better story.”
In the backdrop of this discussion is the right-wing media apparatus.
Publications from Breitbart to The National Review have been feeding their audiences a steady diet of trans-based outrage for years now. As a result, there’s significantly more interest in trans issues on the political right than there is on the left — something I don’t think the average progressive voter even realizes.
“It is not a media environment in a traditional journalistic sense, it is a environment built on messaging in ways that I see every morning as I’m reading through clips that is extremely negative, is extremely vile, and extremely consistent,” Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality told The Outline. “The goal is clear; dehumanize transgender people, deny transgender people exist, and invalidate who they are and the suffering they go through.”
Every morning, Branstetter reads a collection of media clips on trans issues; she says recently she’s tracked the horrifying phenomenon of anti-trans talking points leapfrog right over the mainstream media from the right-wing press straight to Congress. “There are members who oppose the Equality Act, for example, or trans protections in the Violence Against Women Act or are in favor of the military ban who have picked up, word for word, the language and the messaging of far right media in discussing transgender people and issues,” she said. “So then you do suddenly see this messaging that’s baseless, that is not founded in anything, that is fear mongering seep into some of the triple-A media sites.”
“The goal is clear; dehumanize transgender people, deny transgender people exist, and invalidate who they are and the suffering they go through.”
Both Branstetter and Phillip Picardi, the editor-in-chief of Out, told me that LGBTQ media offers a critical counterbalance to the coordinated messaging emanating from the right. “[W]e are living in a moment of mass layoffs at places. Like Out, frankly, [is] going through a lot of trouble to continue to publish and continue to pay people, let alone freelancers,” Picardi said. “To see all of that happen, it is concerning. It really is a red flag.”
Branstetter also expressed frustration with how the mainstream press prioritizes coverage of the administration’s anti-trans agenda. She pointed to a quote in a recent Reuters report on vice president Mike Pence’s role in expanding the government’s evangelical priorities as illustrative of Trump-era political coverage:
“One of the benefits of Trump’s Twitter approach is it creates headlines, and that’s what it’s intended to do, and underneath those headlines, everyone else in the administration can go about peacefully doing their job,” David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth told Reuters. HHS has “released several very important, significant regulations that changed the nature of Obamacare, of healthcare, with very little coverage in the press,” he said.
To Branstetter, the quote perfectly illustrates how the administration has thus far gotten away with rolling back nearly every Obama-era trans policy win, but only the trans military ban has seen really extensive mainstream reporting. “[P]art of me wants to think that’s because [the military ban] was shoving a ridiculous, absurd policy down the largest bureaucracy in the world,” she said. “But part of me also fears that one of the reason it attracted so much media attention is because it’s the only time Trump has said the word transgender on Twitter.”
Coverage of Trump’s tweets often suck up valuable media space that could be devoted to other, more important government actions. Right wing media is happy to fill the vacuum left on these critical issues. Parker Molloy, a contributing editor at Media Matters, illustrated this point in recent tweet several weeks ago in the lead up to the passage of the Equality Act in the House of Representatives. Her tweet displayed the curated Google results for the search term “Equality Act,” showing the anti-trans screeds from right wing outlets that the query returned.
While the rest of the media rushed off to cover the trans military ban, managing coverage of it became a crucial lesson in the value of having trans staffers cover trans issues. “If you were to subscribe to HRC’s newsletter and follow GLAAD on Twitter and maybe follow a bunch of cool trans folks who pop on your list of people to follow because of the algorithm, you would think that the trans military ban was the worst thing happening to trans people in our country,” said Picardi, whose editorial staff consists entirely of queer and trans people. “It is a terrible thing, right? Of course, no trans people should be banned from any public sector, but chatting in Slack as I’m dropping these tweets and these links from people, you know ultimately the trans journalists on our staff were kind of like, ‘okay but there’s other stuff to cover that are more pertinent to the safety and liberation of trans people that doesn’t have to do with imperialism and doesn’t have to do with centering these same white trans folks every time we talk about these issues.’”
The move to cut LGBTQ-focused staff, according to Picardi, is being made by people who don’t understand the realities of what it means to be an LGBTQ person in 2019. “We have to think long and hard about who gets to determine what objectivity is in a newsroom, because more often than not the final decision maker is a straight, older, white, man and his idea of objectivity is going to be informed by his own life experiences,” he said. “And because that is the default experience in America, or what is considered the default experience in America, which by the way it is not, it’s a minority, that is what is going to determine what press coverage looks like… It’s not like LGBT media is disappearing because there’s not a need for it, it’s disappearing because the whole media system is broken and we’re going to be the first to fall.”
When there’s so few of us LGBTQ reporters doing the work, the burden of telling the stories of queer humanity fall most heavily on our shoulders. With recent layoffs and cutbacks, most of us have found ourselves freelancing and without stability or health insurance. When we’re constantly fighting everything from this administration’s policies to the conspiracy theories that claim we’re monsters, we don’t have time as reporters to explore things like queer joy or deeper effects of anti-trans policies.
A healthy and diverse LGBTQ media landscape is first and foremost fact-based, and a story cannot be factual if it doesn’t accurately reflect the everyday lives of the people who are in it. This is the added value delivered by trans and queer reporters and editors. A hand-wringing piece on the alleged threat of trans women in women’s homeless shelters will get clicks, but it displaces the real stories of trans women trying to escape homelessness and poverty. With those stories left untold, we all lose.