NYT contributors blast paper’s coverage of transgender people

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
A sign for The New York Times hangs above the entrance to its building, Thursday, May 6, 2021 in New York.

More than 200 New York Times contributors on Wednesday published an open letter condemning the paper’s coverage of transgender people and issues, calling out Times reporting that has been cited to justify criminalizing gender-affirming health care.

“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,” reads Wednesday’s letter, which was written jointly with the Freelance Solidarity Project, a group of freelancers in the National Writers Union. 

The letter — addressed to Philip Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards — has been signed by some 200 and counting reporters, essayists, critics, opinion columnists and more. Notable signatories include the writer Roxane Gay, actress Cynthia Nixon, and whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning.

The Times in recent months has come under fire for publishing reporting on transgender youth and health care that transgender journalists and LGBTQ rights advocates have decried as misleading and inaccurate.

The work of Times reporters who cover these issues fairly has been “eclipsed,” according to Wednesday’s letter, by more than 15,000 words of front-page coverage debating the propriety of medical care for transgender 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,’” the letter reads.

“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,” the letter adds.

The letter’s signatories point to a widely circulated Times story by Emily Bazelon that uncritically uses the term “patient zero” to refer to a transgender young person seeking gender-affirming care, “a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared,” they write.

The story, published in June under the title “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” also quotes expert sources who have since said their work was misrepresented in the piece. It also includes quotes from Grace Lidinsky-Smith, who Bazelon fails to mention is the president of the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network, a group that opposes gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

Bazelon responded to criticism of her story in a since-deleted Twitter thread, writing that most comments reflect “a profound disagreement over the role of journalism on a controversial topic involving a vulnerable group.”

“To me, being a journalist means following the facts where they lead. It isn’t advocacy. I didn’t know where this story would go when I started reporting eight months ago,” she wrote.

She also noted that she referred to the Dutch patient as “patient zero” “because the Dutch used that term for him & he used it in our interview.”

Bazelon and Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, defended the article’s focus on the debate playing out in the medical field.

“Reporting on subjects that are highly politicized is challenging. That’s why Emily’s methodical, principled, & deeply journalistic approach was important,” Silverstein wrote in a tweet.

Republican state officials and lawmakers have used recent Times reporting to justify their support for laws intending to bar transgender young people from accessing gender-affirming health care deemed medically necessary by most major medical organizations.

Last year, former Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) cited three Times articles in an amicus brief defending an Alabama law that would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, for a medical professional to provide gender-affirming care to patients younger than 19.

Earlier this month, Nebraska attorney David Begley referred to Times reporting while testifying before the state legislature in support of a bill that would similarly ban gender-affirming health care for youth, relying on the outlet’s reputation as the “paper of record” to justify criminalizing gender⁠-⁠affirming care.

But Wednesday’s letter asserts that the Times also has a reputation for misrepresenting the LGBTQ community, pointing to reporting from the 1960s and 1970s that suggested homosexuality is “an inborn, incurable disease.” 

The paper also neglected to put the HIV/AIDS crisis on the front page until 1983, according to the letter, when the disease had already claimed the lives of hundreds of New Yorkers. In obituaries, Times reporters ascribed death from HIV/AIDS to “undisclosed causes” or a “rare disorder” and excluded the partners of the deceased from the records of their lives. 

“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,” Wednesday’s letter reads. “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, even common, and certainly not deserving of the Times’ intense scrutiny,” the letter continues. “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.”

Also on Wednesday, the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD published an open letter similarly condemning the Times’s coverage of transgender issues and parked a truck outside the paper’s New York office with messages that accuse the Times of questioning the right of transgender people to merely exist.

“It is appalling that the Times would dedicate so many resources and pages to platforming the voices of extremist anti-LGBTQ activists who have built their careers on denigrating and dehumanizing LGBTQ people, especially transgender people,” the group writes in its letter.

Signatories of the GLAAD letter include high-profile celebrities Judd Apatow, Wilson Cruz and Gabrielle Union-Wade, the parent of a transgender daughter.

A spokesperson for the Times confirmed the outlet had received letters from GLAAD and Times contributors.

“We understand how GLAAD sees our coverage. But at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD’s advocacy mission and The Times’s journalistic mission are different,” spokesperson Charlie Stadtlander told The Hill in an email.

“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,” he added.

“The very news stories criticized by GLAAD 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.”

Updated: 4:47 p.m.

Tags Chelsea Manning Cynthia Nixon New York Times trans rights transgender youth

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