How Legacy Media Leverage Transphobia To Sell Clicks, Not Journalism
Following Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine dud, Study Hall reviews the signs and symptoms of dog whistle reporting on trans communities.
In June, The New York Times Magazine published “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” a cover story by Emily Bazelon that detailed infighting among clinicians and researchers in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). The article was pegged to the release of WPATH’s newly updated Standard of Care (SOC8) treatment guidelines — which WPATH granted Bazelon exclusive access to. With this access, Bazelon chose to frame the guidelines’ pending arrival as a controversial and timely twist during the gender wars, focusing in particular on the manual’s chapter on adolescents and the American political theater that has erected itself around transgender youth.
Almost immediately after publication, journalists, scholars, and scientists registered criticisms of Bazelon’s reporting, which, they argued, exaggerated disagreement among medical professionals and misrepresented certain gender-affirming medical practices, like hormone replacement therapy and breast removal, as medical procedures increasingly and routinely performed on unwitting prepubescent children. Moreover, these critics asserted that the article’s framing revealed a clear bias in favor of the cisgender clinicians, whose views are treated as the neutral position that their transgender colleagues in and outside of WPATH are emotionally reacting to.
When Study Hall reached out to the Times for comment about the negative responses to Bazelon’s article, especially claims that she had misled her sources, a spokesperson issued a statement defending Bazelon’s reporting as “rigorous, careful journalism.” Bazelon herself also promoted and defended the article on Twitter in two separate threads; she has since deleted all of her tweets.
“I don’t believe that Emily Bazelon was shifting the conversation away from outright transphobia,” Heron Greenesmith told Study Hall. “In my opinion, she is bringing medicalized and credentialed dog whistles into the mainstream discourse.”
Greenesmith is a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates and adjunct professor at Boston University School of Law. And they were among the first to issue a critique of Bazelon’s reporting on Twitter, writing, “Bazelon had an incredible opportunity here to describe how hard it is for (the vast majority of) trans kids to access care, for a multitude of reasons including poor health care coverage in the US, but instead she chose to listen to people who want to END transition.”
While Jamison Green, a former president of WPATH and current co-chair of the organization’s ethics committee, felt that Bazelon’s article accurately represented the cultural controversy over gender-affirming care, he also emphasized that that was decidedly separate from the actual disagreements between community providers and WPATH, or back-and-forths within WPATH itself, which he described as “healthy discussion, not a battle.”
“There are debates that happen within WPATH, but this is true within any academic field or any field that is developing,” Green said. “People are going to have arguments or discussions back and forth. And that’s part of the way that the field evolves.”
As trans journalists, we recognize a number of features in Bazelon’s article that make it worthy of critique. Namely, the article platformed transphobes and legitimized their bigoted views by presenting slight disagreements within WPATH, a medical organization that seeks to advance transgender health, as prudent analogues — ultimately suggesting that those disagreements about clinical practices constituted newsworthy debate. From there, Bazelon amplified discord within the organization to perpetuate outright transphobia outside of it.
The article is one of a number of recent dog whistle pieces published by legacy media companies like The New York Times and The Atlantic that sensationalize advancements in transgender medicine, painting them, in Bazelon’s words, as dramatic scenes within a “raging political battle” over “gender-related medical care for minors.” Adapting to improving attitudes toward trans people and public criticism of transphobic reporting, these dog whistle pieces no longer target transgender adults. Instead, they claim that transgender activists are obstructing a “common sense” dialogue about the allegedly surging population of trans-identified youth and, in extreme cases, use rhetoric that insinuates children must be protected from pedophilic “groomers.”
What makes this cultural mythology so dangerous is that these are not the obviously hateful, transphobic bombasts seen in Fox News and other right-wing outlets. (Ironically, Fox News released a shockingly decent segment about a trans child shortly before Bazelon’s article was published). Rather, these articles elevate right-wing talking points — and often, right-wing talking heads — about trans people and frame them through the lens of concerned inquiry, taking subtle jabs at trans identity that untrained readers are unable to perceive. It’s safe to say that the Tucker Carlson watchers are probably lost to the cause. But these articles, backed by the supposed veracity of legacy media institutions like The New York Times and The Atlantic, increasingly encourage liberals (and even some leftists) to question whether or not trans people have the right to exist, primarily by questioning trans people’s ability to see and describe themselves as a valid group (as opposed to a hysterical, online social movement) and by doubting the age and timeline under which they are able to do so.
(This is not to mention the fact that The New York Times has published criticisms of the Texas legislature for going after trans people’s access to bathrooms and gender-affirming care. Meanwhile, its own articles, including Bazelon’s, were admitted into evidence in support of such measures.)
“Trans writers should be boycotting the Times until they acknowledge what they’ve done and promise to start covering our stories with actual care and accuracy,” Henry Giardina, an editor at the media publication Into, told Study Hall. “They’ve demonstrated that they don’t care about or protect trans writers. And when they hire cis people to write about us it’s always a disaster.”
In this context, the publication of Bazelon’s article raises questions about why WPATH, an organization that in December 2021 issued a press moratorium to its board members, decided not only to grant a cis journalist like Bazelon access, but also permitted an SOC8 author to appear on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” to publicize an article that repeats the same familiar beats of every transphobic legacy media story of the last five years.
The behind-the-scenes exchanges that led to the publication of Bazelon’s article also raise questions about why cis journalists continue to receive opportunities to write the same tired arguments using the same tired framing, over and over again. In our critique, we examine the nature and effects of that framing, and ask how journalists can tell better stories in the future about trans communities and trans healthcare.
EXPERTISE DOES NOT EQUAL MEDIA LITERACY
In her cover story, Bazelon claimed that WPATH gave her “exclusive access to the final SOC8…and lifted some of the confidentiality agreements the authors signed.”
But when Study Hall contacted WPATH about this decision, a less exclusive story played out. In fact, the organization shared versions of SOC8 not only with other journalists, but also with various LGBTQ+ organizations as part of its process for soliciting public feedback.
We learned from WPATH spokesperson Cindi Creager, cofounder of CreagerCole Communications, an LGBTQI-focused public relations firm, that WPATH granted Bazelon and the Times an exclusive in March, “after she had already been working on this piece for several months and had approached WPATH seeking on the record [sic] interviews with SOC 8 experts.”
Crieger also said, via email, that WPATH shared the SOC with two other reporters, Lindsey Tanner of The Associated Press and Jo Yurcaba, “a reporter for NBC Out who identities as a nonbinary individual.” According to Creiger, Tanner approached WPATH in May with a request to report on the new guidelines. “We approached Jo Yurcaba to offer them the LGBTQ exclusive in June,” she said, so NBC Out could be “the first LGBTQ outlet to see, and report on, a copy of the SOC 8.” Crieger said that all reporters received a preview of the forthcoming guidelines in June and that her communications and coordination with Bazelon, Tanner, and Yurcaba were approved by WPATH leadership.
“All reporters were given the green light by WPATH to publish their stories on the same day,” she wrote. “Emily Bazelon and Lindsey Tanner’s stories were published on June 15th. NBC Out chose to publish on June 17th, but had permission to share their reporting on the guidelines on the 15th.”
A staffer from one LGBTQ+ organization that previewed the Standards of Care told Study Hall that when they reached out to WPATH with concern over the adolescent section, WPATH told them that they were giving embargoed access to both Emily Bazelon with The New York Times Magazine and another reporter with The Associated Press.
“We asked them if they were committed to that, and they said yes,” this source continued. “At that point, we said in very strong terms that they either needed to reach out to someone that had more experience writing about LGBTQ issues, or someone who was LGBTQ or trans-identified themselves. We gave them a list of people that we recommended, and then that was the last conversation that we had with them.”
The staffer said WPATH made a mistake when “they reached out to people who had no experience or little experience writing about trans issues, to people who wanted to write a process story about the Standards of Care and about the fight over gender-affirming care.” They added, “If you give this to someone with The New York Times Magazine, they’re going to write a process story because that’s what they do.”
But WPATH bears responsibility, too: The legitimacy of Bazelon’s reporting largely depended on the assumed authority and expertise of the clinicians and researchers involved in WPATH, an organization that has its own troubled history of conflating transgender identity with medicalization and transition. (Not all trans people decide to transition.) In fact, much like The New York Times itself, WPATH appears to position itself as a neutral, logical, but ultimately benevolent organization that is merely “following the facts.” But the organization’s decision to provide the Times with exclusive access to SOC8, then, months later, present a queer media outlet with an “LGBTQ exclusive” days before the Times article was set to publish is, to say the least, highly questionable.
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of WPATH’s role in the article’s publication is that a loud contingent of the transgender community, including many sources that Bazelon interviewed for her piece, noted that journalists regularly contribute to and empower these misunderstandings. Nearly every source that Study Hall spoke to for this article said they were disappointed that even after their discussions with Bazelon, a “both sides” framing ultimately governed the story’s format.
“Obviously this is an extraordinarily frustrating situation. Because if you look at the Standards of Care themselves, they are a moderate improvement,” the staffer said, noting they had not seen a final version of the guidelines. “Our understanding is that WPATH fixed some of those issues in the adolescent section. It could have been a good story, and it became a gigantic mess.”
HARMFUL BOTHSIDESISM FOR CLICKS
Legacy media outlets have repeated this “both sides” approach to reporting in so many notable pieces, but perhaps none more infamously than anti-trans writer Jesse Singal in his 2018 article for The Atlantic, “When Children Say They’re Trans.” Though it was by no means the first article to ever chronicle trans issues, even for The Atlantic, Singal’s article marked the entrance of medically-assisted transition into public discussion for those who had, up to that point, remained unaware of trans people and trans history. And for cisgender journalists, Singal’s reporting created an opportunity to write about queer communities as if they were merely the topos of a beat.
At face, these cisgender reporters might believe they are challenging the so-called “transgender orthodoxy” that, in their minds, has become the controversial subject of their beat. In reality, stories meant to speak discreetly to a known audience whose negative beliefs or opinions — in this case, about trans people — are not swayed by evidence should be recognized for what they are: dog whistle reporting. And journalists who make dog whistle pieces the substance of their beat should be recognized as the bad faith actors they are.
Dog whistle pieces on this beat typically follow the same structure and repeat the same concerns: first, alarms are raised about skyrocketing rates of trans identification, especially during an era in which children are increasingly mentally unwell and increasingly online, intimating a relationship between the two trends without providing direct evidence. These articles also imply that “gender confusion” may simply be a symptom of underlying issues, like autism or depression, while also describing it as a “social contagion,” a hip, online fad to which unwitting children are falling prey. These stories also frequently suggest that transgender kids are merely gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and that their desire to transition is rooted in internalized homophobia.
Then, the journalist raises the question as to whether medical professionals should withhold or delay trans-affirming medical care, in part, by questioning the mental capacity of trans people. Skeptics of trans-affirming medical care are framed as neutral actors interested in patients’ “best interests,” while those advocating for the care are characterized as brash activists.
These articles’ framing and structure mislead readers about the obstacles to care that transgender children and adults face — as made evident by the illegitimate sources they rely on and the embellished presence that detransition narratives occupy in the stories. Among the most disturbing trends in these pieces is that they are made to appear edifying to cisgender readers while stoking unnecessary fears about the process and frequency of children transitioning.
Despite the fact that many cis journalists, including Melissa Gira Grant and Michael Hobbes, and trans journalists, like Katelyn Burns and Samantha Riedel, have debunked these claims time and time again, the publication of Bazelon’s article proves that media outlets will continue to finance cis journalists reporting the same sensational “investigations” of gender-affirming care for trans youth, no matter how wrong and biased they are in their framing.
These sensationalist pieces regurgitate the same debates and controversy over and over again, presenting them as if they contain new facts while recycling the same voices and opinions; ultimately, trans people are the ones who suffer, becoming the subject of a media-driven circus in the process.
Bazelon’s article is a clear example of this recycling. It features a number of clinicians — namely Scott Leibowitz, Laura Edwards-Leeper, Nathaniel Sharon, Erica Anderson, and Diane Ehrensaft — who were already featured in Singal’s 2018 Atlantic piece. Meanwhile, queer and feminist media outlets that are actually equipped to cover trans topics fairly are struggling, and even when they do exist, they’re not given nearly as much credit as legacy outlets. Or, as was the case with NBC Out, queer outlets are offered a late invitation that comes off at best as an afterthought, at worst an act of tokenization.
None of these issues in framing are new, but until they are dismissed by the broader public and eliminated as a means to broker power for politicians, reporters, and clinicians on the left and right who are seeking to become experts on the “transgender debate,” it bears repeating: there is no debate about gender, but there should be a skeptical investigation into why legacy media needs one to exist.
To that end, it is no longer acceptable to deny legacy media’s responsibility in producing and platforming misleading narratives about transgender people, especially not when there is certainly no shortage of trans writers, reporters, and editors. Queer media may be struggling, but numerous outlets have managed to cover trans healthcare without this framing — and even topics outside of trans healthcare, which do exist, contrary to what legacy media would have readers believe.
Bazelon’s “article is framed as pushing back against the status quo of trans healthcare being too accessible and medical professionals being too permissive with trans people,” Kam Burns, one of the founders of the Trans Journalists Association told Study Hall. “But that is not the status quo and trans people often do not have the political power to advocate for ourselves as individuals, let alone make care more accessible on an institutional level. We can look at Texas, Arizona, Florida, and several other states [that have recently passed legislation targeting trans youth] for proof of that.” Burns continued, “ This is not the first time a story like this has been written and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it is still concerning every time, especially when this narrative is platformed in a paper with such a large and trusting audience.”
CIS PEOPLE EXPLAIN IT ALL
“To me, being a journalist means following the facts where they lead,” Bazelon tweeted in a now-deleted thread responding to the criticism of her piece, and defending her own objectivity. “It isn’t advocacy.”
Articles like these always seem to begin with a publication commissioning a journalist who is not transgender to write about the mounting issues transgender people face. This is usually done under the guise of neutrality, as Riedel reported for Them in 2018 — supposedly a writer with firsthand experience of gender transition (or any other controversial topic) would be too biased to report accurately on the subject. Meanwhile, media companies have fired transgender journalists who dare to reveal themselves as anything but impartial observers.
Despite her proclaimed objectivity, several sources that Bazelon interviewed for her article, namely trans practitioners, told Study Hall that their contributions were truncated, decontextualized, or left out altogether.
Dallas Ducar is the CEO of TransHealth Northampton, the first standalone trans health clinic in the nation, as well as the first to be led by trans providers. Ducar told Study Hall that Bazelon initially contacted her in January, with Bazelon claiming that she wanted the article to serve as a resource for trans youth navigating transition.
“At that time, we were very comfortable working with her,” Ducar said. “We did actually close down clinic availability for half a day, which is a huge amount of revenue and loss of access, too.”
Ducar and TransHealth’s team allowed Bazelon to sit in on a meeting where they overviewed case studies regarding the efficacy of trans healthcare. Additionally, the organization’s primary former care director, mental health director, and Ducar herself sat down with Bazelon for interviews, further explaining TransHealth’s approach to care.
“In that interview, at least, it felt to me like she was trying to advocate for our work in the field,” Ducar said.
As we know now, this was certainly not the case. Ducar and her colleagues were not quoted in the final article, save for an inflammatory statement from a leaked email by Andrew Cronyn, the former primary care director, in a closed listserv of trans healthcare providers.
Dr. Toni D’orsay, a sociologist and psychologist, was also quoted in the article. Her statement was taken from a seven-hour discussion in which various experts criticized a draft of the adolescent chapter of SOC8. But D’orsay, who is also Director of Trans Services for a federally qualified healthcare provider in Southern California, told Study Hall that “out of the nearly 7 hours of commentary, Bazelon selected one line from early in the video.”
“She did not adequately represent my reaction, did not contextualize my statement accurately,” said D’orsay. “She did not ask much in the way of follow-up. I pointed out that while we were angry with the drafted Standards, we were also very pleased by a lot of what was in there, just upset at a lot of the language used and the contradictions. I talked to Bazelon in good faith, with the presumption that she was not going to talk to hate groups, then did and referred to members of hate groups. That was deceptive and reinforced my distrust in the Times.”
Not that you would know this from the article, since Bazelon identified them merely as “an international group,” but Genspect is the hate group in question, which becomes immediately obvious upon looking at the group’s website and its dog whistle slogans that argue the group offers “A rational approach to gender” and claims, “You are the world’s #1 expert in your child.” (Somehow Genspect’s vigorous defenses of conversion therapy did not make it into the story.)
In her follow-up thread, Bazelon claimed that leaving the group out of the story would be a “disservice to readers who want to understand the full landscape.” But that wasn’t the only time Bazelon included groups and individuals who question the legitimacy of trans identity in her reporting. She also drew attention to blogs written by former Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss and blogger Abigail Schrier, who believe themselves to be breaking the story on “medically transitioning children.” Individuals like Weiss and Schrier may deny it, but look no further than the comments and replies to their social media accounts to see evidence that they’re willing to court readers who believe transgender identity is a hoax made up by liberals to infertilize children.
Legal advocates like Greenesmith disagree that it is necessary to include groups like Genspect in the conversation. “Bazelon positioned anti-trans organizations like Genspect as if their work carries the same weight as that of the entire American medical establishment,” they said. “It does not.”
Green, who is the former president of WPATH and current co-chair of its ethics committee, seconded Greenesmith.
“[Bazelon’s article] didn’t say who the players really are,” he said. “It just labeled them as players. If the goal was to educate the audience, you need to know who the players are. Not just their label.”
According to Green, Bazelon should have promoted questions like “What is WPATH? Is Abigail Shrier a journalist? Is the strategy that Weiss and Shrier use legitimate? Or, do they have a legitimate issue and why are they approaching it in the way they are?”
Notably, neither The Associated Press nor NBC Out articles published about the forthcoming guidelines referenced trans hate groups or individuals, opting instead to highlight medical professionals who disagree about the timeline for youth transition.
In addition to platforming hate groups, Bazelon also centered the debate on cis practitioners. She opened and closed her piece with Scott Leibowitz, a cisgender clinician who presents himself as an authority on gender-affirming care. Leibowitz is the most quoted or referenced source throughout the piece, and given the last word. His closing note — “Evidence matters, yes, but common sense matters, too” — rings confusing and inauthentic in an article where scientific evidence is routinely and wittingly subjected to the forces of uninformed opinion, especially when most of the evidence presented in the piece suggests gender-affirming interventions can be life-changing for trans youth. Leibowitz also appeared with Bazelon on WNYC shortly after the article was published. None of the transgender Standard of Care authors appeared on the episode, which positioned medical transition as a controversial debate among medical professionals.
By comparison, trans WPATH practitioners like Ren Massey and Maddie Deutsch are referenced a handful of times. Dissenters like Colt St. Amand, a trans practitioner and member of the SOC8 revision group who argues that there has been an “overfocus on assessing identity” in clinical assessments, is mentioned the most among the trans practitioners, but appears nearly half as many times as Leibowitz. The implication, it seems, is that trans people, even those who have some semblance of institutional clout, are incapable of being experts on our own experiences because of our lack of “objectivity,” rather than trans experience being seen as a source of expertise in and of itself.
In case her bias wasn’t clear enough, in her article, Bazelon painted individuals and groups who support easier access to gender-affirming care as “trans advocates,” stripping providers at healthcare organizations like TransHealth and International Transgender Health of their status as medical professionals, and effectively separating them into “activists and experts.” Meanwhile, the criticisms that St. Amand and International Transgender Health directed at the forthcoming Standards of Care guidelines were framed as an attack on well-meaning cisgender doctors “after four years of painstaking work” where they were “called out as traitors by peers and the community they sought to care for,” according to Bazelon. These slight rhetorical barbs ultimately whitewash the motivations of the cisgender voices surveyed throughout the piece, while coloring WPATH’s critics — even those who count themselves as members of the organization — as angry complainers lacking professional decorum.
THE OBSESSION WITH DETRANSITION
Another puzzling aspect of the reporting on transgender medicine is the sudden interest in self-identified “detransitioners” — people who begin gender-affirming care, whether by taking hormones or having elective surgery, and then transition back to their previous gender identity. Given Bazelon’s inclusion of Weiss and Shrier as subject matter experts in her article, it’s unsurprising that she would treat detransition as a topic relevant to the Standard of Care guidelines — cis women who identify as “radical feminists” or “gender critical feminists” are primarily responsible for the term making it into the news cycle.
“We do not hear anyone asking about detransition,” said Ducar, who prefers the term “retransition” because it underscores that these individuals are still in the process of transition even if they cease medically transitioning. “I have not heard any of our patients discuss regret with any of our providers. The rates of regret that we do know about are much, much lower than in cisgender populations who engage in cosmetic surgery,” Ducar said.
Despite its rarity, the media has a recurring obsession with detransitioning. And while journalists like Bazelon suggest that transgender identification is on the rise due to social media platforms, they fail to mention how the detransition movement is a recent phenomenon rooted on platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit where users can maintain anonymous profiles. As Harron Walker reported for Jezebel in 2018, The Atlantic, The Stranger, and The Outline all published detransition features within a few years, and “one of the subjects, 36-year-old Carey Callahan of Ohio, appear[ed] in more than one of these articles.”
Callahan founded the Gender Care Consumer Advocacy Network (GCCAN) alongside Grace Lidinsky-Smith, Corinna Cohn, and Lee Leveille (who has since departed from the organization and sharply criticized Bazelon’s reporting). GCCAN presents itself as an advocacy organization whose mission is to give consumers more information about the process of medical transition. While Bazelon mentions Lidinsky-Smith in her article, she doesn’t bring up GCCAN or Lidinsky-Smith’s relationship with the organization, let alone her numerous media appearances as a member of the group. Meanwhile, Lidinsky-Smith maintains a Substack dedicated to detransition and her Twitter handle is @HormoneHangover — a clear reference to detransition and evidence that she has constructed a personal and professional identity based on it. But Bazelon treats Lidinsky-Smith as a neutral subject, who has merely “written about her regret over taking testosterone and having her breasts removed in her early 20s.” In reality, Lidinsky-Smith’s motives here are clarified by the fact that she serves as the principal officer of GCCAN.
Bazelon’s lack of skepticism toward detransition groups is also steeped in racism and classism, as she asserts that “cisgender, heterosexual, white” teens are trading in these identities to “join a community with a clear claim to being marginalized and deserving of protection.” Implicit within these statements is a belief that the supposed victims of the “gender debate” are middle-class white youth lost in the haze of social media. White affluent teens are, after all, among the few trans youth who would have easier access to trans-related medical care.
To her, trans people of color, and with them cultures where gender is not broken down into a binary, are an afterthought. Absent from her reporting is that much of the criticism organizations like International Transgender Health aimed at the public version of SOC8 chastised WPATH for foregrounding Western understandings of sex and gender.
It’s also worth noting that white children, generally speaking, are less likely to identify as trans compared to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and multiracial youth, according to a June report published by UCLA’s Williams Institute. Yet a December 2021 study found that white trans children were the only group (aside from multiracial children) who were more likely to receive access to transition-related healthcare than those who wanted it, but did not have access. The “issue” of children having seemingly unfettered access to trans healthcare is one that is immediately revealed as fallacious when taking into account the existence of children who are not white or monied.
To these critiques, we add that Bazelon’s piece is among a growing number of big-ticket reported features in major media forums that question if the prevalence of, in Bazelon’s words, “autism, depression, anxiety and eating or attention-deficit disorders” in transgender populations causes confusion about their gender identities while also suggesting that online content and social media are leading children to wrongly believe they are transgender. (This is a myth that hate groups like 4thWaveNow openly embrace.) In passing over these assumptions without providing specific details about how neurodiversity and transgender identities relate to one another, a number of crucial details are lost.
“Under no circumstances should she have cited depression, anxiety, and eating disorders in the same line as ADHD and autism,” D’orsay told Study Hall. “None of these conditions complicate determining a clear course of treatment. It is a bald-faced, shameful lie to say or imply they make it more difficult to treat or to discern that someone is transgender. They do nothing of that sort.”
(Dr. John Strang, the WPATH author and “specialist on the intersection of autism and gender identity on the SOC8 adolescent and child chapters” did not respond to Study Hall’s request for clarification about his quote in Bazelon’s article.)
While it is true that the article’s broader focus pertains to how medical providers are communicating their standards, research, and concerns with families of transgender youth, that framing means that transgender and neurodivergent children and adults who have sought gender-related medical care do not receive treatment in Bazelon’s story. This is a potent decision, and one that does a disservice to people living at the intersection of both experiences, which each entail an inordinate amount of negotiation not only about medical care but personal autonomy. But this is the problem with neuroptypical, cisgender reporters believing they can master these issues in a matter of months: seeing correlations but having no lived experience, they defer to medical professionals who themselves may not have a grasp on how, for example, transgender and neurodivergent communities overlap and often galvinize around their poor experiences with healthcare providers.
It’s worth noting that autism, like transsexuality, is still widely misunderstood by the medical community, and that many of the uncertainties parroted through Bazelon’s article apply to the research done on autism and similar developmental disorders. Again, the media coverage pattern suggests that deference is given to medical professionals while transgender and neurodivergent people are rarely allowed to present their own experiences. (Bazelon herself penned a 2007 piece for the Times that incorrectly stated autistic girls do not experience empathy, a damaging cultural myth that uninformed doctors and journalists have helped reinforce.) Similarly, transgender and neurodivergent medical professions have only recently been able to hold public positions on medical boards and advocacy organizations.
EXITING THE MEDIA CIRCUS
A more accurate version of Bazelon’s story could have been produced if she went to greater lengths to feature trans people who, having transitioned either as adolescents or adults, could speak to their experience in both positive and negative terms. But that would assume that a writer like Bazelon, a publication like the Times, and an organization like WPATH were all acting in good faith and endeavoring to produce a story that investigated trans experience — not just further legitimizing debate about transgender identity.
By simply familiarizing herself with the reporting her transgender colleagues had already produced and referencing it in her piece, Bazelon could have deepened the “landscape” she sought to fully illuminate. But as the editorial decisions reflected in her piece demonstrate, she and the Times would rather sow confusion and situate themselves as “common sense” guides to garner clicks. It is an abdication of responsibility that any media worker — be they a journalist, editor, public relations agent, or advocate — would fail to see how participating in the continued legacy media obsession with transition narratives, during this time when transgender experience is under bigoted attack, could not have immediate and obvious negative effects. As previously mentioned, the state of Texas recently directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective services to resume investigating trans children and their families for abuse, citing Bazelon’s article as “evidence” of a conflict that does not exist. It is not an exaggeration to say that countless trans lives will be, if not lost, permanently disrupted, and even those who are not directly affected will be forced to live in a state of fear and hypervigilance.
At the same time, while we value the work of organizations like WPATH, we also believe that any organization that participates in public advocacy through media must make itself aware of basic media literacy, especially where it affects their constituency. As Green told Study Hall, WPATH is not a trans organization; it is a medical organization of practitioners who want to provide good healthcare to trans patients. That said, it appears that some working within or alongside WPATH are willfully ignorant of media framings that harm trans people as a whole — at best, this is negligence; at worst, deception. WPATH’s actions indicate that it has a vested interest in advocating for trans people only when it benefits its members. In uncritically prioritizing Bazelon and the Times, the organization has also shown a willingness to play ball with risky media appearances meant to garner celebrity status and help them gain a hand in the media monopoly on trans narratives.
If the stories we learned during our investigation are any indication, Bazelon’s reporting is a half-hearted, opportunistic attempt to translate transgender experience into a narrative palatable to cis people. Boring and unproductive respectability politics aside, stories that legitimize the views of the Christian fascists leading the anti-trans movement for consumption by coastal elites are an embarrassing and harmful maneuver — one that clarifies how detached New York media remains from the subjects of its most fraught investigations. Scapegoating trans people during a time when they are actively being oppressed doesn’t require talent or research; it only requires time, money, and access that only those in the upper echelons of the media circus retain.
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