If I pointed out every time someone wrote an article in which a trans person’s identity was treated as a debate topic, well, I wouldn’t write about much else. As such, I tend to just sit back, roll my eyes, and move on with life. There was one post, however, that caught my attention and knocked the wind out of me.
It was an op-ed called “How far should journalists go to demonstrate transgender political correctness?” It was published in The Dallas Morning News, and was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tod Robberson. It seems to have been prompted as a response to yesterday’s New York Times editorial board column (op-eds responding to op-eds is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine, but I digress).
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) May 5, 2015
The gist of Robberson’s editorial can be summed up as “gee, guys, we’re mostly good about gay rights and now there’s this whole transgender thing? What’s next?”
“Today’s New York Times editorial page is devoted entirely to one issue: the quest for transgender equality. The entire transgender issue is a relative latecomer in the nation’s discussion of sexual identity and preference. Except for a relatively few outliers, the nation has pretty much come to accept that sexual identity is not a choice but a fact of life. The only debate remaining on that score is whether our laws should catch up to society’s acceptance of gays in terms of recognizing their right to marry. The Supreme Court will decide the issue shortly.”
Okay, well, I mean, that’s not a terrible way to start the post. And while I know that using words like “preference” to refer to sexual orientation is less than ideal (way less than ideal), he’s conceding the point that “sexual identity is not a choice, but a fact of life.” Great, great. Even had I not seen the headline, I’d know this was started on the path to disaster when gender identity was just lumped right in with “sexual identity and preference” (gender is neither).
“The transgender issue contains so many nuances and special cases, it’ll be much more difficult to sort them out either in the courts or in the general social conversation. As The Times editorial notes, “A generation ago, transgender Americans were widely regarded as deviants, unfit for dignified workplaces, a disgrace for families. Those who confided in relatives were, by and large, pities and shunned.” Things have changed today, but not radically so.”
I have to wonder exactly what Robberson means by “so many nuances and special cases.” I mean, yes, gender is nuanced and often individualized (much like any other aspect of one’s existence), but the rules are pretty simple: a person is whatever they say they are.
If someone tells me that their name is Bob, I’m going to take their word for it. I’m not going to stare them in the face and go, “You know what? You look like more of a Jim to me.”
“Big questions remain about how far society will go in its embrace of transgender rights. Should taxpayers cover the medical expenses related to transition therapy for prisoners and service members? Should transgenders, including school-age children, be permitted access to restrooms of the gender they identify with, as opposed to the gender represented by their sexual organs? And, importantly, what role does journalism have in this public discussion?”
First off, Mr. “It is my solemn duty to inform the public with the facts!” it’s “transgender people,” and not “transgenders.” Second, when you word it as “how far society will go,” you make it sound like we’re at some absurd point where trans people are endowed with immense political power. The truth is quite the opposite. Trans people barely have a voice in the world.
At the federal level, there are (presumably) zero trans legislators. There’s never been a trans cabinet appointee. There’s never been a trans person on the Supreme Court. A trans person has never served as a U.S. Diplomat or ambassador. “How far will society go?” makes it sound like the world is basically controlled by trans people.
“The New York Times and Associated Press, among other news organizations, have decided that they will recognize the gender preference of transgenders in news copy. Which is to say, when a male who has yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery nevertheless calls himself a female and is the subject of a news story, he will be identified as a female in all references.”
Again, it’s “transgender people,” not “transgenders.” One is an adjective and then a noun. The other is a noun. This isn’t that hard.
“Which is to say, when a male who has yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery nevertheless calls himself a female and is the subject of a news story, he will be identified as a female in all references.”
Now that is some bigoted, convoluted nonsense. “He,” “him,” “himself.”
“Thus, if I were to correctly rewrite the previous sentence to conform to AP and New York Times style, I should have written: ‘Which is to say, when a female who has yet to undergo gender reassignment surgery nevertheless calls herself a female and is the subject of a news story, she will be identified as a female in all references.’”
Actually, no. If Robberson were to “correctly rewrite to previous sentence to conform to AP and New York Times style,” he would have written: “A trans woman will be identified as a female in all references.”
“See how confusing that gets? What is the actual, at-birth gender of the person we’re talking about? And what gender will the person be identified as, once reassignment surgery is completed? Who knows?”
How confusing it gets? Yeah, if you’re obsessed with someone’s genitals and you absolutely need to know whether they’ve got an innie or an outie, sure, that’s confusing. I guess. “What is the actual, at-birth gender of the person we’re talking about?” Whatever they tell you, dude. “And what gender will the person be identified as, once reassignment surgery is completed?” Not sure what’s up with the commas in that sentence, but the answer is again: whatever they tell you.
Having bottom surgery doesn’t change your gender. Your gender isn’t tied to genitals through some magic. Your gender is your gender.
I mean, if gender is solely determined by one’s genitals, then what if Robberson was in a car accident that left his genitals torn to shreds? Do we start calling him “she?” Does that make him a woman? Of course not. He’d still be a man. Why? Because he’s a man, and that doesn’t have to do with the guest list to his pants party.
There is a serious ethical discussion in this issue that we in journalism never really had. The orders came down from on high one day, and everyone just sort of jumped on board without questioning the implications. The first ethical issue is whether we journalists distort the truth by embracing the politically correct transgender language of the day.
“There is a serious ethical discussion in this issue that we in journalism never really had.” In other words, “I believe I have a right to turn someone’s existence into a debate topic for the public to decide because I am a journalist! The mightiest of them all!” Yeah-no.
“An example from the New York Times editorial: “As prominent transgender people have come out in recent years, their revelations have been a source of fascination, much of it prurient. There was the actress Laverne Cox, the Army whistle-blower Chelsea Manning and most recently, Bruce Jenner, the gold-medal Olympian.”
“Does our devotion to the language of acceptance require us to misinform the public? The Army service member who dumped thousands of classified documents onto the Internet via Wikileaks was not Chelsea Manning. It was Pfc. Bradley Manning. (And Manning’s action did not legally constitute whistle-blowing. It was a massive theft and document-dump, for which Manning is now serving time in prison.)”
Weird how journalists seem to have no trouble referring to people like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Larry King, and basically every other pop culture icon in media and news who doesn’t go by the name listed on their birth certificate by the name they give. Weird how if a woman gets married and opts to take her husband’s name, you don’t see journalists going, “No! That’s not your real name!” to the new name.
I mean, according to Robberson, that’s “misinforming the public.” I must have missed the article where he laid into married names, people going by nicknames, and the like. Instead, I see him upset about Laverne Cox (her legal name, BTW), Chelsea Manning (her legal name, BTW), and Bruce Jenner (who is still going by “Bruce” at the moment, so I don’t even see the problem there.
“If the act in question was undertaken by an individual who had yet to change his/her name or declare his/her sexual identity, it undermines our integrity as journalists to alter the facts just to suit a newfound sense of social justice in support of transgender rights. If Bruce Jenner decides tomorrow that he wants to change his name to Beverly, that would not justify future journalistic references to 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Beverly Jenner. To do so would be a misstatement of fact. Bruce Jenner, and only Bruce Jenner, won the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medal.”
Again, Robberson is applying a standard to trans women that I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t elsewhere. For example:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. The statement “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six championships during his NBA career” is accurate. However, if we’re playing by Robberson’s rules, we need to say “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five championships during his NBA career, and Lew Alcindor won one” (he changed his name after winning his first championship). No one would write the statement following Robberson’s rules. He’s simply applying a standard to trans people that he wouldn’t elsewhere.
These are the same people:
“I also worry about the disservice we do to readers struggling to understand what the hell we’re saying when we try to describe an individual who wants to use restrooms assigned to people of a particular gender. Because we adhere to this new style, we must use all kinds of contorted and confusing language, including inaccurate gender pronouns that leave readers scratching their heads and asking, ‘Wait, is this about a guy who identifies as a female and wants to use the women’s restroom? Or this about a woman who identifies as a male and wants to use the men’s restroom?’”
So, how do you refer to a girl who wants to use the girls’ room? Or a boy who wants to use the boys’ room? Is that seriously what Robberson is asking here? It’s clear that he desperately needs to add what he thinks someone’s “real” gender is into the comment. “How do we describe a guy who identifies as a female?” I mean, that’s not a “guy who identifies as a female.” That’s a woman. The only reason you’d go the extra mile is if you were intentionally trying to other that person.
And as far as the “What about the readers who have a tough time understanding what I’m talking about?” question. I mean, isn’t the job of a writer to find the right way to tell the true story? Not tell a false story just because it’s easier to understand?
“I’m not trying to make fun of this issue. This is a very necessary conversation — one that we in the journalism community never debated. We should not have launched ourselves headfirst into the realm of transgender political correctness without first considering the confusion and misinformation that could possibly accompany it. The implications for our profession are very serious.”
This isn’t “political correctness.” This is the bare minimum of what it is to be a journalist. Report accurately. Instead, Robberson is letting his bigotry get in the way of doing his job.
“Like it or not, the use of he/she, her/him, his/hers in print is a grammatical and journalistic necessity. We can’t avoid it. But in doing so, choosing the correct word shouldn’t be an option selected out of a sense of inclusion or demonstration of open mindedness about sexual identity. Our only choice must be to use the correct words to accurately and truthfully report the news.”
“Sexual identity?” Again, you’re just making things up at this point. That’s not what being transgender is about. This article can be better summarized as “Why don’t I get a free pass to tell the world that I think transgender people are freaks anymore?”
Sorry, buddy, but the world has moved on, and it doesn’t need your consent to do so. you can sit around, typing away at your blog about the good ol’ days where you could tell trans women that they were men and no one would dare say anything in response, but that’s where it ends. Tod Robberson, winner of a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Congrats. That’s huge. It’s up to you whether you want to join the rest of the world, or go on knowing that you’ve peaked personally and professionally.