On Wednesday, hundreds of contributors to The New York Times formally expressed their discontent with how the paper covers transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, publishing an open letter that condemns the paper’s reporting as antagonistic toward those individuals. “The Times has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language,” it reads, “while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources.”
The claim is set against the backdrop of an ongoing debate about how, and if, people who identify as transgender—particularly minors—should be permitted to transition. But at its core, the letter is about a different debate: What questions are members of a free press allowed to ask?
Central to the Times contributors’ argument is a sprawling piece written by Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for the magazine. (In the interest of transparency, Bazelon is on the board of directors of the Law and Justice Journalism Project, an organization through which I am doing a fellowship this year.) That article, “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” laid out the evolution of medical care for transgender youth and how physicians today who treat such patients are grappling with changes in the science, as well as changes in the politics, amid increased demand for their services.
“The natural destination of poor editorial judgment is the court of law,” the Times contributors write in the letter. “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.” According to the letter, people like Bazelon are partially to blame, because she outlined a history and nuanced debate. By this logic, it is only ethical for journalists to cover controversial topics if they are prepared to come to a foregone conclusion. It inverts the mantra that journalists should “show and not tell” and instead requires they tell and not show.
A primary fault of Bazelon’s article, according to the Times contributors, is that she “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,” they write. “This is the same rhetoric that transphobic policymakers recently reintroduced to the American lawmaking apparatus by quoting Emily Bazelon’s Times article.” The person Bazelon calls “Patient Zero” is also referred to in the piece as F.G., a transgender man who, as a teenager in the 1980s, was the first recipient of a new treatment protocol at an influential gender clinic in Amsterdam. That treatment would go on to revolutionize the science.
In context, it appears that Bazelon meant the term benignly. She uses it a single time; two words in an 11,000-word piece, as a means to communicate that F.G. was the first person to receive a course of medical care that was—and, to some degree, still is—nascent and experimental and one that remains front and center of the conversation as physicians debate how to best help transgender youth. Crucially, F.G. is presented as being happy with his transition and post-transition life.
That the outrage extends beyond “patient zero” and is a broader debate about journalism itself is reflected in the reaction to Bazelon’s piece after it came out in June. An article in the Texas Observer sums up that reaction: “There is no legitimate ‘debate’ over gender-affirming healthcare,” the headline reads.
The medical community disagrees, as evidenced by the in-depth reporting provided by Bazelon’s article. The piece painstakingly outlines the very real debate among physicians—many of whom are transgender themselves—about how to move forward while remaining faithful to their “do no harm” ethos. Among the questions explored: How do doctors determine if a child is ready to transition? What is at the root of the influx of trans-identifying youth, and how are doctors taking into account what may sometimes be social pressure or concurrent mental illness as opposed to (or in addition to) gender dysphoria? How do doctors decide when to start puberty suppressants as opposed to hormone treatments and surgeries?
Reading the Times letter, as well as the broader objections to Bazelon’s piece, readers may assume that she platformed only skeptic quacks. But Bazelon’s interviews included the leading doctors in the field who are sympathetic to treating transgender patients in a way that typically elicits energetic backlash from conservatives. There are differences and nuances between those doctors, as is to be expected in medicine, and Bazelon put them in conversation, as is to be expected in journalism. She included, for example, a lengthy interview with Colt St. Amand, a physician at the Mayo Clinic, who said: “People are who they say they are, and they may develop and change, and all are normal and OK. So I am less concerned with certainty around identity, and more concerned with hearing the person’s embodiment goals. Do you want to have a deep voice? Do you want to have breasts? You know, what do you want for your body?”
Marci Bowers, a transgender woman and reconstructive surgeon, observed by contrast that transgender girls who stave off male puberty, and thus prevent full penile development, may struggle to orgasm in their adult lives after having bottom surgery. “Sexual satisfaction is a huge thing,” she told Bazelon. “You’ve got to talk about it.”
Some of the most elite journalists in the country, however, appear to not want to talk about it. They want to treat these topics as black and white in a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to investigating the gray.
Thankfully, leadership at the Times agrees, at least in this case. “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,” Charlie Stadtlander, the director of external communications for the Times‘ newsroom, said in a statement. And in a memo sent to staff, Joe Kahn, the top editor, condemned the staff’s effort, writing that the paper “will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
There’s a line from Bazelon’s piece about the negative reception doctors sometimes receive from those in their own camp. “This response hit them harder,” Bazelon wrote, “as criticism from your colleagues and allies often does.” I imagine she may feel the same way reading the letter from the Times contributors.