The NYT’s trans ‘debate’ isn’t actually a debate

OPINION: The hiring of David French is just the latest in a string of anti-trans moves from mainstream media 

I first got into writing in 2016. At the time, there was an interest in the U.S. in learning about the lives and experiences of trans people. Those were the heady post-trans “tipping point” days when North Carolina passed its infamous bathroom bill, HB2. In response, the online print industry started featuring more and more trans voices—including mine—when covering trans issues and news.

In polling at the time, most Americans said they didn’t personally know a trans person, so media perspectives were often the only entry point for a lot of people to become familiar with trans people and our lives. In those days, there were trans writers working at online outlets like VICE, and a handful of freelancers, like myself, were able to find regular work.

However, the traditional newspaper business was lagging behind. The New York Times had bestselling trans author Jenny Finney Boylan contributing to its opinion page every few weeks, and she skillfully used her memoirist background to personalize the trans experience for millions of readers. But aside from her, trans people rarely had a chance to see their words printed in a major newspaper. Neither the Times nor the Washington Post had a full-time openly trans employee in their editorial department.

But times—and the Times—seem to be changing. Lately there’s been a growing trend of reactionary coverage toward trans people, specifically at the Times. They’ve dumped Boylan from their stable of regular commentators and welcomed in Pamela Paul, who seemingly takes a shot at trans people in nearly every piece she’s written in her few months time on staff. Paul is not the only anti-trans voice on the Times roster, as most of their regular conservative writers have also put out wrong or offensive takes about trans people, especially in the last year.

Their news and magazine divisions have produced back-to-back carbon-copy pieces questioning the efficacy of the medically established care for trans minors. It’s left much of the trans community asking: where does the Times stand on our existence as trans people?

Last week, the Times announced the hiring of conservative commentator David French as their newest opinion columnist. French is ostensibly a moderate conservative by modern standards. He’s been consistently “Never Trump” and confronted the harder-line conservatives on topics like “drag queen story hour.”

Times opinion page editors Kathleen Kingsbury and Patrick Healy said this reputation was what attracted them to French as a possible hire. “Writing about politics and current affairs in the era of Donald Trump ideally requires a variety of traits that do not always, or even often, go together: factual and intellectual clarity, moral seriousness and a spirit of generosity toward others and humility toward oneself,” they wrote in their joint statement on his hiring. “Happily for Times Opinion, those traits are embodied to an exceptional degree by David French, who is joining us as our newest columnist.”

 

However, as journalist Parker Molloy documented, French also has a history of holding vehemently anti-trans positions: he wrote in 2015 that trans people “have troubled fantasies.” In 2016, he wrote a piece about a BBC documentary that explained how dating holds challenges for trans people by repeatedly misgendering the documentary’s subject, a teenage trans girl. He also called trans-affirming bottom surgery “mutilation.”

In 2018, he wrote for the conservative outlet National Review that our society should work toward “ending … transgenderism.”

Just in case anyone thinks he may have reconsidered his views, just three months ago he said that he refuses to use trans people’s correct pronouns, writing, “I don’t agree that trans men are ‘men’ or that trans women are ‘women,’ and while I strive to treat every person I encounter with dignity and respect, I don’t use preferred pronouns because their use is a form of assent to a system of belief to which I don’t subscribe.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but where I come from, none of these statements indicate “factual clarity, moral seriousness and a spirit of generosity toward others and humility toward oneself.” In fact, I find it all to be rather unserious and disrespectful toward his fellow human beings who happen to be trans.

It would seem to me that just leaving trans people alone would go further in showing the generosity in spirit and personal humility that Times editors seem to publicly say they want. Of course, none of that sells newspaper subscriptions like the particularly insidious brand of polite, liberal transphobia currently being laundered in the pages of the Times.

I want to be clear that I don’t want David French fired over his views on trans issues. For one, that would give him and the rest of the conservative media outrage machine too much free fodder. But I’m also just not interested in playing that game, in general. Instead, I’d like the Times to welcome trans voices on to the team who are equipped and talented enough to provide a sorely needed counterbalance to the editorial view of seemingly the rest of the opinion staff.

These days, trans perspectives in traditional media are growing thinner. Repeated layoffs have gutted the population of full-time trans writers working for online print outlets, and even VICE laid off all of its amazing trans writers who were doing award-winning work on trans issues. And new trans voices are forced to other platforms like TikTok or Twitch to be heard.

Meanwhile, traditional mainstream publications like The Atlantic, who first bought into the “trans people are vaguely threatening to normies” world view later adopted by the Times, continue to churn out casually anti-trans content at a staggering pace.

These publications are often fond of referring to “the trans debate,” which is dehumanizing enough on its own. I get that presenting the humanity and genders of trans people as a debate may tickle an editor’s intellectual fancy, but if you are only ever presenting one side of an issue, what you are putting out is not a debate—it’s a lecture.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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