Won’t somebody think of the children?

OPINION: When media publish trans kids’ medical histories without their full consent, they thrust them into a harmful spotlight 

Last week, controversial writer Emily Yoffe wrote a piece about Caroline, the mom of a trans kid who was upset about her child’s transition. The piece, published in former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’s publication, the Free Press, detailed the family’s experience seeking care at Washington University Children’s Hospital (WUSTL) in St. Louis. The piece quoted Caroline liberally and unquestioningly and positioned the gender clinic’s treatment as nefarious and shoddy.

Yoffe, who was formerly the writer of Slate’s popular advice column Dear Prudence, has written a number of controversial stories in recent years, and is perhaps best known for blaming the sexual assaults of drunk women on the victims and running interference for someone accused of Me Too–style sexual harassment.

Yoffe’s story about Caroline was shared widely on Twitter. However, a day after publication, a Twitter account purporting to be the trans teen said that they felt misrepresented in the story. 

In this latest article, apparently the kid, who is 16 and goes by Alex and uses she/they pronouns, tried to revoke consent for Yoffe to write about her story, only for the journalist to reply “that’s not how this works.” Alex is quoted in the piece, but only sparingly. Most of the teen’s story is told from the perspective of her mother.

As a result, the piece ignores the experience and perspective of the kid we’re supposed to want to protect, in favour of a mother who doesn’t support their child’s transition. It’s a slanted piece of work that includes similar themes found in a previous coverage of a “whistle-blower,” Jamie Reed, who used to work at the same St. Louis clinic and came forward to claim that kids were being rushed into medically transitioning by doctors.

That previous bit of reporting, which originally came out in early February, has been thoroughly debunked through extensive local reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Missouri Independent. Many parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch, for example, objected to claims that patients were rushed into transition, saying that they received clear and detailed explanations about their children’s care—including the potential side effects of medical transition—and were given opportunities to ask questions. They were also given contact information for LGBTQ2S+ advocacy groups and mental health professionals. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Weiss’s Free Press isn’t really dedicated to asking so-called “difficult questions” about trans issues—instead multiple recent stories push an agenda that hurts trans kids by advocating, implicitly or explicitly, that they be cut off from life-saving treatment.

 

There’s been a lot of consternation among many in the trans community lately about the current state of journalism when it comes to coverage of trans issues. A few months ago, hundreds of New York Times contributors signed an open letter to the paper’s management asking that the paper follow its own editorial standards in stories about trans people and their healthcare.

Other mainstream publications have taken a particular focus on “detransitioners.” Detransitioners who detract from trans rights are often given an outsize voice compared to people who detransition and continue to support trans people’s access to gender-affirming care 

It’s easy to sit back and observe all of this and conclude that many news outlets have decided that transitioning should be tightly controlled, in case a person who isn’t really trans mistakenly falls into the process. But amongst all of this coverage, we must be on guard for ideological keyboard warriors who have already concluded that transitioning is bad and people shouldn’t be allowed to go through with it. Although they say they aim to protect kids, they have the ability to cause harm. 

It’s telling that the controversy against the WUSTL gender clinic didn’t come out of dogged local or national reporting, but instead was laundered through a Substack publication. Attempts at verifying the Free Press narrative about the clinic have revealed the stories of parents who paint a very different picture. 

Hours after publication of the original Free Press piece about Reed, the Missouri state attorney general, Andrew Bailey, announced an investigation into the WUSTL gender clinic. But before that investigation concluded, Bailey pre-emptively decided to bypass the state’s legislature to limit access to gender-affirming care for minors.

The accelerated timeline between the Free Press story and the institution of an emergency regulation suggests that these types of stories contribute to a culture where politicians feel empowered to bypass the legitimate democratic process of everyday Americans.

But beyond the dubious nature of these stories are the individual kids caught up in the media uproar. The status of adolescent transition care as a hot-button political issue puts trans kids’ privacy at risk, empowering any individual bad actor within the healthcare industry to unnecessarily pry into the private therapeutic and medical lives of children—then pawn private information off to attention-hungry transphobes, all in the name of “whistle-blowing.”

The Free Press and other “centrist” and far-right media outlets have essentially created a perverse incentive structure for folks connected, however closely or loosely, to trans kids’ lives to play nosy neighbour with what should be private medical matters.

If the goal is “protecting children,” I fail to see how exposing individual thoughts said to a therapist, or private medical discussions between a child, their parents and their doctor, to millions of frothing transphobic media consumers adds to a child’s safety.

At some point, we need to realize that being thrust into the current media environment, and all the frenzied attention that comes along with that, has the potential to scar kids for life. Maybe that’s the point of this moral panic, but I refuse to cede the hallowed right to privacy to the obsessive medical lookie-loos at publications such as the Free Press.

We can, and must, do better by these kids. They only get one life to live, and we need to make sure they can live it in peace and privacy.

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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