The Trans-Panic is a Failure of Journalism

Articles, Essays

There is a trans-panic taking over the country. It is playing by the exact same playbook as every astro-turfed panic has before and unfortunately many journalists are continuing to fall into the trap. The American Right’s only true legislative skill is punching down (other than exploding the debt and crippling our infrastructure of course). Every time they choose a new target to attack the most common response from the news media is to find any legitimate justification in said attacks and hammer a “both-sides” centrism to its readers. It’s going to get trans people killed. 

In what has still proven to be the most politicized of these attacks, Florida declared war on the LGBT+ community with its “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year. Many states have begun attacking trans youth with Tennessee joining in the bigotry this week banning health professionals from providing medical care which the state claims would “enable a minor to identify with…a purported identity inconsistent with a minor’s sex.” The logic seems to imply that it is the medical care that has the agency here, not one’s identity or personhood. They are denying the existence of trans-people with a single sentence. 

The Tennessee bill is unique because it is paired with a far more silly (and politically distracting) ban on drag shows. We’ll all agree that this is a terrible bill because the state’s obscenity laws are more than enough to protect children from hyper-sexualized activities and thereby feel we’ve accomplished a moral victory in this popular movement. All the while trans kids will continue to be tormented and suffer. Remember when we all got mad that Roe v Wade was overturned, then the polling showed the country supported abortion by a wide margin? The country will move on from this just the same. Rounding support without the legislation.

I will not be sharing or arguing the science, psychology, or medical reasons why trans-youth deserve to be supported. That is the first step of the distraction game that the anti-trans activists want to play. To get the layman tangled in the briars of rhetorical questions and random anecdotes. A mythical anecdote is powerful, especially if it confirms presumptions. A woman who regretted her abortion or a teenager who regretted their transition. We now know these are historically low for any medical treatment. But that’s not the point, it was never an honest scientific or medical conversation. Participating in debate with a dishonest party only lends them a platform of which their opinion is undeserved. 

 I want to point out that so many of the arguments we hear against the existence of trans people are the exact same that were used to disparage the gay community for decades and of mixed race couples before that. That these people are “depressed,” “confused,” or “sexually deviant.” That there can be a cure if we just address these psychological problems. 

I’ll let the trans community and the doctors who work with them determine what level of psychology could help them. These claims from anti-trans activists are no different that the evangelicals who want to send gay kids to conversion camps, suicide rates be damned. A major problem with the media coverage of the anti-trans perspective is the framing of the actors. Most aren’t called anti-trans activists, they are just called “concerned parents.” It is a superpower of a middle aged cis-white person to get to hold strong opinions and be declared a centrist or concerned citizen. Any other person with such strong opinions of their own identity will immediately be qualified as an activist, advocate, supporter, protestor, or some such term. 

That is the second step our news media always falls for. That there are “both-sides” to every issue, and extreme pro and extreme anti. These sides are framed as highly politicized and the readers are told the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Yet the journalists so often confuse, or are manipulated to misread, the centrist viewpoint. The concerned parent trope is one of a victim. Conservatives always try to find their victimhood. It connotes a passive role, that the opinion they hold was forced on them by the actions of others in a harmful way. Activists can’t be a victim. For the media, victims are allowed to be centrists. 

This is clearly absurd. If you feel strongly that trans youth shouldn’t participate in youth sports, you don’t get to be called a centrist. If you feel personally affected by the status of 15 year old swimmers, you are a passionate political voice. But most people aren’t passionate about youth sports, they are passionate in their refusal to allow trans people to participate in society. This (along with bathroom bills) has been the main talking point for trans youth over the last decade. Anti-trans activists purport that by protecting youth sports from trans-athletes they are preserving Title IX. 

Which brings us to the final tool the right uses to trick journalists. Outright lies. Republicans are far more likely to hold negative views on Title IX (not that Republicans are the only ones who are attacking trans-athletes). Journalists are always more than happy to print direct quotes from the politicians without pointing to the obvious contradictions in their history. The recent story of Republicans having to come to terms with whether they will cut social security and medicaid being a prime example. Imagine how easy those contradictions can be for someone that claims to just be a concerned parent. 

I am exceedingly disappointed to continue to see these playbooks work over and over again on our news media. The victimhood of the concerned parent, or TERFs, or the JK Rowlings, or whoever else believes they are being attacked by trans people must stop being covered as anything other than anti-trans activism and therefore treated as such. Americans really do have the worst “centrists” it seems. So easily swayed by the lowest common symbol that challenges their worldview and sprung into action to defeat it. We need to stop being governed by what gets ratings on Fox News. It’s up to the legitimate news media to step up and protect trans kids, protect black history, and whatever else the right may choose to attack next.