Joyce activated, issue 62

Why media coverage of trans issues is so atrocious

Joyce activated, issue 62

In one of the earliest editions of this newsletter (issue 4), I wrote about stories that don’t conform to the gender-identity narrative being spiked. At the recent Free Speech Union event in Ireland, I heard a bunch more stories, and they shed additional light on why it has been how hard it has been to get these stories properly covered. I’m currently following up with the victims to see which details I can share. In the meantime I thought I’d re-up the most relevant bits of the previous article, and put it in front of the paywall.

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It feels as if there’s a grand global conspiracy to silence anyone who recognises that sex is real and thinks that matters. In fact, I don’t think there is one, not between outlets and not within them. I think the silencing is happening for three interlinked reasons, the balance of which varies from one radio or television station, or newspaper, to another.

The first is trouble, and the threat of it. The second is confusion. The third is a rising number of people within newsrooms with the strongest possible allegiance to transactivism.

For an example of the first, let’s return to the Irish Times. Last year [now two years ago] it briefly broke its code of omertà on criticising gender-identity ideology with a rather good piece by three clinicians about why banning “conversion therapy” for gender identity isn’t as progressive as it sounds. That resulted in a boycott of the paper being declared by the Trans Writers’ Union—a blow I’m sure the paper can easily ignore, since, as the TWU blithely acknowledges in its announcement, none of its members ever wrote for it, or indeed even bought it.

But that boycott led to another, this time by the Irish Students’ Union, which maybe seems a bit more troublesome. The Irish Times may think that this storm in a social-media teacup might turn off the rising generation. And its future is already parlous enough: it’s an expensive publication with a pretty small home market.

Back in the glory days of journalism, before the internet became ubiquitous, a bit of aggro was exactly what editors liked. The Economist was very proud of having proposed same-sex marriage in 1996, far earlier than other mainstream publications. To the editor of the day, it seemed a classic liberal cause. I’ve heard since that the many letters of complaint only added to the pleasure of publishing it. Back then, editors liked controversy, reasoning that it probably drove sales—and if it didn’t, who cared? Back then, journalism was a profitable, pleasurable business.

No one feels like that now. Partly that’s because of plummeting ad revenue, as Google and Facebook cannibalise the entire news ecosystem. Partly, it’s because the social opprobrium that comes with criticism for your views is much greater, especially in graduate professions—which now include journalism. It used to be common for big outlets to hire people who had gone straight from school to work for a local paper, where they developed an eye for a story, tenacity and a sense of what resonated with readers. Now younger journalists all have degrees, and most come from well-off families and private schools.

I think the result is less a cold-blooded commercial calculation than a series of individual decisions. Each journalist, and each commissioning editor, thinks twice before prodding what they have learned is a hornets’ nest.

My second reason—confusion—is similarly diffuse and distributed. Imagine you’re a correspondent in one of the many areas touched upon by the sex/gender-identity collision—education, say, or health, sports, religion or politics. Most of what you write about has nothing to do with this, and it has never occurred to you that anyone might deny the reality and binary nature of sex. Then one day you stumble across an extraordinary story—that boys are being put in girls’ dormitories if they say they’re girls, say; or that men are able to compete in women’s events if they say they’re women.

Journalism is a game of speed and approximation. Even if you have been doing a beat for a long time, you cannot possibly be an expert on every part of it. So you use tried and tested shortcuts—talking to sources with “good names”; returning to interviewees who’ve been helpful in the past; googling to see who else has commented on the topic, or done policy or academic work on it; seeking comment from “both sides” of an argument; asking any person or organisation criticised by someone else for their response; that sort of thing. What you get may not quite be the first draft of history, but it won’t be worthless, either.

And so you set about this story in the same way. You find my book, read my CV, reckon I’d be a good person to talk to, maybe get as far as interviewing me. Of course you also reach out to other people—but to your surprise, the ones who disagree with me don’t just tell you what they think and why people like me are wrong, as has happened with literally every other story you’ve ever reported on. They tell you that they won’t talk to you at all, if you are also talking to people like me. That I’m a “literal Nazi” who “wants trans children dead”. And if you push back on that, they hang up on you.

Meanwhile, you’re googling for hard figures and solid research. But seemingly reputable sources are contradicting each other, to an extent you’ve never seen before. One organisation says that “sex” is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, and that it means “male” and “female”; another says that, as far as single-sex spaces are concerned, the Equality Act establishes trans people’s right to use the single-sex spaces that match the “gender in which they present”.

You find Rachel Levine, America’s Assistant Secretary for Health, tweeting that “Gender-affirming care is medical care. It is mental health care. It is suicide prevention care. It improves quality of life, and it saves lives. It is based on decades of study. It is a well-established medical practice.” And a factsheet from the federal Office of Population Affairs that says: “Research demonstrates that gender-affirming care improves the mental health and overall well-being of gender diverse children and adolescents. Because gender-affirming care encompasses many facets of healthcare needs and support, it has been shown to increase positive outcomes for transgender and nonbinary children and adolescents. Gender-affirming care is patient-centered and treats individuals holistically, aligning their outward, physical traits with their gender identity.”

But you also find another official fact-sheet, this time from the Florida Department of Health. This one says: “Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, and the potential for long-term, irreversible effects, the Department’s guidelines are as follows:

• Social gender transition should not be a treatment option for children or adolescents.

• Anyone under 18 should not be prescribed puberty blockers or hormone therapy.

• Gender reassignment surgery should not be a treatment option for children or adolescents.”

You also find two evidence reviews from NICE in the UK, which conclude that the evidence base for using puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones in adolescents is very poor.

And your attempts to make sense of all this are hampered by the strange language everyone is using. You can’t remember whether a “transwoman” is someone who’s really a woman and thinks she’s a man, or really a man and thinks he’s a woman (this was the single most common question I was asked when I started to talk openly about what I was working on, back in 2018). People are talking about “trans children”, who are “really boys” even though they were “assigned female at birth”, or vice versa, like it’s somehow possible to be “born in the wrong body”. The word “intersex” is being bandied about—1.7% of the population, apparently, “as common as red hair”. You’ve never met anyone in your life who wasn’t obviously of one sex or the other, but that only makes you feel worse. What have you been missing?

It all adds up to this: a story that piqued your interest in the same way as hundreds of others, and which you approached in the same way as hundreds of others, turns out to be a scary mess. And so you trim and chop, or tell your editor that there wasn’t a story there after all—and silently vow to stay well away in future. It’s not like there isn’t plenty else to write about on the education beat, or religion, social affairs, sports or whatever.

Between them, all these individual decisions create a collective blind spot. As far as the problems that arise when gender identity is prioritised over sex are concerned, nobody in the newsroom is interested.

I think that explains most of the silencing to date. But my third reason is becoming more important, namely that by now most institutions have at least one senior employee who has socially, and perhaps medically, transitioned a child—and who is likely to spend the rest of their lives justifying that decision to themselves.

I feel deeply for these parents, and for everyone who cares for a child who says they’re trans. Their child’s declaration has brought them to a fork in the road.  In one possible future they make their child furious and miserable by telling the truth: that most children who want to change sex will change their mind; that no one can actually do it; and that pretending to has such major consequences that only an adult could possibly make that choice, and only after lengthy consideration. In the other they make their child happy, at least in the short term: they change the child’s name, clothes and pronouns—and perhaps bring them to the gender clinic.

But that second option amounts to a promise to the child that parents cannot keep without involving everyone else in a pretence. If you tell your child that yes, he “really is a girl” or she “really is a boy”, you require all the rest of us to play along, not just now but always. You require the child’s school to tell the teachers and pupils that Anthony is now Adelaide and that they must never again mention the truth. Anthony has to be allowed into the girls’ toilets, changing rooms and sports teams. When the time comes Anthony will have to go on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones, and probably get surgery. All of society must be rearranged to accommodate Anthony as really, truly a girl and then a woman. Because anything else means that the parents have made a horrific mistake.

I know of several parents in influential positions in British public life who have made this choice. Each, whether or not intentionally, casts a pall of collective dishonesty over an entire organisation. Any colleague of theirs who knows about the child will feel gagged when it comes to speaking about the dangers of childhood transitioning or the overreach of trans lobby groups. If the parent is in senior management, they may be able to impose “trans-friendly” policies across the organisation, such as gender-neutral toilets or pronouns in email signatures.

Just one such person can destroy an entire media organisation’s coverage. He or she doesn’t even have to be in the newsroom. Editors-in-chief are part of a rarefied employment market, in which “top people” circulate between “top jobs”—not just in media organisations but in corporations, think-tanks, large charities and NGOs. If one runs a critical story about, say, the Gender Identity Development Service, where the NHS sees gender-distressed children, or Mermaids, the main charity promoting paediatric transition, they will quickly find out that someone on their dinner-party circuit has a child who uses the services of both—and that this person is now their lifelong enemy.

Why all this matters isn’t because I—or Colette Colfer or Lisa Selin Davis—can’t get our stories published. It’s because what we want to say, and are being stopped from saying, is that a socio-medical scandal is playing out on the bodies of children. This is the sort of journalism that ruffles feathers, that makes the libel lawyers on retainer for big media organisations nervous—and, after all that, doesn’t get you more readers. People say they want to be informed and challenged; actually, many just want to be riled up and to have their biases confirmed.

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