Micah Loewinger: When the US Women's Soccer Team was eliminated from the World Cup, fans were crushed, but some of the usual suspects were crowing.
News clip: The team has shown more interest in being activists and fashion icons and celebrities than winning.
Micah Loewinger: On this week's On the Media from WNYC, we examine the emptiness of the Go Woke, Go Broke sloganeering. Also, on the show, five months after the two open letters to The Times criticizing the paper's coverage of trans issues, has anything changed?
News clip: Over 200 New York Times contributors have published an open letter criticizing The Times recent coverage of stories involving transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming people.
Jules Gill-Peterson: What has all this coverage so far amounted to? We've endangered an entire vulnerable minority and played into the hands of a pretty aggressive political movement.
Jake Silverstein: Once we hit publish, we don't control how readers of any kind are going to use our stories, and I don't know that we should.
Micah Loewinger: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Micah Loewinger. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, when most Americans were still asleep.
News clip Wow. Sweden wins.
News clip: A devastating loss, knocking the US Women's National Soccer Team out of the World Cup.
Micah Loewinger: It was heartbreaking for us, fans, considering the US Women's Team had won the last two World Cups back to back, but not everyone was mourning the loss.
Laura Coates: Some posts called them entitled, ungrateful, woke pieces of trash.
Megyn Kelly: I'm thrilled, they lost. Good. I'm glad you went down. You don't support America, I don't support you.
Alex Abad-Santos: This game is at five in the morning, eastern time. The only people are up at this time are diehard soccer fans.
Micah Loewinger: Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent at Vox. In a piece he wrote this week, he tracked the early morning schadenfreude.
Alex Abad-Santos: Former President Donald Trump posted on Truth Social. He said, "Many of our players were openly hostile to America. No other country behaved in such manner or even close. Woke equals failure. Nice shot, Megan. The USA is going to hell." Megan is in reference to Megan Rapinoe, who is one of the stars. She missed a penalty kick.
Micah Loewinger: The right-wing influencer Benny Johnson had a pretty funny post that you pulled apart in your Vox piece.
Alex Abad-Santos: In giant caps, it was, "BREAKING: Woke US Women's Soccer Humiliation. After winning back-to-back World Cups the heavily favored Team USA has been ELIMINATED by Sweden in the 16th round. Team USA's downfall was delivered by anti-America, anti-woman activist Megan Rapinoe's EMBARRASSING free kick. There is no 16th round at the Women's World Cup. There is no 16th round at any World Cup."
Micah Loewinger: He's referring to the round of 16, right? The number of teams left in the tournament.
Alex Abad-Santos: Right, right. Completely off base. The free kick that he's referring to is actually a penalty kick. It's just like littered with errors, but I think that wasn't really the point of it. It was mostly to get a reaction from someone reading it. Like, "Megan Rapinoe sent us all to hell with her progressive values."
Micah Loewinger: We heard a sort of similar kind of schadenfreude from Fox & Friends over the weekend as well.
News clip: The team has shown more interest in being activists and fashion icons and celebrities than winning. That's a fact. Now, they've reaped it.
Alex Abad-Santos: Someone who got dragged over the coals a little bit was Alexi Lalas. Alexi Lalas is a Fox commentator. He used to be on the national team. He is a soccer expert. He had posted on X, which is formerly known as Twitter, "The US Women's National Team is polarizing. Politics, causes, stances, & behavior have made this team unlikeable to a portion of America. This team has built its brand and has derived its power from being the best/winning. If that goes away, they risk becoming irrelevant." Then his critics quickly pointed out, this man has never, ever been in any danger of winning a World Cup.
Under his own terms, you could argue that, well, the Men's National Team is irrelevant since it's never won. The general message is, "These unlikable women hate America. It's good that they lost even though they represent America."
Micah Loewinger: Let's just talk a little bit about the actual game for a moment, which so easily gets lost in this. Because of the time difference as you mentioned, it was on at like, 5:00 AM my time. I didn't watch it, but I saw the highlights, and they looked pretty solid in their game against Sweden. I mean, Alex Morgan had a few really close chances. There were a lot of great shots on net, but Sweden's goalie was just kind of a brick wall. After extra time, it went to a penalty shootout. After 120 minutes of play, it was gut-churning and heartbreaking, depending on who you were rooting for. For those who haven't seen it, can you describe what happened?
Alex Abad-Santos: Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O'Hara, and Sophia Smith missed their penalty kicks.
News clip: Rapinoe, right foot over the buck. Missed the net. O'Hara, off the post.
Alex Abad-Santos: If any of those players had actually clinched it, we probably would have won, but if you ask soccer experts what was happening, the US has had a lot of troubles in recent years because they're basically in a transition phase of having old players and having new players and veterans and mixing. There was nothing going right for the US at the beginning of this World Cup.
Micah Loewinger: Not to mention all of the injuries.
Alex Abad-Santos: Yes, so many injuries. A roster that was depleted, a coach that people now are saying was in over his head and wasn't making the best decisions. All of these are valid criticisms of the US team. You could talk about that all day. Donald Trump was not interested in that. Benny Johnson was not interested in that. Alexi Lalas, whose job it is to be interested in explaining to us why our offense looks so bad, was not interested in that.
Micah Loewinger: This loss is just one flashpoint of many that the US Women's Team has faced over the last few years, maybe most notably starting with the team's fight for equal pay that kicked off in 2016. Can you give us the short history of how this team found itself at the center of the culture wars?
Alex Abad-Santos: Back in 2016, they were saying, "We aren't being treated equally." From pay to the hotels that they're staying at, they said, "We're the best team in the world, but we're not getting, like, half the stuff that the guys are getting." They filed a complaint, and they said, "We want to be treated what we're worth." This battle goes on for six years. In 2022, they settle, and then US Soccer Federation says, "We will make the pledge to bring equality and close the pay gap." At the same time, the US Women's Soccer Team has always been an ally when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
Megan Rapinoe, again, she's out. She is not afraid to say, "Yes, I'm gay. I play sports. I'm good at it. We should be treated equally. We should treat everyone equally." Megan Rapinoe has attracted an outsized portion of disdain from the right-wing media. Why is everyone going after her all the time? Back in 2019, the US Women win the World Cup again. Basically, when you win a giant sports event like that, you get an invite to the White House, and before they even won it, Megan Rapinoe says, "No, we're not going."
Megan Rapinoe: It's my absolute honor to lead this team out on the field. There's no other place that I would rather be, even in the presidential race.
Alex Abad-Santos: That starts a whole back and forth. They win in amazing fashion. They reject the White House visit, and it just is very contentious from that point on. Earlier this year, the team puts on light blue and light pink wristbands, which is support for trans kids. When they were playing in Florida, they put on those wristbands and they said, "Defend trans lives." In Florida, Ron DeSantis has unrolled a lot of anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Micah Loewinger: You wrote, "The political criticism the US Women's National Team is facing isn't unlike the rhetoric used in conservative boycotts, the kind that have exploded this year." What parallels do you see?
Alex Abad-Santos: Well, being a woman is hard is essentially the core message of Barbie. When conservatives found this out, they were just like, "Oh, this isn't going to make any money. Don't go see this movie." Barbie has gone woke, so she has to go broke.
Micah Loewinger: The go woke go broke thing is really quite dumb. I mean, especially when you scrutinize it for even a second. Barbie earned $1 billion at the box office.
Alex Abad-Santos: Then if you go back even further, remember when Dylan Mulvaney, who is a trans influencer, promoted Bud Light on her Instagram page and conservatives freaked out about that. It's also like the M&Ms. They took the sexy boots off the M&M and then the right wing was like, "Why did you make the M&M not sexy? The M&M should be sexy," and you're just like--
Micah Loewinger: In America, M&Ms are hot.
Alex Abad-Santos: Is it really about the sexy M&M or is it about fanning the flames of something to be mad at and keeping a base energized? It seems to fit a pattern that we've seen from Starbucks to Target to Colin Kaepernick to LeBron James. I bet you in two weeks, we'll have something else being called woke and broke.
Micah Loewinger: Alex, thank you very much.
Alex Abad-Santos: Thank you so much for having me.
Micah Loewinger: Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent for Vox. Coming up, five months after two open letters criticized The New York Times coverage of trans issues, has anything changed? This is On The Media. This is On The Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. Right-wing politicians and pundits have made it clear that publicly supporting trans rights will put a target on your back, whether you're a company or a national sports team.
News clip: It's amazing how strongly people feel about that. You see I'm talking about cutting taxes. People go like that. Talking about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would have thought five years ago, you didn't know what the hell it was?
Micah Loewinger: Straight from the horse's mouth, trans people are a bona fide scapegoat. The GOP and its leading candidate aren't hiding it. Trump's wrong about one thing. Five years ago, anti-trans sentiment was alive and well, it just had trouble finding traction.
News clip: In 2016, North Carolina was in the spotlight when it became the first state to pass a bill barring transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The law sparked national outrage and was repealed a year later.
Micah Loewinger: Just two years ago, there were no laws banning gender-affirming care for minors at the state level. Now, over half of all states have either passed legislation or are currently considering it. Anti-trans activists are getting louder and their message more extreme.
Michael Knowles: There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism.
Micah Loewinger: Daily Wire host Michael Knowles speaking at CPAC in March.
Michael Knowles: Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely. The whole preposterous ideology at every level.
Micah Loewinger: The animus is crystal clear, but how to cover the transgender discourse has been less clear for some in the press. In February, a pair of letters addressed to the New York Times masthead accused the paper of missing the mark.
News clip: Over 200 New York Times contributors have published an open letter criticizing The Times' recent coverage of stories involving transgender, non-binary, gender-nonconforming people, in particular concerning medical issues. Writing, "We are disappointed to see the New York Times follow the lead of far-right hate groups in presenting gender diversity." The Times covers our lives as if there's some bad conspiracy in which there's too many of us.
Micah Loewinger: We've been working on a piece about this since March, and granted, it's only been about five months, but we wanted to see if the fallout from the letters had had any noticeable effect on the coverage of trans issues at The Times. I spoke to Jules Gill-Peterson, a historian at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Histories of the Transgender Child. She signed the contributor's letter which points to how Times' articles have been cited in recent anti-trans legislation.
The letters prominently criticized a piece Jules was interviewed for, a long-form story in The New York Times Magazine titled, The Battle Over Gender Therapy, written by Emily Bazelon, a well-respected reporter who we've had as a guest on our show many times.
Jules Gill-Peterson: That article was looking at the revisions to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, or WPATH, looking at a revision to its standards of care. These are aspirational documents that lay out the best practices around providing gender-affirming care to trans people. This set of revisions had become embroiled in a question of how children and adolescents because it was going to introduce a new chapter on adolescence would engage with and reflect the cultural visibility of trans youth since the prior edition of these standards, but also the perception that there has been some massive increase in the number of trans children seeking such care.
That is a really complicated question, and there are a lot of political groups organized both inside and outside of the medical establishment that have been pushing their own agendas. There are trans folks pushing their own political agendas, they're caught in the middle of that are the youth themselves.
Micah Loewinger: One of the common criticisms that I saw of Emily Bazelon's piece was some of the language she chose to use, including the term patient zero to refer to a trans child seeking gender-affirming care. That's a phrase with a really fraught history that some perceived was vilifying transness as a disease to be feared.
Jules Gill-Peterson: One of the key concepts that has trickled into a more respectable, ostensibly academic arena is a notion of social contagion. The idea that there are more, particularly more trans young people because it's somehow like a contagious identity. One of the origins of this notion is a 2018 paper by a social scientist named Lisa Littman who coined this very pseudoscientific term that has since been loudly critiqued and debunked over and over again of rapid onset gender dysphoria.
The notion that when children or youth come out to their parents, they suddenly want to transition, and maybe the obvious reason why is because they've been thinking about it for a long time and now have just told their parents. The notion of a patient zero creates this disease model where being transgender is a negative thing that is spreading too fast through the population, and therefore, it's appropriate to restrict it.
Also, patient zero just harkens back to that was a term brought about early on in the AIDS epidemic that was really used to vilify gay men as if they were particularly responsible for and had some sort of moral responsibility for this virus and its spread which is a complete distraction from the failure of government and public health to actually do anything to mitigate the spread or research HIV early on. In part because people didn't care or even welcome to the death of gay men. It's just really alarming to use language like that and for what purpose?
Micah Loewinger: I wanted to find out why this phrase, patient zero, had made its way into Emily Bazelon's New York Times Magazine piece. When I reached out to the magazine in March, they gave me this guy.
Jake Silverstein: I'm the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine.
Micah Loewinger: Jake Silverstein.
Jake Silverstein: Ultimately, I'm responsible for assigning everything in the magazine, and this was a story that we conceived of and assigned to Emily in the fall of 2021. We understood that an interesting moment in the field of transgender care was coming up, and that was the release of these new standards of care which had last been published, I believe it was 2012. Almost a decade ago. That was one of the original motivations for the story was to try to understand what process was going into that and get ahead of the publication of those new standards of care.
As Emily began looking into it, we had access to this working group that was working on the chapter about adolescence and we began to understand that there were some, not only debates and discussions happening within that group, but that also there was really intense complexity to them doing their work in the context of a proliferation of really draconian legislation restricting trans rights in various states around the country.
Micah Loewinger: Scott Leibowitz, who was the leader of this working group for the Standards of Care 8, said that they were acutely aware that any unknowns that the working group acknowledged, any uncertainties in the research, could be read as undermining the field's credibility and feed the right-wing effort to outlaw gender-related care.
Jake Silverstein: That's right, I think you're quoting from Emily's story there. The politicization in certain state legislatures around the country of this issue has created a political debate around something that has ended up distorting a lot of the reception of articles like Emily's.
Micah Loewinger: Her piece was named and criticized in the February 15th contributor's open letter to The Times, and we don't have time to address every flashpoint, but I do want to discuss some of the big ones. The contributor's open letter references the use of the phrase patient zero in your story. Can you talk about why you decided to include that term originally?
Jake Silverstein: This term was introduced to Emily during her interview with the patient in question, a Dutch trans man who we refer to in the story as FG. Emily tracked him down and interviewed him at length. He said to her, "I was patient zero." The term also appears in a book that is cited in Emily's story. It's a history of the Amsterdam clinic that uses the term patient zero to describe the same person. In both cases, the meaning was clear to Emily in these interviews and in reading this book. It described the first ever recipient of a treatment.
That's what it meant. I think it was pretty clear that that's what it meant from context. Like I say, it's not used in quotation marks.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, it's not in quotations.
Jake Silverstein: He is quoted saying other things and he's quoted saying that this treatment saved his life and Emily didn't realize that it was going to have another connotation for other people.
Micah Loewinger: In between the time, we requested comment from you and Emily last week, and today, when we're talking, that phrase was removed from the article and it was replaced with the words, the first patient.
Jake Silverstein: Correct.
Micah Loewinger: Why did you decide to just now remove it?
Jake Silverstein: We've been talking about making that particular change. It's changing something to a story that we've published for reasons other than a factual correction is never something that we take lightly. It's not something that we do very often. As you can imagine, it's something that requires a lot of conversations and deliberations internally. It took a little bit of time for that to work its way through the process. We felt like it was the right thing to do. I wish that we had immediately understood how some readers might take that term.
Micah Loewinger: Jules Gill-Peterson welcomed this change to the article which is accompanied by an editor's note on The Times website. Still, the social contagion myth continues to color much of the discourse around trans healthcare.
Jules Gill-Peterson: It does seem like at least from survey data that there are more young people willing to at least identify in surveys as LGBT in general, also lesbian, gay, and bisexual, but certainly trans and non-binary.
John Oliver: As for the rapid rise in kids identifying as trans.
Micah Loewinger: John Oliver addressed this on his show Last Week Tonight.
John Oliver: As the writer Julia Serano was pointed out, when you look at a chart of left-handedness among Americans over the 20th century, you see a massive spike. When we stopped forcing kids to write with their right hand and then a plateau, that doesn't mean everyone became left-handed or there was a rapid onset southpaw dysphoria. It means people were free to be who they were.
Jules Gill-Peterson: This is a point that trans folks have made for a long time, that graph has been shared for years, and part of what's so helpful about it is it just de-dramatizes everything. Being left-handed is no longer considered much of a big deal. It's just part of the variation of human life. I think there's some real limitations to that notion because part of what it does oddly enough, is reinforce that the idea here is just we have to tolerate or accept that people exist, period. This is actually a very popular form of trans inclusion.
I think it's a inclusion model that was developed around gay marriage. In the 2010s, this sort of like, "We accept that there are gay people and we're trying to get out of their way." Trans people, in particular, because transition has been gate-kept by medicine need access to healthcare. There are some material needs that go way beyond symbolic inclusion.
I think part of the challenge has been the way that this is construed as a culture war implies that the job of progressives is to make room in their hearts or in their minds for the trans people in the country or in their community. Once they do that and remove any discriminatory laws, we're all good.
Micah Loewinger: 2023 has been the year for discriminatory laws. The American Civil Liberties Union has counted 492 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures, including laws that have passed, or if they were passed, would restrict the discussion of gender and sexuality in the classroom, and of course, restrict gender-affirming care for minors and adults.
Jules Gill-Peterson: There are other types of these bills, none of which have passed yet, but which I think Texas led the way with at the end of last year in tabling, which essentially define drag as being transgender in public. What I mean by that is these are bills that will say drag is wearing clothing or makeup, or moving the body, or expressing the body in a way that produces a gendered effect different from the gender assigned at the time of birth. Saying that performing drag, which is to say being trans in public is illegal. Now, that's more of a status offense.
That's a much more sweeping invasion of individual liberty. I would say it is astonishingly unconstitutional, except there were laws like this on the books from the 1860s all the way to the 1970s.
Micah Loewinger: The implication being that if a young person witnessed a drag performer in the same way as if they witnessed a teacher in their school speaking openly about gender and sexuality, that this would lead to them wanting to become trans. In some ways, it's reminiscent too of the panic around critical race theory.
Jules Gill-Peterson: Yes. Because both of the storylines have no actual basis in reality and don't even make sense by their own terms, one of the ways they survive as political rhetoric is they mutually reinforce one another. One is the explanation of the other, and I would use maybe Florida as an example of this. When the DeSantis administration moved to essentially gut AP African-American Studies, Governor DeSantis's explanation because he couldn't really defend the deletion and censorship of actual history from this curriculum. Instead, he said, "Well, we have to revise his curriculum because it contains queer theory."
Ron DeSantis: This course on Black history. What's one of the lessons about? Queer theory. Now, who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory? That is somebody pushing an agenda on our kids.
Micah Loewinger: Returning to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he actually made the case that at least one of the operatives behind Critical Race Theory is playing an important role in shaping the rights conversation around trans issues.
John Oliver: One key architect of the CRT panic, Christopher Rufo, recently pivoted to attacking trans rights. He has openly discussed the strategy behind doing that.
Christopher Rufo: What I'm looking at is to take that same style of reporting as I did with Critical Race Theory but now taking a look at gender ideology. What's happening right now is parents are feeling, "Oof, this is weird. I'm uncomfortable with this, but I'm scared to speak out." What we have to do is we have to give them the justification or validation or substantiation of their concerns to say, "Hey, this is the kind of thing they're teaching in schools."
Then we have to give them the language where they can speak about it with confidence. They can speak about it directly, and they could speak about it with the requisite level of aggressiveness that it's going to take to say, "Hey, wait a minute, we have to stop this."
Jules Gill-Peterson: Yes. The architects of this moral panic and the people producing the marching orders and the narrative frameworks that are completely disconnected from reality are quite content to speak openly and plainly about their intentions.
Micah Loewinger: Jules Gill-Peterson believes The Times has seeded too much ground to right-wing attempts to distort the conversation. She and other times contributors who signed the open letter point to an amicus brief filed by Arkansas's Attorney General, who quoted from three New York Times pieces, including Emily Bazelon's, in support of an Alabama bill that passed in April called the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act.
News clip: Last week, Alabama became the third state in the nation to pass and measure restricting gender-affirming care for transgender and non-binary youth. It's the first state to actually impose criminal penalties.
News clip: Without an injunction, any Alabama doctor trying to prescribe puberty blockers or hormone therapy to a child under the age of 19 in Alabama would be guilty of a felony.
Jake Silverstein: I don't believe that there's anything in this story or any other news coverage that supports banning gender therapy.
Micah Loewinger: Jake Silverstein.
Jake Silverstein: I believe, and I can't say for sure because I obviously had nothing to do with this amicus brief, that these pieces were cited to show that there is a debate among providers about how to best perform gender care for minors. That is what these stories document through reporting. Once we had published, we don't control how readers of any kind are going to use our stories, and I don't know that we should.
Micah Loewinger: The frustration with the piece, as I understand it, is less with the facts that came out of the reporting, but with the framing, the choices, whose voices were featured prominently, what positions were featured prominently. For instance, the article quotes extensively from parents involved in a group called Genspect, an organization that opposes gender-affirming care for young people. Kit O'Connell, a journalist and editor at The Texas Observer, felt that the article presents them only as a concerned group of parents, rather than activists trying to skew the conversation.
Kit O'Connell: We've heard this criticism about not identifying Genspect. Some of the people who've criticized Emily's story have wanted us to refer to Genspect as a hate group. We can't say that without evidence. We can characterize groups up to a point unless we're going to dedicate reporting time to investigating a particular group. We can't characterize it a certain way without evidence.
Micah Loewinger: I want to ask another question about the sourcing. The trans writer, Masha Gessen, who writes about Russia and LGBTQ issues for The New Yorker, said they really liked the piece, but they told David Remnick in an episode of The New Yorker Radio Hour, that they were frustrated by Emily Bazelon's decision to quote conservative writer Andrew Sullivan.
Masha Gessen: In Emily Bazelon's excellent piece in The New York Times Magazine last summer about the battle over transgender treatment. There's a quote from Andrew Sullivan, the conservative gay journalist who says, "Well, maybe these people would've been gay if they hadn't implying they're really gay. They're not really transgender." That really clearly veers into the territory of saying these people don't exist. They're not who they say they are.
Jake Silverstein: It's certainly not the position of the journalist in question here of Emily. Part of what Emily is doing in this story is she's trying to gather in a sense of what that conversation and what that commentary is with the context in which these folks are doing their work. That process of doing that, of gathering in this commentary doesn't mean that Emily endorses every single thing that she's citing. She's trying to give readers a sense of the atmosphere in which these gender-affirming clinicians are doing their work.
Micah Loewinger: I want to ask you about another criticism that was articulated in the open letter to The Times. In a portion of your article discussing why people might pause or stop gender-affirming care, there's a paragraph featuring the experience of a person named Grace Lidinsky-Smith, who is described in the piece as someone who, "has written about her regret over taking testosterone and having her breasts removed in her early '20s." She's been cited in a lot of partisan right-wing coverage.
Grace Lidinsky-Smith: Well, I learned my lesson, but my breasts are never coming back. It's a worst mistake that I've ever made in my life.
Micah Loewinger: She's also interviewed in a fairly controversial 60 minutes piece that came out before your magazine story. The writers of the open letter wrote, "Grace Lidinsky-Smith was identified as an individual person speaking about a personal choice to detransition, rather than the President of GCCAN, an activist organization that pushes junk science and partners with explicitly anti-trans hate groups."
Jake Silverstein: Sure. The question of how to identify people quoted in stories comes up a lot. Sometimes the decision is based on the footprint that they occupy in a story, how much the story is about them, how significant their part of the story is, and in this case, in a very long story in which this subject was a very small part, it seemed to us that we were giving the reader the information that was most relevant.
Micah Loewinger: We don't hear from that many people in the story who were under 18 when they transitioned, and here was a person who was over 18 when they transitioned, seemingly tangential to the purview of the piece. We didn't get a lot of context about where she was coming from.
Jake Silverstein: Yes, I understand that.
Micah Loewinger: Emily Bazelon's piece states clearly that the regret rate for gender-affirming care is very low. I asked Jules Gill-Peterson what she thinks about anecdotes from people who detransition which tend to be quite dramatic and have been used in conservative media as cautionary tales.
Jules Gill-Peterson: This is a really interesting place where actually trans healthcare fares much better than other healthcare out there. We measure regret rates for things like surgeries and medications pretty regularly. The regret rate, say for knee surgery, 5% to 10%, or not unusual. For some procedures, it goes higher.
Micah Loewinger: I think for knee surgery there was a study in 2018 that found the regret rate could be as high as 20%. There was another small study for hip replacement and the number was like 5%.
Jules Gill-Peterson: Yes. For gender-affirming care, the numbers tend to come in that the regret rate is generally under 5%, often under 2%, sometimes under 1%. The medicalization of trans people reinforces the idea, one, that we only exist because of medicine, which is not true, and two, that there's something bizarre and exceptional and medical about being transgender. The narrative that we hear in the media is that detransitioners are somehow ridiculed or stigmatized by trans people. Nothing could be further from the truth like trans people all know detransitioners generally and have loved and cared for them.
It's just like we understand how hard it is sometimes to maintain access to healthcare or to just feel like you're safe enough to live that way. As for actual people who regret healthcare, it's such a small amount of people. We don't ban healthcare for entire minority groups because we think that regret rates are too high.
Micah Loewinger: I do want to ask you about something I heard the trans writer Masha Gessen talk about on the New Yorker Radio Hour.
Masha Gessen: Puberty blockers are exactly what they sound like. They delay puberty. There's some studies that point to potential risks of long-term, more than a year or so, use of puberty blockers. That is absolutely illegitimate topic of discussion. Of course, it's become very, very difficult to cover because there are bills in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Arkansas, and other states that lump all of these treatments in the same bucket.
Jules Gill-Peterson: Puberty blockers is such a great example. It's become such an important flashpoint. Here's the thing, almost no trans kids take them. I don't know why no one ever talks about this. I do know why because it collapses the way this issue has been framed. To take puberty blockers, you can't really be very far along in puberty. It's actually a very narrow window of age at which a child would even take puberty blockers. The thing is puberty in Western countries like the United States for whatever reason, we don't exactly know why, has been starting earlier and earlier.
Actually, now it's not uncommon for a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old to have already actually entered a certain stage of puberty that essentially closes that window for when you could pause puberty quite early. Just because most trans kids aren't showing up at gender clinics at age nine, almost no kids even qualify for puberty blockers.
Matt Walsh: I don't think we have exact numbers, but if we're talking about the drugs, it's millions.
Micah Loewinger: This is Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire who's known for his transphobic documentary What Is a Woman? discussing puberty blockers on The Joe Rogan Experience last November.
News clip: Millions of kids have been on hormone blockers. Really?
Matt Walsh: I'm sure someone's going to fact-check me but my guess is that we're into the millions now at this point. Yes.
News clip: It says over the last five years, there were at least 4,780 adolescents who started puberty blockers.
Jules Gill-Peterson: The amount of kids being put on blockers like we're talking about 3,000 or 4,000 a year in a country of 330 million people.
News clip: Million sounds great.
Matt Walsh: Yes. The media matters will have a fun with that clip.
Micah Loewinger: Given the way the story has been interpreted, the way it's been used in right-wing legislation, is there anything you wish you all would've done differently in your coverage or in the editing process?
Jake Silverstein: As you can see from the fact that we changed the term patient zero, I certainly wish we had changed that before we hit publish on the story. Other than that, I would say no. I'm really proud of this piece. Emily's piece is a finalist for a National Magazine Awards in the category of Public Interest this year. [unintelligible 00:35:43] is said it's one of the six most important pieces of public interest journalism published in any magazine last year. I think that's correct.
This kind of reporting is very difficult to do. It takes a kind of focus, it takes a kind of fortitude, and it also takes the commitment to the principles of journalism that not everybody has and Emily does.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up New York Times front page coverage by the numbers, this is On the Media. This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger. So far, we focused our critique on The New York Times Magazine, but the open letters and the coverage they prompted across the media alleged a larger pattern on the newspaper side.
In a statement that we received from The Times, you can read it in full at onthemedia.org, a company spokesperson told us, "We reject the claims of anti-trans bias in our reporting, either on the basis of our coverage or the importance and weight we apply in placement on the newyorktimes.com homepage. Since January 2020, we have published over 300 articles, specifically on discrimination against transgender people and or anti-transgender legislation."
Julie Hollar: We decided to go in and prove that this was not cherry-picking by looking at the entirety of The Times front page coverage for the previous 12 months and compare it to its closest competitor, The Washington Post.
Micah Loewinger: Julie Hollar is a senior analyst and managing editor at FAIR, a left-leaning media watchdog. Their study is titled New York Times Anti-Trans Bias—by the Numbers
Julie Hollar: I've been working at FAIR for a long time. The Times and The Post are really fairly similar in terms of their news coverage. We just don't see dramatic differences between the two papers very often. In this study, it was as if the two papers were reporting from two different countries. The Post put trans-centered articles on its front page a lot more than The Times did during the study period. They had 22 articles to The Times Nine. The reason we looked at front page articles is because that's the most valuable real estate in a newspaper.
The Post put political or physical attacks on trans people on their front page 14 times during those 12 months. That included several profiles of trans people that described what they were going through, humanizing them, helping readers who might not know any trans people what it feels like to be trans in America right now. You didn't get any of that in The Times. At The Times, there were two headlines that hinted at attacks on trans people's rights or restrictions on trans people's rights. One of them was about swimming internationally and the other one about the rightwing coordinated movement to restrict trans people's rights.
Micah Loewinger: For the study you examined front-page stories at The New York Times and Washington Post from April 2022 through March 2023, can you tell me more about the differences you saw between The Times and The Post?
Julie Hollar: At The Times, the narrative that was being focused on in these front page stories was primarily about trans people as threats to others. Like trans people's rights threatening cisgender women's rights, parents of trans people as a threat to parents rights. Then also, the other narrative that was focused on at The Times was transitioning being risky or likely to be regretted or being pushed onto people. Are trans people getting too many rights too quickly? Are they threatening other people's rights? Maybe we need to put the brakes on this.
That's exactly the rightwing framing that's coming from Fox News, that's coming from Breitbart, that's coming from that rightwing media ecosystem that is being projected by all of these rightwing politicians who are pushing this legislation.
Micah Loewinger: This is a criticism. I know that publisher AG Sulzberger is familiar with and I want you to respond to something he told David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker on the New Yorker Radio Hour in June.
David Remnick: It's our journalistic responsibility as an independent news organization to reflect, for example, the very real debates happening in the medical community, and even among trans people and parents of trans people, about what type of medical intervention should happen for minors and when the risk of not acting outweighs the risk of acting. These are questions that the medical community is actively working through. There's an active debate there. Our critics have effectively asked us to pretend that debate is not happening for fear that the information could be misused.
Julie Hollar: He's misrepresenting, I think, the medical consensus. All of the respected major medical organizations in this country have reached a consensus, and that is that gender-affirming care is important. It is lifesaving. There are debates around the margins. Those are not the important story right now. The important story is that all of this kind of care is being taken away from people, no access whatsoever. The right is trying to legislate gender-affirming care out of existence, not just for youth either.
The New York Times has decided that the more important question is, are they going to have issues with bone density that they'll have to work to correct? I'm getting angry.
Micah Loewinger: Do you mind if I zoom in on that for a second?
Julie Hollar: Yes.
Micah Loewinger: Your anger and the anger of many critics of The New York Times have fueled this position of an old journalistic guard, which is that the emotions are too high right now and we can't ask the hard real questions because of a political climate that is there, but it's still our job as journalists to poke at the uncomfortable truths that might be there. That's how this has been framed.
Julie Hollar: Sulzberger also published a piece in CJR, and one of the things he talked about was objectivity. This is this ongoing debate, can journalists be objective? At FAIR, we come down very hard on the answer of, "No, you don't want to pretend that there is objectivity." There are decisions that have to be made at every moment about what stories you're publishing, what stories are you putting on the front page. That's a subjective decision that editors make every day. What sources are helping you to tell that story?
You see a real difference in how The Times and The Post are reporting those. You can see, there is not an objective reality here that The Times is reflecting. I think, if I can rewind us, I've been covering transgender coverage for almost two decades. 20 years ago, serious news outlets didn't talk about trans people and trans issues. Trans issues were relegated to the tabloids. This was the stuff of Jerry Springer.
News clip: I've been dating this guy named Caesar, amazing, and I'm here to tell him a big secret of mines.
Jerry Springer: Oh, which is?
News clip: I'm here to tell you that I was born a man.
Julie Hollar: Totally sensationalized, objectified. There was a slow movement into the mainstream due to lots of hard work and activism and trans people coming out publicly and speaking out. News outlets updated style guides, started respecting pronouns and names. What you still saw 10, 15 years ago was what I would call an anthropological approach to covering trans people. There was this real focus on questions of anatomy.
There were so many questions asked of trans people on respectable news programs, where they would be asked, "Have you had a sex change? Are you going to have a sex change? If I were to look at you naked, would I see a man or a woman?"
News clip Will you have the sex exchange operation or is this it?
News clip: No, that's pretty personal information. I have not made that decision yet, technically speaking.
Julie Hollar: Questions like this, right now, I think most people can see, can recognize as being completely inappropriate and invasive with, again, a lot of hard activism work by trans people and allies, more people in news outlets have become familiar with trans people. They are listening to what trans people have to say about what is important that's going on for trans people's lives right now. I feel like The New York Times has reverted back to this anthropological approach of, what's interesting and important to me about this story?
Maybe the most illustrative example of this is the story on their front page about the parents' rights movement in schools. It's really looking at the issue of whether schools should be required to disclose students' gender identity to parents. If a student comes out at school, does the school have to tell the parents that this is forced outing? These are questions of privacy, and the impact on trans kids can be really dramatic. School might be the only safe space for them if they're not telling their parent. The center of this story ought to be trans kids and what the impact is on them of these policies.
Instead, at The New York Times, the story begins and ends with this woman, who I think of as the quintessential Times reader, she's this white woman in California. She identifies as a liberal. She claims to be wanting to be supportive of her trans child, but she found out that her child had come out at school, not through the school. The school did not tell her, and she felt villainized. There were 16 sources in the story. Five of them were parents. Four of the parents had misgivings about these school privacy policies.
There were only two trans or non-binary kids who were quoted in the story. The framing of the story shows that The Times is clearly more concerned about these self-identified liberal parents feelings being protected than they are about these very vulnerable kids.
Micah Loewinger: Now that it's been some months since this public discussion, this reckoning around how The Times and other major outlets write about issues affecting trans people, have you seen any kind of change? Any sign that the discussion has had an impact?
Julie Hollar: Publicly, The Times continues to vociferously defend its approach to covering trans issues in this way. At the same time, very shortly after the study period, after the letters were made public and this whole blowup, The Times published three front-page stories on trans rights and politics that were really more of the framing of, "There is an attack on trans rights right now." They were more of the forest rather than the trees. They've had very little coverage since then.
Micah Loewinger: One of the maxims of an older school of journalism is you do what you think is best for the story, and you don't let the principles in the story dictate how it's shaped or how it's framed. There are certainly some people who would be put off by the idea that activists lobbying the paper of record could successfully change the type of journalism that's done.
Julie Hollar: The Times keeps claiming that people are asking them to skew their reporting. What we're saying is not, "Please, skew your reporting." It's, "Please, stop skewing your reporting." The biases that they're not recognizing activism can help shed light on.
Jules Gill-Peterson: This is where when people say, "Well, trans people just think we're not supposed to write journalism at all." Oh, on the contrary, there are so many compelling stories to be told.
Micah Loewinger: Historian Jules Gill-Peterson
Jules Gill-Peterson: Of course, there are a lot of different crises going on in the United States right now, and trans folks aren't the only one. In some ways, trans people's plight fits into a lot of bigger questions that confront the country at this moment. What is the role of healthcare this many years into a pandemic? What do trans people know about the experience of government intrusion into bodily autonomy that connects back to a story about reproductive justice right now? What do trans people know about policing and mass incarceration that connects back to a larger story about racial bias and policing, or the mass incarceration system in the United States?
There is a lot of powerful, investigative, critical, and neutral reporting that could shine a light on particularly the impact that we're seeing in real-time and its ramifications because the logics being tried out on trans people will not be restricted to them. They are already expanding to target gay and lesbian people. They're already expanding to target things like contraception. We can see a larger arc of rightwing and authoritarian political movements that are really using trans people in that traditional sense as a scapegoat, almost like happened 100 years ago with the rise of fascism in Europe.
The question is, what has all this coverage so far amounted to? Not a lot. I don't think it's been especially clarifying to people. It's certainly not helped prevent anyone from regretting a transition. What have we actually done? We've endangered an entire vulnerable minority and played into the hands of a pretty aggressive political movement. If that gives people any pause, I think pivoting to really doing journalism that asks actual, basic, thoughtful questions would be a really welcome shift.
Micah Loewinger: Jules Gill-Peterson is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Histories of the Transgender Child. That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wong, and Suzanne Gaber, with help from Sean Merchant, our wonderful intern who we say goodbye to this week. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Micah Loewinger.
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